Monday, July 17, 2006

Distilled Wisdom #1: How to Sound Intelligent

Note: I'm putting off the second part of "Why Skepticism?" as it's rather heavy and even includes... *dramatic pause* a mathematical proof. Don't want to weigh down people who are just reading this all at once with too much heavy material in a row. (Not to mention, I'm still ironing out a few kinks in it.)

But anyways...

Welcome to the inaugural post of Distilled Wisdom. This is where I'll be trying to filter through all the crap I've learned (or distill it out, if you want to avoid mixed metaphors) and present you with some pearls of wisdom (crap, another mixed metaphor).

The first few posts of this series will deal with some presentational and argumentative tactics you can use in order to get people to take you more seriously. The first is how to sound intelligent.

There are three simple rules to help you here:

1. Grammar
2. Grammar
3. Grammar
4. Don't make stupid mistakes like this

Given the overlap between rules 1-3, I'll cover them all at once.

When many people are writing an entry in their blog or a comment in another's, they don't take the time to go back and correct typos and punctuation errors. Sometimes it's because they don't know that what they're doing is an error. In this case, it's intellectual laziness. They aren't bothering to learn from what others are doing right. Other times, it's just more general laziness in that they can't see the point in going back and correcting something.

But just because you don't see the point doesn't mean that the point doesn't exist. Let's say it takes you an average of two seconds to go back and correct a typo. Now, every person reading your entry will pause momentarily at every typo, and lose focus for a moment. Let's say they're decent readers, and it only breaks their concentration for half a second per typo.

So, how many people do you expect to read your entry? On a personal blog, maybe only four or five people. On a more public blog, it could be upwards of a hundred. Let's pick another arbitrary average of ten, and do some math.

By leaving in one type, you save yourself 2 sec, and cost 10 people 0.5 sec. (Total time spent) - (Total time saved) = 10 * 0.5 sec - 2 sec = 3 sec. And note that this is per typo, so every typo you leave uncorrected is draining 3 seconds from humanity's collective time bank. But if you weight your 2 seconds more highly than the time of others, well, you're just being selfish.

Now, the above only applies to relatively good grammar that features typos. There are some other categories of grammar that you should try to avoid falling into if at all possible:

Patterned Bad Grammar: This is bad grammar that follows a certain pattern in mistakes. Most often on the internet, this is a failure to capitalize or punctuate. It might also be the misspelling of a common word. In longer documents, the persistent misspelling of even less-common words may also turn into this (for instance, spelling "lose" like "loose," which is a personal pet peeve). Sometimes people can train themselves to gloss over this, as is often the case with a failure to capitalize. Other times, it distracts them in every single instance, sometimes even longer than normal because of its prevalence ("'Loose' again!? It's 'lose,' you idiot!").

A special sub-category of this is writing in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. This has a special effect on people, beyond distracting them. Since writing in caps is commonly used as a way to indicate that you're "yelling," someone who writes all in caps sounds like they're always yelling. This slows down the reader slightly, as the voice in their head has to be imagined yelling, which slows it down somewhat. Additionally, you may be interpreted as more hostile than you had intended.

Distorted Grammar: This category covers grammar that is bad enough that the meaning isn't apparent with a quick glance. A person generally has to spend time decoding it in order to figure out what you meant. Most people just don't have the time or patience for this, and will skip it outright. Anyone who does sit through and decode it will likely be very frustrated with you by the time you're done. If your grammar is this bad naturally, take some lessons to learn how to write properly. It'll save both us and you a lot of trouble.

However, in this multilingual world it would be a mistake not to mention the fact that many people who fit this category do so because English is not their native language, and they aren't completely fluent in it yet. Give these people a break. It would be nice if they could learn to speak as well as the rest of us, but they've already put forth a tremendous effort to make themselves intelligible at all, so applaud them for that rather than criticize them for not having finished yet.

Unintelligible Grammar: The final category is for any style of grammar that is completely impossible to properly decode. This could be patent nonsense, as if someone just slammed their hand down on the keyboard, but it might also be an attempt to communicate that left too much ambiguity. If you're trying to communicate like this, expect to get called on it immediately (and often harshly). This is also often a phase in learning a new language, so I would recommend to people that you not be too harsh.

One last note on grammar: Never spell it "grammer." Ever. (Well, except maybe when telling people not to do it...) It makes you look like a complete idiot.

And now for rule 4: Don't make stupid mistakes like this. A mistake like miscounting the number of rules you're using jumps out at readers. Even if it's inconsequential, you lose a lot of respect in their eyes.

One last personal note: Call me on typos and misspellings. If I'm breaking my own rules, I'd like to know about it so I can fix it.

Edit: Just a reminder of the purpose of this. I'm not pointing the finger at anyone in particular, this is just a general recommendation to people who wish to present themselves intelligently.

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Distilled Wisdom Index


Blonde Vigilante said...

You are a grammar Nazi. I love it. Everybody makes grammatical mistakes when they post blog posts and in blog comments. I try to be conscious of this, but it happens anyway. Unless you sound like a complete and utter bumbling one really gives a rat’s ass.

Bronze Dog said...

I'm willing to forgive some things, but a line must be drawn HERE! This far, no farther!

Sorry. Star Trek on the mind. Sentence fragments, too.

Infophile said...

Sentence fragment!? No blog for you! Come back, one year!

TheBrummell said...

"By leaving in one type, you save yourself 2 sec"

You asked for it. That's probably a deliberate typo in the word "typo", above, but I'm going to call it anyways.

Second, since when is "sec" a proper word? The appropriate abbreviation of "second" as a unit of time is "s" (notice it is lower case).

Also, excellent blog so far. It's going to be good to have a grammar Nazi around to refer fools to.

Infophile said...

A quick Wikipedia check confirms what I'd suspected about the "sec" abbreviation: It's perfectly appropriate as an abbreviation outside of proper SI usage (with a period at the end), and is also commonly used as a slang term (without a period at the end). When you're working within SI units, the "s" abbreviation is correct (and yes, lower case because it isn't named after a person. The only exception to this rule is of course Liter, which is "L" because "l" is too easily confused with "1").

As for the typo typo... believe it or not, that's ironically my mistake there. But I think it's funnier to leave just that one in.

Dikkii said...

Great work. I hate bad grammar.

The only problem is that I'm not good at it, so I'm glad that you're pointing the finger and not me.

An Anonymous Coward said...

One last personal note: Call me on typos and misspellings. If I'm breaking my own rules, I'd like to know about it so I can fix it.

I wasn't going to, but since you specifically asked...

The word is "peeve", not "peave". Maybe you already knew this and it's a typo rather than a misspelling, but either way...

Mark Paris said...

"I'm not pointing the finger at anyone in particular, this is just a general recommendation to people who wish to present themselves intelligently."

Wouldn't this qualify as a comma splice? More appropriate: a semicolon, or perhaps two sentences?

The Ridger, FCD said...

I could write something original on why ending sentences with prepositions is okay - but it's after midnight and I won't. I'll just quote Language Log:

in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (see page 627, footnote 11) it is mentioned that "The ‘rule’ was apparently created ex nihilo in 1672 by the essayist John Dryden." (See the article "Preposition at end" in (Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage for more discussion).

and more specifically, the post at The Internet Pilgrim's Guide to Stranded Prepositions, which includes this quote from the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language: "

There has been a long prescriptive tradition of condemning preposition stranding as grammatically incorrect. Stranded prepositions often, but by no means always, occur at the end of a sentence, and the prescriptive rule is best known in the formulation: 'It is incorrect to end a sentence with a presposition.' The rule is so familiar as to be the butt of jokes, and is widely recognised as completely at variance with actual usage. The construction ahs been used for centuries by the finest writers. Everyone who listens to Standard English hears examples of it every day.

Instead of being dismissed as unsupported foolishness, the unwarranted rule against stranding was repeated in prestigious grammars towards the end of the eighteenth century, and the from the nineteenth century on it was widely taught in schools. The result is that older people with traditional educations and outlooks still tend to believe that stranding is always some kind of mistake. It is not. All modern usage manuals, even the sternest and stuffiest, agree with descriptive and theoretical linguists on this: it would an absurdity to hold that someone who says What are you looking at? or What are you talking about? or Put this back where you got it from is not using English in a correct and normal way."

As for comma splices: again I plead the lateness of the hour and refer you to When is a comma splice NOT an error? instead.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Argh. There's a typo in the bit I quoted from the Log. That "ahs" is clearly "has".

Mark Paris said...

I hesitated to make any comment on grammar, since I actually agree with what you posted, and I know that finding errors in someone else's writing is far, far easier than finding them in one's own writing.

Infophile said...

Thanks for the comments on this post and prepositions, The Ridger. Looking at the list of when comma splices are acceptable, this does appear to be one of those cases (contrasting an affirmative with a negative). I'll edit it back to the first version.

Mark Paris said...

Well, whether I agree on the comma splice, I do agree that some rules of grammar are ridiculous and unwarranted. For example, I always say, "It's me," because "It's I" is terribly affected, and I think the position takes precedence in this case. I threw out the split infinitive and end-the-sentence-with-a-preposition rules long ago. I subscribe to the descriptive model rather than the prescriptive model. Even "errors" become standard after long enough. Except when I think the rule is right, of course.

Thinker said...

Great post - how I wish more people blogging and commenting would read, understand and apply this!

I realize this is a very late comment, but since you ask for corrections, I would like to point out that when you write "... the persistant misspelling...", I believe you intended to write "persistent".

Not to rub salt in the wound, but this is from a non-native English speaker...

Maronan said...

(for instance, spelling "lose" like "loose," which is a personal pet peeve).

That's your pet peeve too?! Yay! Now I don't feel so judgemental!

Bronze Dog said...

The lose/loose thing grates on my nerves more and more each time.

Another problem that gets me quite often is there/their/they're.

Tom said...

"longer than normal because of it's prevalence"

Should be "its" — no apostrophe, which makes it "it is."

Anonymous said...

"How to SOUND intelligent." I would rather BE intelligent than sound intelligent. However, some people will spend their whole life perfecting grammar rules in order to project a certain appearance to those who are also overly concerned with the masks that people present. I'm less concerned about the proper use of grammar than I am about unique ideas: grammar rules are there for any programmed robot to memorize, but novel ideas are created outside of grammar (grammar as a secondary tool rather than a master).

TheTwistedLlama said...

Example of irony: on the paragraph about typos, there is a typo in the first sentence.

"By leaving in one _type_..."

I think you meant to write "typo" there.

Infophile said...

That one was intentional, believe it or not.