December 10, 2007

This blogging life: Not doing, failing to do, neglecting to do

Another posting about aspects of my life blogging on Language Log (after the first, which mostly elicited hostile e-mail; at least two more are to follow).  This one is about getting e-mail from readers following up on some posting of mine and offering something more.  There are three main variants:

NEG: You didn't mention X.
FAIL: You failed to mention X.
NEGLECT: You neglected to mention X.

In my understanding of things, these three are on an increasing scale of implied responsibility on my part, and hence culpability on my part.

The NEG variant is in some ways the most complex, though lexically the least rich.  Often it's clear that e-mail in the NEG form is just offering more examples of the sort I mentioned in my posting.  I try to stress that I'm giving examples that illustrate some point(s) and not assembling an inventory of all examples of this sort, but, still, people want to tell me about their favorite examples.  I try to be generous about these things, but such messages add a lot to my burden of e-mail.  [For another day: why I don't enable comments on Language Log.]

In other cases, X is some topic connected to the topic of my posting -- often interesting in its own right, but not directly relevant to the point(s) of my posting.  My correspondent is saying, in effect, "I wish you had posted on X", or just "Your posting reminds me of an interesting question".  Usually, I've CHOSEN not to post on X, because it would take me far afield, because I'm saving X for its own posting, or because I'm just plain ignorant about X.

On the other hand, the NEG variant, which SAYS merely that I didn't do something, can IMPLICATE that I should have, so that there's a suggestion of some culpability on my part.

The FAIL variant conveys much more strongly, to my mind anyway, that I should have mentioned X.  Not mentioning X is, well, a failure on my part.

The NEGLECT variant, to my mind, is like the FAIL variant, but adds the suggestion that I knew about X and knew that X was relevant, but nevertheless, perversely, didn't mention X.

E-mail with the NEGLECT variant in it usually annoys me a lot when I first read it.  Occasionally, I have indeed neglected to say something relevant I knew and should have said, in which case I amend the original posting or write (or plan to write -- there are an awful lot of items in my queue for posting) a new one, but usually it's not neglect, but (as I said above) a choice on my part.  I try to avoid snapping back at the authors of the NEGLECT messages, but I'm afraid I'm often rather curt, because I feel unfairly attacked.

Even when I am in fact ignorant, I bridle at the accusation that I SHOULD know these things, as though I should know all about the histories of all English expressions, the ins and outs of many different computer programs and systems, the details of youth slang in various places, everything about current popular culture throughout the world, the history of ideas in Western culture since the Greeks, and so on.  No one could possibly encompass all of this (and no one ever could, despite people's claims that there was a time when educated people could know EVERYTHING there was to know about the world; there have always been experts, and so single person has ever possessed everyone's expertise, and that's a good thing). 

I freely admit that I'm ignorant about an enormous number of things, even some that I "ought", as a highly educated person, a professor at an elite university, to know.  In my defense, I sometimes say (accurately, I think) that I'm an ambitious child of the working class and so selected areas where I thought I could advance by building on my talents.  But mostly I think it's because no one can encompass all of this.  I'm astounded at true polymaths (especially those who bridge natural science, social science, engineering, the humanities, and/or the arts), though I do recognize that every polymath has huge gaping holes of ignorance in their knowledge.  In any case, I am not a polymath.

I'm also astounded at people who can reel off serious writing at a great clip -- like my old friend, now sadly departed, Jim McCawley, who turned out high-quality stuff in print at rates unimaginable to me.  As I said in my earlier posting, I work slowly, thinking things through many times.

When I've posted quickly, I've almost always regretted it.  I've had to amend these postings, sometimes several times, and often have had to do follow-up postings, or at least plan them (there are dozens in the works right now).  This doesn't encourage me to toss stuff off.

Several friends have mentioned to me the notion of e-mail bankruptcy, in which a poster "writes off" the accumulated debt of response to e-mail.  I'm reluctant to do such a thing; I always hope to revive topics in the queue.  Hey, I started this posting eight weeks ago.

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at December 10, 2007 08:09 PM