All prose is wordy–it’s made of words! So when does prose, a fundamentally wordy thing, deserve to be disparaged as wordy?
I struggle with this question because my brain is wordy–got lots o’ words. My thoughts are wordy, so my writing comes out wordy. How much time should I spend eliminating “unnecessary” words?
The question is complicated because “wordiness” is a matter of perspective. If someone is convinced I’m a good writer, or if they’re particularly interested in my subject, they will likely ignore the redundancies in my prose. However, if they don’t “trust” me as a writer, or if they are bored by my topic, they will notice and object to my excesses.
I’ll go further and say that “wordiness” is a matter of musical taste and reproduction. All writing is musical in that it has tone and rhythm; the words are the raw material for a concert that we perform in our minds as we read. Words will “sound good” to us if we can find the right voice to read them in (and when the author or text comes recommended, we usually work harder to find that voice). If we don’t have an inner voice to fit the text, then our performance will fall flat: we’ll hear a bunch of disconnected sounds and call it “wordy.”
We accept the wordiness of great speeches like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address because all of the verbiage becomes a substrate for the aura–and the sound–of a great speaker. Read it like Lincoln, and it does sound great; read it in the voice of a bored student, not so much.
As an experiment, I’ve tried to rewrite Gettysburg as a modern schoolteacher might, if the original text had been submitted as a homework assignment, an essay draft to be edited. Here is the final revision (95 words):
Our nation was founded eighty-seven years ago on the idea that all men are created equal. Our civil war is now testing whether any nation based on that idea can endure. Today, we dedicate a portion of the battleground to our fallen troops. But in a larger sense, we cannot hallow this ground with words–the troops have already hallowed it with their struggle. Instead of talking idly, we should dedicate ourselves to their unfinished work, so they will not have died in vain. Let’s keep our nation free and ensure that self-government survives on earth.
Here is the original (267 words):
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
I created this sign to remind everyone that swearing is prohibited on the Internet.
Actually, I created it as an experiment in communicating with visual and textual symbols. There are three elements at play here: a red circle, the words “SWEARING PROHIBITED,” and a grawlix (“$@&#!”). When you put those elements together, what message do they make?
Last night, I asked a couple of friends at Venture Cafe. Most of my friends were willing to take this sign at face value. Whether or not they agreed with the idea of prohibiting swearing, they felt the sign did convey a sincere message. (In fact, a similar sign containing a grawlix in red circle has appeared in Virginia Beach as part of an anti-profanity campaign.)
For me, the sign is hard to look at without laughing because I find it fundamentally hypocritical: it swears!
Where do we draw the line between a symbol and the thing it represents? Specifically, do we take “$@&#!” as mere notation for the idea of a swear, or does it make us think and feel as though we’ve just heard someone actually swear? (This question brings to mind a joke by Louis C.K. where he says that the expression “The ‘n’ word” offends him because whenever someone uses that censored phrase, they are forcing him to say the avoided word — nig[BLEEP] — in his own mind.)
Now for me, “$@&#!” is so strongly associated with swearing that when I view it in this sign, I become witness to a curse. And then I begin to wonder who’s cursing, and how the curse might relate to the rest of the sign. Is someone cursing because they don’t like the prohibition against swearing? Or do they really, really agree with it?
Even if you don’t experience the grawlix as an actual curse, you might notice a mismatch between levels of formality in this sign. SWEARING PROHIBITED sets a tone of severe formality, and yet “$@&#!” is the kind of icon we might see in a comic book. The sign has the same contradiction as a statement like: DO NOT SPEAK COLLOQUIALLY OK?
As I worked on the sign, I couldn’t resist the temptation to make an intensified version, which you’ll see below. For a while I thought that what I had come up with was so contradictory that no viewer could take it seriously. And yet, as I stared at this second version, my perceptions shifted. Where it had seemed that the swear words were subverting the circle by shining right through its porous front, now it seemed that those bold and brazen words were still captured inside the circle and still negated by it. Who wins, the circle or the swears? I don’t know: either it’s the most obscene sign I have ever seen, or the most uptight one.
As I was finishing the sign, I had a software crash and lost a lot of unsaved work. When that happened, I assure you, gentle reader, I did not say any of the terms herein depicted:
I feel like I see a lot of pro-donut signs (America Runs On Dunkin’, etc.) so an ostensibly anti-donut sign is a bit of fresh air. I have a taste for nonsensical and ludicrous signage, from Engrish to Legalese, and here, opportunity called.
I’m interested in graphic leitmotifs like the red circle with a slash through it. Red circles with slashes mean business. Usually there’s a more complicated icon inside the circle that represents the thing to be avoided or “not done.” But in this case, the inner icon is as simple as possible: a donut that matches the red circle’s contour. Perhaps the red circle was built to fit (glaze?) that donut in an act of accommodation? In this sign the “thing” and the “thing that negates it” are pals, in perfect formal agreement.
Lastly, the phrase “Do not donut” has caused me to develop a huge number of tongue-twisters that I really should stop saying, so “Do not donut!” means to me “Stop saying tongue-twisters about donuts!” Unfortunately, the sign doesn’t help!
The donut and enclosing circle in this sign were constructed from various sizes of the “O” from the font used in the lettering.
See also: DO NOT DUPLICATE.
I’ve been thinking about how punctuation marks exhibit self-reference. A mark might indicate something about a sentence, and also embody that same thing: it might be what it describes.
The simplest example is the period. The period tells us the sentence is ending, and in fact it is the end–it’s the very last character that we consider to be part of the sentence.
This constant conjunction of indicating “the end” and being “the end” is so familiar to us that the distinction can be hard to see. Imagine, then, that we were taught to write like this:
Punctuation Rule #1: Place the period after the penultimate word of the. sentence
Of course, that’s a dumb rule, but it shows how, with a different usage convention, the period would not be self-referential. In this altered system, the period tells us where the sentence ends (always after the word that follows it) but it isn’t the end (there’s one more word to go).
Now consider the exclamation mark! The exclamation mark is self-referential because it indicates emphasis, and yet by being less common than the period, it commands our attention and thereby creates emphasis when it occurs. Of course, if we overuse the exclamation mark, it ceases to stand out, and becomes less effective in creating what it indicates.
Punctuation Rule #2: Use it! The exclamation mark! Wherever possible!
In followup posts, I would like to argue that two nonstandard punctuation marks: the interrobang and the irony mark, are a field-day of self-reference. In particular:
The interrobang is baffling‽
The irony mark is the most ironic thing ever conceived⸮
The AT&T motto Rethink Possible is a good example of unintentional self-reference. I gather it’s supposed to mean “Rethink what’s possible!” But it could also mean “A rethink is possible.” Indeed a rethink is advisable–a rethink of the motto.
Here’s my own rethink of Rethink:
The “nonsense” above means something to me personally. It’s a pun which, depending on your perspective, might seem obscure. The very topic of obscure puns is interesting to me because it leads to some questions about communication that I’ve always struggled with. An obscure pun, just like an uncommon word, can make someone who doesn’t “get it” feel left out: puns can be annoying and sometimes intimidating. Although I love wordplay and engage in it daily at Quadrivial Quandary, I don’t have the kind of encyclopedic, Jeapordy-player sort of mind that would make it easy for me to “get” many common puns when I first hear them, and so I’m quite familiar with being on the “Please, not another pun!” side of a conversation. On the other hand, I find that if a speaker takes the time to explain the context of an obscure pun, this can be a very powerful way to connect with that person. It’s interesting to see meaning emerge as I come to understand more and more of what someone “actually meant” by something. The challenge in writing, of course, is that too much explanation can be equally irritating, and one never knows quite how much to offer.
I’ve become intrigued by the idea of putting some obscure puns “in the spotlight” by rendering them as images with engaging typography. This brings a visual dimension into the experience of considering a pun, and for me at least, makes the whole thing more interesting.
The example above is a play on the editor’s notation “sic” which is short for the Latin “Sic erat scriptum,” which means “Thus it had been written.” Sic is used to indicate that a mistake in quoted text was present in the original (i.e. it’s not a typo by the author who’s using the quote). In my example, there’s something “funny” about how sic is written. Since I spend a lot of time writing software, I’m extremely conscious of mismatched parentheses, and I view them as something to be corrected immediately–the urge to “fix” them is practically primal. So, when I view the image above I want to correct it, but then I realize that it has a kind of self-referential accuracy to it. The word sic is calling out an error, and indeed there is an error in that extra paren on the left. If we were to remove that paren, what then would the error be? Sic would just be dangling on its own, or referring to something not shown. I suppose it could be seen as an error to write “(sic)” where there is no error, so “(sic)” could be referring to itself, but that interpretation is too obscure for me. I need to have a visible error to “anchor” the pun.
I also enjoy the multiplicity of possible interpretations. Yes, “((sic)” could be saying “I’ve been written wrong–I’ve got an extra paren on me left.” But here’s another way of seeing it: What if that paren was there in the first place, just dangling on its own, in a state of mismatchedness? Then someone wrote “(sic)” right beside the open left paren to helpfully point out that “(” had been written in error?
So, what’s fun for me about this example is that it challenges my own inclination to label something as wrong. I see the unbalanced parens and I think “Wrong!” but then I become aware of a different explanations which make me think “Wait, it’s OK. It works!” I don’t have “space” to address this fully here, but the same kind of play between “wrong” and “right” is what I find provocative in art, and what I seek in my own photographic and musical work: something about the image or sound startles you, makes you think it might be “wrong” and then you come to see the logic in it.
The example below fuses a “sic joke” with “italics mine.” It appears that “Italics mine” had been misspelled as “Ital mine” and [sic] was put in there to point out the error. (In so doing, it gives us the same letters we’d need to correct the error, just in a scrambled order.) But notice how the text of “(Italics mine)” surrounds, even engulfs the italicized “sic.” What is “italics mine” actually trying to say here? It could be saying “I’ve just italicized the letters of sic.” Or it could be saying “Look, I surround sic, I own the italicized sic, I own the error!”
I got the idea for (ital[sic] mine) when my friend Robin suggested that I do a followup to my post on italics mine with something about sic. When she sent me this suggestion, she wrote “sic erat scriptum” as follows:
sic (erat scriptum)
If you like sic, you’ll love this Corrected Dictionary.
For me, the impulse to pun is often accompanied by serious púnjà vu: I feel quite “certain” that any pun I think of comes from the past — either I’ve heard it before or said it before myself. Right now I have púnjà vu for “púnjà vu.” I’m sure I’m inadvertently “stealing” this pun from somewhere else, but I can’t find it in Google. How can that be‽ I thought everything was Googlable⸮ If you come across this post at some later date, because you’ve just reinvented “púnjà vu,” and like me you have púnjà vu for it, please comment.
“púnjà vu” is a portmanteau or fusion of the words “pun” and “déjà vu.” It is supposed to mean “the feeling of déjà vu for a pun.” It’s really a kind of déjà entendu (the feeling that one has already heard something), and so a better expression might be púnjà entendu.
I wonder whether púnjà vu, the phrase, should be considered a proper pun. Sometimes I think of a “pun” in a general sense, as any form of wordplay involving multiple meanings (and in this sense, púnjà vu, and all other portmanteaus qualify). Other times, I think “pun” should be reserved for a more specific form a wordplay where two meanings of an existing word are exploited, and in this case púnjà vu fails because it doesn’t exist (i.e. outside my own corrupted vocabulary). Since the very act of punning is mischievous, I won’t be too concerned if púnjà vu parades as a pun when it really isn’t. And while we’re speaking of parades, notice how púnjà vu parades around with the same diacritics of déjà vu without any serious intent to use them. So feel free to write “punja vu” or “punja entendu.”
What is the source of the word “púnjà vu”–or what might it be if in fact I’m not the first to think of it? Since I grew up reading Douglas Hofstadter I often suspect the puns in my mind as originating from somewhere in his stuff, or else in the other wordplay books I carried around in high school (Richard Lederer and the like), but without the tedious effort of tracking them down, I can never be sure…
What is the source of the phenomenon of “púnjà vu”? I wonder if púnjà vu arises because the same puns really do keep occurring to people over and over again, so if you think of a pun, chances are you have heard it before. Or is it because the mental processes involved in punning “feel” the same every time, giving us the sense that the result (the pun) already existed, when it is really only the mechanism that is familiar to us?
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:
…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:
…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!