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Debunking Grammar Myths

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This week we're joined by a special guest blogger. Patricia T. O'Conner, a former editor at The New York Times Book Review, is the author of the national best-seller Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, as well as other books about language. She is a regular monthly guest on public radio station WNYC in New York. Learn more at her website, grammarphobia.com. Make her feel welcome!

When I think about the rules of grammar I sometimes recall the story—and it's a true one—about a lecture given in the 1950s by an eminent British philosopher of language. He remarked that in some languages two negatives make a positive, but in no language do two positives make a negative. A voice from the back of the room piped up, "Yeah, yeah."

Don't we all sometimes feel like that voice from the back of the room? When some grammatical purist insists, for example, that the subject has to go before the verb, aren't we tempted to reply, "Sez you!"?

English is not so much a human invention as it is a force of nature, one that endures and flourishes despite our best attempts to ruin it. And believe it or not, the real principles of English grammar—the ones that promote clarity and sense—weren't invented by despots but have emerged from the nature of the language itself. And they actually make sense!

So when you think about the rules of grammar, try to think like that guy in the back of the room, and never be afraid to challenge what seems silly or useless. Because what seems silly or useless probably isn't a real rule at all. It's probably a misconception that grammarians have tried for years to correct. There are dozens of ersatz "rules" of English grammar. Let's start with Public Enemy Number 1.

Myth #1: Don't Split an Infinitive.

"Split" all you want, because this old superstition has never been legit. Writers of English have been doing it since the 1300s.

Where did the notion come from? We can blame Henry Alford, a 19th-century Latinist and Dean of Canterbury, for trying to criminalize the split infinitive. (Latin, by the way, is a recurring theme in the mythology of English grammar.) In 1864, Alford published a very popular grammar book, A Plea for the Queen's English, in which he declared that to was part of the infinitive and that the parts were inseparable. (False on both counts.) He was probably influenced by the fact that the infinitive, the simplest form of a verb, is one word in Latin and thus can't be split. So, for example, you shouldn't put an adverb, like boldly, in the middle of the infinitive phrase to go—as in to boldly go. (Tell that to Gene Roddenberry!)

Grammarians began challenging Alford almost immediately. By the early 20th century, the most respected authorities on English (the linguist Otto Jespersen, the lexicographer Henry Fowler, the grammarian George O. Curme, and others) were vigorously debunking the split-infinitive myth, and explaining that "splitting" is not only acceptable but often preferable. Besides, you can't really split an infinitive, since to is just a prepositional marker and not part of the infinitive itself. In fact, sometimes it's not needed at all. In sentences like "She helped him to write," or "Jack helped me to move," the to could easily be dropped.

But against all reason, this notorious myth of English grammar lives on—in the public imagination if nowhere else.

This wasn't the first time that the forces of Latinism had tried to graft Latin models of sentence structure onto English, a Germanic language. Read on.

Myth #2: Don't End a Sentence With a Preposition.

An 18th-century Anglican bishop named Robert Lowth wrote the first popular grammar book to claim that a preposition didn't belong at the end of a sentence (as in, What was this guy up to?). Others before him had made the same claim, notably the poet John Dryden.

This affectation, like the one about not "splitting" infinitives, proved popular with Latin-educated schoolmasters, probably because Latin sentences don't end in prepositions. But the pedants were forgetting one small detail: English isn't a Latinate language, it's Germanic. And in Germanic languages, sentences routinely end in prepositions. Great English literature from Chaucer to Milton to Shakespeare to the King James version of the Bible is stuffed with these "terminal prepositions."

Probably the word "preposition," from the Latin for "position before," suggested to pedagogues that a preposition must never come last. Be that as it may, Curme and Jespersen recognized the final preposition as natural and instinctive, and Fowler went further: "The legitimacy of the prepositional ending in literary English must be uncompromisingly maintained," he wrote. Amen!

Myth #3: And Don't Start a Sentence with a Conjunction.

We've all heard this one too, right? Does it make sense? No. And here's why.

Conjunctions like and and but and or have been used to start English sentences since as far back as the 10th century. This feels natural because it is natural.

Over the years, some English teachers have enforced the notion that conjunctions should be used only to join elements within a sentence, not to join one sentence with another. But there's never been any evidence for this belief. Modern grammarians have insisted for years that conjunctions are properly used to join words, phrases, clauses or sentences.

And don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Myth #4: None Is Always Singular.

This is nonesense. Though none can be singular, it's much more likely to be plural, as Fowler and many others have pointed out. Why? Because we commonly use it to make a negative statement about all of the members of a class.

See which one sounds more reasonable to you: "None of the dogs bites" (singular), or "None of the dogs bite" (plural). See what I mean? Anyone who prefers the first sentence was probably taught (mistakenly) that none is derived etymologically from "not one" and always means "not one." But authorities including the Oxford English Dictionary trace the origins of none to the Old English word nan (or nane), a pronoun that meant "not any of a number of things" and was commonly plural. It also appears in some Old English texts to mean "no people," with the singular form expressed as "no one."

Consequently, in most cases none is plural and takes a plural verb, as in "None of the windows are broken."

None is singular only when it means "none of it"—that is, "no amount." ("None of the glass is cracked.") If you really do mean "not one," it's better to say "not one."

Myth #5: Whose Can Only Refer to People.

One last hobgoblin. A great many educated people insist that we shouldn't use the word whose to refer to an inanimate object. True believers would never say, "Don't buy a car whose engine is shot." They'd insist on "Don't buy a car the engine of which is shot." Please. This is not only a silly rule—it's a damned awkward one.

This prohibition is a bigger lemon than the car. If you don't believe it, check Fowler. The inanimate "whose," he said, has history, common sense and convenience on its side. And the Oxford English Dictionary says that whose has been used for centuries as the genitive (or possessive) form of what as well as who.

The lesson here? The sillier rules of English grammar aren't genuine rules at all, just misconceptions. When in doubt, go ahead and doubt! A little research may show that while English is a peculiar language, it's not as peculiar as all that. If you'd like to know more about grammar myths, take a look at this page from my website.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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