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Diversions

Driving on I-90 from Boston towards the Berkshires yesterday, I spied a curious road sign gleaming in the summer haze:

PLOWS USE CAUTION

My mind skipped over three possible interpretations of this grammatically ambiguous statement and landed on a fourth. I didn’t read it as an assertion of the tenet that plows are cautious; I didn’t read it as an admonition to plows to be cautious; and I didn’t take it as a directive to non-plows to avoid plows. Channeling my inner copy editor (always the pessimist), I assumed it must be a simple misspelling of:

PLEASE USE CAUTION

It’s not easy making signs (as evidenced by the preponderance of wretched signage in our world), and so I can easily imagine an incautious sign-maker trying to write PLEASE and having it come out as PLOWS.

Unfortunately, the very thought of this has put me in a state where I can no longer see the word please without mentally substituting it with plows (and the result turns out to be grammatical with surprising frequency). And so I invite you, dear reader, to join me in this affliction by listing some of your favorite please/plows substitutions. I will start off with one of my favorites:

Always say plows.

Introducing a new punctuation mark, the Whatever Mark, here rendered in Times New Roman.  Suitable for use wherever punctuation is appropriate.  Recommended specifically for situations in which you cannot decide between existing punctuation options, or don’t care.

whatevermark

NONDISCLOSURE AGREEMENT FOR DATING “[XYZ]”I, the undersigned, agree to receive in confidence full details about the personal life, history, and prospects for continued interaction with the individual known as “[XYZ]”.

It is further understood that I assume no responsibility whatever with respect to features and defects of “[XYZ]” which can be demonstrated to have been known to me prior to this interaction. I also agree not to divulge any details of said interaction without permission of “[XYZ]” or to make use of any information of which the said “[XYZ]” is the originator, without payment or compensation to be fixed by negotiation with the said “[XYZ]” or its lawful representative.

It is specifically understood that, in receiving the information concerning “[XYZ]”, the information is being received and will be reviewed in confidence and that, within a period of [15] days, I will report to “[XYZ]” the results of my findings and will advise whether or not I am interested in participating in the development of said relationship.  I understand that the idea of the relationship is the copyright property of “[XYZ]”.

Individual___________________________________
Address______________________________________
Signature_______________________ Date ________________

Accepted Date _______________________________
(per) [“XYZ”]
Name: ____________________________
Title: ___________________________

[Ed. Note:  The idea for NDA and Non-Compete agreements for dating came up tonight during a dinner conversation.  I was surprised that Google didn't have anything for "Dating NDA" so I put together the document above, based on existing boilerplate, in hopes that it might be useful in the launching of new romantic ventures.]

Would you like to know whether you have the capacity to perceive and express irony?

Look at the symbol below:

If it appears like a reversed question mark:

IronyScreenShot1

…then congratulations, you’re all set for irony.

If it looks like anything else–a blank space, a normal question mark (?), or anything in a box:

IronyNotFound

…then I’m sorry, no irony for you!

[Confused?  Scroll down for an explanation.]

What this test actually indicates is whether your browser is properly rendering the irony mark, also known as the reversed question mark, Unicode character U+2E2E.

The first example is the actual character for your browser to render, the second example is a screenshot of how it should look, and the third example is a screenshot of how it might look if your browser can’t render it.

Of course, the challenge of communicating ironic sentiments is that not everyone perceives them the same way.  You might not “see” the irony that I see in something, just as I might not see the irony you see.  The irony mark attempts to solve that, by signaling to a reader to look out, “there’s irony here.”

Isn’t it fitting that the irony mark itself–the symbol that aims to disambiguate ironic communication–is invisible to some readers?  Try to use the irony mark in an online forum, and you have no way of knowing whether the people “on the other end” will see the backwards question mark that you see, or a rectangle, or a blank.  I leave it to you to contemplate the irony of that…

So far, my experience has been that Mac users are more likely to perceive irony than Windows users.  If you’ve taken this test, please leave a comment with your platform details (operating system and browser versions) letting me know whether or not you perceive irony.  Thank you very much!

ItalicsMine

Many readers know that the expression “italics mine” is used in formal writing when the author has added italics to quoted text.  It’s a courteous way to say that the italics weren’t there in the original– courteous to the reader (who might otherwise be confused) and courteous to the original author (who would otherwise be… misquoted).  Some time ago, this phrase began sounding decidedly uncourteous in my mind. I had always heard something like this: “I would like to fulfill my responsibility to inform you that I’ve added these italics.” But suddenly I heard, “I OWN these italics — they’re mine!” And once “italics mine” had revealed this surly potential, I could not go back to thinking of it as its polite and dutiful self.  So now when I’m in a quiet library, I imagine a cacophony of all the instances of “italics mine,” shouting out from within their respective books, competing for ownership of all italics: Mine! Mine! Mine!  Above, you have a self-referential example where the italic text asserts possession of itself.

How could it possibly confuse you⸮ The irony mark makes everything clear⸮

If you didn’t get it, I’ve just expressed two ironic thoughts about a symbol called the irony mark, written as a reversed question mark.  The symbol is meant to indicate the presence of irony or sarcasm, qualities that are not always obvious to all parties in an exchange.

While its aim is to add clarity to communication, the symbol introduces various kinds of ambiguity; the symbol itself is ironic because it achieves the opposite of its apparent goal.  In a separate post, I will explore that paradox; here, I would just like to propose a “fix” to one small aspect of the irony mark’s ambiguity.

The problem I have in mind is that the irony mark does not distinguish between statements and questions. You’ll notice that I began this post with an ironic question: “How could it possibly confuse you⸮”  Next, I made an ironic statement: “The irony mark makes everything clear⸮”  In both cases I was “forced” to terminate my sentence with the same piece of punctuation. As you can see, the irony mark has clobbered the reassuring distinction between “?” and “.”

To prevent such ambiguity, I propose that we reserve the irony mark for statements, and splice the irony mark with a normal question mark to indicate questions.

My logic is as follows:

IronicQuestionMark

This, for example, is how one would ask an ironic question about the presence of irony:

SelfReferentialIrony

And this is how one would sarcastically question my font choice:

ComicSansQuestionsItself

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