March 31, 2002

How’s That Again?

According to an NPR obituary, retired CNN executive Ed Turner (no relation to Ted Turner) "tried to launch two unsuccessful cable news channels" after leaving CNN. NPR likely got this wrong. Mr. Turner no doubt intended to launch successful channels, but he failed to do so. The original sentence is not easily fixed. "He tried unsuccessfully to launch two cable news channels" is technically ambiguous. "He tried, unsuccessfully, to launch two cable news channels" clarifies Mr. Turner's intentions, though, in a brief news item, the distinction between this sentence and the previous one might be missed. I suspect that the cable news channel launches were consecutive, rather than parallel efforts, which is made clear by none of the sentences considered so far. "He was unceccessful in two attempts to launch cable news channels" probably comes closest to what was actually intended.

The faulty sentence heard on the radio supports linguistic theories that assert that we construct meaning in our minds before we map that meaning to a particular sequence of words. Errors in that final mapping process sometimes yield sentences that we understand perfectly, even though modifiers are misplaced or a suffix that belongs on one word is mistakenly placed on another.

March 19, 2002

World Premier

My hymn “O Lord the Invisible” received its first public performance (as the sequence hymn) at my church Sunday morning. After living with the hymn for a year, it was gratifying to at last hear it sung by a large congregation.

Such a premier is a special kind of event for a non-professional. As in the case of the singing dog, people tend to be less amazed by the quality of the work than by who is responsible for it. Of the parishioners who know me, most are unfamiliar with my poetry, and even those who are were mostly unaware that I had set one of my works to music. In these circumstances, one must discount words of appreciation—and there were many—for the ordinary-person and friendly-venue factors. That said, there was reason to believe that people genuinely liked the hymn and would have liked it even without knowing the author. Despite its unexpected melodic and rhythmic turns, for example, the congregation did a good job of singing it. Musicians, who should have had the good sense to keep their mouths shut if they did not like the hymn, had quite positive remarks about it. Indeed, our organist/choirmaster, a composer himself and arranger of the hymn, tells me that his experience is that, if people at St. Paul’s do not like a composition, they simply say nothing.

I had had less confidence in the tune than in the words, but Sunday’s experience was reassuring with regard to both text and music. Doug’s imaginative unison setting and his brisk tempo no doubt contributed to the likeability of the hymn. (I am grateful to Doug, by the way, for his gracious failure, in his introduction to the hymn, to mention his role in its development.) The music had a dance-like quality that some identified with Celtic music, though this notion may have been influenced by the fact that Sunday was St. Patrick’s Day!

In his sermon, our rector seemed to give more credit for the hymn to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit than to me, which some saw as a backhanded compliment. Whereas a priest may have reason to flatter a parishioner, however, there is no need to flatter the Holy Spirit, so I took the compliment as genuine.

March 16, 2002

Ins and Outs of Completing Forms

A few days ago, I was formatting a form for presenters to provide information about their presentations at a workshop. It occurred to me that “to fill in a form” and “to fill out a form” mean essentially the same thing. Dictionaries prefer “fill out,” but the well-established phrase “fill in the blanks” inevitably, I think, leads to the phrase “fill in a form.” The “fill in” usage emphasizes placing information in particular places, whereas “filling out” emphasizes expansion to a completed state of the form (analogous to saying that a child’s face or figure “filled out” and related to the idea of “completing a form”). No doubt, the equivalence (or near equivalence) of “to fill in” and “to fill out”—a seemingly paradoxical state of affairs—results from these phrases having originated in different takes on the process of using a form. Curiously, we never speaking of “filling a form.”

March 4, 2002

On- and Off-line

Some trips to the library are more helpful than are others. I wrote on 2/19/2002 about AOL’s use of “Online,” pronounced “on´-line” in its television ads. I finally got to the Mt. Lebanon Public Library yesterday to check this usage in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). What I found was in the Volume III Supplement of 1982.

I am reluctant to trust a 20-year-old reference as a guide to current computer jargon, but I take some comfort in the absence of “online” (one word) in the OED. (The Encarta World English Dictionary of 1999 does recognize both “online” and “on-line,” but it offers neither a pronunciation guide nor derivation. I find it difficult to take this book seriously.) The OED describes the stress of “on-line” as “variable,” and in no case, where a stress pattern was indicated, was the first syllable stressed to the degree that it is in the AOL ads.

My speculations about the origin of “on-line” appear to have been off the mark. The OED offers various definitions for both “on-line” and “off-line” as adjectives and adverbs—the latter term seemingly the older by a few decades. The earliest reference was from 1926 (“off-line offices”) in the sense of not situated or performed by railway or by rail. No analogous use was noted for “on-line,” although, as I mentioned in my earlier note, the term is certainly used that way (as in “on-line industries”) and has been for some time. The OED did acknowledge a similar sense in relation to airlines, but the earliest meaning cited for “on-line” was indeed in a computing context, referring to peripherals directly connected to a computer. Amazingly, this appeared in a book, High-speed Computing Devices, edited by W.W. Stifler, Jr., and assembled originally as a report for the Office of Naval Research in 1950. The usage that I thought might be oldest, having the same meaning as “on stream” (no hyphen), as in “the plant came on line” (also no hyphen), was represented by a 1968 reference, although “on stream” itself dates from at least 1930.

March 1, 2002


President Bush soon has to decide whether the U.S. will impose punitive tariffs on imported steel. The president of the United Steelworkers was explaining on NPR’s “Morning Edition” today that there is excess steel making capacity in the world, which is why so much steel is being imported. However, none of the excess capacity, he earnestly told us, is in the U.S.

I would be delighted to learn that there is excess oil production capacity in the world. Why should I not have the same reaction to analogous news about steel making capacity? Moreover, who’s to say that a steel plant in Gary, Indiana, does not represent excess world capacity, but a steel plant in Russia does? Clearly, Russia is more desperate to sell steel at a low price than is U.S. Steel. By my understanding of economics, that makes the Indiana plant seem like one plant too many.

The issues may be somewhat more complicated than that, but, I suggest, the USW is quite selective in its arguments. The USW president emphasized that relatively little labor is required to make domestic steel, and domestic plants produce only modest pollution. That may be true, but American steel producers are still burdened by high labor and benefit costs that can be traced to the postwar era, when big business and big labor conspired to produce steel at high prices with high-wage workers, and with little concern for plant modernization. At the time, of course, steel was essential to the economy, and the foreign competition was meager.

Times have changed. Even big steel has changed, prodded by upstarts like Nucor (which, to its shame, is supporting protectionism for steel). On the other hand, why should I pay higher prices to support steelworks and misguided investors?

Of course, President Bush will approve the tariffs. Labor votes are at stake, and the Republicans need them. The public be damned.