Clarity, choice, and evidence

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I was surprised to find Jay Livingston, an intelligent and sensible person, subscribing to the prejudice that words like which and this, when understood as referring to some situation or proposition alluded to in the preceding discourse, should be shunned as "non-reference pronouns".

On the contrary, it seems clear that (what Arnold Zwicky calls) "summative" expressions normally do have referents, that summative reference helps makes discourse coherent, and that summative use of which and this is generally no harder to understand than the alternative ways of accomplishing the same goal.

In my post this morning, I gave a few examples of well-regarded writers using summative which. I started with Shakespeare, and most of the other examples were from poetry as well; but some people (like Jay's high-school English teacher, Miss Elliott) discount such examples as poetic license, so I thought I'd add some evidence from expository writing.

But first, let's consider the argument that such evidence is intended to support.

Given a corpus of bad writing, we could no doubt find many examples of distracting or confusing reference, comprising many types of referring expressions and many types of referents. In some of these cases, the writer will have used one of the many alternative ways of referrring to facts, situations, ideas, questions, etc., that were mentioned or evoked in the previous discourse, and we'll get the referent wrong, or be distracted by uncertainty about what the referent should have been.

Will we find that all the confusions and distractions of this type involve one of the proscribed forms of summative reference like which or this, while all the cases of (for example) abstract nouns used for the same purpose are perfectly clear and easy to understand? Surely not.

Will we even find a statistical tendency in that direction? I have no idea. It wouldn't be terribly hard to find out, but as far as I know, none of the people who feel so strongly about enforcing such prescriptions have ever tried to do any research to investigate this question. (Or indeed any other questions — but the curious lack of prescriptivist science or even scholarship is a topic for another post or two. I'll just note in passing that I'd be happy to endorse stylistic recommendations that were based on sound reasoning from valid evidence.)

Given the lack of systematic studies about reference problems in bad writing, the only real evidence we have comes from good writers. And there are two question that this evidence bears on: are summative pronouns ungrammatical in standard English? and given that they're grammatical, do good writers tend to avoid them for stylistic reasons?

The fact, as far as I can tell, is that good writers have always used a mixture of methods for summative reference, depending on their individual stylistic preferences; in the hands of a good writer, all of the methods work well; and the use of summative anaphors like which, this and that is a common ingredient in the mix. This establishes, as a matter of practical fact, that summative pronouns are not ungrammatical in standard English, and that there is no general stylistic reason to avoid them.

Evidence for this view can be found by examining the works of well-regarded writers over the centuries.

For example, if we search for the pattern "this is" in John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism, we find many examples of summative this. In none of them, I submit, would his meaning be any clearer if "this fact" or some similar expression were substituted. Nor, I think, is any other editing needed — it's clear enough what Mill means. Here are a few examples among many:

Considerations may be presented capable of determining the intellect either to give or withhold its assent to the doctrine; and this is equivalent to proof. [this = presenting considerations that determine the intellect to assent or not]

To give a clear view of the moral standard set up by the theory, much more requires to be said; in particular, what things it includes in the ideas of pain and pleasure; and to what extent this is left an open question. [this = the question of what is included in the ideas of pain and pleasure]

It may be objected, that many who are capable of the higher pleasures, occasionally, under the influence of temptation, postpone them to the lower. But this is quite compatible with a full appreciation of the intrinsic superiority of the higher. [this = occasionally postponing the higher pleasures to the lower]

They say it is exacting too much to require that people shall always act from the inducement of promoting the general interests of society. But this is to mistake the very meaning of a standard of morals, and to confound the rule of action with the motive of it. [this = arguing that it's too much to ask people to always be motivated by the general interests of society]

Similarly in Bertrand Russell's Problems of Philosophy:

The painter wants to know what things seem to be, the practical man and the philosopher want to know what they are; but the philosopher's wish to know this is stronger than the practical man's, and is more troubled by knowledge as to the difficulties of answering the question. [this = what things are]

We are all in the habit of judging as to the 'real' shapes of things, and we do this so unreflectingly that we come to think we actually see the real shapes. [this = judging the 'real' shapes of things]

Other philosophers since Berkeley have also held that, although the table does not depend for its existence upon being seen by me, it does depend upon being seen (or otherwise apprehended in sensation) by some mind–not necessarily the mind of God, but more often the whole collective mind of the universe. This they hold, as Berkeley does, chiefly because they think there can be nothing real–or at any rate nothing known to be real except minds and their thoughts and feelings. [this = the belief that the table's existence depends on its being perceived]

Thus if we cannot be sure of the independent existence of objects, we shall be left alone in a desert–it may be that the whole outer world is nothing but a dream, and that we alone exist. This is an uncomfortable possibility; but although it cannot be strictly proved to be false, there is not the slightest reason to suppose that it is true. [this = the notion that we alone exist]

Of course, Mill and Russell are aware of alternatives like "this question", "this fact", "this conclusion", "this possibility", etc., and sometimes they use them. Here are some examples from the same Russell essay:

Is there any knowledge in the world which is so certain that no reasonable man could doubt it? This question, which at first sight might not seem difficult, is really one of the most difficult that can be asked.

So long as we are dealing with derivative knowledge, we have the test of intuitive knowledge to fall back upon. But in regard to intuitive beliefs, it is by no means easy to discover any criterion by which to distinguish some as true and others as erroneous. In this question it is scarcely possible to reach any very precise result: all our knowledge of truths is infected with some degree of doubt, and a theory which ignored this fact would be plainly wrong.

We may therefore admit–though with a slight doubt derived from dreams–that the external world does really exist, and is not wholly dependent for its existence upon our continuing to perceive it. The argument which has led us to this conclusion is doubtless less strong than we could wish, but it is typical of many philosophical arguments, and it is therefore worth while to consider briefly its general character and validity.

It might happen, if Kant is right, that to-morrow our nature would so change as to make two and two become five. This possibility seems never to have occurred to him, yet it is one which utterly destroys the certainty and universality which he is anxious to vindicate for arithmetical propositions.

Are these examples, which use "this N", systematically clearer than the earlier examples that used plain "this"? Plainly not, in my opinion. In some cases "this N" is better, and in some some cases "this" is better; and I believe that Mill and Russell have made the right choice in each case.

Clarity is good. But let's not clutter the minds of students — and editors — with groundless superstitions about how to achieve it.


  1. Alan Gunn said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 2:24 pm

    Maybe there are exceptions, but it's usually not a good idea to begin a paragraph with "this," all by itself. Maybe the claim that a similar rule applies to all sentences is one more example of some people's tendency to try to solve all problems of bad writing reducing everything to a rule. Which can't be done.

  2. Robert said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 3:02 pm

    There's certainly at least one exception to that generalisation, Alan, one which, interestingly enough, is also an exception as to the equivalent generalisation about conjunctions. Consider a piece of text that goes:

    In 1837, French was assumed to be destined to supplant all other languages … [half a dozen sentences of elaboration]

    This, of course, was completely wrong. In fact, within 200 years, French would be extinct.

    In such cases, beginning the second paragraph with 'this' is a useful rhetorical device, quite widely used. It could also begin with 'But', to much the same effect, or with 'and', if the first paragraph were being affirmed.

    As for summative references in general, the objection seems to me to be rooted in an over extension of the core meaning of the prototypical pronouns. When using personal pronouns, people usually do have a concrete referent in mind, so it's tempting to assume all pronouns must.

  3. mgh said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 3:53 pm

    As a general question about prescriptivism, particularly concerning copy editing, is the rightness of leaving choices like these up to the author (rather than imposing an arbitrary "house style") meant to be a corollary of the argument that either choice of words is sound?

  4. Mark Liberman said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 4:15 pm

    @mgh: There are many cases where "house style" dictates one choice among several equally valid options in punctuation, spelling, bibliographical format, and so on. Some publications have rules about things not using contractions or not using first person pronouns, and everyone understands that this is a matter of tone, not of communicative efficacy, much less grammaticality. Imposing a rule like "no summative this" as a matter of house style seems foolish to me, but it's a free country, and the people who control a publication are free to insist that every other word has to be in pig latin, if they want to.

    But we're not talking about choices for a house style here. Instead, some self-appointed experts are claiming that no one should ever use certain words in certain ways, because it's always harmfully unclear, or perhaps because it's out-and-out ungrammatical.

  5. mgh said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 4:41 pm

    Thanks. I took your main point, but was hunting for more ammunition for the War on Arbitrary House Styles. But, as you point out, journals remain free to impose (even bizarre, capricious) word choices that they believe contribute to a consistent publication-wide tone… Just as I remain free to publish elsewhere!

    I'd like to thank you, by the way, for your "examples-based" approach to these questions. I've borrowed from you, and found that pointing out examples contrary to house style in the copy editor's own publication (made easier by the advent of online journal searching) has proven to be effective, so far.

  6. Jesse said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 6:31 pm

    I agree with the general point about the acceptability of "summative" pronouns, but I feel like I'm missing something here with respect to some of your examples. For example, when Mill writes, "this is left an open question," "this" seems to refer to "an open question" ("is left" appears to function as a verb of agreement, though I've no idea what the formal syntactic analysis would be). Mill could have equally phrased this (I'm not saying he should have) as "to what extent this question is left open." In either case, the natural referent for "question" is the embedded question, "what things it includes in the ideas of pain and pleasure," serving as a noun phrase in the previous sentence.

    Russell's "philosopher's wish to know this" refers to the noun phrase "what they [things] are," and "we do this so unreflectingly" refers to the noun phrase "judging as to the 'real' shapes of things."

    In other words, these examples all seem to be normal anaphoric reference to a noun phrase, to which nobody would object. The truly summative uses appear to involve transforming an idea expressed in a full clause or set of clauses into something like a noun phrase: thus "Considerations may be presented…" becomes, in your analysis, "presenting considerations." And it's that transformation that the prescriptivists seem to think makes the summative uses unacceptable. (Of course, with respect to the first example, I suppose there are some prescriptivists who say pronouns must always refer backward, so they wouldn't accept my view that "this" refers to "an open question.")

  7. Jay Livingston said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 11:15 pm

    Mark, I didn't say that anything should be "shunned." I'm certainly not going to be telling linguists how they should or shouldn't write. I just have some principles that I try to follow in my own writing. One of them is that when I see a summative this or which, I ask myself whether the meaning is so obvious that it can't be mistaken, say in the way that the meaning of Frost's line, "that has made all the difference," is obvious. If not, if the this refers to some complicated set of ideas or propositions, I try to convert it into a noun or noun clause.

    I also try to avoid using the fact that. It's not grammatically wrong. But I usually prefer a sentence after I've rewritten it so as to eliminate that phrase. Does following these principles (and a couple of others) make my writing clearer or better? I think so, but I have no evidence to support that conclusion.

  8. Russell said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 11:32 pm

    One might wonder if no-summative folks are equally attentive to their use of ad-clausal "as" clauses, which are in nearly all cases paraphrasable with summative "which" (though with some attendant pragmatic/info struct/etc differences)

    – Such a process is beneficial to all involved, as/which should be clear to everyone by now.

    Now, there are some cases where I can in fact imagine that pronouns like "which," "this," and "as" do in fact have antecedents that are not as clear as they could be–at least in writing, where it is not as easy to indicate focus, contrast, and other information structural properties. E.g.,

    – He killed a moose, which surprised me / and that surprised me / a surprising development.

    Any part(s) might be surprising – the fact that it was "him," that he killed a moose, that he KILLED a moose, that he killed a MOOSE, etc. This is not to say that such cases are always unclear, or even that the particular constructions in English that let you do reference in this way should be banned. It just means (I think) that any good writer should have some fresh eyes read over their text to make sure that (among other things) anaphors, ellipses, and all manner of implicit and indirect references are clear (or as clear as the author wants them to be). Does that fact seem reasonable?

  9. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    May 24, 2008 @ 12:32 am

    @Alan Gunn, who said, "Maybe there are exceptions, but it's usually not a good idea to begin a paragraph with 'this,' all by itself": I hope you only mean summative "this", and not say, cataphoric/forward-referencing "this" (as in the opening of Tim O'Brien's "How to Tell a True War Story", or as in the newsy "This just in: […]")? But even if you do: honestly, summative "this" is very common at the beginning of a paragraph, and usually passes by without notice — and when it doesn't, I think the problem is more likely to be a misplaced paragraph break than an ill-chosen summative. Banning non–paragraph-initial summative "this" would be looking at the problem from exactly the wrong end.

  10. Arnold Zwicky said,

    May 24, 2008 @ 12:53 pm

    To Russell: so far as I know, usage critics don't object to these "as" adjuncts — because they don't have a pronoun "as" (which would, for these critics, require a nominal antecedent), but rather the subordinator "as" (in traditional terms, a conjunction). Theory rules!

  11. Dance said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 12:54 am

    Clarity is good. But let's not clutter the minds of students — and editors — with groundless superstitions about how to achieve it.

    It's not scholarly or quantifiable research, by any means, but I will tell you that I developed the "'this' should never stand alone" rule, which I teach my students, *only* after reading many many student papers and discovering that the referent of "this" was almost always unclear. That is, it's a rule based on empirical observation, not on reading it in a grammar book (as are all of the writing tips I give my students).

    @Alun Gunn—some people's tendency to try to solve all problems of bad writing reducing everything to a rule. Which can't be done.

    Yes, I have exactly that tendency. No, promulgating rules can't solve all problems or magically create good writing. But it can clear out a lot of the most basic issues so that trickier questions get the attention they deserve, and it can teach students how to edit their own work (as Jay Livingston describes), and it can help the student who is not a naturally good writer improve by making writing a teachable thing rather than a magical talent, and it can even help the student who *is* a naturally good writer understand how writing operates and *why* their papers are successful when others are not. Which will be an extremely useful skill as they are asked to write about more complex and difficult things. In addition, I find that the writing rules I suggest often help students clarify or deepen their thinking—that is, by following my style guides, they can wind up making a more sophisticated argument.

    As the post says, good writers can make all methods work. But I think good writing comes from moving through and then beyond the rules, knowing why they exist so that you know when to break them.

  12. Mark Liberman said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 1:30 am

    @Dance: Congratulations on waiting until the sixth sentence of your comment to break the rule against "summative which":

    … and it can even help the student who *is* a naturally good writer understand how writing operates and *why* their papers are successful when others are not. Which will be an extremely useful skill as they are asked to write about more complex and difficult things.

  13. Dance said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 10:00 am

    @Mark—Did that consciously, because I think it works fine there—feel free to dissect it as an example. [And as as long as no one posts between us, the summative "that" and "it" should be all right too]

    Uh, did you finish reading the comment? I said that rules are made to be broken, but deliberately, not through ignorance. I'm not arguing all rules need to be followed all the time. I'm arguing that there is value in teaching the rules, that students gain from them, and that they aren't based in groundless superstitions. If you are going to bother replying, some substantive engagement with my points would be nice.

  14. jamessal said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 12:00 pm

    I'm arguing that there is value in teaching the rules

    I'm not buying it. Granted, there is a good writing principle (or rule, if you prefer) buried in that silly "'this' should never stand alone" dictum: pronouns should have clear referents. But why not teach just that? Teach what a pronoun is and then demand when you're grading papers that all pronouns have clear referents.

    Then again, I'm not a teacher, so if you can convince me that it's more effective to teach a rule that's manifestly not true because of some vacuous notion that "rules are meant to broken," then more power to you.

  15. jamessal said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 12:02 pm

    Sorry about the itals. Supposed to be just the quote. A "preview" would be nice.

  16. Arnold Zwicky said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 12:08 pm

    Dance wrote: "I said that rules are made to be broken, but deliberately, not through ignorance. I'm not arguing all rules need to be followed all the time. I'm arguing that there is value in teaching the rules, that students gain from them, and that they aren't based in groundless superstitions."

    This is probably a lost cause, but what Mark and Geoff and I and others have been saying is that some of the things you're calling "rules" are not, in fact, rules of English at all (but arise from mistaken assumptions about the way language works or the way English works — what Mark refers to as "superstitions"), and that teaching them as rules that students can later learn to "break" is not useful.

    You seem to be assuming that a list of "rules" has been established somewhere and that it is the duty of a writing teacher to enforce these, in the name of clarity in writing. We are saying that there are indeed principles that govern the language of speakers and writers of standard English, but what these are is something to be discovered, not to be looked up in the big Don't Say That! list.

    Many things on Don't Say This! lists don't belong there. English professor Paul Brians, who maintains the website Common Errors in English Usage, provides a fairly long list of "non-errors: Those usages people keep telling you are wrong but which are actually standard in English." The list includes split infinitives, ending a sentence with a preposition, beginning a sentence with a conjunction, and sentence-adverbial "hopefully". Some of his entries give nuanced brief treatments of other usages: singular "they" is "sometimes jarring", and restrictive relativizer "which" is opposed by "a small but impassioned group of authorities" (that you might, or might not, want to appease). This from someone who is explicitly prescriptive. The list of non-rules is much bigger in MWDEU, which attempts to describe actual usage in standard English.

    Now, about the demonstrative pronouns "this" and "that" functioning summatively. Descriptions of formal standard written English mention them without comment; see p. 1507 of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. There is no rule banning them, nor should there be, as Mark has argued.

    But should students be taught to be suspicious of them, because they can lead to unclarity? There's no question that sometimes, especially in student writing, they go awry. But this is a problem with pronominal reference in general; I've posted a number of times on inept anaphoric personal pronouns, and also on pronouns that are entirely clear, even though several antecedents are available for them. The clarity of pronominal reference is crucially dependent on the organization of the discourse, real-world knowledge, preceding linguistic context, and so on, and this stuff is hard for writers to learn to take into account.

    But it would be a mistake to ban pronouns in general just because they sometimes go awry (though some teachers have done just that: see Language Log Classic #3365, on Avoid Pronoun). And it would be paralyzing to recommend that students think carefully about the reference of every pronoun they use; they are simply too many of them, and what should the students be thinking carefully about? (They know what they mean, and it's no good for them to look at all possible antecedents, for how can they know which ones are live options for their readers?) Instead, there's no substitute for going over examples in detail.

    Now I'm going to say something that you are really going to dislike. I'm going to question the accuracy of your impressions about your students' writing. Impressions about bodies of linguistic data are notoriously unreliable, even when they come from linguists (like me). Such impressions are skewed by a variety of psychological mechanisms having to do with attention and expectation.

    In the case at hand, you report that almost all of your students' uses of "this" standing alone are unclear. (This doesn't correspond to my experience — 45 years of dealing with student writing, and much other writing as well — but then that's just my impression.) I suggest that there are two contributions to your impression.

    First, I doubt very much that you notice every occurrence of the pronoun "this"; I suspect that you notice only the ones you find troublesome. (I have had a fair amount of experience with people's estimates of the frequency of particular phenomena, and I can tell you that selective attention and confirmation bias are very strong forces.) So you overestimate the magnitude of the problem.

    Second, I suspect that you are reading hypercritically, sometimes detecting alternative referents where ordinary readers (taking into account the organization of the discourse, real-world knowledge, and all the other things people use in understanding pronominal reference) would probably have no problem. You're primed to look for alternative readings; in a sense you're looking for trouble. So you find trouble in places where most people would not.

  17. Dance said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 2:56 pm

    @jamessal—in practice, I do find that it is much more efficient to teach my students "'this' should never stand alone", as a useful shorthand in lieu of a formal grammatical lesson about pronouns and referents, because I see them running into the "this" problem far more frequently than I see them hitting the "which" problem, or using "she/he" in a way that isn't clear, etc. I also think giving them a concrete red flag to look for, rather than expecting them to doublecheck every pronoun in their essays, is a more efficient way for them to improve their writing. Note, however, that I am teaching history in writing-intensive courses where improving their writing is a stated goal of the course, but not teaching grammar or even formal composition courses.

    @Arnold Zwicky—I'm fine with the idea that these are general principles rather than rules, I just differ from you on the idea that presenting them to students as rules cannot be useful. But I don't present them as rules of English. I present them as "ways to make your paper better." The only reason I'm calling it a "rule" is because it seems to me that anything that includes the word "never" must be a rule, rather than a guideline or principle, and for this case, I do use the word "never". You may have convinced me to change it to "not."

    You seem to be assuming that a list of "rules" has been established somewhere and that it is the duty of a writing teacher to enforce these, in the name of clarity in writing.

    Actually, no, I don't think that way at all. I think my duty, as someone who teaches writing through teaching history, is to help my students understand why some combinations of words communicate effectively and others do not. I'm pretty sure that I am *not* reading hypercritically, because I'm reading for effect, not for grammatical errors. But based on that, I'm sure you are right that I miss a lot of instances of "this" standing alone in cases where it works fine.

    You note that the necessary contextual judgment to make choices about how to use "this" etc, is a very hard skill to develop. I have found, in practice, that a list of things to do or not to do offers a good starting point for helping my students develop that judgment. It is not my only tool—I also go over examples in detail, and I present examples both of why "rules" ought to be followed and of instances when exceptions to the "rules" apply, and why.

    You also note that these principles are something to be discovered rather than looked up. I'm having a hard time imagining how a student discovers these principles entirely independently. I'm also not really seeing the effective difference between me consistently handing back papers with comments about "it's not clear what 'this' refers to" in appropriate places, and trying to pre-empt some of those comments by giving students a handout that notes "'this' should never stand alone, always explain 'this *what*' to the reader." I'm also coming up empty when I try to imagine, in practice, how there could be so much harm in such a handout that it outweighs the benefits.

    If anything is a lost cause, it's only the attempt to convince me that there is zero benefit in teaching students to be suspicious of "this" and other common errors, so that they pause when they use them, and check to see whether they have fallen into a common trap. On the other hand, I'm not really sure you marshaled your best arguments against such suspicion, so I could be wrong there.

  18. James said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 8:51 am

    There is an example of "extreme summative this" in common use at the Something Awful forums (which is one of the largest forums on the Internet). Users will often quote blocks of text from other posts and simply say "this" as shorthand for "I agree with the entire quoted post and think that it is good information/advice". For example, let's imagine I'm posting in a relationship advice thread and I want to agree with another user. My post might look like this:
    …which is why dating Siamese twins never works out.
    Also, beware anyone who tells you they are psychic on the first date. It never turns out well.
    (Note that the above example is purely for demonstrative purposes and in no way reflects this user's opinions or past experiences.)

  19. Arnold Zwicky said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 10:27 am

    From Dance: "You also note that these principles are something to be discovered rather than looked up. I'm having a hard time imagining how a student discovers these principles entirely independently."

    I didn't mean to suggest that the *students* should be discovering the principles. That's work for linguists and other language professionals.

  20. jamessal said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 12:56 pm

    Dance: I don't see how I can argue with your getting better history papers from your students after issuing a blanket proscription against summative pronouns. It's your class; I wasn't there.

    But as somebody who once imbibed many similar proscriptions, I will say that such "rules" can be harmful for students. Sure, for someone so inexperienced they haven't even learned what a pronoun is, banning dangling modifiers and such might make a paper slightly less bad. But when that person actually starts writing grownup prose, they're gonna have to unlearn all those nonsense rules, and that's not easy to do. They'll write a sentence and reread it, and then swimming in their head alongside all the questions they should be asking themselves — is it clear? is it elegant? is it the tone I want? — will be this whopping distraction: does it follow the rules? And if it doesn't follow the so-called rules, they'll have to ask if it's "worth" breaking the rules, as though there's some value to following the rules that's separate from writing well. This might not sound like a big deal, but writing is a subtle process, and this kind of distraction makes a difference.

    I, for one, still have trouble bringing myself to use "which" as restrictive relative pronoun (or at least that's what it used to be called — I'm no linguist), even though Joyce, Nabokov, and Beckett all did it on virtually every page. What kind of education is it, really, that teaches you NOT to follow the example of maybe the best prose stylists of the twentieth century?

  21. Dance said,

    May 28, 2008 @ 6:08 am

    Jamessal, many thanks for projecting the harm. I don't know that Joyce, Nabokov, and Beckett are appropriate models for the type of writing that gets taught in schools and colleges, or that students will be expected to do in ordinary lives—to get or keep a job, to write a letter to the editor, to blog. But for what it's worth, however I may have sounded posting here, my emphasis in teaching writing is on "does it work?", not, "does it follow the rules?"

    Thanks to all for the time responding to my comments here. I always find that opposition helps me clarify in my own mind why I am doing things.

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