The subjunctive is scientific thinking built into the language.

The subjunctive draws a distinction between fact and possibility, between truths and wishes. The expression “if he were” (not “if he was”) is subjunctive; it intentionally sounds wrong (unless you’re used to it) to indicate that we’re talking about something hypothetical as opposed to something actual.
This is scientific thinking built into the language (coming from its romance-language roots).

This is beautiful. Let’s hold onto it.


You are not disinterested.

Everyone: Stop saying ‘disinterested’. You apparently don’t know what it means. It doesn’t mean ‘uninterested’.

In fact, it means you’re truly interested. ‘Disinterested’ is when you care so deeply as to want to treat the situation objectively. It is a scientific term describing the effort to rid a study of the effects of subconscious biases.

Also, please don’t say ‘substantive’ when all you mean is ‘substantial’. They’re not the same thing. Thanks. (‘Substantial’ is a good word. You’re making it feel abandoned. )

Microsoft: Fix your use of the word ‘both’.
When comparing only two files, Windows says something like “Would you like to compare both files?” As opposed to what, just compare one, all by itself? (like the sound of one hand clapping?)
The word ‘both’ is used when the default is not that of two things. It emphasizes the two-ness to show that the twoness is special, unusual. But when the default is two, you say “the two” (as in “Would you like to compare the two files?”), not ‘both’, and DEFINITELY NOT ‘the both’. (It was cute when that one famous said it once. It’s not cute anymore. Stop saying it.)
Back to ‘both’: A comparison has to involve two things, so ‘both’ (the special-case version of the word ‘two’) only makes sense if the two things are being compared to a third.
English is full of cool, meaningful nuances. I hope we stop getting rid of them.

Seriously, everyone: English is wonderful. Why are you destroying it?


PS: same with “on the one hand”… We used to say “on one hand” (which makes sense… either one, any one, not a definite hand with a definite article)

Four simple tricks to solve many of your grammar questions without having to search online

REMOVE A WORD: “Me and Mike like ice cream.” becomes “Me like ice cream.” Apparently, that’s not it, so the original sentence should have been “I and Mike (both) like ice cream.”

ANSWER A QUESTION: “Who should I ask?” The answer could be: “You should ask hiM.” Therefore, the first sentence should have been “Whom should I ask?”—the ‘m’s match.

ASK A QUESTION: “industrial music group”: What kind of group? The industrial kind (as well as music kind)

as opposed to

“industrial-music group”: What kind of group? The industrial-music kind

CHANGE THE ORDER: The expression “music industrial group” fails in a different way (and also means something very different) than the expression “red big house” would fail in comparison to “big red house” (so, a hyphen was needed).

“Big red house” is both correct and proper, and a hyphen would be wrong between ‘big’ and ‘red’. The two modifiers ‘big’ and ‘red’ are independent of each other; they act separately. The house could also have been small and red, or big and green.

The other two modifiers, ‘industrial’ and ‘music’ (the latter a noun that tells what type of group) are not independent when what we mean is Einstuerzende Neubauten or Cabaret Voltaire. The opposite is true when we are talking about Roland, Yamaha, Korg, and Nord, for example.

“Verbing weirds language.”

“Verbing Weirds Language” (not so fast)

I have heard this term quite a lot lately, and it certainly gets its point across. However, as a speaker of languages from more than one family (language family, that is), I find that it’s shortsighted.

In languages that use helping verbs to make verbs out of nouns and adjectives (Japanese: suru; Turkish: etmek), there is no such problem, and, it seems, very little accompanying debate of descriptivism versus prescriptivism. For a multiculturally informed version of this aphorism, I suggest saying something along the lines of “Verbing weirds English.” (or “Verbing weirds Indo-European languages.”) because we Turks have been doing it without any weirding for quite some time, not to mention the Japanese and others—recall the infamous ‘bushusuru’.

Furthermore, verbing is not necessary. Take the new “fail” as a noun. The word ‘fail’ is a verb. The noun form is ‘failure’. I am familiar with the contention between descriptivism and prescriptivism. Descriptivists usually argue that language evolves. “It always has, so let it continue to do so.” However, we do not support this line of reasoning in other matters. Human beings necessarily form judgments and opinions based on confirmation bias, regression to the mean, and various well-documented heuristics and biases. Even those who are aware of these mistakes continue to make them much of the time. This, then, is how people behave. According to the descriptivist approach, we should let biases rule, and let informed thinking go by the wayside: The property of being something that occurs very often as part of human behavior does not bestow a sacred status on verbing or biases. Language evolves, as it perhaps ought to, but mindful people can strive for a direction of linguistic evolution that does not reduce clarity, increase redundancy, and encourage laziness of mind. I am all for positive evolution in the English language: changes that will make it more consistent, more rational, easier to understand, less redundant, and more elegant. Many of the changes brought about by the Internet and smart phones do not have this effect. To illustrate my point, I will include many examples of how brilliantly awesome English actually is below, but first, a bit more about verbing (and nouning).

I was reading the membership conditions for a retail chain, and realized that perhaps nouning[i] bothers me more than verbing. But why should either one? English is a language that has many words that serve as a verb and a noun with no change in spelling or pronunciation (‘park’, for example). Yet, as a native speaker of a non-Indo-European language, which has its moments of logical consistency, and which uses helping verbs so that neither verbing nor nouning ever need to happen, and further, as a native-level English speaker of 33 years[ii], I value the superior logical consistency of English, and don’t like seeing it eroded. (Note: Of course I realize that English pronunciation and spelling are not logical or consistent; there is a wonderful demonstration here:, but trust me, and read on: English grammar, syntax, and punctuation are superbly, surprisingly, wonderfully logical. I will start small.

It may not be worth it, because I decided to give everyone full credit. (This means it ain’t worth it.)

It may not be worth it because I decided to give everyone full credit. (This means it may be worth it for some other reason.)

From a student paper: “Humans are over populating the world.” (This seems to indicate that humans have stopped reproducing, that they are no longer interested in populating the world. What the student really meant was “humans are overpopulating the world.”

Next, I would like to discuss hyphenation. Aniruddh Patel, in one of his talks, describes the hierarchical nature of language as follows: “If you know English, and I say the following sentence, ‘The girl who kissed the boy opened the door.’, … there is a sequence of words in that sentence: ‘the boy opened the door’ … But, if you speak English and understand English, you know it’s not the boy that opened the door; it’s the girl that opened the door. In other words, you don’t just interpret language in a left-to-right fashion. …” He goes on to explain that the phrases are hierarchically related such that ‘girl’ is linked to ‘opened’, not ‘boy’ which is right next ‘opened’.

Hyphens help us with another hierarchical aspect of language. An arithmetic analogy will help demonstrate this. 4 + 2 × 3 = 10 because precedence tells us to multiple 2 and 3 first. In arithmetic, we can use parentheses to change the hierarchy and override precedence: (4 + 2) × 3 = 18. This is exactly what hyphens do: They group words into concepts. Notice that the hyphen, typographically speaking, is rather short. It’s shorter than any of the letters in a monospaced font. That’s because, unlike dashes, hyphens serve to combine, not separate. Dashes, which are either ‘n’ long or ‘m’ long, serve to push words apart. The en dash, for example, is used for ranges, like 9–5 and Seattle–Atlanta. But let’s get back to hyphens.

Hyphens join two words into one concept, as in two-car garage, one-man band, and land-grant university. ‘Two’ and ‘car’ started life as separate concepts. In ‘two-car garage’, they are combined into a single concept, just as (4 + 2) got combined into a single number, 6. Again, just as 6 acted as one entire and single number on 3 in that multiplication above, ‘two-car’ acts as a single concept of garage size, when neither ‘two’ nor ‘car’ ordinarily signify size or width.

A friend once asked (on facebook): [. . .] purple people eaters: Are they purple people who eat people or people who eat purple people? While this may have been posted in jest, the logic applies to serious cases where the intended meaning matters. I responded: “Purple-people eaters eat people who are purple, while purple people eaters are purple in color themselves. In English, the modifiers gang up on the noun at the end unless you hyphenate.” I followed this up with two examples. “A community college association is a group of college-related people from the community whereas a community-college association is a group of colleges. In other languages, nouns have cases, so you don’t have these problems.” (Just as verbing doesn’t weird all languages, this type of problem also completely fails to occur in Turkish because nouns in noun strings get modified with suffixes that place them in their proper cases, doing the job of hyphens in English. The difficulty for native speakers of English is that they grow up speaking English, wherein it’s difficult to hear the sound of the hyphen. In Turkish, there is no mistaking the suffix; you hear it from the time you’re a little baby.

My second, and perhaps better example was the following. “The phrase ‘lake of fire Christians’ implies a lake consisting of ‘fire Christians’, whatever that would mean. What is typically meant is ‘lake-of-fire Christians’. English is ‘endian’ unless you override that with hyphens. In spoken language, we use inflection to make these things clear (which, again, is why many native speakers have a harder time than some ESL-speakers).

The subject line of an e-mail I received said, “Security for the Cloud Lunch in Portland”

This seems to indicate that someone is setting up security for a lunch event in Portland. What they meant, of course, was “Security-for-the-Cloud Lunch in Portland.” This type of mistake can very easily be avoided by rejecting the temptation to produce noun strings, and using the three little powerful words that make English work: ‘of’, ‘for’, and ‘from’. Calling it “Lunch Meeting about the Security of the Cloud, to take place in Portland” would remove all ambiguity.

Likewise, on the back of a 45-RPM record I recently bought[iii], the recording location is identified as “the crazy cat lady house” (another noun chain). It is clear, of course, that what is intended is “the crazy-cat-lady house” where “crazy cat lady” is a compound modifier, a unified concept and single descriptor for the house. Without proper hyphenation, the meaning is open to interpretations such as “the crazy-cat lady-house” (with the last hyphen not strictly necessary, but placed because this blog post is written, not spoken).

My first car was used, so I was a new car owner. I recently bought my third car, and it was brand new, so I am now a new-car owner (but not a new car owner).

The Coursera privacy policy states, “If you participate in an online course, we may collect from you certain student-generated content, such as assignments you submit to instructors, peer-graded assignments and peer grading student feedback.”

Note that the first (correct) expression “peer-graded assignments” and the later (incorrect) expression “peer grading student work” ought to be based on the same reasoning, so how could they end up different? It seems, based not only on this example, that people use other mental processes, not reasoning, for determining whether to hyphenate or not. These processes could be memorization, template-matching, or aesthetics.

There is support for this possibility. American English, as opposed to British English, is template-based in its treatment of punctuation with respect to quotation marks: They always have to be inside, unless they’re large characters like ‘?’. This is a purely aesthetic choice, and is not logical. The IT industry has, in recent years, protested this and switched to logical/British punctuation. I saw this reflected in Microsoft Word grammar-correction recommendations as early as 2012. (Way to go, Microsoft!)

“An Early Bird Sound Collage” is the title of a work by an experimental-music band. Do they mean it’s an early bird-sound collage, or an early-bird sound collage? (They are experimental, so the intended meaning could easily have been either.)

“Introducing the Möbius-Twisted Turk’s Head Knot” is a paper title from the Bridges 2015 conference. They got the first one right. Now, is it a twisted Turk and his head knot, or is it the Turk’s-head knot that’s twisted?

Compare the following. “Small plane crash” where we don’t know how big a plane it was, but the crash was a minor concern, and “small-plane crash” where we know that the plane was small, but the crash could still have been quite a big deal. In most cases, it is better not to be stingy with words; something like “a big crash involving a small plane” would be much clearer.

My next example is from course packs. In one case, one might be able to get a refund: “All packets are not refundable.” (unclear) vs. “All packets are non-refundable.” (quite clear!)

Here are some more examples from academia. There is a big difference between the “higher-ed budget” and a “higher ed budget” (we all want the latter). An “online learning report” is a report that gets posted online, while an “online-learning report” does not have to be posted, but it is about online learning. How about “main session outline” versus “main-session outline”?

What is the opposite of the right-hand rule? And what is the opposite of the right hand rule?[iv] The opposite of the former would be the left-hand rule, whereas the opposite of the latter would be the wrong hand rule.

Compare the expressions “proof of concept viruses for Linux” with “proof-of-concept viruses for Linux.” Again, from the tech fields: “no load gain” could be the opposite of “no-load gain”!

Even if it’s a stretch, one of the following could be about athletic performance whereas the other is clearly about academic performance: “college grade-point average” and “college-grade point average”

Here’s one from the field I teach in: Which technical term does not limit the model size: “small-signal model” and “small signal model”?

“Portland’s first clean air cab” was meant to indicate a regular car that that doesn’t pollute, but is written like a flying car that is not dirty.

I saw this on the web as well: THE HAITIAN TERRACING FOR HOPE PROJECT. One wonders if Hope Project will get some Haitian terracing, or if there is a Haitian project called ‘Terracing for Hope’. Since hyphenation cannot be imposed on proper nouns (such as the official name of a project), using one of the magic little words or changing word order could have helped this case: “A Project in Haiti: Terracing for Hope” or “The Haitian Project of Terracing for Hope” or “Terracing for Hope, a Haitian Project,” etc.

And how about all this free stuff we’re being sold all the time? This was seen on a billboard: “NEW TRANS-FAT FREE” with the word “free” on a separate line. It appears to imply that the new product has trans-fat, and is free. Likewise with all these products that sport the expression “gluten free”: apparently, there is gluten in it, but we’re not paying for the gluten.

And then, there is verb hyphenation, which confuses many people I know even more. Verbs are not hyphenated when used as verbs. However, when non-verbs are used with verbs as a compound verb, they do get hyphenated (and this is common sense). For example, “how to fly-fish” is very different from “how to fly fish.” In the latter, one tries to make fish fly. Likewise, “moonbathing” is about a person enjoying moonlight, whereas an expression like “moon bathing” suggests it’s the moon doing the bathing (assuming the rest of a proper sentence surrounds that expression). Similarly, “battle ready” (the battle is ready?) is very different from “battle-ready” (a compound modifier that shows that some person, equipment, or army is ready for battle).

Even after verbing turns a new word like ‘blog’ into a verb as well as a noun, combining it with the noun/adjective ‘video’ requires hyphenation: “learning to video blog” makes no sense, while “learning to video-blog” does.

Alright, perhaps we do not need to be so vigilant about compound modifiers all the time. Here is one I have seen where even I have to admit that context and common sense are quite sufficient to know what is meant even in the absence of a compulsively placed hyphen. It is “sexual abuse hysteria.” Perhaps, no hyphen is needed when an adjective becomes an adverb. I think this one is clear without the need for a hyphen.

Before leaving hyphenation, I must address adverbs. Adverbs are not hyphenated (although many well-meaning and thoughtful individuals do hyphenate them.)

You only need hyphenation when the target of a modifier is ambiguous, which is why adverbs are not entered into hyphenated compounds. Recall that in one of the examples above, ‘purple’ had the option of referring to the people being eaten or to the creature doing the eating, so we had to specify which by knowing when to and when not to use a hyphen. In the case of adverbs, as in “culturally sensitive employer,” for instance, there is no question about which word ‘culturally’ is attached to; there is no such thing as a “culturally employee”; so there is no ambiguity, and no need to waste time with hyphens.

Commas are another matter disproportionately consequential in comparison to the size of the punctuation mark involved. The following examples come from a variety of sources, but mostly from a delightfully brilliant book, to which I was introduced[v] during University Studies teacher training at Portland State University: Maxwell Nurnberg’s Questions You Always Wanted to Ask about English .

  1. Which statement clearly shows that not all bacteria are sphere-shaped?
  2. a) Christian A. T. Billroth called bacteria which had the shape of tiny spheres ‘cocci’. (In this case, it is implied that only some bacteria are spherical.)
  3. b) Christian A. T. Billroth called bacteria, which had the shape of tiny spheres, ‘cocci’. (In this case, it is implied that all bacteria are spherical.)
  1. Which sentence shows extraordinary powers of persuasion?
  2. I left him convinced he was a fool. (He is convinced, not I.)
  3. I left him, convinced he was a fool. (I am convinced.)
  1. Which is the dedication of a self-confessed polygamist?
  2. I dedicate this book to my wife, Edith, for telling me what to leave out. (In this case, he has one wife, whose name is Edith.)
  3. I dedicate this book to my wife Edith for telling me what to leave out. (In this case, we are led to believe he has at least one wife other than Edith. If it’s not clear why this is the case, see # 5 or # 6 below. The comma starts an explanation of who is being referred to.)


  1. In which sentence are you sure that “somatic” and “bodily” mean the same?
  2. Radioactive materials that cause somatic, or bodily, damage are to be limited

                     in their use. (In this case, ‘bodily’ is offered as a more familiar synonym for ‘somatic’.)

  1. Radioactive materials that cause somatic or bodily damage are to be limited

     in their use. (In this case, the implication is that ‘somatic’ and ‘bodily’ are mutually exclusive, hence mean different things.)

Nurnberg’s examples were my introduction to the power of the comma. They went beyond the boilerplate rules I had been taught, like “Never place a comma before ‘because’!” and “Always put a comma before ‘too’!”

Soon, I was noticing commas where they should not have been, and a lack of commas where they were badly needed.

I read the following at [2]: “Technique, procedure and rule used by risk manager to identify asses and examine the risks.” The missing comma could really have helped with the change in meaning caused by the missing ‘s’ in ‘assess’. On the other hand, perhaps the risk manager’s job really is to identify asses. If so, this is one particularly frank document.

In the book MIDI Systems and Control [3], I came across the following, “RS422 … is a standard for balanced communications over long lines devised by the EIA (Electronics Industries Association)” (p. 23). Without a comma right after ‘long lines’, the sentence is open to the interpretation that it was long lines that were devised by the EIA, as opposed to RS422.

Here is some correct comma use (as one would expect from Stanford University). In The Elements of Statistical Learning: Data Mining, Inference, and Prediction by Hastie, Tibshirani, and Friedman, there is a sentence “. . . in a study to try to predict whether the email was junk email, or ‘spam’” (p. 2). The comma is used, appropriately, in its explanation-signifying role. Later on, however, the authors say “In the handwritten digit example the output is one of 10 different digit classes . . .” (p. 9). This clearly needs a hyphen connecting ‘handwritten’ and ‘digit’. Currently (without the hyphen), it is the example that is handwritten, not the digits. This difference could be meaningful if one were referring to a solutions manual, for example, where examples are often handwritten.

Here’s an example I must have gotten from someone else or a book: “King Charles walked and talked; half an hour after, his head was cut off.” Let’s try it without the comma and the semicolon: “King Charles walked and talked half an hour after his head was cut off.” This is reminiscent of the English-class exercise that was making the rounds on facebook at one point: “A woman without her man is nothing.” which can be punctuated either as “A woman: without her, man is nothing.” or as “A woman, without her man, is nothing.” [4]

Grammarly also posted this headline about Peter Ustinov’s travels: “Highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.” The absence of the Oxford comma turns what was meant as a list of three entities into one entity (Mandela) and a description of him (an 800-year-old demigod who collects dildos). As I mention elsewhere, the structure of other languages (such as Turkish) may be such that the Oxford comma is useless, but it clearly makes a difference to the meaning of a sentence in English.

Here’s an instance from an e-mail I once wrote. I had asked my friend, “Did I go too far into unnecessary details by way of explaining what I’m doing and why?” This question addresses my explanation of what I was doing and why I was doing it. It is different from “Did I go too far into unnecessary details by way of explaining what I’m doing, and why?” which asks why my explanation is considered to be excessive.

Nurnberg does a much better job of revealing the power and importance of the comma in his book than my examples here do. I think everyone who writes in English should own a copy and read it.

I also want to address redundancy a little. Someone once said this to me during a conversation: “. . . considering they’re both not at the same time. . .” This would make sense if the two events spoken of were not coincident with a third event, but, in this case, there was no third event. All that was meant was “considering they’re not at the same time . . .”

I also frequently hear “continue on …” and “return back …” (This is frustrating.) To continue is to go on. Therefore, to continue on becomes ‘to go on on’. (We’re all familiar with “ATM machine” and “PIN number”…)

Redundancy is necessary when life-threatening situations are handled by electronic or electro-mechanical systems. Let’s leave the redundancy to those cases, and stop wasting our breath with it.

And then there is the centipede sentence: “I’d take MLK Boulevard would be my suggestion.”

My boss at my old job, fifteen years ago, was amazing at these. I wonder if he composed any regular sentences; they all seemed to be along the lines of “The reason is is that there is an address conflict was what happened.” (Otherwise, he was clearly a genius. I don’t know why he talked like that.)

I have now firmly established myself, in this post, as the worst possible killjoy nerd geek compulsive so-called “grammar N**i” ever, so let me close on a positive note.

I wrote this ridiculously long post because I love the English language, and I want people, especially its native speakers, to treat it well. I also love Turkish, Portuguese, German, and Japanese, and if you have ever read engineering material written in English by Japanese engineers, you know that the structure of non-Indo-European languages must be very different. The agglutinative use of cases in Turkish makes most of the discussion of this post unnecessary, but there is one thing Spanish, Portuguese, English, etc. have that I’m quite envious of: THE SUBJUNCTIIIIIVE (Cue dark, scary music.)

The subjunctive, which is still going strong in Spanish, but has only a few surviving occasions of use in English, draws a distinction between fact and possibility, or between wishes and truths: “if he were” makes it sound wrong to indicate something hypothetical as being actual. (Note how it does not go “if he was” but switches to the awkward subjunctive, the non-reality case.) This is scientific thinking built into the language. The speaker is required to differentiate between factual cases and wishing or wondering. (If only we could get the health-care industry to differentiate between factual evidence- and mechanism-based care and wishful-thinking-based care.)

In conclusion: Languages are awesome. Let’s not stand by and watch them get eroded into redundancy and lack of clarity by mental (and technologically aided) sloth. If languages change, fine; let them change well, preserving the characteristics that allow humans to communicate with precision and subtlety. Good communication saves lives.

And what is the deal with “the both” in 2016? The expression ‘both of’ is intended for a different meaning than the expression ‘the two’. There was no reason to make a hybrid that goes ‘the both’. Please, everyone, stop saying this.

“The two of them went away, but we stayed.” (There were more than two people involved.)

“We both went away.” (There were only two people involved.)

English has set up this great way to incorporate set theory into the language. Why are we messing it up? Consider the following:

“Are you ready to compare both files?” (I would be, if I wanted to compare two files each with a third. However, if the comparison were simply between two files, it’s “Are you ready to compare the two files?”)

PS: I need to get this one off my chest, too: “Computation methods” would be methods of computation, whereas “computational methods” would be methods that make use of computation. And don’t get me started on ‘methodologies’. How many people actually study methods? (I’m glad to have witnessed this being brought up at a discussion during the AAWM 2016 conference.)


[1] Nurnberg, M., Questions You Always Wanted to Ask about English (but were afraid to raise your hand), New York: Washington Square Press, 1972.

[2] (not there anymore)

[3] Rumsey, F., MIDI Systems and Control (Second Edition), Oxford, UK: Focal Press, 1994.


[i] “12-month spend of $500” it said. At least it’s hyphenated correctly, but what was wrong with the noun ‘spending’ that we need a new noun to replace it?

[ii] People who know me can attest to this.

[iii] From the band NASALROD

[iv] Again, altering the word order could clarify such cases: After all, we never say “thumb rule” instead of “rule of thumb”; we always take the time to say “rule of thumb”!

[v] Like most of the important things in life

Auto-(in)correct: Emergent Laziness?

Is it Google? Is it LG? Or is it emergence?

I am leasing an LG tablet running Android to go with my phone service. I thought the large screen and consequently larger keyboard would make my life easier. The first several days of use, however, have been unreasonably annoying. The salesperson had said that this device would be slave to my LG Android cell phone, but my settings did not seem to carry over. What’s worse, no matter how much I dig through menu trees to get to certain settings I’m looking for, I can’t find them. For example, I may want autocorrect off, or I may not want the latest e-mail in my inbox to be previewed. (I prefer to see a bird’s-eye view of all the recent e-mails, packed as tightly as possible, and I can usually set this very quickly and easily, but not on this tablet.) The reasons might range from being about to go to class and teach in a few minutes and not wanting to think about that e-mail about a committee issue that just arrived right at the moment, and I don’t want Gmail to parade it in front of me.

So, the settings seem to be very well hidden, or maybe not even available to the user anymore (because that has been the trend in computer-and-Internet technology: Make the user think less, and have less control; so-called intelligent software will decide all your preferences for you).

And perhaps the software can deduce (or, more likely, induce) your preferences as they were at a certain time under a certain set of circumstances, but human beings expect the freedom to change their minds. Software doesn’t seem to allow this.

Furthermore, crowd-sourcing is considered the ultimate intelligence. I know and understand the algorithms behind most of these ideas, and totally agree that they are beautiful and awesome (and really fun). However, engineers, programmers, mathematicians, and other nerds (like me) finding something super-fun should not be how life is redesigned. The crowd-sourcing of spelling and automatic correction is leading us from artificial intelligence to natural laziness. My device wants to change “I’m” to “imma”. (Before you decry that I’m also ignorant and don’t know to put a period inside the quotation marks, read my disclaimer about switching to British/logical punctuation.) Am I now forced to appear like I have abandoned capitalization, and to have picked up an unnecessarily excessively colloquial form of spelling. And if I had, then fine, but I haven’t.

It gets worse. The learning algorithm is not learning, at least not from me. The following has now happened with several phrases and words on this new tablet, and I’ve looked further into altering this setting, to no avail.

When I type “I will”, it automatically replaces it with “I silk”. If I backspace and type “I will” again, it replaces it again. And it doesn’t learn from my actions; I have patiently (and later on, a further dozen or so times, impatiently) retyped “I will” more than 30 times, only to watch Gmail running on my Android LG device switch it back to “I silk” immediately.[1]

Where did this come from? Is there a band called “I silk”? Is this a new phrase that’s in these days, and I haven’t been overhearing my students enough to know about it?

Or is it because earlier that day, I tried to write “I seek to …” where the ‘seek’ was autocorrected to ‘silk’? (for who knows what reason)

And what happens when this behavior is pushed beyond e-mail on a tablet, and I’m not able (or allowed) to write either “I will” or “I seek” as I type a blog entry such as this on my laptop, or as I try to type an e-mail to explain what’s going wrong to Google’s tech support, or someone else’s tech support?

This really doesn’t make sense. Shouldn’t machine learning give us results that make sense? (That used to be the idea.) Now, perhaps, it’s just supposed to give us results that are popular or common. It seems we’re not building artificial intelligence; we’re building artificial commonality.

This is not a rant for elitism (which, anyway, is also used in machine learning, in evolutionary algorithms). It’s about the loss of freedom of speech, to be able to say what one is trying to say the exact way one wants to say it. The ability for clear, unequivocal communication is not something to be eliminated from the human experience; it is something to continue to strive for. Likewise, convenience over freedom (or over accuracy) is not a good choice of values. In the end, the person pushing little buttons with letters marked on them will be held responsible for the content. Shouldn’t that person be in charge of what words appear when they push the little buttons? Shouldn’t we at least be able to turn off auto-correct, or have some control over when it applies?

This is being taken away, little by little. “Oh, it’s just a tablet.” … “Oh, it’s just an e-mail. Nobody expects it to be spelled correctly.” Pretty soon, no one will be able to spell anything correctly, even if they know how to, because their devices won’t allow them to have that little bit of control.


[1] Also, do not even try to write in a foreign language, or mix English and Turkish in one sentence. In an early e-mail I wrote on this device, I had to repeat the letter ‘i’ (which appeared only once in the actual word) five times (for a total of six ‘i‘s) for it to stop auto-(in)correcting “geliyorum” to something like “Selma”. I had to type “geliiiiiiyorum”.

Making sentences. . .

Winter term has been crazy, although in a good way. I’m teaching six classes this term, all of which are going great (I have awesome students), though one’s a new prep, so I haven’t had time to post here, but I recently found some silliness on my phone that I had come up with while waiting for a train: Making sentences by combining band names.

Here they are:

As Blood Runs Black The Refused Pierce The Veil

Tower of Power Was (Not Was) Built To Spill Ashes

Barenaked Ladies Poison The Well From First To Last

Bring Me The Horizon Within Temptation At The Drive-in

Blonde Redhead Of Montreal Cursed The Only Ones

(And, of course, a band name, all by itself: I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness)

Dylan Evans’ ‘Placebo’, Languages, and “Yes Way”

I was reading the section called “Saying is Believing” in Dylan Evans’ book called ‘Placebo: Mind over Matter in Modern Medicine”,[1] which is one of my sources for an elective class I teach (called ‘Science, Medicine, and Reason’).

At the beginning of this section, Evans introduces the assent theory of belief, with references to C. Cherniak and Bertrand Russell. While I expect to talk about this idea in the near future, I will focus now on an example Evans gives, and share my thoughts about languages and translation. Evans says “If you want to explain why John took his umbrella when he went out this morning, the chances are you will say it was because he believed it was going to rain.” (p. 77). As a fully bilingual person who thinks and dreams in his second language, I nevertheless mentally transposed this statement, and found that the word choice for ‘belief’ (as used above) might correspond to a different word in Turkish than the primary word for ‘belief’: The word ‘think’ may be used instead in a good Turkish translation of Evans’ sentence.

I think this is informative about the meanings the word ‘belief’ can have. Do we really mean John believes it’s going to rain in the same sense that John might believe in God? I don’t think so. John may have been led to believe that the probability of rain on that day was 50% or higher (and perhaps it’s a different threshold for others), but typically, a religious person does not believe in God in terms of a 50% (or even, say, 70%) probability; they think of it as certainty. Could it be, then, that the word ‘belief” has (at least) two nuanced meanings? The sense of ‘belief’ as involved in faith must be different from the sense of ‘belief’ as involved in likelihoods.

If that seems unlikely, consider the word ‘no’. Obviously, ‘no’ is the opposite of ‘yes’. However, when it’s used in the humorous pop-cultural “yes way”, the “no way” to which it responds was not meant in the sense of opposition, but in terms of negating presence or existence. Here’s where fluency in another language helps: In Turkish, ‘no’ in the sense of “none” or “there isn’t any” is a different word from ‘no’ as the opposite of ‘yes’. That word, ‘hiç’ (pronounced close to “hitch”) carries a sense of “any”, as in “there aren’t any”.

“Yes way” is humorous because it doesn’t quite work; we recognize that. But we also don’t really think about why it doesn’t work. It’s just a sense, like a note that is out of tune. To the foreigner fluent in English, however, there is another way to access that sense of slight off-ness** which allows one, in my case, to recognize this yes/no pair not as the regular yes/no (evet/hayır) pair, but as a distorted any/any (her/hiç) pair, which remains unclear in English. (In English, “anyone can . . .” implies existence while “there isn’t any  . . ” implies nonexistence. The same word is used for opposite meanings. Not so in all languages.)

So, there it is: my introduction to the world of blogging, thanks to this quick thought that occurred to me while reading Dylan Evans’ ‘Placebo’.

In the next installment, I will examine the word ‘good’ (with respect to music and the two languages).

FOOTNOTE: [1] Disclaimer: I use logical/British/tech punctuation, not US punctuation, when it comes to placing commas and periods inside or outside quotations (but I’m aware of the US convention)

Placebo: Evans, Dylan. Mind over Matter in Modern Medicine, Oxford University Press, 2004, New York, NY, USA. First published in 2003 by HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © Dylan Evans, 2003, 2004.