Friday, May 30, 2014

Rules of Grammar and Pragmatism

NOTE: These seventeen essays were reproduced from my now defunct former blog, Random Notes, as they are going to be cited in an upcoming essay. For the most part they deal with three subjects, "common sense" and pragmatism, organics and GMO foods, and the belief in the inherent purity and superiority of all things "primitive". A few are on other topics, but I think those three cover most of them.

In my post "Grammar Nazi Comment on Greco-Latin Words" I made mention of the fact that, while regular rules of grammar and spelling exist to help ensure that we understand what is being said or written, sometimes, in certain circumstances, those rules can lead to more, not less, confusion. For example, the fact that "wind" is the proper spelling for two unrelated words. Or the fact that the "in-" prefix almost always means "not", but in the case of "inflammable" actually means the opposite. And, of course, the list could be continued.The point being, these regular rules exist because in the majority of cases they lead to greater clarity but there are some exceptions, cases in which the rules actual confuse rather than enlighten.

Of course we could always alter the rules to avoid these outlying cases. However, there are three strong arguments against doing so. 

First, there is almost always a problem with any clarifying rule, and that is that adding an exception handler adds more complexity, which can make it harder to recall the rules. In this case it often is easier to deal with a few rare cases where the rule is confusing, while retaining a simple, clear rule, rather than trying to fix those unusual situations by adding unneeded complexity to the rule, which can often cause confusion in even more situations than at present. 

Second, there is a related problem, often indistinguishable from the one above. The previous rule argued that clarifying the rule could introduce additional complexity, which could inadvertently lead to confusion. The present rule argues that fixing a given ambiguity could introduce new confusion in other situations. Many times fixing one problem causes a new one somewhere else. In fact, often confusion exists for just such a reason, if it were "fixed" another confusion would arise. (Eg. "its" and "it's" puzzles many. But were we to make "it's" possessive based on the idea "apostrophe s is always possessive", we would be confused as "its" would be a contraction without an apostrophe, equally confusing. Of course, the third rule truly applies in this situation, so read on.)

The third and final argument against many cases where rules are presumed confusing is that the rules themselves are truly not confusing, the public simply has forgotten some simple rules. For instance, "its" and "it's" is very simple. Both contractions and possessives use apostrophes, but in the case of possessive versions of pronouns, we do not use an apostrophe. Thus, "his" versus "he's", or "its" versus "it's". Contractions always use apostrophes, while possessive do only when not pronouns. If you know the rule, there is no confusion, and thus the need is to make sure everyone knows the rule, not to correct an "exception" that is not one.

The reason I mention this is not, as many suspect, because I am obsessed with grammar and spelling. I am, and I often write on that topic alone, but in this case there is another principle at work, and one which shows how important it is to work from a theoretical basis, rather than implementing ad hoc solutions.

I wrote several times about "pragmatic" approaches ("The Shortcomings of Pragmatism", "Pragmatism Revisited", "Pragmatism Revistied, Again", "The Plural of Anecdote is Not Data"). These approaches tend to argue in favor of "doing what works" rather than being "slaves to theories". Supposed "political realists" on both ends of the political spectrum tend to argue this position at one time or another, claiming that we need to sometimes abandon "absolute principles" and instead "do what makes sense". 

The problem is, without a theory, there is no way to tell what makes sense.

Think about it in terms of grammar. As I said above, the possessive takes an apostrophe, except when it is a pronoun, while a contraction always takes an apostrophe. It is a simple set of rules, but one that often puzzles because they forget the pronoun exception.

So, let us suppose one wants to solve this "problem" with a pragmatic solution. Because people forget the pronoun exception, the pragmatic proposal is to use "it's" as the possessive, since the possessive seems more common, and people tend to think of apostrophes as possessive rather than indicating contractions.

However, since the rule has been made without a theoretical basis, we now have a strange situation. Apostrophes are used for all possessive or contractions, except for "it is", which has no apostrophe. On the other hand, all pronoun possessives do not take an apostrophe, except "it's". In other words, the practical solution actually creates a less regular situation, by "solving" a problem that doesn't exist.

It is a bit of a contrived situation, but it helps illustrate the problem with anti-theoretical approaches. Lacking a theory produces two bad situations. First, lacking a theoretical understanding of the situation, you cannot figure out what consequences will accompany any action, nor can you anticipate what a given action will do. You may be able to guess that various obvious actions will have some obvious consequences, but any more involved reactions, or longer term consequences, will be beyond your ability to predict. Second, without a theory you cannot really say what "works" and what doesn't. Theories are necessary to define success, as well as determine the outcomes that are likely to happen. And so, without a theoretical basis, you cannot tell what will happen, nor can you tell whether that outcome is a success or failure.

I actually plan to write a bit more comprehensive post on pragmatism in the near future, but for now let us just say that without a theory to use in understanding circumstances any action is almost impossible. We can tell if we are not satisfied, and we can try various solutions until one is more satisfactory, but without a theory upon which to base our attempts, we cannot even determine which to try. Theories are needed for any but the most basic efforts at improving circumstances, and to anticipate the results of those solutions. And because of that, "pragmatic" answers, ones which refuse to base their answers on abstract concepts, are more likely to fail, or have harmful side effects that solutions based on even flawed theories.

And that is the reason one should always be wary of those who denounce theories, who criticize systematic thought, or propose "doing what works". Often such statements are simply a smoke screen for an unpopular theory, but sometimes they are meant sincerely, and, in that case, "pragmatic" solutions can be quite dangerous.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2010/06/15.

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