More comments on comments (just between us)

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I want to share something with you Language Log readers. But for heaven's sake don't mention it to anyone at The Chronicle of Higher Education or its Lingua Franca blog. This is just between us. There is no telling what would happen over at the Chronicle if they read this, so just keep it dark, OK?

OK. First, I know my policy on comments has puzzled some and annoyed others, so let me start saying that you, having read all the way into the second paragraph of my post, are one of Language Log's thousands of literate, intelligent, and thoughtful readers. I fully understand that, and I know that your comments would be courteous, interesting, insightful, relevant, and correctly spelled. It is not you that I am blocking when I decline to check the software's "Allow Comments" box and instead put in a line of small print with a totally implausible ad hoc excuse for comments not being open.

I am also not trying to avoid contact with opinions conflicting with my own; I like such contact, which is why I work in a university and ask questions after colloquia and engage in discussions with colleagues. Disagreement and discussion and debate are good.

It wasn't even the sheer nastiness of some of the trolls who hide under the blogosphere's bridges: I can handle nasty.

No, what I discovered a year ago was that what displeased me the most was dopiness. Asininity, dim-wittedness, doltishness, dullness, dumbness, foolishness, idiocy, nescience, witlessness, pig-ignorance, senselessness, stupidity, — to capture it in a word, the kind of sheer knuckle-dragging moronic lack-wittedness that makes you think you would rather be listening to Vogon poetry.

What I discovered about myself was that the pain of seeing the dopey things posted by some commenters (not you) outweighed all the pleasure of doing the blogging.

People are not all the same when it comes to pleasure and pain. Take sailing. Some people, astonishingly (I have no idea what's wrong with them), like going out on the ocean in a small boat powered implausibly by a sheet of canvas. The salt spray in the face, the lurching and buffeted movement as you exit the harbor mouth and start heading nowhere in particular across the choppy waves, the occasional hard blow on the head as the boom swings across when you're not paying attention, the desperate leaning out over the side to stop the ill-designed craft falling over on its side (or to jettison the contents of your heaving stomach) . . . It gives them pleasure. I don't know why; I have already told you more than I know about this pursuit, so don't press me. To me, it seems like an extremely expensive and time-consuming way of getting wet and cold that they happen to like. Masochism goes to sea.

And just imagine what it would be like to have the down side of all that without the joy of the little boat with the cherished girl's name lettered on the bow. Imagine simply having buckets of cold sea water thrown at you while you sit on something wobbly, feeling faintly sick, occasionally tearing up a hundred-dollar bill. Not everything you'd want in a weekend pastime, is it?

Sometimes when I looked at some of the things that happened in the mosh pit of commenting spread out below my posts I had similar feelings. Why am I doing this? I will give you an example. It has to come from Lingua Franca, because I close comments on essentially all my Language Log posts now, but at Lingua Franca they insist on comments being open to everyone all the time.

I recently wrote a careful piece on why it is a bad policy to teach novice writers to totally shun the passive construction. I've thought about this topic for years, and I wrote a detailed tutorial on how to diagnose passives. In the particular Lingua Franca post that I am referring to, I told the tale of an anonymous colleague who kindly critiqued some of my prose and in the process (quite wrongly, I thought) flagged a couple of passives for expungement. She claimed to avoid the passive in her own writing, but since she had written an excellent book I was able to check on that, and I found that she was completely wrong about herself: she was using passives at a rate even higher than found in Orwell's 1946 essay railing against the use of the passive, which itself had a far higher rate than normal prose. I stressed that this wasn't too much of a surprise, since it reflected the deplorable, ignorant state of writing instruction in American universities:

Totally unmotivated warnings against sentences that have nothing wrong with them are handed out by people who (unwittingly) often use such sentences more than the people they criticize. And the warnings are consumed by people who don’t know enough grammar to evaluate them (which is why the percentage of passives in published prose continues basically unchanged over time). The blind warning the blind about a danger that isn’t there.

And here is one of the comments that appeared below my piece. I quote it in its entirety:

Passive writing breeds passive thinking and behaving, for this reason I completely disagree with Professor Pullum.

Groan. Pass the seasickness bag. What is "passive writing"? How many passive clauses does it take to make your prose an example of it? And what in God's name are "passive thinking" and "passive behaving"? This totally unsupported assertion (phrased, by the way, as an extremely ugly example of the classic run-on sentence: the comma should be a period) claims that mere use of a certain construction "breeds" undesirable cognitive and behavioral symptoms. One has to speculate concerning what exactly "passive thinking and behaving" would be like, but I get a mental image of someone unable to be assertive — someone who lets events just toss them around as if there was nothing they could do, allowing others to bully and intimidate them wholesale. (Get up and fight like a man! What's the hell's wrong with ya? Been using the copula with past participles, have ya, sissy?)

Seeing drivel like this comment saps my will to write. It's true that several intelligent other commenters rapidly took the author of the above remark out to the woodshed, and explained to him why he was a lunkhead. But nonetheless, the comment I quote is so extraordinarily dumb, so toxically and thoughtlessly prejudiced, that it makes me want to just close the lid of my MacBook and open a beer. This dolt, this beetle-browed bonehead, is allowed to announce his unsupported and ridiculous prejudice to the entire readership of the Chronicle's language blog as if all points of view were equal and the First Amendment gave him the right to stand up beside me on any podium where I appear and speak his disagreement into the microphone I am using.

Do I sound arrogant? I hope not. Arrogance is the property of being convinced of your own wonderfulness and blind to all evidence against it. I haven't made any claims about being wonderful or smart. The truth is that I am keenly interested in tracking the copious evidence that I don't know enough about language yet — that is a primary way in which I learn new stuff. I know I make mistakes, and I do my best to keep in touch with the evidence of my lack of perfection. I like hanging out with people who are smarter than I am, and I like having honest relationships with people who will tell me when I've got something wrong. Arrogance is incompatible with that. It will pain me if some people form an incorrect idea about me because of the forthright way I like to express my views here. But it pains me even more to look at truly idiotic comments such as the above, however rare they may be.

They are indeed rare, I know that. I am well aware of the huge preponderance of smart, interesting, and relevant remarks over dumb and thoughtless ones. But the worst ones have a pain-inducing power that is out of proportion to their number.

Hence my twin policies: at Lingua Franca comments are always required to be open, so I never read them (the one quoted above was pointed out to me by someone else), and at Language Log, where I have more control, I essentially never allow comments at all. I forego the pleasure of the helpful and interesting ones there could have been in order to make sure I don't have to look at the few that would give me that I-don't-need-this feeling. It may be a silly policy; but that should be my decision. We're talking about my preferences and my comfort level.

And the line at the end, apologizing or justifying the closure of comments? A few weeks ago we received the most extraordinarily over-written piece of sarcastic prose begging Language Log, at great length, to stop me from adding such lines. But then again, last week I also received a message from someone who checks for my posts every day, and says "Even if I don't read the article, I still usually check for the day's reason for disabling comments. Always a pleasure!" A dramatic disagreement, clearly.

I think our deal should be this. I'll write what I like, purely for pleasure, and you should read it only if you want to. If it doesn't appeal, don't read it. If you have things to say, start a blog of your own. Is that a good arrangement? (Don't bother to answer that.)

[Comments are, of course, closed. You surely didn't expect otherwise. But it's not in order to block you.]


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