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 have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had the time to make it shorter.

— Blaise Pascal


<September 2015>




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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 3:17 PM Pacific

  09:31 PM

Dan Savage has a column in Seattle's The Stranger today about Josh Duggar, Ashley Madison, and outing. Some interesting points are raised about the ethics of outing Duggar. But what I'm interested in most is this sentence from Savage along with a quote from Duggar himself; note highlight:
Josh Duggar has issued an apology—in which he blames porn and uses the passive voice:

I have been the biggest hypocrite ever. While espousing faith and family values, I have secretly over the last several years been viewing pornography on the internet and this became a secret addiction and I became unfaithful to my wife. I am so ashamed of the double life that I have been living and am grieved for the hurt, pain and disgrace my sin has caused my wife and family, and most of all Jesus and all those who profess faith in Him.

Let's look.

I have been [the biggest hypocrite]
While espousing
I have ... been viewing
This became
I became unfaithful
I am so ashamed
I have been living
[I] am grieved
[shame and pain my sin] has caused [my family]
who profess

I count 10 verb phrases. I count zero examples of passive voice. What I see is present perfect tense (have been, have been living, has caused), straight past tense (became), and straight present (am).

Passive voice is so demonized as a writing tool that it can be used to condemn someone's writing even when there is no passive. A more typical example is when writing includes an expletive construction (It is, There are) and is criticized for using "the passive"; in this formulation, "the passive" is used generically to mean a sentence where the agent is not the explicit subject. But Savage's comment is an even more wrongheaded notion of passive. I guess Savage must think that am grieved or perhaps has caused or even have been living are passive. I guess. If so, that's a kind of passive that has no relationship at all to grammatical passive in English.

Dan Savage is a good writer and a smart guy. But he's not the only person who seems confused by what the passive is exactly, nor is he the only person to condemn it more-or-less reflexively. The linguists on the Language Log have written about this extensively. Jan Freeman analyzed another article (about Bernie Madoff) where the writer likewise was confused about passive. Carol Fisher Saller recently had some excellent advice about when to use the passive: "it's more effective to monitor the amount of energy and agency in your prose than to simply outlaw the passive—especially if you can't actually identify a passive when you see one."

Prejudice against the passive is strong, and a clear understanding of it is weak. Josh Duggar might have delivered himself of a strange statement about his sins. But using the passive in that statement was not among those.

PS As an interesting and entirely irrelevant aside, the URL for Savage's column includes the article identifier .../about-josh-duggers-ashley-madison-account. I bet this is an artifact of a misspelling (Duggers for Duggar) that was corrected in the copy but could not be corrected in the URL. As someone who is only passingly familiar with the Duggar phenomenon, this is very much a mistake I would have made. (Note: expletive construction and dangling modifier in the preceding sentence, and I'm not fixing them, ha!)



  10:27 PM

It's time for another collection of words I've run across while reading. Ever since I did the first of these posts, the new-to-me terms have been coming at me fast and furious. I have a whole 'nother batch waiting in the wings already.

I apologize in advance that a lot of these terms are unpleasant.

egotarian cuisine. Cuisine based on a chef "seeking to express himself in an incomparable and triumphant manner." Alan Richman, who rolled out the term in an article in GQ, explains that it's not about what patrons want, but about what chefs insist on doing. He includes a checklist that lets you know when you're probably in the presence of egotarian cuisine.

ghosting [a relationship]. To end a relationship by simply disappearing.
I ran across this in an article in The New York Times, and then immediately started seeing it in other places (see next term).

Tinderellas. A girl met via Tinder, the meet-up/hook-up app. This unflattering term was used by one of the (jerky) subjects in an article about Tinder in Vanity Fair. The article also mentioned ghosting (see previous term).

redshirting. Timing a baby's birth for maximum advantage. People are said to do this for academic advantage. An article in the New York Post describes this (alleged) practice among Upper East Side couples.

cuckservative. I feel obliged to include this icky term, since it's made a splash recently. This is a combination of cuckold and conservative. Per the article where I first saw this, the term is used by conservatives on the far Right about conservatives who are not doing enough (in the insulters' view) to protect "European-Americans." So the term involves identity politics and a tinge of nativism or racism. Something about the word makes it seem particularly degrading.

Update Aug 13, 2015: Mark Liberman discusses cuckservative on the Language Log.

translucent database. Ok, a nice technical term amongst all these judgmental words, whew. A translucent database is a database in which important data is encrypted, so that the database contains both visible data and opaque data—hence the database is "translucent." This protects data while still allowing useful database functionality like search. It's a neat trick. There's a book by Peter Wayner, who I believe coined the term.

Earlier entries:



  10:53 PM

This post is about language, but I'm going to begin in what seems like an unrelated place. Bear with me for a moment.

The World-Wide Web (as we once called it) is built on HTML, a markup language that's pretty simple in conception. Here's an example:
<p>This a paragraph with some <b>bold</b>
and <i>italic</i> text in it.</p>
The bits in brackets, like <body> or <b>, are tags that constitute instructions, like "here's a paragraph" (<p>...</p>) or "here's bold text" (<b>...</b>).

There's a limited number of these tags. Generally speaking, there's an opening tag (<b>), then some text, then a closing tag (</b>). The rules are pretty straightforward, but long documents can get messy, and mistakes can be made. Here's an example of a small error:
<p>This text is both <b><i>bold and italic</b></i>.</p>
The issue here is that the opening and closing tags for bold and italic are crossed: opening <b>, then opening <i>. So far, so good. But per the rules of HTML, the closing </i> tag should appear before the closing </b> tag.

My point here is not to teach anyone HTML. My point is that virtually every browser will accept the (technically illegal) construction in that last example. With minor issues like this, the browser can often figure out what was intended and render the text correctly. Along those lines, if the document includes an unknown HTML tag, the browser doesn't pitch a fit; it just ignores the tag and carries on.

Browsers follow a dictum that goes by the name Postel's Law or the Robustness Principle. There are various forms; a popular one is this:

Be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept.

That is, make sure that when you craft a message, it's correct. But when you get a message from others, cut them some slack.

You can probably see where I'm going with this. Suppose that we collectively decided that Postel's Law was good advice when it came to language. We would do our best to craft clear, syntactically correct, correctly spelled messages every time. But when we read someone else's vague or ill-formed or badly spelled message (email, Facebook post, whatever) we'd be "liberal in what we accept" and do our best to get the intended meaning.[1]

It's been said that the forgiving nature of browsers with regard to sloppy HTML was an important factor in the success of the web. Browsers that were liberal in what they accepted made it easy for ordinary humans to create web pages, even if they had minor mistakes. They made the web a people-friendly place.

To extend this analogy a bit further, I can even give you some counterexamples. While browsers could be pretty forgiving of bad HTML, any document that's intended to be consumed by a machine rather than a human is a lot less flexible. In those cases, any syntax error in the markup could bring the operation to a halt. So there are markup languages that have strict syntax rules—XHTML, SGML, DocBook, and others. They're great if you need to feed a document into a process for indexing, searching, converting to an arbitrary format, and many other computer-y purposes. They're hard for humans to write (without tools): they're just a lot less friendly. But in these cases, the loss of syntactic looseness is for a good reason, and people who work with these markup languages understand the need for "well-formed" syntax, as it's called. I bet I can leave to you how this relates to the issue of being "liberal in what you accept" when it comes to everyday language.

Over the years, I've cleaved more and more to Postel's Law when it comes to other people's language. But I could be better. Indeed, I'd like to think that we all could be.

[1] In fact, we do follow Postel's Law in spoken language, where we manage to extract sensible messages from some very odd utterances. Mark Liberman recently wrote about this in a post on the Language Log, where he defended a somewhat rambling cite from Donald Trump against charges that it had no structure.


[2] |

  09:54 PM

From my daughter, another example of poor design patched by documentation.

Who imagined that a) having an unlabeled numeric scale was a good idea, and b) you move the knob to the right for "colder"?

Let's at least fix the first problem, shall we? Like this:

We can't use documentation to fix the problem of having to dial "more cold." But at least we don't to print a frickin' manual right on the freezer.

Update 4 Aug 2015 In response to Hal's comment, here's an improved design that even has redundancy for those who aren't sensitive to color differences.

[categories]   ,

[4] |

  11:59 PM

Here's another list of words that I recently discovered. (Not necessarily new, except to me.) Apparently this is becoming a regular thing.

Matthew effect. This is also known as status bias—the idea that people get advantages due to their status. The term comes from the verse in Matthew 25:29, which tells us that "For whoever has will be given more […]". I ran across the term in a fascinating post on the Umpire Bible web site, where the author was discussing how in baseball, the reputation of a pitcher or batter can affect how umpires judge balls and strikes.

kuleana. A Hawaiian word meaning a right or responsibility. One of my coworkers grew up in Hawaii and dropped this word during a meeting, after which he had to send us a link to a definition. Here's a more in-depth explanation.

shadow work. This term was used by Craig Lambert to mean work (or "work") that might once have been done by a business but is now done by customers or patrons. As he defines the term, it's …

[…] all the unpaid jobs we do on behalf of businesses and organizations: We are pumping our own gas, scanning our own groceries, booking our travel and busing our tables at Starbucks.

testocracy. As I encountered this term, it was used to refer to the system of granting access to higher-educational benefits on the basis of test scores (like the SAT). I found it in a book review in the New York Times, but it was invented at least far back as 1983, and possibly re-invented multiple times since then. (As more than one person has pointed out, it kind of sounds like an –ocracy of testosterone.)

ragescroll. As Paul McFedries defines it, "To scroll angrily, particularly to the bottom of a page or message for further actions (such as unsubscribing or contacting customer service)." This term seems to have been popularized by a tweet from Peter Kretzman, which is where I first saw it.

spellism. This is a term invented by the editor Katharine O'Moore-Klopf to mean "looking down on people who have difficulty spelling correctly." Compare sexism, agism.

PS I was going to title this post "More recent words," as in more words I've seen recently, but there didn't seem to be a way to punctuate the phrase definitively to avoid an interpretation of "words that are more recent." "More, recent words" doesn't work, I think.



  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 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 does confuse people, I doubt that the highway department hears 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.

Update 7 Jul 15: Another FB Friend sent the following excellent example of a sign with the comment "Maybe that guy in Texas thought he didn't need to worry about alligators that couldn't swim?"

[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.


[1] |

  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.



  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."



  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.


[2] |

  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.