I’ve been keeping an eye on Randall Munroe for years now. By which I mean – not to be all stalkery or anything – enjoying his stick-man comic strip. You have to (no, really, you do) applaud a guy who finds enough funny in the idea of context free grammars to make it today’s cartoon.

[audience looks around] ‘What just happened?’ ‘There must be some context we’re missing.’

It’s not so much that you had to be there. Although in this case you do as most of the humour is in the image’s title which you shall encounter only if you hover over it with your mouse (I add, possibly unnecessarily) on the actual website.

But he’s recently started up a new site. His drawings are no longer in strip form. Instead they illustrate answers to questions posed by fans. Here’s a bleeding chunk from his discussion of the robot apocalypse.

He talks about how probably the only large group of people who’d be hurt in such a scenario are those who’d be driving around when it happens:

While the cars might be able to control the throttle and disable the power steering, the driver would still control the steering wheel, which has direct mechanical linkage to the wheels. The driver could also pull the parking brake, although I know from experience how easily a car can drive with one of those on. Some cars might try to disable the drivers by deploying the air bags, then roll over or drive into things. In the end, our cars would probably take a heavy toll, but not a decisive one.

So probably the most at-risk-from-robots bunch of humans on the planet is the same as the most at-risk bunch of humans on the planet. Interesting. Yet, not. Hmmm.


Something odd going on at the UK’s department of education. They’re tweeting like crazy (perhaps I exaggerate), insisting that creationism cannot be taught as science in ‘free’ schools.

Free schools – or free-range schools if you prefer to think of education as a jolly romp through open cornfields under blue skies rather than the spike-fenced iron-trammelled roads of statist indoctrination – are largely (but by no means exclusively) religious, private, often quite expensive.

They’re saying that this is because it’s not allowed in state schools, and this is how they’re saying it:

@educationgovuk: Let’s be clear about creationism in free schools. No state-funded school is allowed to use science lessons to teach creationism as fact

I suppose warning bells should be ringing here. Advertised as a statement about creationism in free schools, the tweet veers into the arena of state schools. OK, perhaps a little careless. Let’s try another.

@educationgovuk: It is absolutely not true that free schools will be able to teach creationism as scientific fact. No state school can.

A pretty authoritative statement there. No beating about the bush. Clarity! Good for them. The link will doubtless connect what happens in state schools with what happens in free ones.

The trouble is that it doesn’t. The jobbie in the above – a FAQ (not even an official policy document) – says, with regard to creationism:

[Q] Are Free Schools permitted to teach creationism/intelligent design and obliged to teach evolution?
[A] We would expect to see evolution and its foundation topics fully included in any science curriculum. We do not expect creationism, intelligent design and similar ideas to be taught as valid scientific theories in any state funded school.

So, basically, two questions there to which the answers are, respectively, yes and no.

As anyone can see, the reference they cite is somewhat woolly with regard to what is and what is not permitted as state education. It doesn’t at all prevent C/ID being taught as valid scientific theories in state schools. And it doesn’t force evolution on the poor little tykes coralled into those ungodly science classes either. The DoE just expect things to work out.

So their tweet ‘no state school can‘ isn’t backed up by their reference. Nor is there any hint that what happens in state schools can, in any case, dictate the free school agenda.

But wait – maybe we’ve just got the authority in this scenario all wrong. Maybe the FAQ on the Department of Education’s website isn’t the de facto authority. Is the Tweet Division the real power in the DoE?

I suppose it’s possible that what they tweet overrides anything they write in traditional documents. But perhaps they should make that clear to the world at large.

Inst Grat

The long-story form of a joke is designed to enhance the experience for the listener. But in our age of instant gratification and the short attention span, my listener becomes restive. Since it should be possible that a joke may remain funny if told another way, we try cutting down to the essence. Here goes:


Flood coming.
T offers escape: “Truck?” → X → “No thanks. God provides. Staying.“.
Ground floor floods, X upstairs.
B offers escape: “Boat?” → X → “No thanks. God provides. Staying.“.
Top floor floods, X on roof.
H offers escape: “Helicopter?” → X → “No thanks. God provides. Staying.“.
X drowns.
X in Heaven: “WTF?” → God → “Sent truck, boat, helicopter.


Does it still work? If not, there’s a long version available at radar.

Voice it

It is well known that a T comes out as a D if you speak like one from the USA. So one may hid a ball and not sound as if you’re using the past tense badly, or one could heed an oven with no fear of being in undue awe of white goods, or one might udder a word and not seem to be doing weird with a cow. You can get away with it since this ‘other’ read (in most cases) makes no sense.

So what might it be like if those of the USA also voice their, say, Ps?

The cob told me to wade over there, bud I shall flab my wings and fly. Buddy wants to bud cuffs on me now, so wad do I do? I need to take a bee, y’see.

And also their Ks –

Now the damn’ gob’s at me to worg on a wider line than I’m used to. It’s wider than the bride lights of the siddy – and it’s still much too gold to bee here.



Het spijt mij, says the Dutchman. Es tut mir leid, says the German. Aren’t they quaint, these teutons? Such archaic constructions, the inanimate doing stuff to passive old you, rather than the straightforward activity of the I’m sorry uttered by no-nonsense English speakers.

Be a man – take responsibility, don’t blame an unspecified – possibly inhuman – external agent. It bothers me that …


Hmm. OK, “I am bothered” then. But that’s not the same, is it? ‘Bothered‘ remains a past participle – unlike ‘sorry‘, which isn’t any kind of participle – and so still hints at an external agency having done the bothering to me. Same with annoyed, miffed, etc. And even perplexed. They’re all past participles of verbs, pointing fingers away from us. What’s going on here? What’s so special about being sorry, and how did it get there?

Is it meet it boots me wonder? (Not to go all medieval on your ass or anything).

Circles Good, Rings Bad

Why are circles wholesome and what makes rings nefarious? If you refer to your family circle as your family ring, then your family name might be Kray or Corleone. I presume that members of a Reading Ring will concentrate on works in the Index Expurgatorius. And I really don’t think I want to know you if you’re a member of a Knitting Ring. But it sounds quite cosy having the boss of a drugs circle over to dinner. I’d do it, but I don’t move in those social ri- sorry – circles. I’d openly introduce a circler instead of, sneakily, a ringer into my sports team. The Circle of Fire sounds quite relaxed, rather communal. I suppose it might be, at its scariest, a setting for tribal initiation rites, but certainly nothing volcanic.

Circling isn’t always good of course. It’s not good to be circling the drain.

But ringing it would be so much worse.

Parallel Words

Continuing the theme of nominal accidentology – the study of names which could have been otherwise, and the ensuing differences in derivatives, I want to consider the alternative universe wherein our feet are as useful at manipulation – or podipulation – as our hands. It’s based on a series of tweets emitted back in February, while our esteemed PM worked abroad as a salesman for the arms industry. That moment is passed, so we need not be so personal.

Possible changes in the English language which might have ensued, were our feet as useful as our hands:

  • We’d be able to stand legs akimbo
  • We’d have legs dealers
  • Legs dealers could be entertained with a toe buffet
  • Our politicians could flog sidelegs on trades missions
  • CND would stand for the more general Campaign for Nuclear Dismemberment
  • George Bernard Shaw’s play might have been entitled Legs and the Man
  • Abilene would famously have required surrender, on entry, of all footguns
  • Our Air Forces, Navies and Armies would be companioned with Leggies
  • We’d have a Salvation Leggy
  • There’d be a quip about someone looking “eggless enough
  • There’d be no need for the Black Knight fight scene in Jabberwocky

Whose Pyjamas?

“One of your grandfathers” is one of two specific males (yes, I know it could actually refer to only one, but let’s avoid that bit of scandal).

“One of your great aunts” is one of the sisters of one of your four grandparents.

“Your great aunt” could, informally, still mean one of the (possibly numerous) great aunts you may have, but it could also tell someone that three of your parent’s parents have no sisters and that the remaining one has only one.  I believe that you’d not typically infer that, though. Not in the culture I’m in, anyway.

“One of your grandfathers’ sisters” (note the position of the apostrophe) is the same as one of the sisters of one of those two males. Each grandfather may have exactly one sister and we’d still be able to say this.

“One of your grandfather’s sisters” (note the position of the apostrophe) is still one of your great aunts but we may now plausibly infer that one of your grandfathers had more than one sister, and that – if the other grandfather had only one sister – the great aunt in question is one of those rather than the single sister of that other grandfather. But you’re pushing things a bit there.

But in these last two we’ve already missed a possibility. It’s caused by the “One of” bit. It might actually not select a sister at all, as we have assumed here, but a grandfather. It completely alters the meaning. It’s the difference between “one of (his (either grandfather)’s or (this grandfather)’s) sisters” – which refers to one female – and “his (i.e. one of my grandfathers) sisters” – which refers to a whole slew of them.

Without further clarification, it’s not possible to tell which is meant. I’m reasonably sure that the default, natural, interpretation is the single female one. But even there it’s probably more to do with usage than syntax. In typical discourse of that nature you’re simply more likely to be referring to a specific individual.

Were you to continue the sentence and say “One of my grandfathers sisters have formed a choir” (I’ve omitted the grandfatherly apostrophe – it doesn’t elucidate and you can’t hear it anyway) it sounds wrong. You might eventually work it out and realise it does both make sense and is accurate – precisely and concisely informative even – but I suspect you might be a tad annoyed at the speaker for having made you do all that work. In practice you’d be expected to say just “My grandfather’s sisters have formed a choir” and leave open the question (or even relevance) of which grandfather you mean. Or indeed of which sisters – since you still can’t hear the apostrophe, that choir may include all sisters of both grandfathers, but that would be an unlikely intended meaning – again mostly by dint of context rather than syntax.

The question is, is there a language where these ambiguities are removed by syntax alone? Note that I’m not talking about vocabulary and syntax helping out. For instance – and in (very) particular – in Latin we may distinguish a maternal great aunt (matertera magna) from a paternal one (amita magna) but any disambiguation therewith provided is simply an accident of vocabulary. What I mean is, is there a language anywhere (anywhen, even) which forces you – by syntax alone – to be specific so that there’s no doubt that the speaker means “the sister of one of your grandfathers” and not “the sisters of one of your grandfathers” or “one of the sisters of your grandfather” or “one of the sisters of your grandfathers” by synthetic possessive/genitive syntactic marking rather than by lengthy analytic expression?

And would it extend to the disambiguation of the rather large number of possibilities intended by something such as “one of your grandfather’s sisters’ cat’s pyjamas”, where the ‘one-of’ may select (one of) grandfather, sister, cat, or pyjama?

A Words in Your Ear

You don’t have to go all Mark Twain – with his a-hollerin’ an’ a-cussin’ – to notice that certain words beginning with the letter a seem a bit unnecessary. Or rather, that the leading ‘a’ seems surplus to requirements and a tad folksy. Obviously I don’t mean words like apple (or do I?) but words like asleep, arise, abeam etc. If he’s asleep then he’s sleeping. Why arise when you can just rise (up, if you must)? And as for being abeam – well, really. Abeam? This century? Might just as well be athwart for all the use you’ll get out of that these days.

No. It’s time we waved goodbye to these elderly stuttering affected affixationals. It’s time to behead these words and get used to using the grown up versions. It’s not as if this a-prefixing is still productive. It’s dead in the water – it’s not giving us any new words. If somebody’s dozing, we don’t say they’re adoze. If we’re resting, we’re not arest.

We must take care though. There are various etymologies behind these leading as. It’s not always the case that aX = Xing (where X is, for instance, sleep). So although ‘he is adrift’ is much the same as ‘he is drifting’, it doesn’t work for arise. She’s rising is not the same as she’s arise. In fact, the –ing deal is quite rare. There are in fact many other semantic relationships between the word and it’s a-prefixed form.

For example, wake and awake are clearly about the same thing (not being in sleep mode) but being awake isn’t quite the same thing as waking. But we still don’t really need awake since wake will serve. In this case its past tense, woken, is close enough. You may argue that woken draws undue attention to the act of waking, which merely being awake does not – and you’d be right. But we can always circumlocute our way out of that.

We can get rid of amiss too. If something’s amiss, then something’s missing. Before you object, I’m aware of the subtlety. There’s nothing doing any missing here, in the same sense that the thing doing the sleeping is the thing that’s asleep. In the miss case they’re two distinct somethings. But most people aren’t going to notice so that’s OK.

So far we’ve concentrated on verbs (to sleep, to wake, to drift, to rise, etc). Excising a-words based on nouns is going to be more difficult. How do we behead a noun, something that one may – instead of be – have? For example, ‘he has a certain aplomb’? Well, we’ll just have to invent plomb, won’t we. And we can’t fall into the trap of thinking that aplomb is just a contraction of a and plomb, because the word won’t exist any more – brilliant! Two birds! Same goes for adjectives. I cannot see anything wrong with standing with your arms kimbo.

Nominal Alternatives

I have already remarked upon the accident of the piano and would fain (it’s not often one gets a chance to fain these days) pursue this matter with other incidents of nominal accidentism. One might hope to build up a catalogue of things which did not need to be named with the name they now have but which could have been named otherwise.

We shall exclude personated trade names like Hoover and Biro for two reasons. The first reason being that the name – whilst being technically accidental (if Mr Hoover hadn’t invented it somebody else would have sooner or later come up with the same thing) – is not actually accidental. The choice to name a thing after its inventor is such a well-established method of extricating oneself from agonizing hours spent trying to think of a name. On those grounds it can hardly be considered anything other than choice-avoiding (and thus anti-, if not actually non- accidental). And if you don’t consider that good enough as a first reason, consider the second reason – unless you have a real candidate to supply the alternate name (like Swan/Edison or Stephenson/Trevithik, etc) then there’s little to control the explosion of possible names which could have been used for any given invention and the lists would be just boring.