Saturday, December 01, 2007

No Order

A couple of months ago, a guy I know sent me an email in which he asked which is grammatically correct: "Mean People Produce Little Mean People" or "Mean People Produce Mean Little People."

I told him that they're both grammatically correct, since adjective order isn't specified by rules of grammar.

It was still an interesting question, though, so I told him that there are probably some unofficial rules regarding this sort of thing. For example, you would say "little black book" and "big fat guy" instead of "black little book" and "fat big guy."

In the examples above, the size adjective comes first, so maybe that's one of our unofficial rules. And it looks like other adjectives usually precede the size adjective. For example, "stupid little bitch" sounds more correct than "little stupid bitch" and "mean little people" sounds better than "little mean people."

However, in the sentence "Mean people produce little mean people," the adjectives are deliberately reversed to emphasize a point. And that point, of course, is that if you're mean, your kids are probably going to be mean as well, so don't be so mean.

But then it occurred to me that these unofficial rules aren't always consistent. For example, consider the phrases "big fat guy" and "skinny little guy."

Notice that there's no consistent rule regarding the placement of the {fat | skinny} adjective class with respect to the {big | little} adjective class. (And for the sake of discussion, let's ignore the fact it may be an over-simplification of the complex rules of the English language to mechanically assign adjectives to classes.) However -- and this is actually sort of interesting -- if you read those two phrases aloud, you'll probably put the emphasis on "fat" and "skinny," despite the fact that "fat" occurs second in its phrase and "skinny" occurs first in its phrase. So what does that tell us? That there's some sort of hierarchy that's independent of order?

When things get too confusing for me, I appeal to the wisdom of the web to find out what other people think. And I found two British web sites that deal with adjective order. I mailed the links to the guy I know but he wrote back telling me that one of the sites had an example that violated its own rules. Specifically, it said that age adjectives come before shape adjectives, but the example it used -- "beautiful long curved old red Italian steel racing car" -- clearly has the shape adjective preceding the age adjective.

I wrote him back with the remark, "Stupid little British linguist" (which, incidentally, does not violate the rules on that web site, since it puts opinion or judgment ahead of size, and size ahead of nationality).

However, even though the "opinion or judgment before size" rule applies in phrases like "stupid little British linguist," it doesn't apply to phrases like "big ugly motherfucker."

Of course, the web site had an answer to that, which was to say that "big ugly" isn't subject to the rules because it's a "commonplace term." That sounds like back-pedaling to me, and it doesn't address the issue of how an expression that violates English adjective order could become so commonplace to begin with, especially when its "cute little" counterpart doesn't violate the rules.

So, these unofficial rules don't turn out to be very useful. Maybe the adjective-ordering rule should be treated as nothing more than a rule of thumb. An ugly old little pink English thumb.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Up in the Air

Last week, I mentioned that I was flying out to visit my dad and my sister. I got back yesterday, but my arms are still tired. (And that's what is known as ruining a joke.)

The flights were unremarkable, which is how I like them, but I do have a few observations to make.

First of all, I think it's time to stop calling the seats in the main cabin "economy class." Not only is it somewhat demeaning, it isn't even true. There's nothing economical about them, and they seem to get less economical with every passing year. Let's go back to calling it "coach." It doesn't really mean anything in this context, but at least it isn't misleading.

For years and years -- decades, even -- people have enjoyed complaining about in-flight meals. And with good reason. With rare exception, airline food makes all other fast food seem like haute cuisine. The airlines must have finally gotten wise to this, so they haven't served meals on cross-country flights in years. You can still buy them, but I don't know who in their right mind would ever do such a thing.

The check-in process has improved. I remember when you had to wait in a long line just to get your boarding pass. Then maybe ten or so years ago, they introduced self-check-in terminals. These were great at first, because as with all new technologies, people were initially intimidated by them, so there was never a line and you could just walk up to the terminal and print out your boarding pass. Unfortunately, as the years passed, people lost their fear of these things, but they still had trouble using them. I don't know why -- it's a ridiculously simple process -- but I'm not a moron, so I can never hope to understand what made so many people so perplexed about them. The other problem with the self-check-in terminals was that they didn't call out "Next!" when they became available. I remember one time getting stuck a few people behind some guy who was just standing at the head of the line, despite the fact that there were a couple of self-check-in terminals available.

Of course, now they have online check-in, which allows you to print out your boarding pass on your home computer before you even get to the airport. This is great, but they don't print the gate number on the boarding pass, so you have to find that out when you get to the airport. That isn't normally a problem, but one of my flights wasn't listed for some reason, so I had to get in the customer service line and ask the guy where my flight was. The problem turned out to be that United Airlines occupied two terminals at this particular airport, and the terminals didn't list the flights that were leaving from the other terminal. Fortunately, the two terminals were adjacent, so it wasn't that long a walk.

But why are the flights always listed on the monitors by destination rather than by flight number? Does anyone else find this annoying, or am I just more numerically-oriented than most people? There might be half a dozen flights to Washington DC, for example, but each flight has a unique flight number. So if the flights were sorted by flight number rather than by destination, it would be easier to find your flight, and things would probably go a lot faster.

Let's see, what else? Well, three or more ounces of toothpaste is still considered a terrorist threat, of course, and so are feet with shoes on them. Things would go a lot faster if we weren't required to remove our shoes before passing through the security gate and then put them back on on the other side. Unfortunately, ever since that guy tried to board a plane with a shoe-bomb a few years ago, everyone has to go through the shoe-removal ritual. I'm just glad no one ever tried to sneak a bomb aboard a plane in his underwear. If they made us strip down to our underwear before going through the security gates, things would really slow down.

By the way, I talked a lot last week about how I don't like having to communicate with computers using my vocal cords, but I'm well-aware that in the future, man-machine interaction will generally be more intuitive. This means that we'll be doing a lot of talking to computers and they'll be doing a lot of talking to us. I really don't have a problem with this -- what I don't like is being forced to talk to the computer on its terms.

When you interact with your home computer, you're usually telling it what to do. You tell it to delete a file, go to a certain web page, send an email to someone, or display some pornography you just downloaded. So telling a computer something like, "Open the pod bay doors, HAL" is fine, since it preserves the master/servant relationship (as long as the computer doesn't reply with something like, "I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that"), but when you're talking to an airline reservation system, the computer is basically telling you what to do. It inverts the relationship. I think that's sort of degrading.

And this isn't really related to anything, but while I was visiting my dad, I saw a woman who had a disproportionately large rear end. While describing her to my dad, I realized it was one of the few times in my life I'd ever used the word steatopygian in a conversation. And then, a couple of days later at my sister's house, I happened to mention something about this to her, and she told me I should use the word steatopygian in my blog. I told her I would, even though I wasn't quite sure how I'd work it in.

Of course, as words of this sort go, I happen to think that callipygian is a much prettier word -- not only because of what it means but also because of the way it sounds. It sounds beautiful and lyrical and it has a nice cadence. Unfortunately, you hardly ever get to hear it, because hardly anyone ever says it. But fortunately, you can say it yourself any time you want. As a matter of fact, go ahead and say it a few times right now: Callipygian. Callipygian. Callipygian.

Okay, now back to my flights. As I said, they were pretty uneventful, but different types of planes have different things to annoy you. On my flight back, each seat had its own tiny little LCD screen. I left mine off, and I could barely see the image on the screen of the person sitting next to me. But on the flight to my dad's place, we were literally forced to watch TV, or at least be made aware of its constant presence. They couldn't force us to listen, but there was no way to avoid watching them. Where I was sitting, I could see about eight or ten TV screens suspended from the ceiling. I could look away, but whenever the image changed, the brightness changed, and it was impossible to ignore. Even when you closed your eyes, the change in the brightness level was noticeable and distracting. And of course, if you decided to close your eyes anyway, it only made it that much more difficult to try to read anything.

All the flights were full, except for the flight back. I could have moved across the aisle and had two seats all to myself, but I didn't really need two seats. The only thing I cared about was that the seat in front of me was empty, so I didn't have to worry about the person in front of me tilting his seat back. As you know, such people should be shot. Since I didn't have this to worry about, my mind was free to roam anywhere I allowed it to.

One of the things that popped into my mind is that in all the flying I've done, I've never once seen anyone use an air-sickness bag. But if you dig around in that pouch in back of the seat in front of you, you're sure to find one. I'm not complaining about this, but I am sort of curious about how many people get so nauseous on a flight that they end up throwing up into a paper bag. Maybe flights are a lot smoother than they were when the air-sickness bag was invented, or maybe we've evolved so quickly that the gene for air-sickness is no longer present in our DNA. In any event, I've never seen anyone use an air-sickness bag, not even back when they still served meals on airplanes.