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June 22, 2013

More than 3 is many

Some book I read as a kid, possibly Mathematics for the Million by Lancelot Hogben, said that prehistorical humans could count up to three, and after that it was just “many.” I don’t know if there is any actual evidence for this, and it’s always struck me as fishy since prehistorical people had more than three of many things, including children. And, sure, there are ways to track stuff without counting — old timey shepherds would take a pebble for each sheep when they left in the morning so they could tell if they were coming back with the same number — but why 3 and not 4 or 11?

But our modern rhetoric retains a trace of this “more than three is many” idea.

Imagine you are writing an essay about what’s the last thing you’d like to see before you go blind, or what musician affects you more than any other. If you choose to structure your essay by beginning with choices you’ve contemplated but rejected, you have to list three. If you only list two, it will seem like you have singled them out as the only two competitors; two signals completeness. If you list three, you’re indicating that there are in fact many more you could discuss. For example: “Jazz is too free-form. Hip-hop is too talk-y. Folk is too kumbiyah. But show tunes…well, show tunes have it all going on.”

Notice, by the way, that the third in the list is an opportunity for a joke, because the basic structure of a joke is two + punchline. It’s “A Brit, a German, and a Jew walk into a bar,” not “A Brit, a German, a French guy, a Belgian, a Swede, a Pole, a Laplander, a guy with a parrot, and a Jew walk into a bar.” I believe this is because you need two to claim that it’s a pattern, but since the pattern itself is not amusing, adding more examples only annoyingly delays the disruption of the pattern by the third. So,joke = two + punchline.

Hey, I don’t make the rules.


January 7, 2013

Because noun

I’ve been enjoying the rise of a grammatical meme, which the less charitable might call an ungrammatical meme. It’s that thing where you upset expectations by following “because” not with a phrase or clause but simply with a noun. For example, one might say “We invaded Iraq because freedom” or “I ate all of my dessert because chocolate.”

In its initial formulations — which is to say, the first times I saw it — it had a mocking edge, indicating that the explanation for an event was inadequate; people didn’t think past a blind, simplistic support for freedom. Now it’s becoming more of a tribal marking than a statement about the adequacy of the explanation.

I think there’s a good chance it will stick, because efficiency.


May 29, 2008

The Wikipedia style

Mark Bauerlein has a terrific piece in The Chronicle of Higher Ed that compares the flat style of Wikipedia to that of other encyclopedias. It suffers from taking a single example — the entry on Moby-Dick — but it rings true. At least for some of Wikipedia.

Mark is undoubtedly right that Wikipedia’s stylistic flatness is due in part to the fact that professional writers often write better than amateurs and crowds do. But, it also seems likely to result from Wikipedia’s commitment to neutrality. Perhaps in the process of constructing this article together, the color was driven out as non-neutral.

Of course, we can find out by checking the article’s history. But, there is a complicating factor: The section of the Wikipedia entry Mark cites is the first paragraph of the article. It attempts to characterize the novel as a whole, whereas the passages from the other encyclopedias seem to be introducing Ahab in particular. So, for an apples-to-apples comparison, here is the Ahab section in the current Wikipedia entry:

Ahab is the tyrannical captain of the Pequod who is driven by a monomaniacal desire to kill Moby-Dick, the whale that maimed him on his last whaling voyage. A Quaker, he seeks revenge in defiance of his religion’s well-known pacifism. Ahab’s name comes directly from the Bible (see 1 Kings 18-22).

Little information is provided about Ahab’s life prior to meeting Moby-Dick, although it is known that he was orphaned at a young age. When discussing the purpose of his quest with Starbuck it is revealed that he first began whaling at eighteen and has continued in the trade for forty years, having spent less than three on land. He also mentions his “girl-wife” whom he married late in life, and their young son, but does not give their names.

In Ishmael’s first encounter with Ahab’s name, he responds “When that wicked king was slain, the dogs, did they not lick his blood?” (Moby-Dick, Chapter 16).[10]

Ahab ultimately dooms the crew of the Pequod (excluding Ishmael) to death by his obsession with Moby-Dick. During the final chase, Ahab hurls his final harpoon while yelling his now-famous revenge line:

. . . to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.

The harpoon becomes lodged into Moby-Dick’s flesh and Ahab, caught in his own harpoon’s rope and unable to free himself, is dragged into the cold oblivion of the sea with the injured whale. The whale eventually destroys the longboats and crew, and sinks the Pequod.

Ahab has the qualities of a tragic hero — a great heart and a fatal flaw — and his deeply philosophical ruminations are expressed in language that is not only deliberately lofty and Shakespearian, but also so heavily iambic as often to read like the Bard’s own pentameters.

It’s not clear to me that this writing is substantially worse than the positive examples Mark quotes. It could stand some line editing, but it’s not particularly bland.

Nevertheless, Mark may well be right that overall, Wikipedia is written more flatly than commercial encyclopedias. That would not be a surprising effect of the quest for neutrality. For example, the Moby-Dick article started in September, 2001, with just a few lines. On July 14, 2004, the plot and symbolism sections were still entirely blank. By October 5, 2007, the following passage is in the symbolism section:

The Pequod’s quest to hunt down Moby-Dick itself is also widely viewed as allegorical. To Ahab, killing the whale becomes the ultimate goal in his life, and this observation can also be expanded allegorically so that the whale represents everyone’s goals. Furthermore, his vengeance against the whale is analogous to man’s struggle against fate. The only escape from Ahab’s vision is seen through the Pequod’s occasional encounters with other ships, called gams. Readers could consider what exactly Ahab will do if he, in fact, succeeds in his quest: having accomplished his ultimate goal, what else is there left for him to do? Similarly, Melville may be implying that people in general need something to reach for in life, or that such a goal can destroy one if allowed to overtake all other concerns. Some such things are hinted at early on in the book, when the main character, Ishmael, is sharing a cold bed with his newfound friend, Queequeg:

This writing is indeed pedestrian. For example, the hedge phrases, “widely viewed as” and “can also be expanded” vitiate it. To which I have three replies:

1. These flatfooted reminders that interpretations are not universally shared are in fact salubrious for readers and other students. 2. The article was revised hundreds of times after this. 3. Yes, Wikipedia’s style often isn’t as muscular or punchy as that of commercial encyclopedias aimed at family usage. Sometimes — perhaps even often, although with 2 million articles, it’s hard to be certain — its style could be improved. And should be. But there is also a useful and scholarly humility in a reference work that is written plainly. [Tags: ]


February 1, 2008

Silver-tongued or eloquent?

Bob Katz, the author of Elaine’s Circle and not so incidentally the guy who manages me as a public speaker, has an op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor asking us to pay closer attention to how politicians speak. The piece well expresses our American ambivalence about political rhetoric. (It reminds me of Bertrand Russell’s old game: “I’m articulate. You’ve got the gift of gab. He’s silver-tongued.”)

And this is exactly not what Bob has in mind, but: Last night, Hillary impressed me by changing from “the differences among us” to “the differences between us” when she remembered that now there were only two candidates on the stage. On the other hand, she said something about “between him and I,” a far less obscure error. (Yes, this is the most trivial possible comment about the debate that does not refer to the candidates’ wardrobes.)

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