Tuesday, 24 March 2020

The Grapes of Wrath

Number 10 on list of top 100 novels

John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath is number 10 on the Modern Library's list of the 100 Top Novels of the 20th Century.  After a couple of years trying to convince my students of the virtues of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (#6 on the list), I gave up and substituted the more accessible, single-third-person narrative, not-stream-of-consciousness Steinbeck novel.  In the process of teaching it, my admiration for the novel grew.  But what does "Grapes of Wrath" mean?

The Title was suggested by Carol Steinbeck

It is widely reported that the title was suggested by Faulkner's first wife, Carol Henning Steinbeck. The expression “Grapes of Wrath” comes from the Bible: Revelation 14:19–20 (New Testament) and Isaiah 63 (Old Testament). The expression was re-used in the lyrics of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” written during the American Civil War.

"Wrath" means anger 

In the simplest of terms, "grapes of wrath" suggest “anger,” a violent, bloody, vengeful yet just anger.  The expression is ambiguous because it is an oxymoron, combining “grapes” which are a sweet and highly desirable fruit and “wrath,” meaning extreme anger, which we metaphorically think of as “bitter.”

Decoding the meaning of an oxymoron

Oxymorons tend to be ambiguous, and we have to look at the context of their use to understand them. We understand what Juliet means when she tells Romeo that “Parting is such sweet sorrow,” and what Othello means when he talks about Desdemona’s “cruel tears.” Out of context it is pretty hard to say exactly what “sweet sorrow” and “cruel tears” mean.

The Angel of Death at the Apocalypse

The Bible describes the Angel of Death with his sickle cutting down the grapevines at the end of the world (the Apocalypse). The reference to “grapes of wrath” is a metaphor (or conceit, meaning extended metaphor) for what happens next. All the people that God is angry with will be put in a winepress and their blood forced out of them just as wine is pressed from grapes.

The Joad family

It makes sense that when we think of the expression, we think about how the migrants from Oklahoma and, in particular, the Joad family were treated by many of the people they encounter. They were having the life blood squeezed out of them. But “grapes of wrath” also implies the need for punishment and even vengeance in order to serve justice. This is the way the expression seems to be used in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Supply-side economics

In the novel, the expression “grapes of wrath” is used only once, in chapter 25. Here is the context:

There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificate—died of malnutrition—because the food must rot, must be forced to rot.

The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quick-lime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.” (Chapter 25)

What is being described is the destruction of food (part of what is known as supply management economics) in order to maintain higher prices, even though some people were starving. The people are getting very angry and frustrated; they are being filled with wrath, but the novel remains ambiguous about what happens next. Does “grapes of wrath” mean there is about to be a revolution with the people rising against their oppressors? Or does “grapes of wrath” mean that these people are simply going to be destroyed, the life blood being squeezed out of them?

The Irony of "grapes"

At this the midway through the novel, we know that “grapes” are used to create a bitter irony. In the earlier chapters of the novel the characters repeatedly talk about the wonderful, delicious grapes they are going to be able to eat when they reach California. The only encounter with grapes they have is when the kids eat green grapes and develop “skitters” (diarrhea ), and then we are given the above reference to “grapes of wrath.”

Roman Charity

It is important to recognize that the final scene of the novel is directing us away from Apocalyptic images, to something other than “grapes of wrath,” to human kindness and charity. There was an attempt to censure the final paragraph of the novel which was inspired by famous images of “Roman Charity.”

Saturday, 21 March 2020

How the World Ends

"This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but with a whimper."
                                            T. S. Eliot  "The Hollow Men"

Asteroids and comets

The world will end.  The only questions are how and when.  On average, the earth is struck by an asteroid big enough to reshape if not devastate the planet every 100 million years.  The last major impact was 66 million years ago.  You might want to keep an eye on the sky for the next 34 million years or so.  Sudbury was hit nearly 2 billion years ago, so maybe we in Ontario, Canada, will be spared next time.

The Grapes of Wrath

Even if you are one of those people who believe that the speck of space dust we all live on, and everything else, was created by a fair-skinned old man with a long beard who made us "in his image and likeness" (though vice versa seems more likely to me), you must still accept that his Angel of Death will eventually cut us down with his sickle and cast us into "the winepress of God's wrath." The Biblical Apocalypse does promise heaven for some, the endless euphoria of "being with God," which, I have to admit, sounds like a drug-induced coma to me.  Descriptions of hell are a lot more motivating.

Galaxies in collision

The sun, which we depend upon for everything, will burn out someday.  However, before that happens  it will get hotter, making this planet uninhabitable in about a billion years.  However #2, before that happens we are scheduled for another ice age in 50 thousand years--which might be delayed by another 50 thousand years by the build-up of green-house gases in our atmosphere. Whether the prognosis is burning or freezing, we need to be looking for a new place to live.  So far, astrophysicists have their eyes on one of the moons of Jupiter.  Unfortunately, long term, our galaxy, the Milky Way, is predicted to collide with the Andromeda Galaxy in about 4 billion years.  Eventually, we'll have to look for a gated community in a more distant galaxy.

Based on data from the Hubble telescope this image of Andromeda colliding with the Milky Way was produced by NASA.  So much for Eliot's claim of the world ending "not with a bang."

The Covid-19 paradox

Every year, in round numbers, 60 million people die on planet Earth.  As the mortality rate increases, with an aging population, and the birth rate declines, a zero global growth rate is being predicted.  Good news for the planet, but bad news for the stock market. Despite or rather because of the Corona-virus and the steps being taken to mitigate its impact, the morality rate for the year 2020 is likely to be lower than average.  With business, sport and entertainment venues closed, social distancing and heightened awareness of basic hygiene like hand washing, cases of Covid-19 will be reduced, and so will many of the other top causes of global mortality:  the flu, automobile accidents and tuberculosis.  Unfortunately, precautions against Corona-virus seem unlikely to affect the planet's 9th-leading cause of death, lack of clean drinking water, but we can anticipate a reduction in the number of airplane crashes and mass murders.

Political will

The response to the Covid-19 pandemic has belied the typical claims that we cannot solve global problems like man-made climate change, pollution, or poverty, or tuberculosis and malnutrition which are products of poverty.  The Covid-19 response has demonstrated what is possible when there is political will--and by "political will" I don't mean just the "will of politicians" but the will of the media, institutions, businesses, groups and all the way down the line to individual citizens' willingness to cooperate.  The response has demonstrated that we, as a species, are collectively better at avoiding self-annihilation than had previously been predicted.

There is no word for killing a human species

I was struck to learn from Harari's Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind that millennia ago there were numerous species of humans, and a hint that we may have done away with our siblings--including the Neanderthals who had bigger brains than we did.  Quick and brutal beats brainy and reflective, apparently. There are many words in the English language to categorize types of murder--genocide (a race or nation), omnicide (everyone) and xenocide (others)--but no word for killing a single human species.  Of all the ways the world might end, doing it to ourselves is obviously the worst--and has always seemed the most likely.

Nuclear war

When I was ten, students at my elementary school were given instructions to crouch under their desks in the event of a nuclear attack.  A punch line to the instructions began to circulate that once in position to "kiss your ass goodbye."  In the small town where I grew up we even had a a super-loud siren to warn of an incoming nuclear-missile attack.  At the height of the Cold War, some genius decided it would be a good idea to test it.  I remember I was alone at the tennis courts where I was paid a healthy salary of 10 dollars a week to do the basic maintenance on three clay courts.  For about six and a half minutes, I believed the end of the world was imminent. I felt strangely calm.  I thought I should run home to be with my family.  Upon reflection I knew there was nobody home and our little A-frame house would provide no protection against a nuclear blast.  I just stood there until the siren stopped and the end of the world did not come.


Since that day, I have thought and assumed we would get better at avoiding self-destruction.  On the contrary, we humans seem endlessly creative in coming up with ways and reasons to kill each other and ourselves.  Religions, cultures, states, nations, identities, ideologies, wealth, power, and plain old short-term self-interest provide endless justifications for mutual destruction.

Is Corona-virus the common enemy we've needed?

It has long been hypothesized that what the human race needed was a common enemy to unify us all.  Maybe this Corona-virus will do the trick and we will finally turn the corner away from planetary suicide.  To paraphrase the poet, Fernando Pessoa, we are on the cruise ship Earth without knowing its port of departure or its destination.  Our only certain obligation is to take care of one another.

Monday, 2 March 2020

Why Is the Coronavirus Getting So Much Attention?

Coronavirus disease versus the flu

According to the Johns Hopkins Medicine web site, as of February 6, 2020, the Coronavirus disease has caused 2, 810 deaths worldwide.  In comparison, the flu kills between 291,000 and 646,00 people every year.  Why has the Coronavirus gotten so much attention?  According to Dr. Bonnie Henry, a BC Health Inspector, the objective is to contain the virus.  In theory, once it has nowhere to spread, it will be restricted to the animal population from which it first emerged.

"The Truth about PHEICs" (Public Health Emergency of International Concern)

Containment is a nice idea, but it has become obvious that containment and quarantine haven't been working and generally don't work.  In an opinion piece on the Ebola crisis, entitled "The Truth about PHEICs," Professor Emeritus Johan Giesecke, writing on behalf of the WHO [World Health Organization] Strategic and Technical Advisory Group for Infectious Hazards, observes that the "declaration of a PHEIC for the current Ebola outbreak would add no clear benefit  [. . .  .]."  Giesecke points out that "The public health community must recognize the close link between disease and trade [. . .]."  Although "WHO director-general Margaret Chan advised against imposing travel restrictions on Western Africa, saying they would worsen the crisis by keeping medical experts out of impacted areas," the Ebola crisis eventually became one of the five instances in which the WHO issued a PHEIC.

Why did the WHO issue a PHEIC for the Coronavirus?

Part of the reason Coronovirus has received so much attention is that the WHO has issued a PHEIC.  Given the predictable (predicted?) economic impact and the relative inefficacy of PHEICs, why did the WHO issue it?  According to WHO regulations, a PHEIC is
 “an extraordinary event which is determined, as provided in these Regulations:
to constitute a public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease; and to potentially require a coordinated international response”. This definition implies a situation that: is serious, unusual or unexpected; carries implications for public health beyond the affected State’s national border; and may require immediate international action.
Diseases, in particular viruses, rarely respect national borders and the seriousness of Coronavirus relative to the flu and other viruses is in question.  What remains as an explanation for the issue of a PHEIC and perhaps the global panic which has ensued is that the disease is "unusual or unexpected."

The "Perfect storm"

For the news media, bad news is always good news.  A disease that is "unusual or unexpected" is motivation both for the WHO and the media.  Additionally, the virus offered another opportunity for China-bashing in Western media. Sometimes conspiracy theories are just irresistible:  Anyone with advanced knowledge of the WHO's intention to declare a PHEIC would have made a fortune by shorting the stock market.

Comparing SARS-CoV-2 and HIV-1M-AIDS

Like HIV ( Human Immunodeficiency Virus), the Coronavirus has numerous strains.  Of the eight strains of  HIV, HIV-1M is responsible for the AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) pandemic.  Of the five strains of Coronavirus, most create symptoms of a common cold.  CoV-2 causes the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) now threatening the world.  (Why the WHO decided to call the disease COVID-19 remains a bit of a mystery.)  Like HIV which was transmitted from animals (monkeys, therefore, SIV; that is, Simian Immunodeficiency Virus), the Coronavirus virus responsible for "Covid-19" is believed to have begun in a fish market in China.  For some time, HIV-AIDs was thought to have started in 1980 with a flight attendant from Quebec but, as Jacques Pepin  establishes in The Origin of Aids, the fatal virus first entered the human population in Africa in the early 1920s.  CoV-2 is currently assumed to have begun in China in December 2019, but we may eventually establish a new origin and chronology.

This Year 40 to 70% of the world will be infected with Coronavirus-2

Harvard epidemiology professor Marc Lipsitch predicts that "within the coming year, some 40 to 70 percent of people around the world will be infected with the virus that causes COVID-19."  No, the end of the world is not upon us.  As this Atlantic article outlines, the reason quarantine and containment have not worked with this virus as they did in other cases, like H5N1 ("avian flu"), is that the fatality rate for COVID-19 is relatively low--less than 2%.   Not only are there more live carriers of Coronavirus-2, but people infected with the virus may experience only minor symptoms or no symptoms at all, making it all the more likely that they will be walking around and spreading the disease.

How many viruses do you have now?

Ultimately the COVID-19-causing virus will join the 380 trillion viruses that already occupy the human body.  The virus will prove fatal for some people with chronic illnesses and the elderly (people like me, I guess). The virus is highly infectious and will cause a pandemic.  Stop and consider the definition of a "pandemic":

The Snowball effect

When talking about the loss of human life, no one likes to compare numbers.  Every life is sacred, right?  However, at some point in the midst of global panic, we need to remind ourselves that every time we get into a car or board a plane or go to a hockey game or church or synagogue or mosque or have sex or visit a hospital or simply step outside, statistically, we are taking a risk that might cost us our lives.  Ultimately, the reason Coronavirus has been getting so much attention is that the Coronavirus has been getting so much attention.  

The Counter-Argument

Here is a strong counter-argument to the theme of this post.  (Thanks Dr. B.)  This article argues that the real issue is that global health services aren't nearly prepared enough to face the degree of contagion of COVID-19.  The article also crunches the numbers on the number of fatalities resulting at least in part from the under-preparedness of hospitals.  The article concludes by saying something I perhaps should have written:  "taking steps to protect yourself and your loved ones is the responsible thing to do."

Monday, 24 February 2020

Do the Money Men Really Run the World?

Can't have a war without money

In Johnson's Life of London: The People Who Made the City that Made the World, Boris Johnson writes that NM Rothchild's "role in financing governments was so crucial that it was said that a war could not be begun without the consent of the Rothschilds."  It is an obvious fact of our time that the world runs on money.  No war can be declared, no university inaugurated, no church established, no hospital or bridge or building or monument built without money.  Nothing can be imported or exported, bought or sold without money.  Charities, volunteer organizations, political parties, families and individuals require money.  The health of your offspring and the attractiveness of your spouse will be affected by money.  It has never been more true than it is today:  if you want to understand the world, "follow the money."

Just because it's a conspiracy theory  . . .

The pursuit of this question led me to Henry Makow who, as it happens, was a friend of mine in graduate school.  Henry is a very smart guy.  In fact, he was a syndicated columnist and best-selling author at the age of eleven.  He has become, according to Tabetha Southey in the Globe and Mail, Canada's leading conspiracy theorist.  In Illuminati:  The Cult that Hijacked the World, Henry claims

The New World Order is a hydra-headed monster. The bankers work through many fronts such as Communism, Socialism, Liberalism, Feminism, Zionism, Neo conservatism and Freemasonry. Unknown to most members, these "progressive" movements are all secretly devoted to "world revolution" which is a euphemism for banker hegemony and Satanism.  

Should auld acquaintance be forgot?

Old acquaintances notwithstanding, Henry's rhetoric is obviously over the top and his claim that unnamed extant bankers are responsible for all the ism's Henry doesn't like is less than convincing.  Like all conspiracy theories, Illuminati is an eclectic cache of facts, observations and quotations.  The data isn't the question.  The question is how it is all woven together.  (As the linguist de Saussure observed, meaning [and therefore truth] does not reside in words or letters but in the spaces between words and letters--that is, how we connect one to another to create meaning.)

Conspiracy theory versus chaos theory

The world may obviously run on money, but "do money men run the world?" is a separate and different question.  We've been here before (see The Chaos Theory of International Trade):  the choice is between conspiracy theory and chaos theory.  Things happen.  Things that happen might even be predictable within a significant range of probabilities.  However, that Person X or Mr. Daddy-Big-Bucks banker made everything happen is a leap to another level of cause-and-effect determinism requiring another level of evidence.

How banks make money? (disambiguate "make")

However, the unrefuted fact is that the monetary system, which underpins the financial system and the economy, begins and ends with private banks.  Private banks (according to the Parliamentary web site I quoted extensively in Central Banks and the Bitcoin Experiment) create 80% of the money in Canada (and I surmise that this percentage is true for all money creation worldwide).  Private banks are legally empowered to create money out of nothing with a few clicks of a computer mouse.  So what?

So what!?

Do you or I have any reason to be concerned or care about how money is created and who is creating it?  This DW documentary offers a clear and succinct explanation of How the Rich Get Richer though  The Deluge of Money.  The general theme of the documentary is that the money-creation system which allows banks to exponentially create money is guaranteed to exacerbate wealth inequality.  As the economy is flooded with money, if you have a little bit of money, your money will lose value over time.  However, if you already have billions, you will be able to access billions more that the banks are creating at low-interest rates.  Risking little of your own billions, you will be able to buy real estate, businesses, factories and even billion-dollar companies.  The documentary offers specific examples but the common feature is that the money men aren't producing anything, they are simply making more money with these transactions in borrowed, bank-created money while degrading the condition of workers and the savings of the middle class.

To create money the government must sell a bond to a bank

The documentary follows a research project which demonstrates that most people, even some bankers, simply don't know where money comes from and how it is created.  Henry Makow quotes the inventor Thomas Edison who said "It is absurd to say our country can issue bonds and cannot issue currency. Both are promises to pay, but one fattens the usurer and the other helps the people."

The paradox of money:  a private bank created the money, so why am I responsible?

Most people (myself included until recently) believe in the illusion that our national currency is created by the government.  It is worth stopping to take note that every time a bank creates money, those dollars or euros or pesos create a debt owed by the national government to whomever holds the currency and a promise to pay which is ultimately the responsibility of you and me, the citizens of that country.  There is a fledgling group in Switzerland, as revealed in How the Rich Get Richer, campaigning to prevent banks from being able to create money and advocating a system in which only the government can produce a national currency.

Who's in charge here?

Back to the question:  do the money men run the world?  For Henry Makow and advocates of the Zeitgeist movement the answer is beyond obvious that an unnamed they/them fronted by the world's central banks are running the world, and what we typically call "world affairs" (politics, business and religion) are but smoke and mirrors. Boris Johnson notes that successive kings of England had to borrow money from Dick Whittington, and when the British Government wanted to buy the Suez Canal they had to borrow the cash from Lionel Rothschild.  However, Johnson writes that "Today a young Rothschild can still make the headlines with a knock-out yacht-based party on the coast of the former Yugoslavia.  But no one needs his permission to go to war."

Perhaps.  But How the Rich Get Richer concludes with the observation that Brexit and the election of Donald Trump promise even less regulation of private banks and an even greater flood of unregulated, low-interest, private-bank-created money.


Two thoughts remained in my mind as I was writing this post.  I feared they were tangential to the question, but I have decided to include them as an afterword/afterthought.

It seems a predicable human tendency to always imagine that someone is in charge, a powerful someone is pulling the strings to make whatever happens in the world happen--the Wizard of Oz fallacy.   As I wrote this post, I kept thinking about a remarkable documentary I saw on CBC television in 1983.  Produced and directed by Allen King, it was promoted as an exposé on unemployment.  In fact, as an example of his proto-reality-show filming, King invited a number of unemployed participants to sit on a bleacher in front of a bank of television cameras.  The participants were given no instructions, and there was no script.  What emerged was a series of assumptions from the participants about the objective of the film, and vitriolic outbursts of blame and counter blame for whatever emotions the participants were feeling.  The show was entitled "Who's in Charge Here?"  Participants launched a court case to block the presentation of the production, but the injunction was not granted.

The second thought that kept coming to me was "Why am I writing about money again!?"  I started this blog, some years ago, thinking I know something about something (roughly university education).  However, over time it has evolved (or devolved) into a study of all the things I don't know--the things that make me wonder about the depths of my own ignorance, that provoke me to ask "How could I not know this?"  I'm not that modest, so I assume there must be a lot of people who don't know what I don't know.  Here is a list of my blog posts on money, just in case you want to follow the slow meandering process of my self-education on the subject:

When Should You Repay Your Student Loan? How about . . . Never!

How Did University Degrees Become Subprime Mortgages?

What Is Money?

Sunday, 8 December 2019

Understanding Time . . . and the River


When I was a kid, every spring there would be a massive invasion that looked like a snowstorm of big floppy-winged snowflakes.  We euphemistically called them "Mayflies."  When I was told that these flocks of shadflies only lived for 24 hours, I remember thinking "why bother?"  If you are only going to live for 24 hours, why bother living at all?

Other "Creatures of a day"

Fast forward a couple of decades, and I'm reading Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound.  Prometheus is being tortured for giving fire to mankind (bound to a mountainside, an eagle comes to eat his liver every day).  The gods ask him, "Why did you give this property of the gods to creatures of a day?" Wait a minute!  "Creatures of a day"--that's us; we human mortals.


Another couple of decades later, I'm watching the television series Cosmos:  A Spacetime Oddessy and Neil deGrasse Tyson is explaining that the history of our planet is barely a blink of an eye in relation to cosmic time.  The history of humanity is so minuscule there is no word in the English language to describe its brevity.  Okay, I get it, time is a matter of perception.  My apologies to the Mayflies.

What is time?

But I still don't get, I still don't understand, "what is it?"  What is time?  Like everyone else, I use the word and, like everyone else, I always pretend I know exactly what it means.  "Spacetime," oh yeah.  "The spacetime continuum," got it.  "The beginning of time," "the end of time," time's up," "on time," "overtime," "once upon a time"--sure, sure.  Is there anything more important to a mortal than time?  Shouldn't I know what it is?

A Brief History of Time

I've even read Steven Hawking's Brief History of Time. It was interesting to learn about black holes and quantum theory and time travel, and to get confirmation that "there is no unique measure of time that all observers will agree on." Yet, I was left to wonder, "What is this thing that everybody measures differently?"  "Brief history of time" is a cute title, but isn't there a paradox here?  Or is it redundant? Isn't "history" another word for "time"?  The "time of time"? I'm reminded that physicists escape answering what came before "the big bang" because "the big bang" was the beginning of time, and there can be no "before."  I just find this answer irritating.  (Probably why I'm not a physicist.)

Physics versus philosophy

Sean Carroll argues that physicists and philosophers have different kinds of answers to "what is time?"  Once physicists have an answer that works, they stop asking the question.  Only philosophers keep digging.  Julian Barbour is a physicist, and he offers a description of time that almost makes sense to me.  According to Barbour time is change, and if there is no change, time does not exist.

Time is an arbitrary system of measurement

I'm going to go one step further, and if I'm right, someone please contact the Nobel committee. What?  There's no Nobel for philosophy?! Okay, I'll accept the Nobel for physics.  Time does not exist as a thing that is measured.  Time is primarily a system of measurement, various arbitrary units of measure that we use to describe and calculate movement, change and velocity.

"Time" is a word

As I make seemingly bombastic, counterintuitive claims like "time does not exist," I need to remind you (and myself) that "time" is first and foremost a word.  It is a common error in thinking to assume that if a word exists, there must be some thing (an essence) existing in the world that corresponds to the word.  (The error even has a name:  it's called essentialism. Deconstruction is the fairly simple project  of displaying how words/concepts are "constructed" over time rather than being "essential."  See The Postmodern Hoax and Deconstruction and "Ways of Talking.")

Where do words come from?

In answer to the question "Where do words come from?", I would typically invite my Introduction to Literature students to create a new word.  The first steps were for them to give me a sound or series of sounds that were not a known word, then we would agree upon a series of letters that could represent the sound.  (The linguist de Saussure called these sounds/letters the "signifier.") Then I would invite the students to use this new "word" in a series of made-up sentences.  For example:  the students might give me something like "ugghwamp."  Then they would create a series of sentences:

"People with ugghwamp are always more attractive."

"I got drunk and lost my ugghwamp on Thursday night.'

"Ugghwump is the source of social inequality."

After we had created enough sentences, I would point out that the concept of "ugghwamp" was beginning to emerge.  (De Saussure called this the "signified.")  Ultimately, I would ask the class "Does 'ugghwamp' exist?"  The existence or non-existence of ugghwump in the world (de Saussure's "referent") would have no effect on the meaning or our usage of the word.  (This fact inspired de Saussure to postulate a new, independent science of signs called "semiology.")

There are many phenomena that we perceive and talk about--duration, sequence, pace, rhythm, persistence, history, movement.  From this collection of perceptions and statements, we have come up with the word "time."  

Heraclitus:  "You can't step into the same river twice"

In the very first philosophy lecture I ever attended, the professor presented Heraclitus's claim that "you can't step into the same river twice."  We live in a river of ever-changing particles on a planet swimming in a changing universe.  In terms of relative size, we are 7 billion souls living on a dust mite. We invented the concept of time to preserve the illusion that we can call "time out" and make the world stand still, and, like shadflies, to imagine our 24 hours of existence is an eternity.

"I Didn't Know What Time It Was"

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Friday, 6 December 2019

Who Needs English Grammar? Part II

English Grammar and Social Class

The unspoken subtext of English grammar is its connection with social class.  Traditionally, "proper English" meant whatever was used in the golden triangle formed by London, Cambridge and Oxford. As Tiger Webb explains, "in socially-stratified and newly literate Georgian England, any guide to 'proper language' would have sold like hotcakes"--which is exactly what happened with Robert Lowth's Short Introduction to English Grammar.  With the democratization of the language, a number of dialects, sociolects, idiolects and sublects emerged (there are a lot of lects out there--each with its own slight adjustments to the grammar).  David Crystal suggests that every Anglophone needs to know at least two Englishs:  one that is spoken locally and a second that is understood and accepted globally (or, at least, more widely).  (The local, more colourful version of English is the one more likely to be used in poetry and literature, by the way.)

With grammar, as with everything else in life:  there are choices to be made.  A pop icon or populist president might discover advantages in gainsaying the grammar of standard English in favour of a local dialect or patois.  On the other hand, scrupulous attention to the rules of prescriptive grammar might be the kind of branding with which you as an individual or your company or institution might want to be identified.

Beyond Fashion and branding, who does need English grammar?

Let us not be too quick to turn up our noses at branding and fashion.  In liberal, egalitarian societies, codes for dress as well as for language are invariably a source of protest. However, linguistic knowledge is stereotypically taken as a sign of general knowledge and intelligence (even if unwarranted).  Passing up the opportunity for respect, confidence and admiration which your grammar might impart (or undermine) isn't a wise decision--unless you are already a pop star or a president. Beyond fashion and making a good impression, there are practical reasons for knowing the grammar of the language which you speak.

Learning a foreign language

One of the strongest reasons for a native speaker to know the grammar of English is that it will facilitate the learning of a foreign language.  This is strictly anecdotal (not empirical evidence) but, having taught grammar to both native speakers and second-language learners, I noted that some native speakers were understandably reluctant to accept and even disbelieving that there were "rules" for something they had done naturally all their lives.  Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker both argue that language is innate, even genetic and instinctive, and that there is a universal grammar of all languages.  However, knowing the distinctive grammatical features of your first language is a huge advantage,  giving you parameters and a framework, as you take on a foreign language and can note its differences.  Conversely, I would add that you really don't know your own language until you have been required to learn another one.

Redundancy and entropy

The principle purpose of most grammar rules is to create redundancy.  Basic communication theory indicates that the greater the redundancy in a message the greater its clarity.  In oral communication, we use tone of voice, facial expressions, and gestures to reinforce the message.  In written communication we depend on grammatical features, subject-verb agreement, correct syntax, agreement between adverbs of time and the tense of the verb, and correct word type (see "What Is English Grammar?) to be doubly sure that our message will be clearly understood.  Consider some simple examples:

"I stopped there yesterday."  Here the past tense of the verb and the word "yesterday" are transmitting the same information; i.e., there is redundancy in the sentence.  The adverb "yesterday" makes it clear that the action was in the past.  The rules of grammar, which require the past tense of the verb plus the word "yesterday,  make it redundantly clear that the action was in the past. "I stop there yesterday," though ungrammatical, gets the message across.

"He is here."  The agreement between the third person subject "he" and the third person of the verb "is" is basically redundant.  "He are here" would transmit the same message but, in the absence of redundancy, with a touch of ambiguity.

When the message matters, the grammar matters

Legal documents are notoriously tedious to read.  They use more nouns than most writing, and avoid varying vocabulary, action verbs, adverbs and intensifiers.  In other words, they avoid all the features that make writing interesting.  They will also tend to be repetitive and redundant, strictly following the rules of grammar.  When clarity is of the utmost importance, grammar becomes important, even if (or because) it creates redundancy.

Grammar can change the message

As I pointed out in Part I, I am not partial to the "you're shit" versus "your shit" distinction as grounds for knowing English grammar.  However, there are subtle, refined distinctions in English messages that are transmitted through grammar.  Consider these pairs of sentences:

1. The less people know about us the better.

2. The fewer people know about us the better.

In #1 "less" applies to an uncountable abstract, the implied knowledge.

In #2 "fewer" applies to the countable "people."

1.  I'm going to see her tomorrow.

2.  I'll see her tomorrow.

In #1 "going to" implies a previous arrangement or understanding.

In #2 "will" does not carry the implication of an arrangement, and can be a spontaneous decision.

1.  I've seen that movie.

2.  I saw that movie.

In #1 "I've seen" (the present perfect tense) implies some effect on the present (i.e., "I don't want to see it again").

In #2 "saw" is past tense and neutral about the present. (see The Truth about English Verb Tenses)

Who needs English grammar?

Most English speakers will use these grammatical variations correctly without being aware or able to explain them.  I began these posts on "Who needs English grammar?" by pointing out that we impose grammar most on people who need it least.  At some point in the learning process, language learners will benefit from instruction in grammar, but that point is late in the process (See The Ball of String Theory).

My own rule of thumb for when to teach grammar in an ESL or EFL context was whenever a student asked a question about grammar.  Teachers of English need to know the grammar.  I'll go one step further and say that anyone who teaches anything in English needs to know English grammar.

"Yes, no, toaster"

I still remember watching a documentary series in Quebec entitled Yes, No, Toaster.  The expression "yes, no, toaster" was a typical comedic response from a young Quebec francophone to the question "Do you speak English?"  The documentary, which investigated the relative ineffectiveness of English language instruction in Quebec, was provoked by Audrey de Montingy, a finalist in Canadian Idol in 2003, who confessed that she couldn't understand a word of what people were saying to her during the show, even though she had had six years of ESL instruction.  The Yes, No, Toaster  series took cameras into various English-language-instruction settings.  The one that sticks with me (sticks in my craw, I should say) was an advanced class in which a student asked her teacher "What's the difference between 'will" and 'going to'?"  The teacher not only refused to answer but used the occasion to mock the student by saying "You're not ready for that level yet?"

The Moral of the story

The moral of the story I've been telling is that we should ensure that the right people are being criticized, and the right people are doing the criticizing.  Teachers mocking inquiring students; unilinguals criticizing polyglots--these are just plain wrong.

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Who Needs English Grammar?

The Irony of English grammar

The irony of English grammar is that we impose it most on the people who need it the least:  second- or foreign-language learners.  (See The "Ball of String" Theory.) Anyone who teaches English will, at some point, feel compelled to tell the fib that you need grammar to communicate and be understood in English.  This claim is pretty easy to disprove. Consider the following sentence:

"Me eats restaurant Italian yesterday."

An astute English teacher will point out that this five-word sentence contains at least six errors of grammar:  1) wrong case of pronoun, 2) wrong verb tense, 3) error of subject-verb agreement, 4) missing preposition for the indirect object, 5) faulty syntax, 6) missing indefinite article/determiner.  All this to say that the sentence should be:

"I ate in an Italian restaurant yesterday."

However, most native speakers of English would have little doubt about the intended meaning of the garbled sentence despite its multiple errors of grammar.  (A message full of errors circulated on the internet some time ago, demonstrating that native English speakers can understand even a long message which contains mistakes in every single word.  I'll attach it to the end of this post.)

It took me about ten years of correcting hundreds (probably thousands) of faulty sentences before the epiphany finally dawned on me.  The fact that I was able to correct the grammar was proof that I always understood the intended meaning of the original ungrammatical sentences.  Or, to reverse the insight, if I didn't know what the person was trying to say, I wouldn't have been able to correct the grammar. So much for "you need grammar to be understood."

What language students learn that native speakers don't know

I'll go out on a limb here and suggest that most native speakers don't know the grammar that we expect language students to learn.  Test yourself.

1. What's the difference between "I'll see her tomorrow" and "I'm going to see her tomorrow"?

2.  What's the difference between "I've seen Star Wars" and "I saw Star Wars"?

3.  What's the difference between "I'm studying history" and "I study history"?

Identify the error

4. "The guy which lives next door"  or "The guy that lives next door"?  Why?

5.  "Less people than expected" or "Fewer people than expected"?  Why?

6.  "He's bigger than me" or "He's bigger than I"?  Why?

7.  "Just between you and me" or "Just between you and I?  Why?

Testing Grammarly

I downloaded and installed the free version of the Grammarly app for this post.  This isn't a scientific evaluation of Grammarly or even a review (but something to consider for a future post).  However, I find the results instructive.  Grammarly detected that "which" sentence #4, "less" in #5 and "I" in #7 were mistakes.  According to Grammarly, both quoted sentences in #6 are correct.   Both sentences being right is impossible, but I understand the Grammarly decision.  According to proper prescriptive grammar, "he is bigger than I" is correct, but for most native speakers "bigger than me" just sounds better.

To give credit where credit is due, I have made a few changes as I have been typing based on Grammarly suggestions.  On the other hand, here are a couple of sentences that I correctly predicted Grammarly would not know how to deal with.

"He is the Mr. Jones that lives next door, not the Mr. Jones convicted of fraud."

The sentence is necessarily awkward, but not ungrammatical. Grammarly cannot accept a sentence in which "the" and "Mr." appear consecutively.

"I have seen that movie yesterday."

Interestingly, the verb tense in this sentence (above) is wrong, but Grammarly does not detect the mistake.  When a specific time in the past is indicated, you must use the simple past tense (not the present perfect, "have seen").  (See The Truth about English Verb Tenses.)

Most revealing, in the garbled sentence with which I began this post--"Me eats restaurant Italian yesterday."--Grammarly detects only one mistake.  According to Grammarly, "me" should be "I", consequently "eats" must then be "eat."  However, your final sentence would then be "I eat restaurant Italian yesterday"--which Grammarly declares error-free.

The important point to glean here is exactly the one I made at the top: in order to correct the grammar, you must already understand the intended meaning of the sentence.  If the app doesn't understand your sentence, can't read your intended meaning, it will not be able to correct your grammar.

Grammar and dress codes

When the argument that communication is the underlying necessity of English grammar falters, we English teachers typically turn to the analogy that grammar is like dress codes. You know, you have to dress properly for the occasion.  I can still remember telling a class of would-be professional writers studying Applied Grammar that "of course, you wouldn't wear a baseball cap with a tuxedo."  Two weeks later (and I'm not making this up) at the Grammy Awards all the hip-hop artists were wearing jewel-encrusted baseball caps with their tuxedos.

"Rules are meant to be broken."

The feature that grammar and dress codes share is that in both cases "the rules are meant to be broken." While we tell students that you need grammar to "get on in the world," the Rolling Stones have gotten on pretty well with "I Can't Get No Satisfaction."  And then there is the Nobel Laureate in Literature who wrote "It Ain't Me Babe."  Could pop music survive without that anathema to English grammar: "ain't"?  (By the way, Grammarly accepts "ain't.")

As General MacArthur once quipped, "You are remembered for the rules you break"--which is probably why breaking the rules of grammar and dress codes has such appeal.

"Rules . . . are too often for the lazy to hide behind."

The complete MacArthur quote is "Rules are mostly meant to be broken and are too often for the lazy to hide behind."  The second half of the aphorism is particularly apt and rarely quoted.  The rules of grammar, as I endlessly pointed out to students, were the beginning of the thinking process, not the end. Grammar changes over time, it varies from one region to another, and it is tied to linguistic register. Once you know the rules, then you need to consider how they should be applied and even when to break them.

English grammar isn't a license to bully!

Knowing a few of the rules of English grammar isn't a license to bully, for one-up-manship or rudeness. I find it strange that individuals would proudly declare themselves "grammar nazis" online, since the dysphemism implies someone following rules without understanding or appreciating them--their intentions, consequences, validity, basis or morality.  I've seen dozens of different versions of this poster:

I really don't know how I am supposed to feel about this sign.  For one thing, this is a very specific mistake that some grammar nazi has dreamed up that I can't imagine anyone actually making. Plus, it isn't very . . . well . . . grammatical. It makes me think of this other sign:

If grammar really is about "knowing shit," with or without an apostrophe seems a minor problem.  The fact that "their," "there" and "they're" (like "your," "you're" and "yore") are pronounced the same way but have such different meanings and usages tells me more about the underlying incoherence of the English language than about those individuals who are occasionally guilty of their /there/ they're misuse.  (While I'm at it, here's a prediction.  Sometime in the not-too-distant future, "they're" and "you're" will disappear from the English language; "your" and "their" will become not only accepted but consider correct English.  Dictionaries will begin to identify "they're" and "you're" as "archaic.") 

The Origins of English grammar

The origins of English grammar (or grammars) can be traced to the 18th century, in particular to Jonathan Swift's "A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue," in which he decried the fact that contemporary authors (like himself):  "will be read with Pleasure but a very few Years, and in an Age or two shall hardly be understood without an Interpreter." Swift's Gulliver's Travels has survived better than the average 18th-century text; however, despite the fact that we continue to browbeat highschool students into reading Shakespeare's 17th-century dramas, few people these days (despite vainglorious claims to the contrary) can read the writers of 400-years past without an interpreter (or at least an interpretation). 

Although the rules of grammar were supposed to pave the path to immortality for English writers, what was actually produced was Robert Lowth's  A Short Introduction to English Grammar: With Critical Notes (published and republished 50 times from 1762 to 1800) from which we are instructed,  based on the spurious notion that English should follow the rules of Latin, that a sentence cannot end with a preposition and we must not split an infinitive.  (See: What Is English Grammar? for more.)

In keeping with my "Do not read this sign" sign,  in "The 'rules' of grammar are made up, so why bother following them?" Tiger Webb points out:

That Lowth, like many after him, broke most of these so-called "rules" in his own writing — or that some of his examples of substandard English came from the writings of Jonathan Swift — went unremarked upon at the time.

Taylor Swift vs. Jonathan Swift vs. The Princeton Review

I came across this comedic grammar kerfuffle in Penny Adam's "Is there simply ‘good’ and ‘bad’ English? Are you with Taylor or Jonathan Swift on grammar? in which she provided a link to an article in The Guardian entitled "Taylor Swift’s grammar marked down incorrectly."  The details are funny enough to make for entertaining reading, but the short version is that The Princeton Review, a company which helps students prepare for college admission exams, used a line from Taylor Swift's song, Fifteen, on one of their practice tests as an example of "bad grammar."  Swift herself responded, pointing out that The Review had gotten the line wrong.  In a superlative example of "after shooting yourself in the left foot, how to take perfect aim at your right," The Review responded that the corrected quotation was also "bad grammar" because the plural pronoun "them" could not be used to refer to the singular subject "somebody."  (We are back to The Pronoun Wars, dear Reader--click the link if you need a reminder.)  The Review, being unaware of what is now widely known as the singular they, was pretty much laughed off the internet.   On the other hand, the brouhaha has given us a first answer to "Who needs English grammar?"  Apparently, if you are applying for admission to an American university, you should know some prescriptive grammar.

[To be continued in "Who Needs English Grammar:  Part II"]

Can you read this?

Only great
minds can read this.
This is weird, but interesting!
fi yuo cna raed
tihs, yuo hvae a sgtrane mnid too

Cna yuo raed tihs?
Olny 55 plepoe out of 100 can.

I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg.

The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid,
aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno't mtaetr
in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the
frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae.

The rset can be a taotl mses and
you can sitll raed it whotuit a pboerlm.

Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not
raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.