Prescriptivist Christianity

I’ve been called a Grammar Nazi. I don’t call myself that, but I will cop to “grammar cop”, “pedant”, “stickler”, and other descriptors and epithets in that vein.

And one argument that I’ve run into over and over is that language evolves over time, an argument bolstered by the fact that most English dictionaries are descriptivist, not prescriptivist. That is, they don’t tell you how you’re supposed to use a word (the way the Académie Française does with the French language); rather, lexicographers study how people actually use words, and compile their observations into dictionaries. Thus, it does me no good to complain that “beg the question” means “assume one’s conclusion”: if most anglophones mean “raise the question” when they say it, and understand it that way when they hear it, then in practice, “beg the question” means “raise the question”. Sucks to be me.

But one thing I hear quite often is “that’s not very Christian”. In what might be considered a technical win for bipartisanship, I hear this from both ends of our new bicolored political spectrum. Things that are “not very Christian” can include lying, watching porn, bragging, refusing to help someone, lack of empathy, and much more.

Which brings me to this:

which links to a WaPo article entitled, “Christians are more than twice as likely to blame a person’s poverty on lack of effort”.

So for once, I”m going to put on my descriptivist hat and say that no, if large numbers of Christians do X, then X is Christian. Do you want “Christian” to be synonymous with “good”? Are you annoyed that people think hating on gays and brown-skinned people is Christian? Then stop tarnishing the brand.

Odd Plurals

We all know about irregular plurals like “mother-in-law” → “mothers-in-law”, “attorney general” → “attorneys general”. I just ran across another one, courtesy of a music podcast.
One of the hosts was saying that there are about 11,000 people who listen to the show, but only 100 or so write in or like it on social media. He added,

Where are the rest of the 10,900 people? You piece of shits.

(emphasis added)

Kind Of

Do you remember, some years ago, some people had a habit of using “literally” not in the dictionary sense, but for emphasis, as in “The boss is literally breathing down my neck”? In recent months, I’ve noticed people using “sort of” and “kind of” not to mean “more or less” or “in a way”, but for punctuation, emphasis, or decoration.

A lot of times, adding “kind of” doesn’t change much (“we need to kind of speak up about this”), and so it is merely useless. At best, it means “the following isn’t exactly what I mean, but it’s close, and I want to move on, rather than waste time finding the correct word.”

Sometimes, though, it contradicts the rest of the sententce. I’ve heard “This is kind of really important.” And just this morning, in a news story about Afghanistan, NPR’s correspondent said,

I think for Mr. Mattis it’s slightly personal, which is he wants to come back and make sure that he’s connected over here and provides the best kind of advice on what to do forward.

Which immediately raised the question, “What kind of advice is the best kind?”

I’d like to appropriate a piece of advice often attributed to Mark Twain: instead of saying “kind of”, say “fucking”, your editor will delete it and your sentence will be as it should be. Except that people don’t employ editors in casual speech, so maybe autocorrect can be modded to do this.

Da da da

Today is National Grammar Day, but rather than rail against common misuses of the English language like the insufferable language snob that I am, I thought I’d mention a peculiarity of language that I happened to notice.

The German word “da” means “there”, as in “Mein Bier ist da” — “My beer is right here”. In this sense, it refers to a location.

But in certain other combinations, it refers to a noun: “dagegen” means “against it” or “in contrast to it”. It literally means “that-against”. “Dafür” means “for it”.

So sometimes “da” refers to a location, and in at other times it refers to a “thing”. I put “thing” in scare-quotes because the object that a da-compound word refers to need not be an object made of atoms: one of the examples linked to above is “Haben Sie etwas dagegen, wenn ich rauche?” — “Do you mind if I smoke?”. Smoking is an activity, not an object, but our minds still treat it in many ways as an honorary object.

In fact, I can imagine an evolution of language in which “da” started out referring to a location, perhaps a location being pointed to, later came to also represent the thing in the location being pointed to, and eventually came to encompass honorary nouns.

But before we go pointing fingers at those silly Germans da, it’s worth pointing out that “there” — the English word for “da” — is similarly schizophrenic: it usually refers to a location, as in “I live in that house there”, but sometimes, in combinations, it refers to the same kind of “thing” as in German: “therefore”, “thereof”, “therewith”, and so forth.

In fact, the most common English example of this location/thing oddity is “wherefore”, in Romeo and Juliet, when Juliet says, “O Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”.

Wherefore” has “where” in it, which makes people think Juliet’s wondering about Romeo’s location. But actually it means “why” or “for what reason”. She’s asking why Romeo is Romeo, as in “of all the guys I could have fallen for, why did it have to be Romeo?”

Okay, so I couldn’t help myself and snuck in some grammar-railing there at the end. I warned you I was a snob.


The New York Times ran a piece about the David Mabus affair (tl;dr version: he’s a mentally-ill troll who’d been sending death threats to people for years, and was finally arrested after enough people complained to the police).

It begins:

Over the years, someone writing as David Mabus made himself known to scientists and avowed atheists across North America in thousands of threatening e-mails and violently profane messages on Twitter.

The phrase “avowed atheists” annoyed me, because I see it a lot. I even twatted about it:

The phrase “avowed atheist” still annoys me, though. When’s the last time someone was an “avowed Baptist”?

Then I realized that with an entire browserful of Internet at my disposal, I could answer that question.
Read More

Atheist Language

It occurs to me that it doesn’t make sense for an atheist to say “sure as hell”. I mean, you wouldn’t say “I’m as sure that Mordor exists that I ain’t volunteering for this assignment” (note to self: try using the phrase “sure as Mordor” and see how it goes over).

From a purely factual standpoint, it’s much better to say “sure as shit”, since shit is known to exist. Unfortunately, the use of that phrase isn’t always appropriate. The best I’ve been able to come up with so far is “sure as Shinola“, but I’m sure you can do better. Discuss in the comments.

Pre-Compressing Web Content

This was definitely a “D’oh!” type of problem.

One thing I’d been meaning to figure out for a while was how to send gzip-compressed files to a browser. That is, if I have a large HTML file, it’d be nice if the server could compress it to save bandwith and transmission time. Yes, Apache has mod_deflate which takes foo.html and gzips it on the fly, setting all the appropriate HTTP headers. But for static content, I should just be able to compress the file in advance. If the browser asked for foo.html, I wanted Apache to see that there’s a foo.html.gz and send that instead, with headers saying that it’s a text/html file that happens to be compressed.

mod_mime seemed like just the thing: just add

AddEncoding x-gzip .gz

to .htaccess. But every time I did that, Apache sent back “Content-Type: application/x-gzip“, so my browser treated it as a random file of unknown type that happened to be compressed.

Then I noticed that my vanilla-ish site-wide Apache config had

AddType application/x-gzip .gz .tgz

so that when Apache saw foo.html.gz, it ignored the .html extension, and saw only the .gz one.

The fix was to add RemoveType to my .htaccess:

RemoveType .gz
AddEncoding x-gzip .gz

And voilà! .gz stops being a file type and becomes an encoding, allowing .html to shine through.

I’ll add that this plays nice with AddLanguage as well. In my test setup, I have foo.html.en.gz, for which Apache returns the headers

Content-Type: text/html
Content-Encoding: x-gzip
Content-Language: en

I.e., it’s an HTML file, it’s gzip-encoded, and it’s in English.

Just as importantly, this works with other file types (e.g., CSS files and JavaScript scripts), and XMLHttpRequest does the Right Thing with them on all of the browsers I care about.


For all the diversity in human speech, as far as I know, every language has verbs and nouns.

No big surprise there: our world is full of things, like trees and lakes and ostriches and stars, something that nouns are very good at describing. And a lot of these things do things that we care about, like attack or fall or impede, which is where verbs come in.

But nouns refer to a lot of things that aren’t, well, things, like symmetry and justice and heaps and understanding. I can imagine an alien species in which every language uses different parts of speech for things and for collections of things that, as a whole, have a certain property. Call this an assemblage. Thus, to them, “rock” would be a noun, but “heap”, as in “a heap of rocks”, would be an assemblage. “Symmetry”, “pair”, and “order” would also be assemblages, rather than nouns.

They might even go further, and have yet another part of speech to describe the motion of things that has certain properties, like “dance” or “following”.

I want to emphasize that this wouldn’t change what the world is like; it would just change the words and sentences they use to describe it. And perhaps say something about the way they think.

To these aliens, a sentence like “time is money” would sound odd, because it would have a grammatical error (assuming that “time” is an assemblage, while “money” is a thing). In fact, we already have something like this in English, which treats nouns about people differently from nouns about things: “Who didn’t finish its dinner?” is bad English (note, too, how this makes the line “It rubs the lotion on its skin” in Silence of the Lambs particularly creepy).

It’s known that our brains are wired to treat people differently from other elements in our environment. See, for instance, the way we’re more prone to see people and faces in random noise like inkblots, clouds, and wood grain, than inanimate objects. So it seems reasonable to consider that our brains have special-purpose modules for nouns and verbs.

The obvious explanation is that our distant ancestors, before there was speech, still needed to deal with things and actions to survive. Once language appeared, the brain already had the infrastructure necessary to model things and actions, and manipulate that model, so evolution built on what was available. This can perhaps also be seen in the way that a lot of expressions treat abstractions as though they were things: “weighing the evidence”, “transferring ownership”, and so forth.

I don’t want to read too much into these sorts of things. I note, for instance, that in French, there’s a smaller distinction between nouns about people and nouns about non-people. And in German, the gender of both “Kind” (child) and “Mädchen” (young woman) is neuter.

Nonetheless, there does seem to be scientific literature on stroke patients who have trouble naming things, but no trouble naming actions, or vice-versa.[citation needed] And this suggests that the brain has separate modules for dealing with nouns and verbs.

In practice, I think this means that we are predisposed to see the world in terms of nouns and verbs, even when we’re not dealing with concrete things, and this can affect our perceptions. I guess it’s a bit like Neil DeGrasse Tyson explaining to people that a hot ball of rock, a huge ball of gas that generates its own heat, and an irregular lump of ice are vastly different things, and so it doesn’t make sense to lump Mercury, Jupiter, and Pluto all under the label of “planet”.

For instance, if we’re thinking about the way languages have migrated through history, it might be tempting to think of one language displacing another, much as putting a finger in a glass displaces water. But of course languages don’t behave the way that solid objects like fingers and water do; multiple languages can coexist, even in the same mind.

I guess what this all boils down to is that there’s a difference between what something is, and what it’s called.

Update, 15:47: Typo.

Margaret Downey Can Go to Hell

About a year ago, a group of us was* at happy hour downtown. There was a Secular Coalition for America meeting nearby, so I got to meet a few famous atheists (or at least famous in certain atheist circles), including Dan Barker and Brother Richard.

The bit that sticks in my mind, though, is when Margaret Downey told some of us that as atheists, we should purge our speech of religious expressions.

“Oh, lord”, I thought. I made a herculean effort to remain jovial, but the reaction she got was close to pandemonium.

Even setting aside the fact that policing the language for morally inappropriate words and phrases strikes me as being too close to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four for comfort, there’s also the fact that human language is a product of its culture.

Whether we like it or not, religion and other mythological ideas have left their mark on the language. They’re common tropes that we can all refer to in speech. In December, I might joke that such-and-such annoying customer will be getting coal in his stocking. And after Christmas I sometimes ask my friends whether Santa was good to them. Not because any of us believe in Santa Claus, but just as a roundabout way of asking whether they got everything they wanted. If we remove religious references from speech, shouldn’t we do the same with Santa Claus?

What about Internet trolls? Or gremlins in malfunctioning machinery? Should we stop referring to Wall Street prognosticators as oracles who read tea leaves? And where would games and online fora be without avatars?

For that matter, should we stop using atlases, named after the titan holding up the world, depicted on the frontispiece of early books of maps? While we’re at it, we’d have to rename most of the planets, moons, constellations, and the continent of Europe. We’d also have to eliminate Thursday and Friday.

It’s not just ancient myths, either: discussions about the limits of knowledge invariable eventually include the phrase “living in the Matrix“. And a delusional kook who refuses to see reason can be described as having taken the blue pill. Heck, even Non Sequitur recently referenced the Kobayashi Maru.

The Bible gives us a plethora of myths and expressions to draw upon: David and Goliath, the good Samaritan, the kiss of death, 30 pieces of silver, “am I my brother’s keeper?”, the word “antediluvian”, and much more. The Greeks gave us Achilles heels, Procrustean beds, Pandora’s box, odysseys, and mentoring.

Obviously, the difference between Christian myths and ancient Greek ones is that the Christian ones are still widely believed. Ideally, we should be moving to where we can put the Bible next to the Kalevala and the Iliad on our bookshelves, something that influenced society in the past, but that no one takes seriously anymore.

But there’s a difference between post-theism and anti-theism. If you stay away from a thing, you’re being influenced, perhaps controlled by that thing. I used to avoid Top 40 music until I realized that I was cutting myself off from some music that was quite good despite being popular. I don’t want to be controlled by religion, and so I plan to continue using whatever terms come naturally, whether they’re religious or not. When I have to catch a dawn flight, I’ll complain about having to get up at an ungodly hour. I’ll complain about the unholy mess of cables in the machine room. I won’t stop using expressions like “Christ on a cracker” and “Jesus titty-fucking Christ”. Hell, no.

I’m sure Ms. Downey’s heart is in the right place, and hope she doesn’t feel crucified or martyred if she runs across this rant. I just don’t want to be limited by someone else’s superstition.


Update, 22:21: Alert reader Fez took issue with the phrase “a group of us was”, saying it should be “a group of us were”. As of this writing, we’ve failed to reach consensus on which one it should be. They both sound right to me. My go-to reference in matters grammatical, Grammar Girl (or, in this case, her guest writer), says that there aren’t any hard and fast rules, but that “was” is more common American usage. Feel free to discuss in the comments.

A Well-Timed Ad

Yesterday, at work, I got an ad from IBM that said

Today’s business requires actionable insights.

Today, Slashdot is reporting that IBM and Intel executives have been arrested for insider trading.

I guess the actionable insight they had was “if we use information about the company that the public doesn’t have, we can make a killing on the stock market!”

May I also suggest “If someone orders something from you, and you take their money but don’t ship the product, you can reduce your operating costs” and “You can make a ton of money just by pointing a gun at people and taking their wallets.” No, don’t thank me. The thought of you enjoying some quality time with your cellmate Bubba is all the thanks I need.