[DWJ] timetravel/and other things

Colin Fine colin at fine.me.uk
Tue Jun 24 03:55:00 EDT 2008

Elizabeth Parks wrote:
>>> The picture is not wholly gloomy:
>>> http://www.chicagotribune.com/features/chi-typo-guys-0521may21,0,701362.story
>> Whereas my reaction to that story is "Get a life, and find something
>> that *matters* to attend to".
>> Now Minnow will probably spit pebbles at me.
>> Colin
> You know, nobody makes fun of people with perfect pitch for disliking
> music that's out of tune.  Nobody objects to being precise about
> anything that's mathematical, really.  If there was a sign up saying
> that 2 + 2 = 17 (and it wasn't an obvious joke), it would come right
> down and be fixed right away, and no one would think anything of it.
> But have an ear for grammar instead of music, or find  the mathematics
> of grammar more appealing than that of numbers, and you're out of
> luck.
> Grammar is so unfashionable.
That's a very interesting argument, that I haven't heard before. I'm 
glad you brought it up.

As a musician and a some-time mathematician I understand what you're 
saying, and I'm looking into myself to see why I don't accept the 

The analogy with mathematics really doesn't work: maths just is, it 
isn't subject to human whims. (And yes, I'm familiar with the question 
of whether maths is invented or discovered by humans, and with the idea 
of variant axiomatisations). The point is that if you decide that 2 + 2 
= 5 you don't get maths, because you don't get a self-consistent system.
A more appropriate analogy might be non-Euclidian geometry: researchers 
in the 19th century spent a lot of effort in trying to prove Euclid's 
parallel postulate because it was obviously true, but a bit complicated; 
so surely, it /had/ to be derived and not fundamental? Eventually Bolyai 
and Lobachevsky discovered that actually it didn't have to be true, but 
there were other possible geometries, which didn't at first instance 
seem to resemble the real world, but were mathematically perfectly 
On the other hand, our use of 10 as a base has nothing to do with the 
consistency of mathematics, but is an arbitrary rule of how we express 
it and any other integer would do just as well - a point that Tom Holt 
doesn't understand, or chooses to ignore, in /Barking/.

The analogy with music is better, and will actually make one of my 
points: the octave is a natural interval, implied by physics; but how 
you divide it up is to some degree arbitrary, and different cultures do 
have different scales and different ideas of tonality. For most people, 
what you're brought up to sounds right and anything else sounds 
certainly strange, and often wrong. But from a broader perspective, it 
is easy to see that that 'wrong' is not absolute but within a largely 
arbitrary set of rules and norms - and over time the norms change and 
what was once 'wrong' becomes quite acceptable. Most of Bach's minor-key 
pieces end with a major triad, because the minor triad was not 
considered acceptable for a final chord, but in nineteenth and twentieth 
century music the /tierce de Picardy/ (major cadence on a minor piece) 
is usually deliberate archaism.

In my view (formal) grammar, and spelling and punctuation go one stage 
more arbitrary than this. I am (usually) fastidious about my own 
speaking and writing - including punctuation. But to me this is very 
like the fact that some people take more care over their dress than I 
do. Now some of those natty dressers will look down on me for my lack of 
care, no doubt; but from the outside most of us can see that there is no 
objective standard by which they are better than me: we just have 
different personal standards, probably different interests, and possibly 
have had different opportunities to become familiar with the prevailing 
To me, going round adding apostrophes to people's signs is like going up 
to strangers and adjusting their clothing. It is asserting "I am right 
and you are wrong, and I know best".

As a student of linguistics I view with wonder and delight the 
magnificent and complex structures of human languages, and the ease with 
which almost every human that has ever lived (barring a few unfortunates 
with impaired mental abilities) has attained /as a child/ a more or less 
complete mastery of one, or often more than one, language. I am sad and 
indignant when I see people effectively discounting this magnificence, 
and asserting that all that matters is the generally arbitrary set of 
rules that comprise prescriptive grammar and writing - which have to be 
taught in schools specifically because they are /not/, in some 
fundamental sense, part of the language. And when I see evidence that 
people are judging the worth of others by their conformance to these 
artificial norms I can become apoplectic.
> I understand why a lot of people don't get the subtle rules of
> grammar--I don't know them all myself.  But the difference between
> you're and your is the difference between a Kandinsky and a da Vinci,
> or an apple pie and chirashi-zushi (sprinkly fish-rice sushi stuff.)
> Don't say I'm pedantic just because I object to having one substituted
> for the other.
No, I believe you are exaggerating it. It is the difference between two 
different cuts of jacket, or between a peach colour that does go with 
the walls and one that doesn't, or between apple pie with and without 
cinnamon. To those whose interest lies in that area it is obvious and 
important; to others with no interest in the matter it might not even be 
noticeable. I understand and honour that you find the difference 
important. But I react when I think you are diminishing people to whom 
it is not important.


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