Splendid!

Have you noticed the strange feature of the English language that most of our words that mean ‘really good’ imply disbelief or some other concept that we may not wish to imply?

List of words for ‘really good’ that imply disbelief:

  • unbelievable, incredible, fabulous, fantastic.

For the first two we can easily see the disbelief. For the next two we need to dig a little into etymology. Fabulous relates to fables – things that did not happen. Fantastic relates to fantasy – things that we only imagine.

So let’s not say that somebody has done a fabulous job, since that may imply we don’t believe they really have done a good job. Perhaps it’s not as good as it seems, or maybe they are taking credit for somebody else’s work.

Better to just say they have done a really good job.

Other alternatives imply surprise:

  • marvellous, wonderful, amazing, astonishing, stunning, gobsmacking

Surprise suggests less scepticism than does disbelief, but the scepticism is hinted nonetheless. Even if not scepticism, it could be taken to imply that the person usually does a less good job. Ewan, you got it right for once! Marvellous! You usually make such a hash of things.

Again, I’d stick to ‘Good job, Ewan!

Other praise words serve as superlatives or comparisons:

  • excellent, outstanding, exceptional, superb, superlative, remarkable, unparalleled, unsurpassed, first-class, first-rate

Even if these don’t imply that Ewan usually fails, they could imply that most of his friends do, ie Ewan has excelled relative to his classmates, if not relative to his usual low performance level. Comparisons between people seem unkind to me. To describe Ewan or his work as ‘outstanding’ hints to his sister Eithne that hers is not.

When one does excellently, one must, by definition, have excelled others, from which it follows that those others have achieved less than best practice. Let us call such unfortunates the excellees, contrasting them with Ewan who in this case we can call the exceller.

If we don’t identify, implicitly or explicitly, specific excellees (Hah! Losers!) we identify the human race in general as a bunch of excellees. With so many beople being excelled (surpassed, outperformed, beaten), perhaps they needn’t feel bad about it. But doesn’t it generate a pessimistic feeling about people and about life? The same concern applies to the disbelieving words. If I describe a donation somebody made to a humanitarian charity as ‘incredible’, am I taking a bleak view of human nature – saying that most humans are mean? Some might say that’s just being realistic, and we should not kid ourselves. Perhaps.

Some praise words just mean big:

  • colossal, huge (colloquial)

No harm I suppose. But they only work for a small class of types of work. I wouldn’t say that somebody’s really good, intricate needlepoint work was colossal.

‘Terrific’ sounds nice. Until we look up the etymology and see that it comes from the latin word for terror and means ‘frightful’.

No. None of the above say what’s needed. That’s why, next time Ewan does a great job, I’m going to say ‘Ewan, that’s really splendid!

‘Splendid’, and its posher fellow travellers ‘splendorous’ and ‘resplendent’, means ‘looks really nice’. The website etymonline.com says:

Splendid: 1620s, “marked by grandeur,” probably a shortening of earlier splendidious (early 15c.), from Latin splendidus “bright, shining, glittering; sumptuous, gorgeous, grand; illustrious, distinguished, noble; showy, fine, specious,” from splendere “be bright, shine, gleam, glisten,” from PIE *splnd- “to be manifest” (source also of Lithuanian splendžiu “I shine,” Middle Irish lainn “bright”). An earlier form was splendent (late 15c.). From 1640s as “brilliant, dazzling;” 1640s as “conspicuous, illustrious; very fine, excellent.” Ironic use (as in splendid isolation, 1843) is attested from 17c.

Other good ones that have a similar feel to ‘splendid’:

  • exquisite, admirable, exemplary, sterling, magnificent, sublime, gorgeous, brilliant, inspirational, elegant

I still wonder slightly about ‘exemplary’. Sounds a tad comparative. ‘This is what you SHOULD be doing, instead of the dunder-headed, pointless way you’re going about things at present.’ But let’s leave it there for now, if only to provide variety.

Splendid has such a nice sound. It brings to mind a jolly hockey teacher at an English boarding school, with an unshakably positive mindset that she is doing her best to communicate  her students.

So let’s not use ‘incredible’ or ‘unbelievable’ to describe acts of great kindness or courage, and especially not simple demonstrations of competence. Let’s not imply that humans, or specific individuals, are innately callous, cowardly or incompetent. Let’s acknowledge splendour wherever we see it. That would be splendid.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, November 2019

I hope the woman whose photo I used at the top of this does not mind – it was just sitting there on the open internet. I just felt the photo captured so well the concept of pleasure at a job well done. Congratulations to that woman on the splendid work that led to her degree!


Freeing our minds from the slavery of the verb ‘to be’

Originally I intended to call this essay ‘Why e-prime is such a great idea’. Then I realised that conflicted with one of my aims for the essay – to write the whole thing in e-prime.

A man named David Bourland invented the notion of e-prime as a means of making language easier to understand. E-prime differs from English in only one respect – that it omits all use of the verb ‘to be’ and its synonyms like ‘to exist’. In e-prime one can mention those verbs by putting them, either stand-alone or as part of a phrase, in quotation marks. A mention, as opposed to a use, quotes something from a foreign language – in this case English. So please don’t write me remonstrative letters about my using the forbidden verbs inside quotes. I didn’t use it. I mentioned it.

I discussed e-prime in my 2014 essay ‘On language and meaning’. In this new essay I aim to further explore the capabilities, benefits and limitations of e-prime, and to take up the challenge of writing a whole essay in that language. I will have to cover some old ground again. But I aim to make most of it new.

Why bother?

First, let’s ask: ‘why bother?’ It sounds like a lot of trouble to take over an apparent triviality. We might also fear that avoiding that verb would make language too difficult to use, given the depth of its embedding and integration into our language. It crops up almost everywhere. One might as well try to ban using the letter ‘e’.

In the next paragraph I will suggest reasons for bothering, but first I want to say that most uses of the verb create no trouble at all. When my beloved partner calls out from the other end of the house ‘Are you there Andrew?’, I know she means ‘Can you hear me, and if so can you please let me know’. If I reply “I’m in the garden”, she knows I mean that I can hear her, that she can find me in the garden if she wants to talk to me, or she can call out again and I could come to see her, if wanted.

Compare the simple clarity of that exchange, expressed in either English or e-Prime, with the verse 3:14 of the book of Exodus “And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM”. Nobody knows what that means. Pragmatists like me say it means nothing. But that has not stopped theologians like St Thomas Aquinas from writing hundreds of thousands of words of dense (and in my opinion, meaningless) prose trying to explain what that sort of thing means. The same thing happens when they try to explain that the consecrated wafer “IS the body of Christ” and that “God IS the Father and God IS the Son but the Father IS NOT the Son”.

This sort of nonsense doesn’t only come from Christians, Jews or Muslims. The Vedanta school of Hinduism, with which I feel great affinity, says that “We ARE all God (Brahman)” and “This world IS Brahman’s dream”. Buddhism, with which I also fellow-travel, says “There IS no persisting self”. One can criticise the opacity of these statements as fairly as those of the previous paragraph. I think I could possibly translate the latter two into e-Prime, and thereby render them more intelligible, but I’d need another essay for that.

The other day, while idling time away on the internet, I could not stop myself reading the entirety of a blazing row between two strangers on a philosophy discussion forum about a statement by the twentieth-century mystic Jiddu Krishnamurti that “The observer IS the observed”. I find some of Krishnamurti’s writing helpful and wise, but I confess I have no idea what he meant by that one. Yet those two internet users thought it worth their while to insult and berate one another, despite never having met, for page after page because they had different interpretations of Krishnamurti’s meaning.

Even Bertrand Russell, who generally took a pragmatic approach, and has the respect of most philosophers and many others, sometimes used the verb in obscure ways. He wrote an essay entitled “It Seems, Madam?? Nay it IS”. Hamlet first uttered that phrase, to his mother. We can translate it as “It may merely SEEM to you, Mum, that I constantly feel miserable, but I can assure you that I really DO constantly feel miserable”.

Russell’s essay sought to attack the Idealist philosophy, which to some extent denied the difference between “appearance” and “reality”. Russell wanted to say that some things that ‘seem to be the case’, really ‘ARE the case’, for instance that “Edinburgh REALLY IS North of London”. But unlike Hamlet’s use of ‘it is’, I don’t think Russell or anyone else can explain his use of ‘REALLY IS’ in that Edinburgh sentence, and I find myself wondering confusedly what he meant. When confronted with such statements, I always ask myself, “How would a world where that ‘REALLY IS’ the case differ from one where it ‘only’ seems that way to anybody that ever attempted to find out, in the past present or future?” We can only answer “It would not differ in any way that we can understand, or that means anything to us”.

By the way, whether there ‘is’ a difference between appearances (or experiences) and ‘reality’ generates numerous ferocious debates amongst philosophers. People have destroyed friendships, lost families and fortunes over this meaningless question. One might view it as the modern-day version of Aquinas debating whether two angels can occupy the same space.

The disease of misused ‘is’ extends beyond philosophy and religion. Even the smallest children suffer from it. Consider the difference between ‘You are behaving like a jerk’ and ‘You ARE a jerk’. The first can serve as a loving remonstrance, and an encouragement to behave more sweetly. The other condemns the person for life. Even a three year-old, unacquainted with big words like ‘behave’, understands the difference between ‘You smell of poo’ and ‘You ARE a poo’.

Or in morals and law: ‘You have done an evil thing’ condemns strongly, but ‘You are evil’ condemns for life, with no hope of rehabilitation. Once they elect me king, I will forbid judges from pronouncing character judgements on convicted felons in their sentencing speeches. They may only pronounce judgement on the actions of the convicted felon.

In short, I claim that eschewing at least some uses of ‘to be’ can bring psychological benefits as well as benefits in clarity and morality. I also suggest that, when you read a sentence you do not understand, it might help to search it for obscure uses of that verb. If you can find one, perhaps you will discover that all the trouble stems from it, and conclude that the problem of understanding lies not with you but with the writer.

I hope that convinces you to least consider the potential benefits of reducing one’s use of the verb. As to the other obstacle I identified above – of the potential difficulty of training oneself away from an habitual use of the verb – listen to some of a three-part interview from 1997 with David Bourland himself, saved here on Youtube. I have not yet listened to all of it. But I listened to several minutes and it delighted me to realise that he did not use the verb at all. Yet he speaks so clearly, in a warm, colloquial way, like an old-style raconteur. That should suffice to show that omitting the verb would not make language more stilted and academic. Indeed, to me the opposite seemed to occur.

The verb ‘to be

The verb ‘to be’ infests English more than its equivalents do other European languages. When I started learning French at the beginning of high school, I found it odd that we had to say ‘I am Andrew’ as ‘Je m’appelle Andrew’, which literally translates as ‘I call myself Andrew’. But now it seems to me to make more sense. As Humpty Dumpty pointed out to Alice, what people call someone merely labels them. We don’t need anything beyond that. We don’t need to get into that quaint, English, overcomplicatedly metaphysical (and indefinable) concept of ‘existence’ just to introduce oneself.

One could also say ‘On m’appelle Andrew’ which means ‘people call me Andrew’ (literally: ‘One calls me Andrew’). Even better. French – one, English – nil.

What do the English mean when they say ‘I am hungry’? That sentence makes no abstract metaphysical statement. It just means they feel hungry. Again with the French, they say ‘j’ai faim’, which literally translates as ‘I have hunger’. Okay, a bit weird, but makes more sense than to declare some sort of equivalence between oneself and an adjective ‘hungry’. My father used to make fun of this English language oddity by replying, whenever one of his children said that (as we often did) ‘Hello Hungry, I’m Dad!’.

Or the weather. Which makes more sense to you: ‘It is sunny’, or ‘Il fait du soleil’, which literally translates as ‘It makes sunshine’?

Let’s not overly eulogise the French though. Any culture that can take a simple sentence like “Explain that to me” (e-prime) or “What is that?” (English) and express it as “What is this that this is?” (“Qu’est-ce que c’est?”) has no grounds for complacency.

Famous quotes with and without the dastardly verb

Let’s look at some well-known examples from literature.

Think of the infamous ‘To be or no to to be, that is the question’.

Just because Shakespeare lived long ago and has plays in all the high school syllabi, he gets a free pass on this atrocity that has confused poor innocent schoolkids for centuries, as they try to find a meaning in the silly statement. Once they receive an explanation, they usually think ‘why didn’t he just say “shall I kill myself or not?”, as he meant exactly that’. But they think it silently, because criticising Shakespeare begets not good marks at school. By the way, that sensible, unpretentious translation qualifies as perfect e-Prime.

Or “Wherefore art thou Romeo?”. Note that the English verb ‘to be’ in archaic form conjugates second person familiar as ‘thou art’, so ‘art’ doesn’t belong to the language of this essay. Again most listeners, right back to Shakespeare’s day, thought he meant ‘I can’t find you Romeo. Tell me your location’. But no, Shakespeare played a silly game of words, using the word ‘wherefore’ to mean ‘why’, so that the sentence means ‘why are you named Romeo?’ Which makes no sense, even with that translation, because Juliet had no problem with his first name but with his last name. She should have said ‘why do you belong to the Montagues?’ [The family that hated Juliet’s family, and vice versa]. David Mitchell exposed this silliness with excruciating wit and precision in an episode of ‘Upstart Crow’, but I thought of it before he did. Or at least before he produced that excellent comedy series. In any case, both ‘Tell me your location’ and ‘Why are you named Romeo [Montague]’ qualify as e-Prime.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife’ translates very naturally as ‘Everyone acknowledges that a single man in possession of a good fortune must want a wife’. Easy-peasy.

A trickier one: ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’ becomes ‘All happy families resemble one another [or, seem similar]; each unhappy family suffers for a different reason’. The e-Prime translation differs from the English one on a literal basis, but has the same meaning. The e-Prime version states explicitly the meaning that the English version veils behind poetic abstraction.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, …..’ translates as ‘On a bright cold day in April, as the clocks struck thirteen, Winston Smith, ….

Gosh, for that one we only needed to change three words and a punctuation mark. Orwell’s brilliance as a writer shows in how sparingly he uses the dreaded verb. Indeed, the second sentence of 1984, the one starting with ‘Winston Smith’, does not use the verb at all! It seems to me that avoiding the verb makes writing more alive, more active. It has a similar effect to choosing active voice over passive – a practice whose benefits people acknowledge almost as universally as Jane Austen’s dictum about rich, unmarried men.

Incidentally, Orwell’s brilliance comes through again in the book’s chilling ending:

He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.’

Not a ‘to be’ or a ‘not to be’ in sight! Take that, Shakespeare!

In fact, I think most great short quotes do not contain the dreaded verb. Consider:

Do you feel lucky, punk

Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn’ {I know, I know, he never actually said that!]

A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do

No man needs just a little salary

You can’t handle the truth!

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine

You played it for her, you can play it for me. Play it, Sam!

I cannot deny the greatness of “I’ll be back”, done, of course, in an Austrian accent. But perhaps General Macarthur said it better (and earlier) with ‘I shall return’.

Gordon Gekko’s famous ‘Greed is good’ threw me a bit. I started to wonder whether we cannot talk of vices and virtues in e-prime. How does one translate ‘Patience is a virtue’? After some reflection I realised that those uses of ‘to be’ belong to the mode ‘Class Membership’, amongst the eight broad modes of how one can use ‘to be’. In English, one says ‘X is a Y’ to indicate that the item X belongs to the class Y. For instance ‘Rover is a dog’. In mathematics we would write this as Rover∈Dogs. In e-prime we could say ‘Rover belongs to the set of dogs’. Similarly, ‘Greed [and patience] belong to the set of virtues’. The first comes from Gekko, not me. I don’t think he’d agree with the second.

Or perhaps he meant ‘Cultivate your greed. Feel proud of it, not ashamed.

Different uses of ‘to be’

Class membership, together with five other modes of using ‘to be’, creates no problems at all. I’ll list the six uses:

  • Class Membership. Example: ‘Ariadne is an architect’. Translation: ‘Ariadne  belongs to the group of people we call “architects” ’.
  • Class Inclusion. Example: ‘all cats are animals’. Translation: ‘All members of the group we call cats belong to the group we call “animals” ’. In mathematics, we use the “subset of” symbol ⊆ for this, writing “cats⊆animals”.
  • Predication. Example: ‘the cat is furry’. Translation: ‘The cat has fur all over
  • Auxiliary Active. Example: ‘the cat was sleeping’. Translation: ‘The cat slept’.
  • Auxiliary Passive. Example: ‘the cat was bitten by the dog’. Translation: ‘The dog bit the cat’.
  • Location. Example: ‘the cat is on the mat’. Translation: ‘The cat sits on the mat’ or ‘The mat has the cat on it’.

The extra words in some of the translations may seem clumsy to some. But in practice, just like when one translates from German to English, one aims to translate a whole paragraph rather than just a sentence. That gives more scope for strategic manoeuvering, which generally allows a more natural, flowing translation. Sentence-by-sentence translations from German to English sound truly awful, as the infamous example of the English libretto of Haydn’s ‘Creation’ oratorio demonstrates.

Disallowing the auxiliary active seems to lose a nuance of English. We think of ‘I was jumping’ as having a different meaning from ‘I jumped’. The former describes something happening (me sleeping) while another thing happens as well, eg ‘I was jumping when I tripped and sprained my ankle’. The latter describes a completed action, eg ‘I jumped over the bar without disturbing it’. In technical grammar language, we call the former the ‘past continuous’ and the latter the ‘simple past‘ or ‘preterite‘.

In latin languages we call the past continuous the ‘past imperfect’. They implement it by changing the ending of the word, so that ‘je saute’ (‘I jump’) becomes ‘je sautais’ (‘I was jumping’). Note that French does not introduce any auxiliary verb such as ‘to be’. Instead it just alters the verb ending. The use of ‘was/were’ as an auxiliary verb in English may delight us as one of its many quirks, but it really has nothing to do with the verb ‘to be’. We could just as well use ‘made’ or ‘did’ as our auxiliary verb, as in ‘I did jumping’. Or we could invent new verb endings to signify the past progressive, eg ‘I jumpeding’. As another alternative we could mimic the way many slang expressions work, omitting common words. We could say ‘Me – jumping, right? I tripped. Yaah! Sprained ankle. Gross!

This demonstrates that in some uses of ‘to be’ it serves merely as a connector, and fell into that role by pure chance. Because we have learned the language with it in that role, we find it difficult to get by without it. We can easily fix that, by inventing new word endings as above, and/or by using slightly longer or slang constructions in some cases. Or we could allow ourselves to use ‘to be’ in those constructions, because those uses do not cause problems with logic, clarity and depression.

To me it seems easier to avoid all use of the verb, for the same reason that some people become vegetarian even though they only really object to meat from animals with unhappy lives. We find it easier to avoid all of something than to constantly have to investigate whether the particular instance facing us belongs to the acceptable class of that sort of thing. I practice vegetarianism for that reason. E-prime takes that pragmatic-vegetarianish approach to intermittently-troublesome verbs.

The troublesome uses

Two classes remain, that generate all the difficulty. Those uses inspired Bourland, and to some extend his mentor Alfred Korzybski before him, to favour constraining the use of the verb. Let’s list the two classes:

  • ‘Existence’. Example: ‘There is a God’ or ‘There is no God’.
  • ‘Identity’. Examples: ‘This is Freya’. ‘That is a kangaroo’.

“Existence”

Existence’ presents the biggest problem. Let’s reflect first on why people care whether ‘God exists’. I think they care because of what they expect God to do. Someone brought up to believe in hell may hope God does not ‘exist’, meaning they hope that they will not suffer eternal torture for eternity after their death. In that sense I think I can fairly say that I hope, and believe, that the God that the teachers and priests taught me to believe in as a child does not ‘exist’. This means I hope no cosmic dictator will sentence me to an eternity of suffering. On the other hand, someone who longs for those that suffer in this life to receive comfort and reward after death, may believe, or want to believe, in a God that will make that happen. I think that, when they say they ‘believe in God’ they mean they believe that people will receive that comfort and reward.

It may not need pointing out, but I’ll do it anyway: one may hold both of those hopes or beliefs. One may hope for a God that does not send people to hell, or even allow them to end up there, and at the same time hope for a God that will comfort and reward sufferers. Neither putative divine characteristic necessitates the other. I would like to think that most members of official religions hold both those hopes. But I feel sad to see that so often contradicted by the many powerful clerics that rail against ‘sexual sin’ (even including contraception practised by a couple who married in a church) and forecast God’s displeasure and punishment as a result. But perhaps most lay members of religions hold the life-affirming beliefs, and mostly only the power-broking clerics in their religions criticise and deny them. I find it encouraging that most Roman Catholics have never even heard of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, let alone know or care about the many rules that that group of old men say God made. People who’ve never heard of the Congregation may know it by the informal name people used for it in past centuries – the Inquisition.

Yet many people do care, or say they do, about whether God ‘exists’, even if it has no consequences for them. More generally, some people passionately assert that they care whether material objects ‘exist’. Some philosophers debate with passion intensity whether a cup inside a wooden cupboard ‘exists’, in a sense that means something more than simply that if we opened the cupboard door, we would see the cup and could get it out to drink some tea with.

I see such opinions, regardless of how passionately people hold them, as deluded. Saying you believe fervently in X does not mean that you do care, if you can’t explain the meaning of X. It may mean instead that you care fervently about something that relates to what you label as X. The ex-RC may care fervently that nobody gets tortured for eternity. The Believer in Cups cares fervently about having something to drink their tea out of. They think they believe in something more than that, but they don’t.

Now I know that sounds arrogant and silly. Who gave me the right to tell other people what they really think? In my defence, I point out that I don’t claim to know what they think. I only claim to know what they don’t think – a much easier exercise. I don’t believe anybody can believe a claim that neither they nor anybody else can explain. If somebody says to me ‘I believe that nhjkn sdhg futf’, I feel entitled to say ‘I don’t think you really believe that’. I suppose my statement relates to their purported belief, not to their mind (which I cannot see). I claim, not that they don’t believe that, but that nobody can believe that, because it does not belong to the category of things that we can believe or not. We cannot believe or disbelieve the colour purple, because it does not belong to that category. Only what we call ‘propositions’, or ‘claims’ can belong to the category. To qualify as a proposition, a string of symbols or sounds must satisfy a long list of formal characteristics, including things like containing a verb. The colour purple does not count as a proposition, neither does the symbol string ‘nhjkn sdhg futf’ and neither, in my opinion, does the statement ‘I believe a God exists that will never again interact with the world’, or ‘there is a cup in that cupboard but there is no way we can ever detect that it is there’.

I hope I have at least partially convinced you that the ‘existence’ sense of ‘to be’ has no meaning. It may have a practical sense, as in ‘Unicorns do not longer exist’. But that just means I believe that, no matter whether we searched from here to kingdom come, we would never find a unicorn. If we want it to mean more than that, as those argumentative metaphysicians feel they do, we face disappointment.

If you still feel you believe otherwise, take this challenge: If you think the sentence ‘The cup is in the cupboard regardless of whether anyone can ever know that’ has meaning, ie qualifies as a ‘claim’, try to explain the difference between a world in which the claim holds and one in which it does not – without talking in circles.

“Identity”

This mode of use covers a multitude of sins. The above “This is Freya” really just communicates a name. No philosophical notion of identity gets carried along by it. We can think of it as an instruction: ‘When referring to this person, use the name “Freya” ’.

It gets more philosophical with statements like “George Orwell is Eric Blair”, or “Batman is Bruce Wayne”. Taking the first one, we know it means “The person known to his friends and family as Eric Blair wrote ‘1984’ and other famous works using the pseudonym ‘George Orwell’ ”. We could argue for ever about whether ‘Eric Blair’ means the same thing as ‘George Orwell’. I say it doesn’t. But such arguments count for nothing but idle amusement. We needn’t care about or wish to know anything other than that the man named Eric wrote under the pen-name George.

What about the mathematical concept of identity or equality? In mathematics we learn about ‘equations’ and ‘identities’, both of which use the equals sign ‘=’, which some people think of as resembling ‘is’. Let me show you an example:

x2 – 2x + 1 = 0

We might express that in words as ‘x is a number that, when we square the number, subtract twice the number from that and then add one, we get zero’. It tells us that the number to which we have given the alias ‘x’ has that property. Only one number has that property: the number 1. So the equation tells us that we gave the alias ‘x’ to the number 1.

Importantly, the equation does not say that the two things on either side of the equals sign “are” the same, ie “are identical”. Such a claim would make no sense. We can easily see the differences: for a start the thing on the left has seven characters excluding spaces, while the thing on the right has only one. A metaphysician might retort “But that’s just the labels. The two things with the different labels are the same.” To which I reply “can you explain what ‘are the same’ means?”. To which they can only answer “No”.

Mathematicians use the equals sign in two slightly different ways. I showed above the first way. We call that an ‘equation’ and we use it to work out what number x stands for.

We call the other use an ‘identity’. For example:

x2 – 2x + 1 = (x – 1)2

This holds true for any value of x, rather than just for a specific value that we want to find. We can easily explain the meaning of this equals sign in e-prime too. The identity says that, no matter what value x has, we will get the same result if we use that value to evaluate the left-hand side of the equation, as if we use it to evaluate the right-hand side.

It all works out simply, clearly and logically, as long as we don’t try to get metaphysical about it. If we do make the mistake of venturing into metaphysics, we find ourselves asking “Am I the same person that I was when I was five years old?”, to which we should reply “Come back when you can explain what your question means, and I’ll tell you the answer”.

Process metaphysics

I want to put in a plug for something called ‘process philosophy’. One might sum it up as something like “Things don’t ‘EXIST. They HAPPEN”. Or alternatively: “Objects? Bah! Stuff and nonsense. Only by thinking of the universe as a PROCESS can you begin to understand it”.

This notion goes back at least three thousand years. Heraclitus famously said “You can never step in the same river twice”. Alan Watts said something like “You ‘are’ just what the universe is doing at this particular place and time”. It delighted, but did not surprise me, to see that the above-linked Wikipedia article on process philosophy includes Alfred Korzybski – David Bourland’s mentor – in the list of paradigm-breaking thinkers that favoured this way of looking at things.

I’ll show another of my favourite quotes on process philosophy, from some famous physicist (I forget who): ‘an object is just a slow process’. I love that saying, even though it contains an ‘is’. I’d translate it into e-prime as the recommendation: “Think of objects as slow processes”.

Bertrand Russell’s chum, Alfred North Whitehead, wrote the most about process philosophy. I like some of what he wrote. But he did tend to get in over his head with word long, deep, abstract word salads of questionable meaning. I think Heraclitus and Watts said it better.

Let me tell you my plan

My dear, long-suffering readers – if any of you still remain – I appreciate your attention to this point. I expect the question gets ever louder in your mind: “Andrew! Do you have a point?

Well, thank you for asking! I do have a point, or at least I’ve managed to find a sort of a one in the course of this long, verbal ramble. The point takes the form of a plan. I made the plan only for me. But you may like to consider adopting some of it too. I will tell you what I plan to do, and why.

I plan to try my very best to eliminate uses of ‘to be’ in the ‘Existence’ and ‘Identity’ modes from my language. They cause nothing but trouble.

For the other six uses, I will aim to use them less, but with varying degrees of intensity. Let me list them in decreasing order of how intensely I will seek to avoid them:

  • I will most strenuously avoide the Auxiliary Passive. I can think of cases where that mode provides useful nuances: ‘He was bitten by a werewolf’ has a different feeling to ‘A werewolf bit him’ – it moves the focus from the biter to the one that suffered the bite. But I think we can achieve those nuances without using ‘to be’. I would say ‘He got bitten by a werewolf’. In primary school they taught me to avoid the words ‘get’ and ‘got’, and that I should regard them as vulgar. But I now feel old enough to disagree. I find them tremendously useful words, and for me, ‘got bitten’ describes the event much better than ‘was bitten’. Remember process philosophy. A bite happens. And no word communicates happeningness (process) better than ‘got’.
  • Location. Like Auxiliary Passive, this sounds too passive. I also find it too vague. The statement ‘The cat is on the mat’ doesn’t even tell us whether the cat still lives. It could refer to the cat’s corpse lying on the mat. So let us instead say ‘The sat sits on the mat’ (or even ‘is sitting’, since I do not propose to ban the Auxiliary Active) or ‘The cat’s corpse lies on the mat’.
  • Predication. I can’t see much excuse for this either. For me, ‘The cat has long fur’ and ‘You look red (or You’ve gotten sunburnt)’ work much better than ‘The cat is furry’ and ‘You are red’ (Hello Red, pleased to meet you!). In particular the ‘look’ forces acknowledgement that looks can deceive, and perhaps only a trick of the light makes me think you’ve gotten sunburnt. Plus, we’ve already covered how, for the sake of psychological balance and world peace, we must say ‘You are treating me nastily’ (please stop) rather than ‘You are nasty’ (condemnation and life sentence).
  • I have no objection to the Auxiliary Active type. I find it difficult to avoid, and trying to avoid it blocks fluency. Since the ‘am/is/are/was/were’ in such cases serves only as a connector and does not purport to have any formal meaning – any more than the “t” in the French “qu’a t’il dit” (“what has he said?”) means anything – we introduce no ambiguity by using it. Nevertheless, I find it more lively and direct to say ‘As she lay sleeping, the poisonous spider crawled over the mattress and up onto her cheek’ than ‘She was sleeping, when the poisonous spider …..’. Or perhaps ‘As she slept…’ works better still.
  • I’ve decided that Class Membership and Class Inclusion cause no harm. They have clear meanings and present no apparent potential for ambiguity. Further, translating sentences using those modes to e-prime can make sentences longer, as we saw with the above examples. I’ll relax about using those modes. But I’ll still keep an eye open for opportunities to replace them with an e-prime phrase when the latter sounds shorter and sweeter.

There you have it. Two modes banned. Three avoided where possible, and three avoided only when convenient. Perhaps I will call that strategy e-half-prime, since it would cut out only about half the uses of ‘to be‘ and its fellow travellers. Once I have mastered the skill of speaking and writing in e-half-prime, misunderstandings will no longer occur, wars will cease, universal joy and harmony will come ever closer.

I’ll let you know how I go. If it fares well, perhaps I can persuade you to join me. If not for the whole kit and kaboodle, perhaps just reducing your uses of ‘to be’, to give your language a fresher, clearer, more direct feel. Remember, if you can’t say it in e-half-prime, perhaps you’d better not say it (or at least you’d serve no purpose by saying it).

Try it. You might just like it.

And if it achieves nothing else, it will prevent us from ever saying that a child “is” naughty, that oneself “is” an inadequate failure, or that somebody, anybody, no matter how rotten their behaviour, “is” evil. Not Scott Morrison. Not Peter Dutton. Not even Donald Trump.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, October 2019

PS I have searched this essay for all uses of the various versions of ‘to be‘ that I could think of. I found plenty, and removed (translated) them. Perhaps I have missed some. If you find any, please let me know so that I may remove them. You will have my sincere gratitude.

PPS You can read some other people’s opinions on e-prime at the following links:


Obviously, …

When it comes my turn to be king of the world I will ban the word ‘obviously’, together with its fellow travellers ‘clearly’ and ‘evidently’. My challenge to you, the other inhabitants of the kingdom of Earth, is this: find me a single example of a sentence that is improved by the use of the word ‘obviously’!

I assert that, not only is ‘obviously’ never an improvement to a sentence, but it usually degrades a sentence into which it is inserted and renders it foolish, pompous, or just plain false.

The first memory I have of encountering this rebarbative word is in mathematics lectures at university. It was the early 1980s. In those days lectures performed their proofs live on the black board with chalk – a difficult endeavour indeed. As soon as you saw that word on a board, you felt that if you couldn’t instantly see why that line followed logically from the line before, you must be very dim. If you hadn’t seen the connection by the time they finished writing the next line, you started to panic. The only solution was to accept the claim without challenge and try to keep up with what came next. There would be time that evening to go over your notes and try to work out why the claim was ‘obviously’ true.

Sometimes in the evening you could figure it out without difficulty. Sometimes you figured it out but it needed a page or so of closely written reasoning to justify it. Sometimes you couldn’t make it out at all. That’s when you had to summon your courage and challenge the lecturer about it before the next lecture. You’d sidle up to him and say ‘Sorry to bother you but I can’t see how you get line five. Can you please explain it?

In short, it was rarely obvious. Even when it was moderately obvious, there were other lines that were more obvious, for which the tag was not used.

I started to detect a pattern. The word was being used to cover for the fact that the lecturer couldn’t remember, off the top of their head, the justification for the line. By writing ‘obviously’ they made potential hecklers too worried about seeming dumb to challenge the claim on the spot. It was the Emperor’s New Clothes all over again. What was needed was the little boy to blurt out ‘But it’s not obvious at all. In fact I can’t even see it.

I forgive those lecturers, because what they were doing was very difficult. I would feel under a lot of pressure having to perform mathematical derivations on a blackboard in front of a specialist audience.

It is less forgivable when it occurs in text books. In many a mathematics or physics text book I have come across the prefix ‘obviously’ before a line that was the exact opposite. The authors of textbooks do not have the excuse that they have to come up with explanations on the spot, but they are nevertheless under time pressure because, unless a text is chosen as a key text for courses at many major schools or universities, it will not bring in much revenue, so extra time spent writing it makes it even harder to be profitable. Why spend hours deriving a proof of something you are fairly sure is true, but don’t remember why, when you can just write ‘obviously’ in half a second, and move on to the next line?

I don’t begrudge them saving that time, but there are more honest and helpful ways to do it. Other phrases that can be used are “It turns out that…” and “It can be shown that…”. These make it clear that what the author has written is not a full proof, and that the step over which they are glossing is not trivial. When I encounter those I don’t mind very much because they don’t contain the implicit challenge “If you can’t see why this line follows from the last one you must be stupid!”. The most generous excuse of all is “It is beyond the scope of this paper / text / chapter to prove X, so we will take it as read”. That way the reader knows that proof is long and difficult.

It is annoying when academics use the word ‘obviously’ in that way, but at least they use it in relation to a claim that is true. In political argument, that is not the case. People use ‘obviously’ to justify any claim, no matter how dubious, or sometimes just plain wrong. Examples abound, from politicians, shock jocks and reactionary newspaper columnists.

Obviously, decriminalising marijuana use would make the problem worse

Obviously, it makes no difference whether Australia reduces its greenhouse gas emissions, since ours only make up a small part of the world’s total

Obviously, what’s needed to solve our city’s traffic problems is to build bigger roads

Obviously, we have to be cruel to refugees, otherwise many more would come to our country”.

It’s used as an excuse to not even consider any evidence that may be available, to not even entertain rational discussion on a topic. It implies that anybody that does not accept the claim must be stupid or have dishonest intentions. It’s an attempt to shut down inquiry and discussion, lest that lead to an outcome against which the speaker has an entrenched prejudice.

Is anything ever obvious?

Perhaps, but we need to very careful in suggesting that. What is obvious to one may not be at all obvious to another. A high-visibility yellow vest is obvious to normal-sighted people but not to the colour-blind. A person walking across a basketball court in a gorilla suit is not obvious to observers that have been tasked with counting the number of times each player passes the ball.

Further, beliefs in what is obvious are often founded on stereotypes that may be damaging. Is it obvious that boys are better at maths than girls, or that men cannot be trusted to care for other people’s children?

This leads me to wondering whether there is any sentence in which the word ‘obviously’ can play a useful role. I don’t apply the same challenge to ‘obvious’ because it can have observer-dependent roles, as in “It eventually became obvious to Shona that the doorman was not going to let her into the club”. Or we can use it to express relative obviousness, as in “Not wanting to mislay them, he left his keys in the most obvious position he could think of – in the middle of the empty kitchen bench”.

But “obviously”? That adverbial suffix ‘ly’ seems to strip from the adjective any ability to convey subtleties of degree. There seems to be no way of using it that does not imply that anybody who does not agree with the following proposition, and understand why it must be correct, is simply stupid.

No wonder it is used either as a tool of bullying or as a lazy attempt to escape the need to justify one’s claims.

Sometimes it occurs without intent, as a verbal tic. Like most verbal tics, it is rooted in the insecurity of the speaker. Although it sounds like it has an opposite meaning to other tics like ‘if that makes sense’ or ‘if you like’, it serves the same purpose in deflecting attention from the speaker’s insecurity – but in an offensive rather than a defensive way. In both cases the speaker hopes not to be challenged. With ‘if that makes sense’ the hope is that the humility it projects will discourage a listener from saying ‘that doesn’t sound right’, if only out of charity to the speaker. The ‘obviously’ is like the puffed-out frill of a lizard – a pretence at invulnerability intended to discourage attack: ‘Challenge me on this and you’ll end up looking foolish!’. Except that the intent is usually subconscious and, once one has used the phrase many times, it becomes reflexive, devoid of any meaning, or even of subconscious intent.

I vowed quite some time ago never to use the word, or any of its synonyms. I think I have managed to keep the vow. I hope I have. But I cannot be sure. One uses so many words in the course of a week, that it’s hard to keep track of them all.

If something is truly obvious to almost everybody, there should be no need to state that. It will be obvious that it is obvious. If, as is more often the case, it is far from obvious, it is foolish at best, and dishonest at worst, to imply that it is.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, April 2019


Let’s all use the word ‘Interlocutor’ more often

Today is international polysyllablitis awareness day. I hope you can spread the word so that people will better understand this debilitating condition and try to support those that suffer from it.

Polysyllablitis is a communication disability that primarily affects people that read too many fancy books. The main symptom is a swollen vocabulary, leading to frequent difficulty in finding an acceptable word to express a concept they are trying to convey. Such difficulty typically manifests in uncomfortably long pauses mid-sentence, because the speaker was about to say that the proposed expedition to a nightclub would be ‘inimical to his health‘, but didn’t want people to think him a ponce for saying a fancy word like ‘inimical‘, yet the alternatives ‘it would make me feel bad‘ or ‘I’m tired‘ (average syllable count per word = 1.0) refused to present themselves to his desperately searching mind.

For this to happen just occasionally – say every couple of months – is manageable. Many people have such experiences. But people with really serious polysyllablitis (known as PSI to health and remedial vocabulary professionals) can suffer such attacks as often as several times a day. At such frequencies it can become terribly debilitating. Sorry, I mean it makes the person feel really bad.

Chronic sufferers have complained of persistent diffidence (meaning they often feel shy), disorientation (they feel dumb or lost), isolation (they feel lonely) and melancholy (they feel sad).

I have studied this phenomenon (sorry, I mean thing) for many years now. I think there is hope for the sufferers, as long as they don’t get excluded (shut out) from society. That’s why we need this awareness day. If people can keep a look out for others that may be suffering this malady (it makes them ill) they will be able to find ways to help them, reassure them (make them feel good) and put them on the road to rehabilitation (get better).

The best way to help these unfortunates (poor guys) is to include them in your conversations. When they say an unnecessarily fancy word, or get stuck mid-sentence with that look on their face that says they can’t remember the normal-people’s word for ‘lugubrious’*, the best thing to do is to gently correct them, remind them of the normal-person word while making clear that we still love and accept them. (*it’s ‘sad’). Studies have shown that these inclusionary strategies (being nice to them) are in most cases highly efficacious (they work).

However, in my years of study, there is one word for which I have simply never found a way of translating it into normal person speech, and that is the word ‘interlocutor‘ – being ‘the person with whom one is having a conversation‘. I have searched in vain for a simple alternative. The closest I’ve seen is ‘discussant’ but that has the dual problems that (1) it’s ugly and (2) I suspect it’s not a real word.

The next most reasonable alternative seems to be to replace the word with its definition ‘the person with whom one is having a conversation’. But that doesn’t really help much, as that ‘whom’ is bound to raise eyebrows, not to mention the monarchical ‘one’ (sorry – I mean like how the queen would speak). Plus inserting that long string of words into a sentence raises the risk of apparent poseur-ness because of the length of one’s sentences.

‘He’s always interrupting those with whom he is having conversation‘ just doesn’t have the pizazz of ‘He’s always interrupting his interlocutors‘.

I doubt Hemingway would approve.

It wouldn’t matter if it was a useless word, like that silly old ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ that schoolboys used to quiz each other on, but nobody ever used in a genuine sentence. That was, until the Guinness Book of Records people wanted to get in on the act and invented ‘floccipausinihilipilification’, just so that people would buy their book to find out about the new record-breaking word.

Of course if you want a long word that’s actually used by proper people, it’s supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, which at 34 letters is longer than either of those non-words to boot. Plus it’s used by Mary Poppins, who is cool and not anything like a social reject that got her head stuck in a dictionary, so it must be OK.

But, unlike antidisestablishmentarianism, interlocutor is not a useless word. How can one talk about conversations one had yesterday without using it? More importantly, how can one give counselling and therapy to PSI sufferers if one cannot tell them useful things like ‘try to use the same words that your interlocutors use‘? The word is simply too useful to discard. I find myself needing to use it at least seven times per day on average. I’d be lost without it.

I can only see one way out of this conundrum (tricky thing). That is to make interlocutor an honorary normal person’s word. We could do that by all making an effort to use it at least once a day. Then before long it would seem as normal as ‘but’. There are precedents for this. Normal people use the pentasyllabic ‘qualification’ when talking about who might get into the finals in the footy, and the quadrasyllabic ‘ceremony’ when talking about who earns the right to humiliate themselves in the next round of a reality TV show. So I think, If we all make an effort, we can create some space for ‘interlocutor’ in normal people’s language.

I leave you today with these two requests:

  1. Please keep an eye out for PSI sufferers, and try to be kind to them (and help them to get better); and
  2. Try to use interlocutor as often as is consistent with common decency.

Just remember, no matter how strange and scary they seem, every PSI sufferer is somebody’s son or daughter.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, October 2016


The Bishop of Digne

When I first read Les Misérables, I was miffed to find that the first one hundred or so pages were taken up with a character that does not even appear in the musical – Monseigneur Myriel, the saintly bishop of Digne (saintly as in incredibly kind, not as in pious). That hundred pages is basically devoted to painting a picture of just how saintly Mgr Myriel is.

When you know you have 1800 pages ahead of you and are impatient for Jean Valjean (the hero) or Javert (his primary antagonist) to appear, you don’t have much patience for detailed portraits of peripheral characters, however saintly. Mgr Myriel’s sole role in the story is to be the first person that shows the cold, starving, exhausted Jean Valjean some compassion, as Jean makes his way on foot from the prison galleys in Toulon, where he was finally released after nineteen years’ penal servitude, to Pontarlier in Central Eastern France, which is several hundred kilometres to the north. Valjean’s attempts to buy food or shelter along his way are rejected by innkeepers, peasants and even local jail-keepers who distrust and fear him because they know he is a former convict. Valjean seems destined to starve or freeze to death until the bishop takes him in and treats him like an honoured guest. Despite that, Valjean sneaks out of the bishop’s house in the middle of the night, stealing away most of the bishop’s silverware with him – the bishop’s only possessions of any value. When the police arrest Valjean next morning and bring him to the bishop, expecting the bishop to accuse him and thus complete an easy arrest for them, the bishop instead says ‘No, I gave all that to M. Valjean, and also, you silly sausage, you forgot to take these that I gave you as well’ (and hands over to the astonished Valjean the few remaining pieces of silverware). This act of unfathomable kindness stuns Valjean, gives him much to think about, and changes his life (but not instantly: he still manages to steal a shilling off a small kid later that day before he finally ‘sees the light’ – a baroque flourish that is omitted from the musical).

There you have it – one hundred and fifty pages summarised in a paragraph!

Victor Hugo is given to these long diversions. Later in the book there is a very long, technical diversion about the topography of the field in which the battle Waterloo was fought – apparently just to show what a villainous knave the innkeeper Thénardier is (‘Master of the ‘ouse’). And another later on, almost one hundred pages long, describing the construction and layout of the sewers of Paris – just because Valjean will escape the police by going through these, carrying the half-dead body of Marius, his daughter’s boyfriend.

In most cases these interpolations are irritating. They subtract momentum from one’s reading and cause one to lose interest. That’s how I felt on my first reading of Les Mis. There was no momentum to lose, because Mgr Myriel is introduced on page 1, but one is beset by impatience to meet Jean Valjean and come to grips with the famous story. ‘Why are we wasting time on this bloody bishop?’ the impatient reader (me) asks themselves, and ‘We get it already, he’s a very kind person, can we move on now?

But on the second reading it was different. I already knew the story. I knew when JvJ would enter, and why, and I knew what role the bishop would play. So, the impatience having been neutralised, I was alert for little details, items of colour and feeling, that were not essential to the plot, but instead artistic features of what is better considered as a vast tapestry.

And on that second occasion, I found myself entranced and inspired by Mgr Myriel. Unlike cardboard cut-out goodies like Dickens’s Little Nell or Little Dorrit (with Dickens, you always know you’re in for some insufferable Victorian sentimentality when somebody appears with the word Little prefixed to their name), Mgr Myriel seems real. One can imagine that there really are such people – rare, yes, but not extinct. I heard the retired heretical bishop Richard Holloway interviewed on ABC radio a couple of years ago and he sounded a little like what one imagined Mgr Myriel might be like.

How was it Inspirational? Basically, it just made me want to be like Mgr Myriel. I am sadly aware that my troubled, deeply flawed character is a million miles away from that of Mgr Myriel – a ridiculous seething mass of passionate good intentions with very little in the way of good actions to match. But just observing first hand the operation of Mgr Myriel’s apparently bottomless well of compassion made me want to be more like him – even if it meant travelling only a few small steps along the way between where I am and where he is. And in addition, Hugo managed to make it seem possible, that one could be at least a little bit like that.

It’s hard to put a finger on what it is that makes Hugo’s presentation of Myriel so inspirational and believable and so different from the goody two-shoes vaunted by other Victorian-era authors. Being honest, I have to concede it’s possible that it’s just a consequence of the frame of mind one has when one reads about them. Maybe if I’d read about Little Nell in the right time and place she would be my inspiration. I doubt it, but one must always remain open to the possibility of being mistaken.

One key difference is that Hugo doesn’t content himself with telling us how kind Mgr Myriel is, or with quoting dialogue in which Myriel says pleasant, amiable things. Talk, after all, is cheap. No, what we see beyond his gentle, friendly speech is a long string of tremendously kind actions. Myriel, piece by piece, gives away almost everything he has to those less fortunate than him. Since he is a bishop, and bishops in those days were very wealthy, with palaces, coaches, large incomes and expense allowances, there is an awful lot to give. Having given away almost everything he has, he then researches what other allowances and claims he can make from the church in virtue of his office, does the paperwork to claim whichever ones he can, and then gives those away too.

But never does Myriel congratulate himself. He seems to subscribe to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s ‘property is theft’ adage. When asked why he gave this or that thing away, he replies to the effect that he was never entitled to possess it in the first place. But Myriel is no anarchist. His comments are not generalised philosophical points about the nature of private property, but about the specific treatment by society of the people to whom he gives these things. They have been dispossessed, by the operation of law, of privilege, of capitalism, of raw temporal power. As his employer’s policy manual says ‘Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them’. Bishop Myriel does his humble best to redress the imbalance created by the church and state by returning some of the world’s good things – those that he has in his power – to those from whom they have been taken (whether directly or indirectly).

Hugo writes Myriel’s dialogue in such a way that one can imagine doing and saying such things. His lines are not ethereal or sanctimonious, but practical and down-to-Earth. After giving the last remaining silver to Valjean, as well as saving him from a return to penal servitude (this time for life), he professes relief, telling his sister and housekeeper that he was embarrassed to be dining off silver when others in the village had no utensils at all, and that he feels much more relaxed eating his soup out of a wooden bowl.

Here’s a sample. Mgr Myriel is talking to the director of the small, overcrowded church hospital that is attached to his large, luxurious bishop’s palace, and has learned that they have too many people crammed in, in unbearably uncomfortable conditions. After a series of probing questions about conditions in the hospital, Myriel comes out with:

Look, Mister Hospital Director, this is what I reckon. There’s obviously been a mistake. You have twenty-six people in five or six little rooms. We have only three people in here [in the palace], where there is room for sixty. It’s a mistake I tell you. You have my lodgings and I’ll have yours. Give me my house [meaning the little hospital]. This one here is your house.’

No moralising, no sermons, no verbal niceties, just ‘Look – this is what we need to do‘.

He even has a sense of humour – a quality nearly always lacking in nineteenth century heroes. When the housekeeper discovers that Valjean has disappeared overnight and so has the silverware, the following dialogue ensues:

Housekeeper: Your excellency, your excellency, do you know where the basket of silverware is?

Bishop: Yes.

HK: Jesus-God be praised! I didn’t know what had become of it.

Bish: [Picks up and presents to the housekeeper the empty basket that he had spotted lying under a hedge, where Valjean had jettisoned it last night] Here it is!

HK: What!? There’s nothing in it! Where’s the silverware?

Bish: Ah, so it’s the silverware you were worried about. I don’t know where that is.

One might be tempted to think that Myriel is a Marxist in disguise – a fifth-columnist usurping the rich, corrupt church from the inside by giving away whatever of its wealth he can lay his hands on. But that is not the case. For instance he does not give away the (very valuable) robes and ornaments of the cathedral – presumably because he feels that they belong to his congregation, who enjoy seeing them as part of their religious rituals every week. He even believes in a good God – quite an achievement given the corruption and cruelty of those around him who claim to represent that God. He holds fast to a humble, optimistic spiritualism in which God is identified with Love – the value that guides his life in every waking moment.

But he has no time for theology. He has no interest in doctrinal favourites like the trinity, the resurrection, sexual purity, salvation by faith or grace, or the damnation of sinners and unbelievers. When his ecclesiastical colleagues discuss such things he does not criticise them for wasting their time on meaningless arcana. He just shrugs his shoulders as if to say ‘They must be terribly clever to understand such things, but it’s much too complicated for a simple man like me‘. If he has a theological position, it is something like that everybody is worthy of salvation, and will ultimately be saved. He never quite articulates this though. If he did, he’d be at risk of punishment as a heretic. But all his actions seem to me to suggest such a belief. He expresses no theological opinions except for the primacy of love. He judges nobody, and is happy to admit his ignorance and uncertainty on all ‘ultimate questions’.

In general I am not a fan of clergy. But I make an exception for Monseigneur Myriel, even if he is fictional. He is an inspiration. I could never be anything like him. But if reading those 150 pages again, without the impatience this time, has motivated me to move even a little bit more from where I am towards where he is on the spectrum of compassion, it will have been worth it.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, February 2016


Too many words!

Books are too long. People talk for too long. Academic papers are too long. Almost everything is too long.

Why? Partly, because to be concise is very difficult. Urban legend has it that Blaise Pascal once wrote at the end of a letter to a friend: ‘I’m sorry this letter is so long. I didn’t have time to write a short one’.

I struggle with conciseness. Part of the problem is that, when I am trying to explain something, I worry about whether what I have said is clear enough, so I keep on saying it over, in a slightly different way each time, in the vague hope that one of the attempts will make the connection.

I think a better strategy might be to make one brief attempt at an explanation and then wait for a response. If more is needed, I imagine my interlocutor will tell me. If they do, the particular nature of their response will better enable me to tailor my next statement to fill in the information that was missing in my first.

But that requires discipline, and nerves of steel. It is like being silent in an interview after giving a short reply to a question – forcing the interviewer (or interrogator) to make the next move. Few people can carry that off, and I suspect I am not one of them.

Academic papers can be particularly irritating, droning on about all the references and who has written what, so that by the time one gets to the bit about what the authors have done that’s actually new, one is exhausted and wants to retire for a tea break. It’s not clear to me whether this is a stylistic practice, imposed by the producers and reviewers of journals, or whether it reflects insecurity on the part of the authors, who may feel that they need to mention some minimum number of other papers in order to be taken seriously.

Arthur Schopenhauer railed against this sort of writing in a series of essays collected under the title ‘The Art of Literature’. He opens with an unrestrained broadside ‘There are, first of all, two kinds of authors: those who write for the subject’s sake, and those who write for writing’s sake.‘ Schopenhauer loved the first (and of course considered himself to be one of them) and loathed the second.

If someone really has something important to say, it usually doesn’t take very long. When Neville Chamberlain announced the grim news to the British people in 1939 that Britain had declared war on Germany, the message had been delivered by the end of the 67th word. I did a test reading just now and it took about 26 seconds, including pauses for effect.

Einstein’s legendary 1905 paper that presented his special theory of relativity to the world, ending decades of confusion amongst physicists, is only 24 pages, and the key part that resolves the paradoxes by which physics was previously beset is complete by the end of page 12! John Bell’s paper that turned the world of Quantum Mechanics upside down in 1964 is only six pages. Bell cited only five references. Einstein cited none.

In general communication, most people use too many words. I do too, but I am trying to correct that. I feel that, where possible, I would like to conduct a post-mortem on every sentence I utter and work out whether that sentence has added any new information. If it hasn’t, then it was probably a waste of everybody’s time.

Politicians exploit this deliberately. They are trained to, when asked a difficult question by a journalist, give a long-winded, emphatic speech about something only tangentially related, thereby avoiding the issue and (they hope) making the journalist despair of persisting with the question because of the pressure of time. Even better, if the politician sounds confident in their ‘answer’, the less analytic watchers will form the impression that the politician is competent and frank. The more analytic types just shrug their shoulders in disgust and turn the telly off.

A sentence can be very long and yet not reveal what information it contains until late in the sentence. Sometimes there is a key word that makes it all fall into place, The words before that one stack up like the numbers in a long calculation on a Reverse Polish calculator, impotent while they wait for release. Then the key word comes and it all falls into place. It attains a meaning. The wait for that word can sometimes be prolonged, like in this:

Though they all came from different social strata, sub-cultures and occupations, crammed together against their will in the prison cell from which they wondered if there would ever be any release, though none of them had known each other – or even known of each other – in their previous lives, though they squabbled and quarrelled over the tiniest of things, the one thing that bound them together despite the rivalries and petty jealousies, the perceived slights and reconciliations, the development, disintegration and reformation of cliques, was a single shared emotion, an emotion so powerful that they could feel it oozing out of one anothers’ pores, smell it on their breath and discern it in the tones of voice – the emotion of fear.

In some cases, the key word never comes. Perhaps the writer or speaker confuses themselves by their excessive verbiage and ends the sentence with an admission of defeat.

Books are too long as well! Novels are generally OK, as it takes time to get to know and care about the characters. But I have a strong sense that non-fiction books are often padded to reach whatever is considered a minimum page count for a book – usually at least 200. There isn’t really a strong market for writings that are halfway between essay and book length. In many cases a book really only has one idea, which could make a decent essay, but doesn’t justify a book. But essays don’t get to be put on a prominent shelf that catches your eye as you enter the bookshop, nor do they get listed on the New York Times best sellers’ list.

Nassim Taleb’s famous book ‘The Black Swan’ is like that. It really only contains one idea, which is that investors, bankers and other financiers have for decades been making crucial financial decisions based on theories in which they assume that the future will be like the past, and that all occurrences of randomness must follow the Normal Distribution (the nice friendly old ‘Bell Curve’). Decisions based on that erroneous, oversimplified assumption have repeatedly led to disasters, because events tend to be more extreme than is predicted by the Bell Curve. Taleb’s is a good insight, and definitely worth saying, but probably not worth stringing out to book length.

And then, if the book sells well, they write it again, ever so slightly differently, and pretend it’s a new book, with new ideas. Taleb did that. Self-help authors do it all the time – which raises the question ‘If your first book about how to live a better life was so incomplete that it needs to be supplemented by a second, why did I waste my time reading it?‘ I suspect Richard Dawkins may do it too. As far as I can tell he has written at least four popular explanations of evolution. I read The Blind Watchmaker and thought it was great (but too long, of course!). But I didn’t read The Selfish Gene, The Ancestors’ Tale or The Greatest Show on Earth because I couldn’t see any indicators that they would contain much substance that hadn’t already been covered in the one I had read. I imagine there is some new material in each of them, but I would guess it’s more likely to be a dozen pages’ worth rather than 200+.

Fiction authors and other creative artists do this too. Stravinsky acidly observed that Vivaldi wrote the same marvellous concerto five hundred times. Bach shamelessly reused his work (goodness knows he was paid little enough for it!) and Enid Blyton invented maybe a dozen adventure and fantasy stories, which she recycled into what seems like hundreds of similar tales (surely I’m not the only one that’s noticed the remarkable similarity between Dame Slap’s School for Bad Pixies and Mr Grim’s School for Mischievous Brownies?). And let’s not even mention Mills and Boon. But somehow I don’t mind that so much. We humans are story-telling animals, and telling the same story repeatedly, changing it just a little every time, is what we have always done. I find myself able to smile indulgently on the prolixity of Enid and Antonio and Mills (?), but alas not on that of Nassim or Richard, or Deepak Chopra.

I think I’ve ranted for long enough now about how We All (including me) need to work on being more concise with our communication. It’s time to relent a little.

Not all language is just about conveying information, so the efficiency with which the information is conveyed is not always the best test. In comforting a frightened child, information communication is not the purpose of our speech. I will restrain myself from objecting that the second half of the soothing phrase ‘There, there‘ is informationally redundant. In fact, I think I could even stretch to approving of its repetition, if its first invocation was insufficient to assuage the poor mite’s distress.

Declarations of love, expressions of support, telling jokes, goodbyes, hellos and well-wishes are all ‘speech acts’ that have important non-informational components. It seems appropriate to apply different expectations to those speech acts from those we apply to informational speech. Even there, there are limits though. Many’s the operatic love aria I’ve sat through where after a while I just feel like screaming ‘OK, you love him, we get it, can we move on with the plot now please?’ And waiting for Mimi to die in La Boheme (of consumption, what else?) in between faint protestations of her love for Rodolfo, can become a little trying on one’s patience after the first ten minutes of the death scene.

But communication of information is the purpose of much of the language we use, especially in our work lives. It is a pity that so much of it is ill-considered.

Hmmm. 1,742 words. I wonder if I could turn this into a book.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, November 2015


Writers’ Block

I have writers’ block. It’s not that I can’t write anything, it’s that I can’t finish it.

I have at least a dozen essays ranging in degree of completion from a bare skeleton or a couple of paragraphs to three-quarters finished. I even have one that’s finished but just doesn’t seem quite right. It needs revision, but I can’t work out how to revise it. It seems it might be easier to throw it away and start again.

Each essay was started in a rush of enthusiasm. The words poured onto the page. But the torrent gradually slowed. In each case I finally realised I had written myself into a corner. I had raised too many questions, or bypassed issues that were too crucial. Or what had started out meaning to be a cool analysis had ended up being too passionately opinionated.

It seems to me that there are two polar opposites of how to approach writing.

One is to just write intuitively, whatever words come into one’s head, and see where it leads.

The other is to meticulously plan the structure, mapping out the points one wishes to make by a skeleton of headings and subheadings. Then fill in the detail.

With the latter, one can get good structure, but it sometimes lacks heart.

The former – the ‘stream of consciousness’ approach – has heart, but often ends up in a blind alley, with nowhere to go. Or it can end up lopsided, with 500 words spent on one viewpoint and only 100 on the alternative with which the essay seeks to contrast it. Does that matter? I don’t know, but it seems to.

You can tell from the third paragraph of this essay that most of my recent efforts have used the stream of consciousness approach. This one has too. Perhaps if I keep it short enough it won’t get lost.

I’m pretty sure the best approach is somewhere between those two poles. There needs to be some planning, but there also needs to be spontaneity. It is striking that balance that I find so difficult. Things always seem to want to lurch towards one or the other of the extremes. It can be quite dispiriting.

Am I being too self-critical? I read many, many essays and non-fiction works and most of them seem to me to be poorly written and in most cases far too verbose. Even with David Hume, whom I revere, I sometimes find myself thinking ‘what was the purpose of that paragraph? Haven’t you already made that point?’

Perhaps most essayists write from stream of consciousness, and just don’t worry much about whether they are being as clear, ordered and succinct as they would ideally wish.

But like many people, I am my own harshest critic. Perhaps the difference is that, if I am reading something written by someone else and find it is not grabbing me, I infer that it may be my lack of concentration that is the problem, rather than a lack of writing quality. But if it is something I wrote, then I am to blame, whether it’s poor reading or poor writing, so I may as well blame the writing, and I do.

Well then. I shall post this essay, as a heartfelt expression of my annoyance, and then stumble off to look at the jumble of my mixed-up writings to see if anything can be salvaged. There’s always the possibility that they could be of posthumous interest as what they call ‘fragments’. After all, Heraclitus is known only from his fragments, and some of Nietzsche’s and Kafka’s interesting ideas are in their fragments. I am not Heraclitus, nor Nietzsche nor Kafka, but maybe if some relation or associate of mine becomes extremely famous, my fragments might attract the interest of their biographers.

In the meantime, here is a fragment to create the illusion of momentum. Perhaps that will be sufficient, via some sort of placebo effect, to generate some genuine momentum that will save those poor languishing part-finished essays.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, May 2014