We invented language to be vague, if you can sort of see what I mean.Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes
Only a few can stomach Greek mythology. Perhaps because of murderous demigods such as Procrustes. The son of Poseidon owned an ancient Backpacker Hostel between Athens and Eleusis where he invited unsuspecting travellers to spend the night. None of the guests could fit Procruste’s bed, though. So he made them fit. By stretching their limbs or surgically removing them. What does the Bed of Procrustes have to do with linguistic oddities?
The Bed of Procrustes is more than a bloody legend. It’s a metaphor for arbitrary standards to which we sometimes force each other to conform. This becomes apparent when looking at the demanding yet often vague and contradictory standards of the English language.
Let’s take a close look at nine examples of such linguistic oddities. Phenomena that walk the line between accepted language use and non-conformity. We start with Fumblerules and make our way to Betteridge’s Law. Are they all just useless trivia? Sometimes the answer is hiding in plain sight.
The first of our linguistic oddities is Fumblerules. The term was coined by The New York Times columnist William Safire back in 1979. In essence, his Fumblerules of Grammar are self-referential ways of formulating a rule of language while breaking it:
No sentence fragments.
Eschew obfuscation, espouse elucidation.
The rules of grammar never break you must.
The first dimension to Fumblerules is the advice itself. It’s not just given. It is shown by delivering a striking example with the claim itself. Ironically this makes the guideline both convincing and obsolete at the same time. After all, the breaking of the rule itself made the point clear.
Consider this. The use of sentence fragments can be quite useful. To give your writing a rhythm. Like music. You can alternate between long and short sentences. Or vary between complex and simple grammatical structures. It all depends on the desired effect. The effect you want to create for the reader to make your point understood, to make it memorable.
There’s a second dimension to Fumblerules, though. They’re the grammatical manifestation of a common type of humour. Making a statement with utmost confidence only to contradict it in the same moment is a principle half of The Simpsons jokes are based on.
Fumblerules are a style that always borders on the cringeworthy. This has probably to do with the delicate endeavour of subverting expectations. Breaking with conventions is a fine art that aims to push boundaries. It’s bound to miss the mark and be awkward at times. But it’s not art for its own sake. It’s to achieve something that could not be achieved within the confines of the conventions. It has long become a trope that, in order to break them, know the rules you must.
That said, under no circumstances should the esteemed reader ever feel inclined to critique and dismiss Fumblerules as categorically superfluous never-say-neverisms. This brings us to the next rule of our linguistic oddity number two.
2. Muphry’s Law
Muphry’s Law is closely related to the more widely known Murphy’s Law (“Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.”). It’s a humbling law. Muphry’s main tenet goes like this:
(a) If you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written.
While it comes in many variations, Muphry’s Law is attributed to Australian author John Bangsund, who passed this piece of linguistic legislation in 1992. He continues:
(b) if an author thanks you in a book for your editing or proofreading, there will be mistakes in the book;
(c) the stronger the sentiment expressed in (a) and (b), the greater the fault;
(d) any book devoted to editing or style will be internally inconsistent.
In other words: You can’t win. The humility of Muphry’s Law lies in the acknowledgment of its inevitability. The more you’re trying to fight it, the more you’re struck by instant karma for your hubris.
You may have noticed yourself that this principle extends far beyond its editorial application. According to common wisdom, you should never buy a car from a mechanic. Likewise, complaining about someone’s traffic violation while driving will cause you to violate a traffic rule yourself. If you’re an educator you may have noticed that professional development for teachers on teaching and learning methodology tends to lack teaching and learning methodology.
Muphry’s Law seems to have a scientific kernel of truth to it. As psychologist Igor Grossmann found out:
No matter how wise you are to others, you can still be a fool in your own life.Igor Grossmann, Wisdom: Situational, Dispositional, or Both
It’s science. So no more proofreading, no more criticising? Of course not. Complain away. Perhaps just with a little bit more self-restraint. It’s for your own good, too. Our human obsession to correct is a powerful button. One that can be pushed to prompt you into giving up information you had rather kept for yourself.
Speaking of corrections. The next of our linguistic oddities invokes curiosity for the very same reason. ‘Ghoti‘ is an often-cited example of the absurdity of English pronunciation. When asked to say the word, the uninitiated are usually amazed that there’s a strong case to be made for pronouncing it fish. The alternative spelling goes back as far as the mid-19th century when it was first mentioned.
Now how could that possibly be? We’ll have to break it down into three more familiar English units of sound. You’ve used them many times:
‘gh’ is pronounced ‘f‘, as in tough
‘o’ is pronounced ‘i‘, as in women
‘ti’ is pronounced ‘sh‘, as in nation
This example of linguistic oddities forces us to change our perspective on the relationship between spelling and pronunciation. Almost like we would if we learned a new language. That makes it a memorable anecdote to teach English sounds to second language learners. Other than that there don’t seem to be too many non-smartypants kinds of applications.
4. Garden-Path Sentence
On to Garden-Path Sentences. These are grammatically absolutely correct constructions. You’ll have no problems pronouncing the words correctly. However, they mislead you at the level of meaning, taking advantage of your familiarity with one possible interpretation over another.
Let me lead you down one of those garden paths, as the saying goes:
The old man the boat.
…is a wonderful example. Is the old man a boat? Are we missing a verb? Is it a mere enumeration? It’s neither. The sentence deceives you by playing with the word ‘old’. It appears as an adjective describing the noun ‘man’. In actual fact, ‘old’ is the noun and ‘man’ is used as a verb: “The elderly are getting into the boats,” so to speak. The reason why you can eventually figure it out has to do with context and your knowledge of the real world.
That makes it more than playful trivia. It’s one of those linguistic oddities used in artificial intelligence research to teach machines how to parse sentences. In other words, it’s a potent test phrase to see if Siri, Alexa and the Assistant are up to the task of understanding what you want from them in any given scenario.
It shows how we launch into a sentence with certain assumptions and expectations. Then get confused when encountering ambiguous information. But continuously re-evaluate its meaning with each new word. It’s a shame we have so much trouble doing that beyond the reading of mere sentences.
A Paraprosdokian uses the same trick to mislead you linguistically. The figure of speech plays with your expectations, usually for dramatic effect. For example, we turn to the great philosopher Homer. Homer Simpson that is:
If I could just say a few words… I’d be a better public speaker.
The punchline is often anticlimactic, meaning the anticipation of a positive event is not exactly rewarded. The term itself comes from Greek, which roughly translates to ‘against expectations’. No surprise there. In fact, this type of written punchline and double meaning is quite old. Paraprosdokians are similar to antanaclasis as found in this example in Shakespeare’s Othello:
Put out the light, then put out the light.William Shakespeare, Othello
Speaking of multiple meanings. Here’s another way to confuse you.
6. The Importance of Punctuation
I admit we’re getting into slightly Elizabethan dad joke territory here. But let’s say you’ve nailed pronunciation, the meaning of words, their context and curbed your expectations. Now you’re facing punctuation.
The comma rules in the English language are a subversive cesspool ruled by Muphry’s Law. I’ve always avoided getting into the comma wars with my students by boiling them down to the golden rule of commas. They’re only really necessary if they change the meaning of a sentence. The following illustrates the point quite clearly:
The kids who are good can have ice cream.
…is a commaless example with a relative clause defining ‘the kids’ more specifically. It indicates that only the kids who are well-behaved get some ice cream. Whereas “The kids, who are good, can have ice cream,” employs a non-defining relative clause and suggests that all kids get ice cream, possibly even because they’re good. When it comes to illustrating a grammar rule, it helps if your students have skin in the game.
To show that I’m not the worst of language nerds, let me introduce you to an example that takes this to a ludicrously new level. It’s taken from a hypothetical English test that features the proper use of English past tenses. The fictitious assignment was to describe a man who fell ill with a cold. The comment reads:
James while John had had had had had had had had had had had a better effect on the teacher.
You’d think there’s no possible way this sentence makes any sense whatsoever. Until the punctuation reveals it to be about the preference of the teacher of the past perfect (‘had had’) over the simple past (‘had’). John wrote, “The man had a cold”. James wrote, “The man had had a cold”,
James, while John had had “had“, had had “had had“; “had had” had had a better effect on the teacher.
So James, while John had it wrong, had it right. Obviously. Perhaps let’s dial down the complexity again.
7. Escher Sentences
…but dial up the meta mind meddling with the next one of our linguistic oddities: Escher Sentences. These linguistic oddities are named after Dutch graphic artist Maurits Cornelis Escher who penned the titular hands drawing each other into existence. Such sentences are the linguistic versions of the famous Penrose steps, an impossible construct that defies the laws of geometry and therefore cannot exist in the real world.
Likewise, Escher sentences are comparative illusions that sound sensible but really are not. Here’s a classic example:
More people have been to Russia than I have.
Like the Penrose steps, this sentence makes perfect sense at first glance. But only gives the illusion that you’ve been given a meaningful answer. Once you’ve figured that out, the conversation might long be over. The comparison between the number of people and the number of times the speaker has travelled to Russia is nonsensical.
It’s as nonsensical as this Escher Sentence of German origin, which compares a temporal and spatial concept:
It’s much colder at night than outside.
A common German rebuttal translates to: “Because all houses are outdoors”. It serves to signal that you haven’t fallen for the cheap linguistic party trick and thus earns you a nod of appreciation.
We proceed with next-level smoke-screenery. Circumlocution is the act of being vague and evasive by using many words unnecessarily.
On the off-chance you’re not a connoisseur of German nonsense comedy of the 1970s, let me refresh your memory on the following sketch.
A butler calls His Lordship to convey to him the trivial information that one of his 3,000 cattle, a cow named Elsa, has just died. Only to bit by bit reveal that the cause of death was the roof of the barn falling down on her…which happened because the barn burnt down…due to the country estate being on fire…as a result of the boss’ son dropping a candle holder…because the son wanted to create a warm atmosphere for the funeral of His Lordship’ wife.
The actual reason for the phone call was buried underneath a load of irrelevancies. As such, circumlocution typically obfuscates an unpleasant truth, someone’s responsibility, or the fact that the speaker has no idea of what he or she is talking about. Naturally, it’s the language of politics, bureaucracy, marketing and comedy.
The utility of spotting circumlocutory obfuscation should be obvious. If you watch enough German nonsense-comedy you’ll get proficient in calling BS.
9. Betteridge’s Law
Speaking of calling BS. Finally, we’ve arrived at the linguistic oddity of Betteridge’s Law. A simple yet effective trick to lure you into reading an article by manufacturing suspense. I’m sure you’ve come across it reading the news. Betteridge’s Law is an iron rule of headlines you will not be able to unsee once you’ve learned about it:
Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.
While this type of self-defeating leading question has a long history, the law itself was coined in 2009 by Ian Betteridge, a British technology journalist. It exposes a form of prevalent clickbait titles which, as a rule, should never be used under any circumstances.
In any case, as we reach the end of our list of linguistic oddities, we should be able to answer our question from the very beginning. Are these nine linguistic oddities just useless trivia?
You may have noticed that our nine linguistic oddities share a commonality. They play with language, its principles and multiple meanings. It’s no coincidence they all operate in a grey zone, walking the fine line between wit and cliché, cleverness and cringe. Ask yourself, what’s the speaker’s or writer’s intent? Is it to manipulate or to entertain, to confuse you or to make you see things more clearly?
Becoming more attuned to the intricacies of language can make you more eloquent and quick-witted. It also sharpens your thinking for other means of communication, such as the language of film. Or when you encounter the Procrustean beds life prepares for you. But to be fair, it’s probably a good idea not to overthink it all. You may lose yourself in the world of thoughts and symbols until you don’t know what’s what and who you are anymore.
Apropos, the legend of Procrustes has quite a thrilling ending. Eventually, the evil host was forced to fit in his own bed by a royal gentleman named Theseus. The same Theseus whose naval thought experiment encourages us to reflect on what makes us who we are. I wonder if that’s supposed to be kind of a coincidence or something?