Today’s Modern World

The course is called “Scientific Secrets for Raising Kids Who Thrive.” I saw it first, today, in the brand new “holiday wish book catalog offered by The Teaching Company.[1]  I’m not going to order it.

I want to move, shortly, to the “headline” on the page that describes this course, but let’s grammar 3pause a little at the “sub-headline,” which is: “Learn the scientifically proven techniques for raising healthy, happy, and smart children in this course, taught by a world-renowned child development expert and father.  I stopped at the sentence that has “scientifically proven techniques” and “happy…children” together.[2]

It is the headline that got me, though.  Here is is: “Gain a Research-Based Toolkit of Best-Practices for Raising Your Children in Today’s Modern World.”  That’s TODAY’S modern world, you understand.  Not yesterday’s modern world.

“But it’s just clunky,” you might say.  “Why make a big deal out of it?”  OK, it’s clunky.  But is it “just” clunky?  Is it worse than clunky?  Here’s why it might be.

From a language standpoint, “today’s modern world” is redundant.  But let’s say that this mistake was caught by the Department of Grammar and sent back for correction to the Department of Marketing.  And let’s say that the Department of Marketing has in hand the results of focus group responses that shows people will be more likely to buy a course with the redundant phrasing than one with the correct phrasing.  Anybody want to guess the outcome of that struggle?

Here’s the truth.  There is a right number of words to convey an idea to a particular audience.  That means that “too many” is a meaningful concept, as is “too few.”

grammar 1Let’s say that another way.  Redundancy is a tax everyone pays.  It’s a small tax.  You hardly notice it.  And the people who benefit from a use like “today’s modern world” receive their benefit immediately and it is a sizeable benefit.  They win.  Let’s say there are 430 million people who speak English as their first language.  They pay; they lose.

Are redundancy and other misuses really like taxes?  Sure, if you think of time unnecessarily spent as a tax.  I do.  Steven Pinker says that we read efficiently because we project meanings.  We read the first part of a sentence, hypothesize a meaning, and “scan” the rest of the sentence quickly to confirm that it says what we thought it said.  That’s not some new model of efficiency.  That’s how we read.  But some sentences mislead us.  Pinker calls them “garden path” sentences because their first words lead the reader “up the garden path” to an incorrect analysis.[3]  The reader starts the sentence, projects a meaningful continuation; hits an impenetrable barrier; and “frantically look back” to the first words to see what went wrong.

Everything that does not guide you along from your first guess to a correct final conclusion is a tax you must pay.  Indefinite pronoun references cost you.  So is the “he” you referred to, the President, his father, or the Secretary of Agriculture?  Novel meanings cost you.  Does the political ad “It’s too extreme” mean that there is a kind of extreme-ness that would be just right?

grammar 4Here’s where we are.  “Today’s modern world” is wrong.  It would fall in the category of “garden path” sentences if it were a sentence.  It would be like one of Pinker’s examples: “Flip said that Squeaky will do the work yesterday.”  It isn’t that you can’t figure out what it means.  It’s just that it takes you a little while to do it and there are several more thousands of sentences where that one came from.  You can see these taxes being paid.  The EEGs show these taxes being paid.  They are not imaginary.

People will argue that I am an old fogey, which is certainly true.  It is also true that they pay these garden path taxes whether they know it or not and whether they like it or not.[4]  The extra effort it causes their brains to run back, over and over, to the starting point of the sentence is visible and measureable on the EEG.  They are paying the tax.

You don’t have to be a fogey to pay the tax.  It helps to be a fogey if you want to complain about it, of course.


[1] Question: What is a holiday?  Answer: Whatever designation will make people think of buying sets of lectures.  The first one I noticed  (page 31) was Dies Natalis Solis Invicti.  You get your choice, really, of what god to celebrate, but the Persian sun god Mithras was celebrated on December 25 and I have that day virtually free.
[2] Had I not stopped there, I could have gone on to celebrate the marvelous cloudiness of English, which takes phrases like “world-renowned child development expert and father” and gives us no clue at all how anyone can become a world-renowned father.  God the Father Almighty is not a world-renowned father.  If it had been up to me, I would have put “father” first and “world-renowned child development expert” second.
[3] This is an amazing analysis.  See Pinker’s The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language, pp. 212—214.  I have had a warm spot in my heart for Pinker since he produced this sentence in the New York Times on February 2, 1999: After the various associates of a word light up in the mental dictionary, the rest of the brain can squelch the unintended ones, thanks to the activity that psycholinguists call “post-lexical-access processing” and that other people call “common sense.”
[4] This is, please recall, a tax you pay for the poor workmanship of the person who built the sentence.  And in most cases—probably not the one I am using as an example where the company benefits from additional sales—no one actually receives the tax.  So you lose and, in most cases, no one wins.  Hell of a way to run a railroad.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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