August 26, 2004

A letter from the Lord Quirk

I had a letter from Lord Quirk yesterday. He had read my post on database errors that get me addressed as "Dear Dr Geoff" instead of "Dear Dr Pullum". I discussed some of the syntax of titles more generally, though certainly not exhaustively, and I used him as an example. He's a useful example because he was born Randolph Quirk and then worked his way upward through the ranks, bearing the official designations Mr Quirk, Dr Quirk, Professor Quirk, Vice Chancellor Quirk, Sir Randolph, and finally Lord Quirk of Bloomsbury. His University College London notepaper says, correctly, "The Lord Quirk FBA". (Oh, I forgot to mention one of his honors, he's a Fellow of the British Academy, too.) He wrote to me to share a little part of the treasure trove of maladdressed mail he has picked up since his elevation to the peerage. Much of it is very funny. And one item is truly extraordinary.

The Forum Hotel wrote to him and began the letter "Dear Quirk", which is an odd error (it's like "Dear Pullum"). A letter from England was addressed to "Lord Randle of Quirk" (that one must have been dictated over a bad cell phone connection). Woodstock Furniture sent him a form letter in which I think the botch must have been caused by reserving the first twenty characters for titles like "Professor" and then following with the given name; since they took "Lord Quirk of Bloomsbury" to be his title, and it is 24 characters long, what emerged was "Dear Lord Quirk of Bloomsrandolph Quirk".

But my absolute favorite came to him on the notepaper of a government department known as DEFRA. It was addressed by a government minister to a wide range of figures in the two houses of parliament, including influential members of the House of Lords, many of whom were very upset at the Labour government's plans to ban fox-hunting. The minister, the Right Honorable Alun Michael MP, began his attempt to influence Lord Quirk's opinion on this important issue in the following way:

Department for
Food & Rural Affairs
            Nobel House
17 Smith Square
London SW1P 3JR
            Private Office:

020 7238 5379
020 7238 5867
020 7238 6000
From the Minister for Rural Affairs
Rt Hon Alun Michael MP
            10 April 2002

The Lord Quirk
House of Lords

Dear The,


In a statement to the House of Commons on Thursday 21 March, I set out the way in which I intend to proceed on the contentious issue of hunting with hounds in England and Wales...

All those honors, and you end up as "Dear The"! And in a letter from a person holding ministerial office within the legislative assembly in which you also serve! Priceless.

But of course I would not blog this if the point were merely a giggle. No, there is a serious linguistic angle, so let me just state it briefly. In slogan form: The days of "Last name, First name, Middle initial" must end! Let me explain.

Note first that names, forms of address, titles, addresses, and other such data have syntactic structure which is actually quite complex (for just a small sketch of some of that structure, see The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, pp. 518-520). And note second that today memory resources (both disk space and RAM) are essentially unlimited and absurdly cheap. Yet what the software engineers give us as database programs is old-fashioned junk of 1960-ish design driven by two incongruously inapplicable false assumptions: first, that all data is to be conceived in terms of character strings of fixed lengths and a small number of simple types (First Name, Last Name, SSN#, etc.), and second, that space is tightly limited and expensive.

We need vastly more sophisticated database software for databases of names and addresses. It must be structure-sensitive, it must allow for all sorts of titles and arbitrarily varying lengths of different components, it must cover a large array of naming systems, prefixes, abbreviations, and appellations. And let me throw this in too: it must allow for a solution to the problem of duplicate entries by permitting recognition of almost-identical entries: surely the Geoffrey K. Pullum and the G. K. Pullum who are both at Stevenson College, University of California, Santa Cruz, could be spotted by some algorithm as likely duplicate entries in a mailing list so I don't get two copies of every mailing of junk.

We must have better software. Don't just take my word for it: I am supported in this call by my friend Lord Quirk of Bloomsrandolph Quirk (with whom I am on first-name terms, of course; he calls me "Geoff", I call him "The").

[Revised a bit on 08/27/04.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at August 26, 2004 08:25 PM