03/4/12

Nope, this quote is not from Plato


Plato“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.”

Seems like a wise thing to say. And I wish Plato had said it – it would have saved me a lot of time today. I spent many hours today putting together a quotation widget for this blog and trying to ascertain every quote I included came from a respectable, creditable source. Most were fairly easy to confirm, but others – like this one – just didn’t feel right for the attributed author.

This quote strikes me as far more modern than anything Plato ever wrote. It just see,ms to me like another touchy-feely, self-help-guru saying attributed to someone ancient to give it a patina of credibility.

Every single site that repeated that quotation of the several hundred I perused, not a single one included a source work for it. Many had sources for other Plato quotes, identifying the book from which the quotation was taken, but not this quote. That’s annoying. I spent at least an hour trying to find a proper source for this one.

Quotations attributed to the wrong author discredit both the poster and the quotation. It’s part of the general dumbing-down the Internet is doing to us all. But hundreds, even thousands of sites perpetuate this stupidity. It makes it very difficult to repeat anything we find online because few, if any, bother to track content backwards to confirm a source.

Some sites attributed (again without a source reference) it to Socrates (which points back to Plato, of course, since Socrates did not actually write anything and most of his recorded words are contained in Plato’s works).*

One site named the source as “Platone,” one as “Plate” and another as “Plata” (don’t these idiots ever use spell check?). Other sites attributed it to a real estate agent in la Jolla named “John Parker.” A poster named “kiersten11″ is noted as the source in one place. One site seems to attribute it to Abraham Lincoln (again unsourced). It’s like a dart board of dead people.

Many others just parroted it without attribution (probably a lot safer). It’s been used as an inspirational quote for both humanists and religious fundamentalists, evolutionists and creationists alike. It’s been bruited about in all sorts of simperingly saccharine posts about fear, love, fear of the dark and being one with the whatever nebulous oneness that inspires the poster.

But it isn’t from Plato. Another bloody stupid Internet meme is all it is. The equivalent of Internet chain letters. Sigh.

My bet is on it being by modern author Robin Sharma, for which I found several attributions of it from his book, The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari. It seems to run in parallel with his other quotes, too, much more than it reads like something Plato would have written.

Poor Robin Sharma if it really is his. How will he ever retrieve it from Plato?

~~~~~

* Update: I mis-spoke in my earlier version. Socrates is quoted by several classical authors, but of them only Plato was his actual student; Xenophon has been called a disciple but is from my reading more a contemporary or colleague. And Plato and Xenophon differ in a few p[laces what they claim Socrates said.
The rest of the authors use third-hand or more distant sources since they never knew or studied under Socrates. The Socratic problem is trying to determine what Socrates actually believed, since classical authors used him to voice their own sentiments and ideas.

03/4/12

English suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous punctuation


Grammar TalesThere’s a chip wagon in town that offers “fresh cut fries.” When I see that sign, I always wonder what “cut fries” are, and how they compare with uncut fries. Does this chipster offer stale cut fries as well as fresh ones?

The former library is becoming an old building. The sign in front tells us a “senior facility” is coming soon. Sad to see a relatively new building forced to age.

A sign in a local department store advises me “video’s” are on sale. A grocery store offers “mango’s” and “avocado’s”. These common ‘apostrophe catastrophes‘ can be seen daily on signs and in official documents pretty much everywhere English is misspoken.

I was warned to “drive safe” when I left a store on a blustery winter’s day. I responded that the safe didn’t have an engine, so I could not possible drive it. When told to “dress warm” I asked “dress a warm what?”

A local restaurant calls itself the Olde’ Towne Terrace. Aside from the inappropriate apostrophe dangling at the end of the word, olde was a correct spelling in earlier forms of English, but not today. As this sites notes, it’s just an affectation today: “Other ways of pretending to be ancient are the addition of unnecessary ‘e’ at the end of words, ‘olde’, ‘shoppe’, again a holdover from Middle English where the ‘e’ was pronounced… fake English spelling affects all parts of the English-speaking world.”

ToonpoolI suppose I’m urinating against the wind here. There are hundreds of sites and blogs dedicated to documenting and correcting the tsunami of improper spelling, punctuation and grammar all around us. My protest is a mere ripple in comparison. Some writers offer constructive correction (like Melissa Donovan in Writing Forward), but people don’t check before they make signs. It strikes me the job of creating those messages is always assigned to the least literate employee.

There’s the “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks, a Flickr collection of signs with bad grammar and spelling (and not just at Tea Party rallies, either!) and another set here, here, and here.

Canada’s favourite coffee shop annoys me daily with its incorrect punctuation: Tim Hortons (sic). According to Wikipedia, this error was actually a conscious decision: “The chain’s first store opened in 1964 in Hamilton, Ontario, under the name “Tim Horton Donuts”; the name was later abbreviated to “Tim Horton’s” and then changed to “Tim Hortons” without the possessive apostrophe. The business was founded by Tim Horton, who played in the National Hockey League from 1949 until his death in a car accident in 1974.”

Why, you ask, would any company deliberately dumb-down its signs and open itself to ridicule? To appease the anglophobes in Quebec: “Some older locations retain signage with the company’s name including a possessive apostrophe, despite the fact that the official styling of the company’s name has been Tim Hortons, without an apostrophe, for at least a decade. The company had removed the apostrophe after signs using the apostrophe were considered to be breaking the language sign laws of the Province of Quebec in 1993. The removal of the apostrophe allowed the company to have one common sign image across Canada.” I can only feel for the franchise owners who stubbornly refuse to give in to corporate silliness. The company will offend millions of English language speakers by making an egregious error in punctuation, but not anyone in Quebec. Nice message to send the rest of us, eh? Seems the missing apostrophe has even spawned boycotts of the place and petitions to have it restored.

Fortunately, Collingwood Council has not gone the way of Birmingham, England, and declared apostrophes outdated on its signs. I treat this declaration with the same reverence I treat my dog barking at a squirrel that eludes it: pointless and annoying. Birmingham has become the “city where apostrophes arent welcome” and ridiculed for the decision in the media.

If you don’t think punctuation matters, read this story about a comma that cost Rogers $2.13 million!

Does all this matter any more? Is the number of people who care about language usage, about punctuation, grammar and spelling dwindling, fighting a losing battle against tweets and text messages? I fervently hope not. Even some Chinese cities have undertaken campaigns to correct English on their signs. If they care that much about English, surely we, its native speakers, should do so, too.

Maybe Canada needs a National Punctuation Day (Sept. 24) or a National Grammar Day (March 4) like the US has. Would it make any difference? Aside, that is, from giving geeks like me something else to whinge about?