I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is a meager and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely in your thoughts, advanced to the state of Science, whatever the matter may be. – Lord Kelvin
William Cooper in the foreword to A Random Walk in Science says physicists have not “comprehended that irrationality is our basic natural state.”
Note 3. (For Ray Albert only)
“ ‘that’ – and that was the last he thatted…” – John Barth, Perseid
MOST NAPA MEMBERS understand that the role of their criticism is to stroke ever so gently to make every scribbling member feel the equal of Shakespeare. This stroking is known in the organization as egoboo and is one of the prime reasons for belonging. There are a few uncooperative people like John Carroll who now and again lambasts NAPA poetry and who has claimed that NAPA members want to be writers but don’t want to write, and there is one, Phred Liddle, who believes that some controversy is needed to keep the organization awake. But most members assiduously avoid unpleasantness of any kind and keep saying you’re ok so that you will assure them they’re ok, too. Some people publish rot for years without hearing a harsh word.
Not all of my non-NAPA readers are so well trained, nor do they show any concern for reciprocity. I guess someone else is already scratching their backs. The result is I have had a reader return an issue of my journal as unsatisfactory (when people return free journals, you know you have a problem) and now I have a critic who, as far as I can gather, is dubious about: 1. my mental state, 2. the importance of my subject matter, 3. my grammar, and 4. my logic. Or to summarize his criticism, I believe he is saying: “Even if you had a reasonable argument about this perfectly normal, trivial matter, you wouldn’t know how to say it.” Here it is:
I write to you now because you’re clearly in trouble. Boxwooder 62 (September) shows that your faith (Boxwooder 61) has been, or is coming quite close to being, broken. Faith? Faith in what? Why in the inanity of advertisers, the stupidity of “molders of public opinion,” in short, the gross incompetence of those who manage to have something written about or by them in the, more or less, public press. Sellers will sell, swindlers will swindle, scientists will pontificate, and congressmen will be congressmen.
So what’s new?
What worries me is that, suddenly, it all seems to be getting to you. Be of good cheer!! The world hasn’t changed; you haven’t changed; you’ve just become (temporarily) dyspeptic.
To illustrate that all is still right (or rather, no different) with the world I will cite the Kaplans’ reaction to the tome cited earlier. Boxwooder 61 (August). I maintain that as long as passions can be aroused, families can be torn asunder, nations can perish – all about trivia, all’s right with the world.
What started it all was the sentence mid-page 6 that reads in part: “The troubles which plague the sciences which must depend upon observation and interpretations of observations are…” “Aha!” said we, pityingly and in unison. “We got ourselves a pigeon, a patsy, a pretender, a person with literary aspirations who doesn’t know the difference between that and which.” (We often find ourselves talking like that – and in unison.) Passionate believers in “The Little Book[*]” are we, and we pore over masses of material seeking out Strunk stumblers, as we call them.
Well – about the first which there was no doubt. It’s wrong. Information is imported about the troubles thus it should read: “The troubles that plague…”
Honored Sir, THAT was the last time the entire evening that Evelyn and I agreed, and the “discussion” stopped just short of mayhem or calling attorneys.
We started with the second which in the sentence. (Was it defining, telling which science are being discussed – in which case it should be that, of course or was it a parenthetical insert?) But VERY soon we moved on to the differences between hard and soft sciences. See e.g. page 8. Evylen’s degrees are in linguistics, probably the softest of the soft sciences, and she’ll brook no interpretation that questions the relative reliability of the softies. I put up a manful battle – and achieved a standoff – but Jake, couldn’t you have picked better examples? Man and the Bering Straights was ok, but what three roots in an equation has to do with the validity of a scientific concept is hard to see. “Go ahead,” she says, “divide by zero, I dare ya!” She knows it’s game playing. You do too (page 3), but you’re not consistent.
And then, “energy being conserved in an elastic collision.” How the hell do you prove that when the very concept of an elastic collision is a construct – a self defining construct that has as much reality as a Euclidean line.
Now I ask you, is there ANYTHING more trivial than such an argument? Yes, say I, answering my own question, the 54-watt bulb, or possibly, just possibly, Warner’s reaction to the 54-watt bulb.
– Ken Kaplan
Perhaps I should start my defense with the safest charge about which to argue, my mental state, since no one can look that up in a book and prove me wrong. I am not, as charged, dyspeptic, temporarily or otherwise. My digestion is much too good for me to be a pessimist. I am almost always, hardly even tempered with a little realism, optimistic. I have long observed that one’s basic attitude is independent of his ambient conditions. It ought to depend on circumstances, but I don’t believe it does. Perhaps, as Kurt Vonnegut says in Breakfast of Champions, it is just a chemical in one that determines how one feels and how one thinks. But that’s another argument. I submit that far from being a pessimist, I have to remind myself frequently to dampen my natural optimism by examining some of the details of our incredible society.
As we know from Games People Play, one of the games people play is “Ain’t It Awful” (AIA). Everybody likes to play AIA. One can play it solo, but it is better as a group game with any number of players. The older one gets, the more fascinating it becomes for reasons that may be best unexamined. It is, quite naturally, one of the favorite games of people who have access to a means of publishing their views. For one thing, they can always count on readers who like to play AIA. That’s what I was doing in Boxwooder 62, playing AIA. It is an easy game to start in laughter and to end in tears, and it is so addictive that one must always know when he is indulging in it. It is wise to have an antidote at hand if the game goes too far. So I watch for events that, like a mother’s kiss, make it all ok again. Like this one:
According to a news story, a little boy at the zoo got through the guard rails to pet a lion cub. The lioness in the cage grabbed the boy’s leg with her paw, pulled his leg through the bars, and closed her jaws over it. At that point a woman, not the boy’s mother, removed her shoe (which was a tennis shoe, yet) and beat the lioness over the head with it until she let go of the boy’s leg. The boy was unharmed.
Just the thought of this woman attacking the lioness with a tennis shoe cheers me up immeasurably. We’re really tough customers, we people. Ain’t it Wonderful.
Now that it has been established that my AIA game playing is simply a counterweight to my usual feeling of Reader’s Digestian Panglossium, let us take up the more substantive matter of relative pronouns, use and misuse of.
It is simple, without even referring to Webster’s Third – I’d rather lose, to show that my accusers are simply lagging behind the grammatical changes in our language.
The American College Dictionary, 1970, Random House, Inc. says:
That, which, who are all relative pronouns in English… only who and which are found in nonrestrictive clauses. Any of the three can be used in a clause which restricts or defines.
Note the which in the last clause above.
Webster’s New World Dictionary, 1972, The World Publishing Company, says:
Which, who, whom, or that: used as a relative in a restrictive or nonrestrictive clause referring to the thing or event specified in the antecedent word, phrase, or clause.
Random House Dictionary of the English Language, 1966, Random House, Inc. says:
… and many excellent writers regularly fail to treat that and which differently.
Clearly the Kaplans may consider themselves fortunate that I do not countercharge them collectively and individually with errant pedantry. Winston Churchill said that errant pedantry was a thing “up with which I will not put.”
On the other hand I could permit my real emotions to show and cry to them, “Shame, shame on you.” Here I am struggling in a steadily losing battle to complete hyphenated words, to try to prevent pseudo from appearing as psuedo, to spell repetition correctly, and most annoying of all, trying to weed the apostrophes out of its when it’s not a contraction. These are the sort of grammatical problems with which I am employed full time and, indeed, overtime. To think that there are predators waiting to swoop on such esoteric grammatical niceties as distinctions between which and that fills me with rage for them and pity for me.
It’s the most discouraging thing since Tom Whitbread declaimed a portion of one of my essays on the porch of the hotel at Natural Bridge, Virginia. He did this in full voice with overly full gestures before a rapt audience. Imagine, if you can, the intimidation exerted by the thought that something I’m trying to write might become an oration for Tom Whitbread. (For non-NAPA readers, I should say that Tom is a professor of English who could easily make high camp comedy out of the Ten Commandments by his histrionic reading. Worse yet, he is a witty, erudite critic with a devastating instinct for the ridiculous) The only way I’ve managed is to block that experience from my recall circuit.
I doubt if Tom would stoop to grammatical criticism. Of course it’s hard to say which is worse. Perhaps there’s something about me that attracts critics. Kelly James says I’m too wordy; Marge Colvin writes from France to correct my spelling; Ray Albert, the gentle bard of Blacksburg, complained that I had written a clause with circular antecedents – “that is the reason for that” – he claimed I had written.
In all fairness, am I not justified in wallowing in self-pity? Am I not beset on all fronts? Alas and alack!
On the other hand (the third, I believe), my basic honesty forces me to admit that I am a Strunkite. I have a downstairs Strunk (hard-bound) and an upstairs Strunk (paper-bound). I frequently read randomly in the upstairs Strunk just before falling asleep. I have been reading and rereading the little book since it was first republished following E. B. White’s story about it in The New Yorker. And further, I don’t care what any dictionary may say, I am a full believer in Strunk’s rules. So how can I account for the double which? Well, it is an unfortunate fact that no rule of grammar (and few other things) read, no matter how frequently, in the last twenty years really sticks with me. Grammar, like bike riding, should be learned early. A secondary, but important, reason is an inability to distinguish between even my own restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. It is very easy to give examples of each, but like many other grammatical matter, the converse is by no means easy. I must agree with Ken’s view that my first which should have been that and, clearly, the second also. That’s certainly what I intended to convey.
Parenthetically, let me remark that many people, all single, would find it incredible that the Kaplans are not able to discuss grammar without grave internal strife. I’m reminded of a man who upon observing my customarily dirty car said, “Why don’t you have your wife wash it?” Aghast, I said, “You’re not married, are you?” and was much reassured when he said he was not. My wife and I have discussed grammar many times, we don’t fight about it. I do however seem to remember having my ancestry questioned for criticizing some stupid movie. Oh, well.
So, finally, though I can muster a strong defense and remain slightly dubious of the clarity of critics who would bring up such arcane subjects, I must admit guilt in using which for that twice in the same sentence. I promise to follow Strunk’s advice and go on an occasional which hunt.
My examples of conclusions from hard sciences could have been better chosen, and I was a little cryptic but they are by no means as poor as Ken says. Admittedly a game, mathematics is a science. Elastic collisions do, in fact, occur in atomic particles. If a high school student proves an equation has three roots, all mathematicians will accept it with little regard for the origin of the proof. Whether a collision of atomic particles may be deemed elastic depends upon precise measurements of energy and not upon the scholarly ranking of the experimenter.
I didn’t think anyone (including Evelyn) would dispute the relative reliability of conclusions in hard and soft sciences. That’s almost the definition of hard and soft. For example: Both the structure of the Proto-Indo-European language and the crystal structure of silicon must be inferred. Of which are we more certain that the details are correct? It is not just that crystallography is easier than linguistics (though it is), the difference is that the crystal inferences are made from repeatable experiments that are specifically designed to clear up any uncertainties. Soft sciences do not have this capability.
My favorite example of a soft (I’m tempted to say “mushy”) science is sociology. It is common to preface a sociology study with: “The conclusions drawn from this study apply only to the society defined as the inhabitants of the Olympic Boarding House, Long Reach, Vermont between March 21 and May 2, 1959. Extrapolations to other societies, locations, or time periods are unwarranted.”
Suppose a hard science did this: “The conclusions drawn from this study apply only to the specific 1-pound and 10-pound weights used and only to the experimenter, Galileo, and to the tower at Pisa. Extrapolations to other weights, experimenters, or localities are unwarranted.”
The charge that my subject matter is trivia is admitted. I used to puzzle over people’s fascination with trivia, but I finally understood it. The only problems we can actually know how to solve in life, as in quantum mechanics, are the trivial ones. I cannot begin to know how to cope with the energy shortage, but I know exactly what to do with a 54-watt bulb when it is offered as a solution.
When I first went into the army I could hardly believe that any officer would concern himself with which way my coat hanger hooks faced. Much older, and a little wiser, I now would not be surprised to learn that many general officers think of nothing else.
It is no secret that Washington, D.C. has a serious crime problem. What are the major complaints of the public to the police? Listen to Jerry V. Wilson, recently retired Chief of Police, Washington Post, 10 October 1974:
… the police chief can easily perceive what the two foremost issues of police work are. They are traffic control and hair styles.
… although it may come as a surprise, hair cuts and beard styles are the predominant subjects at police staff meetings.
Parkinson discussed this in Parkinson’s Law where the board of directors deeply considered and rejected a roof for the employee’s bicycle shed just after they had, without a murmur, approved a nuclear power plant.
Probably more management time is devoted to Coke bottles than any other problem in industry or government. Briefly, the problem is that employees get sodas from coin machines, take the bottles off to their offices and work spaces, and then do not return them. Countless man-hours of discussion by high level management people has brought this problem no closer to solution.
One might think the employee could simply throw his bottle in the trash can, but long before recycling was in, this was recognized to be a false solution, and trash men were instructed to remove the bottles and leave them beside the emptied trash cans.
Normally to forestall another false solution, management points out that janitorial personnel are not permitted to return the bottles to the machine on the basis that this is too expensive. It is not considered too expensive for the highly paid employee to take his bottles back. Perhaps it is recognized that these types waste a good bit of their time anyway and would likely be staring out the window if they were not carrying their bottles back.
Since the employee will fail to take his bottles back, his office will gradually fill up with them. So finally, one day he will spend most of the day returning bottles. This act creates great surges in the bottle return system and causes great piles of unsightly bottles around the machine, is more than the truck man is prepared to remove, and thus causes innumerable complications that could be avoided if each person would take back his bottle as soon as he finished its contents.
The board of directors of many companies and government agencies are waiting to hail the hero who finally solves this problem.
Or maybe not. It is, after all, a problem they all understand, it does not have unpleasant minority group implications, it does not cause any directory to become really overwrought. All things considered, it’s a pretty nice problem. God knows what they might have to face if they solved and therefore removed this problem from their agendas.
There is a serious lack of problems that are sufficiently trivial enough that one can hope for a solution. One might say there’s a trivia gap. So I’m only trying to do my bit.
Hand set in Deepdene. Display type is Goudy Text with Lombardic initials in 24-point and 48-point sizes. Published in the spirit of self-defense by Jake Warner and 450 copies printed by him on a 10×15 C&P at the Boxwood Press, Greenbelt, Maryland 20770.