Monthly Archives: June 2011

An uncertain mess

In one short sentence, Tory MP David Davis goes woefully wrong:

If and when elections do happen in north Africa, few can predict the results.

 There are several problems here:

  1. While “as and when” is a harmless bit of redundancy, “if and when” equivocates – and does it badly. Is he saying that elections will happen? Then “when” does the job. Is he saying that they may happen? Then “if” is good. Is he adopting some meta-epistemic position from which the knowability of their being held is itself unknown? Then “if or when” will just about manage it. Not “and”.
  2. Who are these happy “few” who can predict election results? If we know, we can just ask them and the uncertainty will dissolve. But if we don’t know, how do we know that there are few of them and not many? And I assume here that Davis means reliably predict, because any idiot can make predictions if quality isn’t a concern.
  3. Then there’s the problem of following the opening clause, positing a future condition, with the present-tense “can”. A current state of affairs can’t be conditional on a future one. It would work, grammatically, as “few will be able to predict”, but that would confine the predictive scarcity to the future.
  4. And finally, there’s the oddity of mixing (ineptly) the claim of the results’ unpredictability with the half-statement of uncertainty about whether the elections will happen at all.

A better way to put it would be:

We do not know what will happen in north Africa.

Is such a statement even worth making?

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Miliband in open relationship shocker

Two things I didn’t know about Ed Miliband, courtesy of the Independent:

Since his graduation, his girlfriends have included BBC economics editor Stephanie Flanders, Times journalist Alice Miles and Tony Blair’s then-deputy chief of staff, Liz Lloyd.

I didn’t know who any of his exes are, nor did I know that that the girlfriend-collecting period of his life continues to this day. Because that’s what the present perfect “have included” implies – compounded by the opening “Since”.

Who’s going to tell his wife?

A plea for pleonasm and a rhyme of reason

Oliver Kamm (in Saturday’s Times; no link) criticises an article by David Cameron and Barack Obama:

My main objection to it is the repeated phrase “the reason is because”. It’s a tautology. A reason is, by definition, an explanation why. You don’t need to say “the reason is because … “. It’s enough to say “the reason is that … “.

I don’t like using ‘tautology’ in this way. It’s technically correct: one definition of it is a phrase that contains needless repetition of meaning (such as ‘excessive overdose’ or ‘successfully won’). But it also has a narrower use, to mean a statement – not just a phrase – that is true by definition – such as ‘the overdose was excessive’ or ‘either he will survive it or he will not’. The philosophy graduate in me wants to keep ‘tautology’ for this purpose only.

And why use ‘tautology’ to mean a superfluous redundancy of semantic meaning based on repetitive duplication when we have the wonderful ‘pleonasm’ to do exactly that? ‘Pleonasm’ – think of it as the opposite of an oxymoron – is one of the few words I’ve fallen in love with on first sight.

But I have another point about Kamm’s piece, this one a genuine nit to pick rather than an aesthetic difference. He continues:

I know that Tennyson wrote in The Charge of the Light Brigade: “Theirs not to reason why,/ Theirs but to do and die.” And it would have ruined the scansion and destroyed the emotional impact if he’d said: “Theirs not to ask why … “.

This is a failure of perspective. ‘Reason’ as quoted here is a verb, like ‘wonder’ or, yes, ‘ask’. It’s not a noun like ‘explanation’. That, rather than the scansion or emotional tone, is the reason that ‘reason why’ is fine here.

Memo to Tennyson’s ghost: ‘wonder why’ would have kept your scansion intact and given you an alliteration to go with ‘do and die’. Then again, ‘reason’ conveys more of a sense of intellectual deliberation than ‘wonder’. I suppose your way just about works.