21 April 2023

Details matter

One day many years ago, I was working at a temp job at a small leasing company.  The company had hired an outside contractor to design a website for it, and the job had just been completed and the website was live.  The owner was quite excited about it (this was at a time when small businesses having their own websites was not yet common), and he sent a link to everyone at the company so they could see it.  I took a look at the new website, whose most prominent feature was an online application form that potential customers could fill out to apply for a lease.  I immediately noticed that the word "lessee" was spelled wrong on the form.  I e-mailed the owner and pointed this out, but he didn't seem concerned.  It was, after all, a minor error.

A week or so ago, I was watching a PBS video about various forms of energy production in the US.  I noticed that the host of the video kept pronouncing the word "nuclear" as "nucular".  This surprised me a bit, coming from a highly professional outfit like PBS.  Didn't anyone notice it during the video production process?  Most likely they did, but didn't think it was worth correcting.  It was, after all, a minor error.

But minor errors like these do matter.

People who have the habit of precision and attention to detail tend to apply that habit to everything.  Those who are careless and sloppy, on the other hand, tend to be careless and sloppy about everything.  Trivial errors that would have been easy to prevent with a little attention to detail are clues that there may be a deeper problem.

If you want to apply for a lease for something and you're checking out leasing companies online, and you notice that one such company has "lessee" spelled wrong on its website, then you should be hesitant to use that company.  Yes, it's trivial in itself, but it's a very basic word and an essential term in the leasing business.  Seeing it misspelled tells you that they didn't bother to get that basic word right, and if you're smart, you'll immediately wonder what other things they don't bother to get right.  A lease is a legal agreement, and this company has already shown that it's sloppy about the details of things, even if only spelling.  There's a risk that they're sloppy more generally, including about things more critical to the business.

Similarly, if the producers of a video about energy didn't bother to ensure that their presenter was pronouncing "nuclear" correctly, we're entitled to wonder if they were similarly careless about other things, such as facts and figures cited in the video.  It creates a certain level of doubt.

In some cases minor errors directly reveal something substantive.  If I'm listening to somebody who claims to know a lot about the Middle East, and he keeps pronouncing "Iran" and "Iraq" as "Eye-ran" and "Eye-rack", that tells me he has never heard those names pronounced by native speakers of Persian or Arabic (or even by English-speaking specialists who know the correct pronunciation of those names in English), or at least not often enough for it to sink in.  That being the case, it's unlikely that he's really very knowledgeable about things Middle Eastern.

So little things are worth noticing.  An error that seems trivial can tell you something about how much credibility you should give to a source, or how willing you should be to entrust someone with handling a complex task for you.

While I'm on the subject, I should probably address my own use of grammar in certain situations, since some sharp-eyed reader is likely to raise it in response to this post.  I sometimes disregard certain standard grammatical rules, such as the rule against splitting infinitives or using a comma to separate the subject of a sentence from what follows.  This is not because I'm unaware of those rules, or unaware that I'm breaking them.  Rather, it's that clarity is a higher priority to me.  When strict adherence to the rules would make a sentence hard to read or would lead to distractingly clunky phrasing, I prefer to avoid those problems even if it means ignoring the rules.

For example, consider the most famous split infinitive in English, "To boldly go where no man has gone before."  There are basically three options for avoiding the "error":

"Boldly to go where no man has gone before"
"To go boldly where no man has gone before"
"To go where no man has gone before, boldly"

Any of these would sound so clunky and awkward as to ruin the flow and effect of William Shatner's immortal episode intro.  The writers made the right choice by phrasing it the way they did.

As for the comma rule, I'm taking about sentences like "The discoveries he made in evolutionary biology at Stanford after the war as a result of his close collaboration with the French and the Norwegians amazed the world."  With such a long sentence, some readers will lose track of the fact that the grammatical subject is "discoveries", and may interpret the last part as just "the Norwegians amazed the world."  Adding a comma after "Norwegians", though ugly, helps with clarity.  Such monstrously formulated sentences are best avoided, but occasionally cannot be.

I've also noticed that numbers are often mistyped on the internet, and unlike with most mistyped words, you can't usually tell what the correct number was supposed to be.  When you see "300,00", was it supposed to be 30,000 or 300,000?  You can't tell.  And if somebody types 25 when he meant 250, the error is undetectable.  That's why I usually write out numbers in words -- "seventeen" instead of 17, "four hundred" instead of 400, etc -- even when normal practice would be to use numerals.  That way the reader knows the number seen is the one intended.  And, again, if a writer is careless with numbers, can you really trust that he was careful with other details?

As I've said before, the writer has a duty to be clear -- the reader does not have a duty to struggle to understand what the writer failed to make clear.  Details matter.


Anonymous Burr Deming said...

That was enjoyable.

My loved one gets the jitters at "nuculer". It's frequent use by Bush the lesser (not lessee) drove her way off the 18th green.

I like the exemption for clarity. It reminds me of the retort sometimes attributed, probably mistakenly, to Winston Churchill.

On ending a sentence with a preposition:
This is the type of errant pedantry up with which I will not put.

21 April, 2023 04:28  
Blogger NickM said...

As part of my MSc in Astrophysics at Queen Mary, London I was taught Cosmology by a guy called Peter Coles. He had a text book out just out. Much to his amusement the pre-print he got back from the printers to check over had a bit of a mistake. There was a chapter on the period in the early Universe when particles like protons and neutrons (hadrons) and such first formed. This is called the "Hadron Era". The printers had rendered this as the "Hardon Era" which greatly amused Dr Coles. How's that for a cock-up?

Prof Coles (as he is now) was a thoroughly good chap but Gods help me that Cosmology course was diabolically difficult. He can be followed here...


21 April, 2023 05:04  
Anonymous Reaganite Independent said...

Kinda hard on yourself, I certainly know what you’re saying. You’re obviously a talented writer who could serve-it-up as formal as you like, but the blog’s priority should be providing information and keeping it digestible + entertaining.

I don’t agree with you on everything, and probably vice a versa. But you’re an original thinker who knows how to deliver the thought (w/ some wit), that’s what keeps people coming back.

I don’t know who reads these blogs like -for instance in MAGA world- were they all post the same talking points and just link each other in a circle. Read one you read em all. And most of their grammar is nothing to write home about either (sorry).

I always take grammatical liberties when writing in comments or on my blog site, I think people can tell the modifications come from some sort personal writing style, rather than just ignorance. Hope so anyway.

21 April, 2023 05:10  
Anonymous rick shapiro said...

There is no rule about split infinitives that is attended to by any sensible person. The so-called rule was created by a pedant several centuries ago, in order to make English look like Latin or French (in which the infinitive is a single word).

21 April, 2023 05:34  
Blogger Pliny-the-in-Between said...

EYE-rack is one of those things that grates on my nerves as well.

I remember a West Wing episode where they talked about how it was raining in OreGONE. A few episodes later someone clearly had given them an earful since the same characters started saying OreGUN.

Long ago when I lived in the Midwest, I helped some East coasters learn to properly pronounce the name of the largest city in Kentucky. For non-natives, the best way is to place 3 small stones in your mouth when attempting to say it.

21 April, 2023 08:00  
Blogger Ami said...

I find that grammatical errors don't upset me when reading blogs. I think a conversational tone and the use of extra commas or exclamation points or silly phrasing makes me feel more connected to the writer. My expectations for most blogs/bloggers are for dialog/conversation/straightforward communication.

I find that errors on news websites or in places where one expects perfection make me a little crabby, though.

Spelling mistakes don't bother me the same way that mispronunciation of common words and phrases do.

Just this week I've heard 'professional' broadcasters say jewlery, uhrosion, and relator. When someone hears those things said incorrectly over and over, it makes our spoken language sloppy. People hear it and think it must be correct.

I like reading here because you communicate clearly.

21 April, 2023 11:52  
Anonymous Tim Joye said...

damn you, Burr, I was totally going to use that reference!

21 April, 2023 15:49  
Blogger Brian said...

Interesting. Now English uses far less commas than French. I found out when I started writing papers in Grad school in the US. One gets used to it...

21 April, 2023 16:27  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Burr: Thanks. Bush was notorious for that error, I know, but it's surprising to hear a professional video presenter doing it.

Strictly speaking, "up" is part of the verb in "to put up [with]", not a preposition, so the pedantically-correct form would be "pedantry with which I will not put up", but that's really even more baffling to the hearer.

NickM: That sounds like a cock-up indeed. I wonder if anyone has made a gay porno movie called the Large Hardon Collider. I've noticed more errors in professionally-published books these days. I think since everything has been computerized, they're trying to cut corners on labor-intensive human proofreading.

Reaganite: Thanks for the kind words. Unfortunately a lot of people just want to keep seeing their own side's talking points affirmed over and over, and actively avoid reading anything that doesn't completely align with what they already believe. It's a recipe for remaining ignorant. I really don't get it -- I read a lot of stuff I don't agree with because that's the only way to understand one's opponents / enemies. Presumably most people who read my blog are at least somewhat open to reading things that challenge their opinions, since I doubt there's a single person on Earth who agrees with me on every last issue.

Rick: I've heard that, but it seems to be a very widespread rule. In German they don't split infinitives, not even in colloquial speech the way we do, and as far as I know that's true in most European languages. The colloquial tendency to split infinitives is one of the many feature of English that make it an "odd" language and out of the mainstream.

Pliny: The "eye-rack" thing really irritates me. Another one is when people pronounce "Beijing" with the "j" as a "zh" sound. It's actually an unaspirated "ch", which English doesn't really have, but the regular "ch" sound would be the nearest English equivalent.

For Louisville I would have guessed "LU-ee-vil", based on the French, but I know these things sometimes evolve locally. I don't think I'll chance choking on a rock to practice, though.

Ami: As best I can remember, no one has ever complained about my grammar. I only brought it up because I thought someone might say, "well, you're saying small errors are important but you do things like split infinitives". I agree with you, it's most important to be clear and entertaining. I'm not writing for academia any more. (Dull and confusing academic language sometimes is used deliberately for rather sinister reasons, but that's a whole other post.)

People who speak or write for mass communication really should be careful. It's seeing and hearing the correct forms of things that helps most people keep it straight in their minds, through constant reinforcement. It's important to keep language fairly consistent, or else different groups will diverge in their usage, and become unable to communicate clearly.

Tim: I'm sure other opportunities will arise.

21 April, 2023 16:31  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Brian: German also uses commas in situations where English doesn't. I suppose it helps them keep those super-long sentences straight.

21 April, 2023 16:38  
Blogger Tim said...

Thank you! I figured it was the least necessary rule ever enacted. I'm gonna go split some now just for fun!

21 April, 2023 18:45  
Blogger NickM said...

Well there is this (found in about 5s)...


(obviously NSFW).

It was inevitable.

There is also this...


Of course "Large Hadron Collider" is also linguistically ambigous. Is it a large thing that collides hadrons or something that collides large hadrons? It's also a pants name. Fermilab's old Tevatron. Now that's a cool name. These things deserve cool names. Like out of Star Trek or something...

22 April, 2023 02:44  
Blogger applequeen said...

About working for places. Years ago, there was a bar in Buffalo called Bobeck's. It was a strip club, a real dive. Mother of all dives. I never worked there, but friends of mine did. I might have worked there BUT the neon sign of the club was missing a letter ... the letter "B". I thought the club was "Obecks" for quite a long time until I found out that it was owned by a guy named Wally Bobeck. Now, wouldn't you fix that "B" if it was your own name? I wouldn't work there for that reason alone. (There were other reasons).

22 April, 2023 10:00  
Blogger Mary Kirkland said...

That's true. I catch myself sometimes with errors I've made in some of my posts. Hopefully not too many of them get through.

22 April, 2023 11:48  
Blogger Tim said...

He's bloomin' right, you know.

22 April, 2023 17:05  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Tim: You're gonna split, then, and split them.....

NickM: It has occurred to me that the LHC name in English is ambiguous. Since it's located in Switzerland and France, I suppose a look at the French name would resolve it (C des Hs Ls or C L des Hs). The Romance system for expressing such relations, while more inefficient and clunky than our Germanic practice of just ramming nouns together in sequence, can be clearer in such cases.

SAQ: That is weird. Most people are more picky about getting their own names right. Maybe the guy was a real penny-pincher and didn't want to spend on fixing the sign? That would also be a bad sign, of course -- he'd likely be constantly looking for ways to underpay employees too.

Mary K: It's not humanly possible to catch every error, but you and I seem to catch most. There are people out there who obviously don't proofread at all. (I once knew a guy who used "heroine" when he meant "heroin" four times in one paragraph. I told him I'd been a "heroine addict" ever since I saw Sigourney Weaver in Alien.) And it's reasonable that PBS or a company trying to win the confidence of customers be held to a higher standard than a blog.

22 April, 2023 17:12  
Blogger Kaleberg said...

The classic example of using minor errors to detect major errors was the band Van Halen's concert clause demanding a bowl of M&M's with the brown one's removed. Van Halen was one of the first bands to produce heavyweight traveling rock shows with towers, lights, heavy props, amplifiers, electric cables and so on. The band figured that a bowl without M&M's meant someone was paying attention to the details, so the odds were that the stage was structurally sound to bear the weight necessary, power would be available and so on. If there were brown M&M's, someone was asleep at the switch. Everything would have to be rechecked and the concert possibly canceled. The band got a reputation for being a bunch of primadonnas with this clause, but they had a good reason for it.

P.S. I know that M&M's as opposed to M&Ms is controversial, but it was acceptible in both my old high school and college grammar textbooks.

28 December, 2023 21:25  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

I remember hearing about Van Halen doing that, and it's an excellent example. If the venue was following the "M&M clause", it would be safe to assume they were following important safety specifications as well. They were smart to think of that.

While the use of apostrophe-S to form a plural is an abomination unto all that is good and righteous, I accept your explanation that it was a choice and not another one of those minor errors under discussion. :-)

28 December, 2023 21:56  

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