RESOLUTIONS 2015

I’m not much of a resolutioner since I have very bad follow through on things, but I thought I’d give it a try this year. Here are a few things I’d like to do in 2015:

1. Finally read my three-volume set of Remembrance of Things Past that I bought in college and meant to read with a group of comparative literature graduate students but then didn’t actually do. I’ve been lugging this set around (along with loads of other books, of course) for almost twenty years and through eight dorm room/apartment moves.

2. Draft two short stories.

3. Draw a portrait of Mr. Giles.

RE-BLOG

I’m certain I’ve come to this conclusion a few times before already, but I realized yet again recently that I remember things far less when I do not spend time reflecting and writing on the events of my days. I haven’t been blogging much in years, and I also stopped writing in a journal (as haphazardly and inconsistently as that practice always was anyways). I dislike feeling like I’m drifting through the days without processing what I’ve experienced…

This most recent re-revelation is in part because I heard that a friendly acquaintance from grad school drowned a few days ago in an accident involving faulty electrical wiring at the dock. To learn of the accidental death of someone you knew, someone who was always so kind and generous, leads to a particular kind of sadness rooted in a sense of life’s lack of justice. Can anything right this wrong?

I’m also trying to get back into the habit of writing. Facebook has turned me into a status updater and commenter, with anything longer than brief exchanges too much for me to wrap my head around. Anything in paragraph form will be helpful; anything that requires a semblance of organization and development of ideas will spur these dormant writing muscles into action.

Performative utterance: I hereby re-dedicate myself to blogging on a regular basis.

SPLIT INFINITIVES

In my editing work today, I came across this website wherein a business writing consultant encourages people to split infinitives. THE HORROR!!

Ok, so while my personal preference is not to split infinitives, as an editor working with APA guidelines, I don’t point out split infinitives much except when there are so many instances that I just can’t take it anymore. I know that use of split infinitives is very widespread and accepted by most authorities on style. Still, it hurts me to see split infinitives because I really do think of infinitives as a single unit, as in languages where they are in fact one word (such as in Spanish). Moreover, there is no real reason that keeping the infinitive verb intact is any less difficult or confusing. I guess I’m a prescriptivist, which helps to explain my interest in metadata standards as well in librarianship. Standard expressions, vocabulary, and formatting are all really important for efficient communication!

Of course, I’m also enamored with word play and with pushing the boundaries of language. But I like such experimentation and flouting of language rules when there is a purpose, not just because the writer is lazy or unconcerned with rules for clear communication. I love poetry, after all, and also the dialogue in Joss Whedon’s tv shows and movies where the characters create new phrases and syntaxes that are wonderful in their coherence and evocation of a different world. But these examples are the opposite of what the blogger linked above advocates, which is purely and simply acquiescence to widespread practice (she is surely a descriptivist) without solid reasoning about why splitting infinitives is really better than keeping infinitives intact. True, she did her research and noted that the major style guides either explicitly condone splitting infinitives or decline to comment on the practice at all, but it’s one thing to note that outright condemnation of split infinitives is no longer common and another to have a good reason for splitting infinitives. The examples of split infinitives that she gives as evidence of better writing don’t really work for me, either, because her claims that placing modifiers before the infinitives changes the meaning of the sentence is something that can be fixed with a better choice of words in the first place.

THOUGHT LEADER

The term thought leader has crossed my path a few times in the last week, and each time, I feel a twinge of pain deep in my soul. Wikipedia explains, “Thought leader is business jargon for an entity that is recognized by peers for having innovative ideas. Thought leaders often publish articles and blog posts on trends and topics influencing an industry.”

I’m not sure why the term rubs the wrong way so much. Earlier this week on Facebook, I posted that I want to stab the term with a pointy wooden stake. And later, a friend on the site posted about an email he got that used the term. I commented that I want to vomit each time I hear it. The reaction is quite visceral.

I suppose part of my problem with the term is simply the use of the word leader, which is a far overused term in American society–a shapeless term that is supposed to be everything that we seek in people (everyone must aspire to be a leader!). Leader and leadership are words that people use in so many vastly different ways that they come to mean anything and thus nothing. People claim that it is possible, indeed desirable, to have an entire organization of leaders, for instance, even though conceptually it seems paradoxical since leaders lead while everyone else follows. If everyone is leading, who is following?

In another way, the term also does that kind of violence to language that is the hallmark of business jargon. It at once displaces perfectly valid and pre-existing terms that mean the same thing (intellectual or thinker, for instance) while spinning the idea in a way that positions it squarely in a safely neutral way. Of course, this kind of milquetoast language is hardly as neutral as people pretend it is. To be a thought leader instead of an intellectual, for example, is about rejecting the idea that intellectuals are smart and therefore potentially seen as elitest. A thought leader, in contrast, is supposed to be a populist figure, just like any average person.

As with other aspects of the business world, this term also traffics in the idea of innovation simply for the novelty of change. A thought leader is someone who can show everyone else something new to pursue, regardless of whether that change is necessary, desirable, or even not detrimental to the existing set up.

As someone else on Facebook commented to my friend’s post, “Take me to your thought leader.” Indeed.

PRIVACY

Many email programs these days by default don’t load images in messages to protect people from being confronted with offensive (pornographic) pictures. The wording of some of these programs is along the lines of: to protect your privacy, we have blocked the images in this message…. I’ve always found this use of the word privacy a bit odd.

For me, privacy means being able to keep information about myself to myself and not to have it broadcast to the public or otherwise used by others. The force of the word in this sense is about protecting my stuff from getting out. In the Internet age, this version of privacy is an important issue for people concerned about how websites collect and share personal information. As online privacy advocates note, we must be vigilant in protecting our personal information from people who want to use it for profit, legal or illegal (marketing or identity theft).

The use of privacy I mentioned up front, however, has the opposite direction. To protect an individual’s privacy in that situation means to keep things on the outside from impinging on the individual’s sense of self. It is about invasion in a different way–not the taking away of your personal information but instead the flooding of your visual field with something that disturbs your sense of self. One of Merriam-Webster’s definitions for the word is, “freedom from unauthorized intrusion,” and I suppose I could see the use of privacy as protection from intrusion in it…. Still, it doesn’t seem quite right to me that not loading images in an email to protect a person from unwanted pictures is really a privacy issue. Perhaps there’s a legal definition of the term that makes more sense…. And maybe I’m wrong to assume that the protection of privacy in this instance is about offensiveness (and pornography)….

I guess “invasion of privacy” does mean generally the idea of someone intruding on your peace and quiet, so in that sense, I can see why disturbing images in email can be an invasion of privacy. The idea of images (rather than people) intruding on privacy is a bit odd, though.

AN ASK, A QUESTION, A REQUEST

“Put it in my ask,” the kids say these days. On social media and sharing sites like Tumblr, the comment submission box is an “ask box,” and people will use that phrasing with the word “ask” as a noun, or rather, as an adjective but while dropping the actual noun in the phrase. The other day, a faculty member asked me what my “ask” is for a meeting I have set up with a university administrator. I did not understand the question at first–“what is your ask?”–and had to ask her to explain what she meant. I am not used to “ask” as a noun, and at the time, it struck me as something that has seeped into common parlance from more corporate language practices. Later, I remembered that social media sites sometimes use the word similarly, but I was still curious about how widespread the use of the word in that manner is.

I looked in the online Oxford English Dictionary, as any good literature scholar would, and found that the noun form of “ask” indeed goes back as far as the year 1000 in older forms of English. I then googled “ask as a noun” and came across a question with answers at a site for English language & usage, which offers links to a couple of Language Log blog posts about the issue. It turns out that there is a strong correlation with the use of ask as a noun with technology company speak. I agree with the comments in the English language & usage post that notes the awkwardness of the usage when “question” or “request” would work just as well and seem less contrived. What is your question? What is your request?

Some more googling of “an ask” also reveals that the use is widespread in political fundraising campaigns, and that connection begins to explain some of the ways that the term might be deliberately awkward or seemingly innovative in order to make the idea of requesting money for political campaigns less direct. As fond as I am of linguistic play (in poetry and literature more generally), I find this kind of slippery use of language troubling. In my mind, it is more akin to the Newspeak of George Orwell’s 1984 than to the probing language of a poet like Myung Mi Kim whose unconventional use of words explores the breakdown of meaning and the sedimented layers of (colonial) power in language.