About

I'm Mike Pope. I live in the Seattle area. I've been a technical writer and editor for over 30 years. I'm interested in software, language, music, movies, books, motorcycles, travel, and ... well, lots of stuff.

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I am so convinced of the advantages of looking at mankind instead of reading about them, and of the bitter effects of staying at home with all the narrow prejudices of an Islander, that I think there should be a law amongst us to set our young men abroad for a term among the few allies our wars have left us.

— Lord Byron



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Blog Statistics

Dates
First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 7/6/2015

Totals
Posts - 2329
Comments - 2511
Hits - 1,750,091

Averages
Entries/day - 0.53
Comments/entry - 1.08
Hits/day - 399

Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 11:39 PM Pacific


  10:23 PM

A Friend on Facebook sent me a link to an article about a woman in Ohio who got out of a parking ticket due to a comma error on a sign. According to the article, the woman had parked her pickup truck in a zone where parking was prohibited for more than 24 hours for:

… any motor vehicle camper, trailer, farm implemented and/or non-motorized vehicle

The defendant argued that her vehicle did not constitute a "motor vehicle camper," and the judge ruled in her favor. Clearly the sign maker had intended "any motor vehicle, camper, trailer, …", but that's not what it said. Letter of the law and all that.[1]

People with an editorial disposition constantly find instances of signage that could have used a quick edit. Menus are particularly target-rich environments. Still, you would think that the text that goes onto official government signs would get a bit more scrutiny than the menu at the local dinery.

Some years ago, when the state of Washington rolled out its version of the campaign to get people buckled up, the state emblazoned highways with a sign that read like this:

Click-It or Ticket

A lot of money went into the campaign, but apparently not enough of the budget went to editing. Sure, people like to use hyphens for phrasal verbs (to sign-in, to log-on, to back-up, etc.—which, to be clear, are still not considered standard). But no one condones a construction in which the verb (click) and direct object (it) are linked with a hyphen.

Apparently I was not the only one to notice. Perhaps the state DOT hired an editor. These days the signs that I can find have dropped the hyphen, and I note while searching the web that other states have signs that are (not) hyphenated correctly.

There's another highway sign that has caught my attention, and that makes me wonder whether anyone has been led astray by it. Not far from where I live there's a shopping area called The Landing. As you drive down I-405 near Seattle, you see a sign that says that alerts you to the proximity of the shopping area. Alas, I don't have a photo, but you'll have to believe me that the sign reads like this:

The Landing Exit 5

Now, I happen to know, since I live here, that the sign is intended to tell you that if you want to go to The Landing, you should get off the highway at Exit 5. However, it seems to me that a person who is not familiar with the area might read this to mean that the exit for The Landing is 5 miles away. And boy, would that person be surprised, since this sign is posted just after Exit 6. Every time I see the sign, I think that it would be so easy to fix—all you'd need to do is add a hyphen:

The Landing - Exit 5

Even if the sign for The Landing were to confuse people, I doubt that the highway department would hear about it, and if they did, they probably wouldn't bother to change the sign. But the DOT did eventually end up paying to replace all the signs that said "Click-It," and a municipality in Ohio not only has to replace a badly edited sign, but they had to eat the court costs to have a citizen teach them this lesson. Seems like an editorial pass wouldn't have been a bad investment.


[1] If you look at it from one perspective, this is a kind of weird reversal of the Oxford/serial comma rule—do you put the comma after the first item in a series? Haha.

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  08:27 AM

Not long ago, someone on Facebook posted that they had "babysatted" a friend's new baby. This isn't standard English, but it's not hard to find instances:

I'm the oldest of 9 and have babysatted for years. [source]

I not only remember a few things I did when I was babysatted. [source]

I have babysatted ever since i was 13 years old [source]

In effect, babysatted is a double past. In standard English, the past tense of to babysit is babysat, since the past tense of sit is sat. There's a relatively small (tho common) set of verbs that form the past tense "irregularly" like this—that is, by changing the stem vowel. Other examples are sing/sang/sung, speak/spoke/spoken, and fly/flew/flown.[1] (Note -n on the end of two of the participles; it will come up again in a moment.)

The far more common way to form the past, and the way we do so for new verbs, is to whack -ed (sometimes -t) onto the end of the stem, as in talk/talked. The term babysatted incorporates both ways to create a past tense, thus it's a double past.

Another example is grounded as the past tense of to grind, where ground would be the standard past tense. A web search for "fine grounded" turns up references to "fine grounded coffee" and "fine grounded rice."[2]

These examples are evidence of how strong the tendency is to add regular (i.e., -ed) past endings onto verbs. You can start with a verb (sat) that most people are unlikely to get wrong in its basic state; probably no one except toddlers says sitted or satted. But when you add bits and bobs to the verb—for example, when sit becomes babysit—the irregularity of this base verb starts becoming wobbly, and people start wanting to add the overwhelmingly more common -ed marker for past.

Even speakers who enjoy hewing to standard English might find themselves pausing when they need to form the past of some less-common verbs. Me, I stumble when I need to form the past of to troubleshoot, and I'm not alone:


Another example of a verb that might slow people down is to cheerlead. You might have to think through whether it should be cheerled based on lead/led, or whether it should be cheerleaded. Lots of people have used the latter.

An even trickier one is to greenlight in the sense of "to approve." If you approved a project yesterday, do you say "I greenlighted it" or "I greenlit it"? You can make a case for either (both lit and lighted are listed as past forms for to light), but my point here is that unless it's a term you use every day, you might have to stop and give that one a think.

So: forming the past tense of neologisms based on irregular verbs is an interesting business.

I'll leave you with another wacky past form, and one of my personal favorites: boughten. This is also a double past, like babysatted, but kind of in reverse. It takes a verb that already has a regular past-tense ending (-t)[3] and adds the -en ending that you sometimes find on the participle of irregular verbs, like the aforementioned spoken and flown. I'm not sure, but I think this is again an instance where in its naked state (buy/bought) people are unlikely to use the non-standard form, but once you decorate it up with prefixes and such, it gets weird. The canonical example, at least as far as I'm concerned, is store-boughten.

I'd sure love to see more examples if you have them!

[1] This phenomenon is known in philological circles as ablaut.

[2] You have to skip over examples of "grounded coffee" where someone wants to play not just on grind but on the idea of "being grounded."

[3] Although buy/bought changes vowel in the past, that change in the stem is technically (well, historically) not the same phenomenon as sit/sat or grind/ground.

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  10:58 PM

I forget how I found this, but a couple of days ago I ended up on a blog dedicated to writing fiction. Name? The Fictorians. That's a nice play on Victorian, and it's a clever use of the combining form -(t)arian (or a version of that), which Merriam-Webster defines as "believer" or "advocate" (vegetarian) or "producer" (disciplinarian).

And earlier this week I was at a conference for technical writers, where I discovered that we seem now to be calling ourselves by a new name: documentarians. Here's a slide that was presented at the conference.


I asked around about this term, because it was new to me. People noted that it was a known term for someone who creates documentary films. It seems that this new sense— documentation + -(t)arian in its "producer" sense—arose about a year ago, perhaps at last year's edition of the very conference that I was attending. Or so I interpret a thread on a tech-writing list.

One of the people I asked was Ben Zimmer, word guru. He wondered whether documentarian had been inspired by the cluster of words that was spun off from vegatarian: pescetarian (fish), fruitarian, nutatarian, flexitarian, etc. A quick peek into the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) for *tarian also got me pastatarian, pollotarian (chicken), and pizzatarian.

These would fall under the "believer/advocate" use of the –arian particle, I suppose. Even so, new terms like this might be helping the –(t)arian particle become a more widely used cranberry morpheme or libfix (as Arnold Zwicky might call it), and helping along new and imaginative uses for it.

Update (May 24, 2015): Nancy Friedman noted to me today that the A.Word.A.Day site listed futilitarian as its word for May 7—"Devoted to futile pursuits" or "Holding the belief that human striving is useless."

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  03:34 PM

Now and again I'll get a request from an engineer that says, essentially, "We need to update the documentation, because there's this additional way to do the task." For example, I got a request not long ago that we were missing documentation for some alternative ways to specify parameters for a command. The command goes like this:

DoSomething.exe --filename <somefilename>

The engineer wanted us to add that you could also do this:

DoSomething.exe -f <somefilename>

In other words, the -f option was a shortcut/alternative for the --filename option.

Similarly, I was recently asked to add a note that told users that under some specific circumstances, they could exclude the filename extension (.pdf or .txt or whatever) from a filename parameter. But leaving off the extension was optional.

When faced with a request like this, the writer might want to take a step back and ask whether the update is really that helpful from the user's perspective: does the reader benefit from this additional information, or does it just add noise? Is this essential information, or is just a nice-to-know?

It's not that these alternative approaches are not useful to users. But does every user have to know every option for every command? Is the benefit worth the extra effort to add them to the docs, and the users' extra effort to sort through the options? What if the alternatives are really just artifacts of the previous version of a command—do we still need to document them?[1]

People who document procedures that involve UI might be familiar with a similar issue. When you're telling the user how to do something, does each step of your procedure describe the menu command, and the right-click context menu, and the keyboard shortcut? This can quickly become cumbersome.

Here's an example of a step from the MadCap Flare documentation that provides an exhaustive inventory of every way to accomplish the step[2]:


Should every procedure step get this treatment? I argue not only that it isn't helpful, but it actually noises up the procedure substantially[3].

The goal of documentation—particularly reference docs and procedures—is to get the user to the solution as efficiently as possible. If you do get requests to include options for commands or gestures, consider pushing back and asking just how necessary these additional options really are.


[1] To alleviate the suspense, I'll note that after consultation with the relevant parties, I said no to the first request and yes to the second.

[2] No keyboard shortcut, because Flare. Grrr.

[3] In my group at Microsoft, we settled on documenting the approach that was the most accessible, in the sense of design for accessibility. That generally meant documenting menus.

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  11:12 PM

I'm not one of those people who will carefully note new and unfamiliar terms, look them up, and diligently add them to my vocabulary. (Well, sometimes I am, but only when I make a special effort.) But now and then I'll encounter a word or phrase that piques my curiosity—it seems clever or apt, it describes something new to me, or perhaps it just sounds like a fun term.

Here's a list of such terms, with definitions and a little context. Most of these, I now realize, are linguistics-y.

liquid dissimilation. I wrote about this recently; it's a term from linguistics (phonology) for the phenomenon whereby people drop the R or L sound from a word.

lalochezia. This is a medical term, defined as "emotional relief gained by using indecent or vulgar language." I'm not able to find much context here, but I imagine that you if you hit your thumb with a hammer, lalochezia often results. I actually heard this from Mike Vuolo (I think it was) on one of the excellent Lexicon Valley podcasts.

negative polarity item (NPI). Another linguistics term, referring to terms or expressions that (per Gretchen McCullough) "tend to be found in the scope of negation and serve to emphasize that negation." Examples include give a hoot and lift a finger, which are both actions that are really only expressed in the negative, i.e., using don't. The NPI-ness of an expression tends to become evident when it's contrasted with a hypothetical positive version: *I give many hoots! This all was brought to my attention by a slew of articles and posts (example, example, example—none are for the easily offended) that address the playful use of NPIs in positive constructions: Look at all the damns [or other--M.] I give! etc.

criterion of embarrassment. A means of gauging veracity: a story seems true because it makes the storyteller look bad, since why would the teller recount an embarrassing story if it weren't true? Apparently this has theological implications; per Wikipedia, "Some Biblical scholars have used this criterion in assessing whether the New Testament's accounts of Jesus' actions and words are historically probable."

critique drift. This term was invented by Fredrik deBoer to describe "the phenomenon in which a particular critical political lens that correctly identifies a problem gets generalized and used less and less specifically over time." His examples include mansplaining, tone policing, and gaslighting, which he claims have specific meanings that however can be "employed in a sloppy, unhelpful, or dishonest way" to shut down debate. The idea is interesting, if controversial.[1]

malaphors. Also known as the somewhat less colorful idiom blend, this describes an idiom mashup—keep your finger on the ball, that's a breath of relief, it's not rocket surgery. I got this term from Arnold Zwicky, but it goes back to the 1970s, apparently, and was used by Douglas Hofstadter.

That's the current crop. If you like these, I published a list of amusing (to me) corporate phrases (dogs not barking, keep the lights on) not long ago on the Vocabulary.com site.

And now on to a new list ...

[1] If you disagree with the idea behind the term, you'd need to take that up with deBoer, not me.

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  10:31 AM

A linguistic nugget for those celebrating Easter today. In the KJV, Matthew 28:6 says: "He is not here: for he is risen." If you think about the latter part ("he is risen"), you might think, correctly, that today we would say "He has risen." So why "is risen"?


In modern English, the auxiliary for the perfect is havehe has gone, we have eaten, they had seen, etc. However, up through Early Modern English (and thus into the age of Shakespeare and King James), English still had two auxiliaries for the perfect: have and be. This was another trace of the roots of English as a Germanic language.

The auxiliary be was used for verbs that represent movement or a change in state, like to go, to come, to be, and to become. Here's a list of examples I'm swiping from Wikipedia:
  • Madam, the Lady Valeria is come to visit you. (The Tragedy of Coriolanus, Shakespeare)

  • Vext the dim sea: I am become a name... (Ulysses, Tennyson)

  • I am become Shiva, destroyer of worlds. (Baghavad Gita)

  • Pillars are fallen at thy feet... (Marius amid the Ruins of Carthage, Lydia Maria Child)

  • I am come in sorrow. (Lord Jim, Conrad)
These days, using be as an auxiliary (assuming you do it correctly, like Tennyson and Conrad did) can instantly add a touch of the archaic to what you're saying, for literary effect.

Your assignment for the week is to practice this and spring it on unsuspecting friends during conversation. Let me know how that goes.

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  10:18 AM

I am all for writing that conveys factual information and that’s written in an informal style. But some rigor is still required, even then, to keep thoughts and facts on track.

Here’s an example, one complete paragraph, from the book Countdown by Alan Weisman, which (as here) sometimes reads like a novel.
It exasperates him to think of agriculture’s driving incentive being not to feed, but to profit. Reynolds rises and stalks to the window. Both these men have made their careers here, working alongside Dr. Borlaug, authoring papers with him. A Nobel Peace laureate, and yet money to continue his work on the veritable staff of life that launched human civilization, and on which it still depends, is so damned scarce.
So, two moments of potential confusion. First, who does “A Nobel Peace laureate” refer to here? Choices seem to include:
  • Reynolds
  • Dr. Borlaug
  • Someone who does not otherwise appear in this paragraph.
Second, what exactly is the relationship between the Nobel Prize and, well, anything in the rest of the sentence that the term appears in?

As I say, informal style is ok with me for a book like this. But if a sentence gets to the point where the reader has to stop and think, even informal writing needs some tightening up.

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  08:53 AM

Another in the annals of singular they—I found this poster on Netflix recently:


I won't blather on about epicene pronouns my own self (I already did that), but for reference, I'll include some links to discussions about it, courtesy of an FB post by Katharine O'Moore-Klopf:

(Grammar)
(Sociology)

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  07:09 PM

My wife came home the other day and said, “I have a language thing for you.” (This is always an excellent way to get my attention.) Her story: “I noticed that a person I work with says fustrasting for frustrating.” In other words, they leave off that first R in fru-.

That sounded interesting. I tried some web searches, but this proved, um, somewhat frustrating, because search engines overwhelmingly want to auto-correct your fat-fingered entry. (Did you mean...?) But I managed to get some hits, including Urban Dictionary, the Grammarphobia blog, the amusingly named Ottawa Valley to English Dictionary, and some cites on the Wordnik site. I didn’t get a lot of insight, but these hits did tell me that the pronunciation of my wife’s colleague was not an idiosyncrasy and that a fair number of people say (and apparently even write) this.

When you encounter a pronunciation that’s “wrong” but is nonetheless often attested, it’s a good bet that there’s a linguistic basis for the pronunciation. For example, the (in)famous variation ask-aks/ax reflects dialectal variations in English that go back 1200 years. As another example, people often “add letters” when they pronounce words, like mason-a-ry and ath-e-lete. This turns out to be a well-understood phenomenon that goes by the name epenthesis. (Some words that are perfectly standard today, like thunder, reflect historical epenthesis.)

I had a hunch that the fustrating pronunciation had some phonological basis, so I sent a query to a couple of actual linguists. One of them directed me to an entry on the Phonoblog, where I learned that R-less fustrating is an example of the delightfully named liquid dissimilation. (“Liquid” here is used here to refer to the “liquid” consonants: in English, R and L.) The exact mechanism isn’t nailed down, but Nancy Hall, the blog post author, mentions another linguist’s observation that the dropped R is in words that have another R in them next to a schwa sound, and a theory is that, to put it generally, the existence of one of the R’s is causing speakers to drop the other.

What made this vivid for me, and not just a weird thing that people with some other dialect do, was to see the long list of words in which this can occur. It’s very easy for me to hear, including possibly from myself, the dropped Rs in words like these:
  • ape[r]ture
  • be[r]serk
  • Feb[r]uary
  • gove[r]nor
  • hi[er]archy
  • lib[r]ary
  • lit[er]ature
  • prost[r]ate (not to be confused with prostate [cancer])
  • vete[ri]narian
  • … and many more. (See the blog entry for her list.)
As Hall points out, this can also occur with L—her specific example is Pache[l]bel’s Canon; there’s even a lovely example of this on Amazon.

This is just another example of one of the wonderful things about learning linguistics—you go from “Why do people say this wrong?” to just “Why do people say this?” And the latter is actually a much more interesting question.

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  11:18 AM

Apropos of the most recent post, I was using my phone to access the Dictionary.com site and found the following. I don't see this on the web-based site.


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