A longer-than-average post about shorter-than-average words and the subliminal messages they breathe into our mind’s ear.
As early as the fifteenth century, stylometry—the forensic analysis of linguistics—was applied to literary works of dubious authorship to confirm or disprove their provenance. Today, computational linguists ask and answer questions like: Did Shakespeare write the play Double Falsehood? Who authored each of the Pauline epistles? Which bits of the Beatles’ lyrical canon belong to John Lennon, and which to Paul McCartney?
At its highest level of abstraction, words in every language I can think of are divisible into two categories: those expressing content and those whose function is to move content words along. Content words—think “people” and “things” —call up images. Function words provide structure without encroaching on meaning—consider “and,” “to,” “yet,” “of,” “etc.,” etc.
While it would not demand much of a general-purpose AI to suss the double meaning in Benedick’s “Against my will I am sent to bid you come in to dinner1,” it would take a special-purpose computational linguistic algorithm to sort out whether Shakespeare created Benedick’s character in the first place. The algorithms have synthesized in Paul’s repetition of function words like “yea,” “so,” and “that,” a unique wordprint from which everything the Apostle is purported to have written his name might be attached with greater certainty. Put another way, it was not the imagery of “people” and “things” that helped wordprint software identify John Lennon as the creator of the beginning and end of the Beatles song “In My Life,” and Paul McCartney as the author of that song’s middle bits, but their use and placement of small and relatively meaningless in-between words like “and” that revealed each songwriter’s identity.
This post celebrates my favorite content-free function words: No, If, And, Or, & But. But even as our golden machines value these memes for what their frequency and rhythm tell us about who speaks or writes them, we non-machines can be triggered by that wee bit of dust in each that packs more than utility into their compact size. These small but rich—not to mention easy-to-remember—cornerstones of our language point the subliminal mind to their content-rich doppelgangers. No, If, And, Or, and But work nights often enough as function-content referents that we sense wherever they turn up the broad strokes of a thousand-word picture.
No smacks of Discipline; its thou-shalt-not-ness compiled into our earliest brain.
If sends our Imagination sailing. If only charts its course.
And is the watchword of Abundance, and of inclusion and extension, and…and…and…
Or demands our Creativity work overtime; so too, our humility.
But is our last-ditch nudge toward Moderation in all things. It circumscribes the demarcation of deliberate will. (It also reminds me of my favorite scene from Funny Farm2—. But I digress.)
1. No / Discipline
In my lost youth, it seemed as though my junior-high-school friends and I sneaked out of our homes every available night with the dishonorable but addictive intent of decorating all the trees of our neighbors’ houses with countless rolls of toilet paper. We called our littering prank TP-ing, which, given that the ancient inhabitants of those neighborhoods might have lived in wigwams, always sounded to me like we were teepeeing the trees, creating tall palaces for the dwelling of their spirits. In reality, our cadence of mischief was dictated not by our consciences but by the inconstant flow of toilet paper we managed to steal from our collective cupboards. My family’s cache was usually the most reliable since, to supply a household of twelve souls—While my grandmother and her brother had come to live with us by then, Mary and Abe had not yet arrived—my parents sometimes purchased TP in a one-hundred-roll box that, for siblings still traveling on all fours, doubled as a cardboard fort the size of an appliance crate.
When it came to hooking up with my co-conspirators, sneaking out of the house for a midnight rendezvous was not the difficult bit—for its high ingress and egress potential, I made my bed on the cool cement of the backyard patio that summer—it was the smuggling that demanded ingenuity. Even a single roll looked conspicuous, stashed under the shirt of a skinny teenager. Until the night it all crashed down —literally—my supply line remained uninterrupted.
The night my father caught me out, he said something about a crime called vandalism, including its consequences. For some reason lost to me now, I was exiting not the back but the front door at the time with half a dozen rolls of TP stuffed inside a coat I had no virtuous reason to be wearing in the heat when my dad asked me where I might be going dressed like Virgil Starkwell4.
That evening, when a member of the team woke me in my outdoor bedroom, I told him I got busted and had committed to my dad that my days as a vandal were now behind me.
“What does vandalism mean, anyway?”
“Never heard of it.”
Later that night, sans moi and my family’s abundant toilet paper supply to constrain them, the team climbed into an abandoned car perched on a grassy knoll in a vacant lot a few streets over. Discovering the car unlooked, they piled in to try to jump-start it by pushing It down the hill as we had all helped our dads do when their cars wouldn’t start. When this one didn’t—who knew that even a jump-started vehicle needed a key?—it also wouldn’t stop, forcing the guys in the car to jump from the rolling death trap and helplessly watch it accelerate down the hill in slow motion until it broadsided a parked car on the street below.
In a public speech several years afterward, the friend who awoke me that night cited my rejecting his routine call to mischief as a turning point away from a dead-end life.
“Who knows where I would be today if my friend had not told me No?”
2. If / Imagination
We’ve all seen movies where the vigilant job-seeker camps outside the office of a would-be employer as the clock wiles away until an impromptu interview drops on her from a great height. In real life, I have played that hapless hero more than once.
In search of my first job out of college5, thanks to my supremely-connected Beverly Hills orthodontist cousin, I got an interview at IBM’s Hollywood office for a job selling typewriters to motion picture studios. Mildly amused by the ironic homage to the four years I had just spent learning to type, including The Great Hollywood Screenplay, my cousin’s favor extended only to the manager’s telling me something about IBM’s history and culture.
“And did I mention that we hire exclusively right out of college, making this your only chance to join Big Blue?”
After working a few years at the non-IBM job I did land that season, I went back to Big Blue’s Costa Mesa office, this time without an introduction, and, impersonating a motion picture hero, plopped myself outside the manager’s door until I was finally indulged.
“Your resume says you write plays. Can you write me a play?”
I had not sat all day just to write another play, but I played my cards straight.
“Sure. I can write you a play.”
“Can you write me a song?”
And then the bonus interview question.
“Can you win me an Academy Award?”
Flashing my Hollywood interview and the fact that I was now a few years out of college, I figured there was only one correct answer.
“Yes, Ed, I can win you an Academy Award.”
Ed Johnson, soon to be my first boss at Big Blue, went on to explain that every year, IBM’s west coast offices got together for a work-and-fun retreat whose most coveted pinnacle was the announcement of that year’s best, homegrown musical theatre production at the final evening’s entertainment.
“Anyone can hire out that sort of thing. But each office performs its own 20-minute show. These are blockbuster pageants with unlimited budgets. And at the end, they give out an Academy Award, complete with a golden Oscar® lookalike statuette. But if I’m going to hire you, you’ll need to win.”
He then added, almost with a sigh, “Because I never have.”
Four years later, while on a business trip to Maryland, I phoned Anne Golightly and asked her for the name of the Chief Technology Officer at what was then called the Marriott Corporation. Reprising my Costa Mesa strategy, I talked my way through security at Marriott’s headquarters and plopped down in front of the office of Dr. Richard Schroth.
Like Ed Johnson before him, after Rich was kind enough to open his door, the impromptu job interview that followed was as brief and only slightly more relevant than Ed’s had been.
“Look, Scott, I’m kind of ambushed here, so I’ll make this easy. I’m going to ask you just one question. And free to take whatever time you need to answer.”
“If it’s a musical comedy you want, I’m your man,” I did not say.
“Tell me the most imaginative thing you’ve ever done.”
It took me all of five seconds to decide where to take him.
“You see near the top of my resume where it says I work for IBM? And just above that, where I studied playwriting? Let me tell you about the time I won an Academy Award.”
3. And / Abundance
In ways not measured by audience size, the first play I wrote for a real stage remains my most successful. During its afterschool rehearsals, I fell in love with my future wife Kari. And although its controversial subject matter drove my A-list cast to walk out a week ahead of its scheduled performances, the risks I took in writing and directing it paid dividends when the B-list cast stepped up to save the show. Both Kari and that substitute cast remain today among my closest friends.
In our three-year high school, it was an annual tradition that the sophomore, junior, and senior classes write and perform a 50-minute “assembly,” as those invariably raucous rumpuses were called. Their nominal intent was to showcase class talent. But their raison d’etre was to give 2,200 students a combined two-and-hour break from the monotony that was high school and, for those on stage, yet another opportunity to be seen. My friends Wayne Anderson and Steve Smith had the year before written and directed our sophomore assembly, and I had a lot of fun performing in it. Like the other two, ours was pure slapstick; as had been, I later learned, all class assemblies since the beginning of time. They were the perfect chance to show up, show off, blow off steam, and laugh it up while generally making fun of everyone and everything about high school life.
Not appreciating its history and still basically a socially tone-deaf teenager, for my junior class assembly, I wrote a tragedy about a kid in that year’s senior class who was bullied into taking his life. Banking on my friendship with Wayne, Steve, and our class president Scott Duerden, I persuaded them I had a story that needed telling.
“We can think bigger than Laugh-In,” was all I had back then. “We can at least show the other classes that we’re different.”
We were different, all right. So much so that after the main players who failed to convince me to lighten up the script walked out because, “Our friends think they’re coming to see us in a comedy, and you’ve got us beating up some poor loser.”
After the B-team stepped up in the final week of rehearsal, we performed the show to standing ovations not just at our school but on demand at a couple of neighboring ones.
Thinking abundantly about art, even as a clueless teen, changed some things for a few people that year. I already mentioned Kari. Eschewing easy laughs for a deeper dive into the soul allowed us to bond on levels that still surface in our 45-year marriage. Half a century later, I am still in touch with cast members. And if you’ve read my inaugural indirection, you’ll understand how writing that first play led to writing my first blog post2.
4. Or / Creativity
When taught to speak and write in English, we are cautioned never to strand a preposition at the end of a sentence.
“Where are you from?” “Who’s there?” “What’s in the road ahead?” (Or, as my kids like to quip, “What’s in the road? A head?”)
But once we learn that for Winston Churchill, tying our grammatical lobe in a knot just to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition was the sort of nonsense up with which he would not put, we eventually throw caution to the window and regularly butcher our native tongue with doubly gauche statements like “Who do you think you’re talking to?” (Two lefts must make a right.)
But what about the stranded conjunction? We never say, “I’m going to bed now, or?” Maybe we should go for It. The Germans do it all the time. And where else do we get so much of our native tongue? Even the French routinely end their inquiries with “n’est-ce pas?” (or?).
Last week I asked Steve Hinske, a German friend of mine living in Zurich, and James Renier, a native Chicagoan who divides his time between Winterthur and Paris, why, when Germanophones speak English, they sometimes end their sentences with “or?”
Here is Steve’s response:
The German “oder” at the end of a sentence is normally the equivalent of the English “isn’t X?” (“is X?”, “aren’t X?”, “are X?”, etc.), allowing you to turn a statement you make with some confidence into a question to get confirmation. (In case of low or no confidence, you ask an open question.)
For example, “He went home yesterday, didn’t he?” = “Er ging gestern nach Hause, oder?” If you don’t know at all whether he went home, you use the equivalent of “Did he go home last night?” Depending on the context you can also use “oder” at the end of a sentence to invite suggestions or alternatives.
The example from my time in Switzerland that I put to Steve and James was:
Suppose we’re all planning to meet for dinner at Restaurant Schloss Wülflingen in Winterthur. And it’s Steve and Uli’s turn to treat! But because Steve and his wife are not keen on spending all their money, Steve subconsciously holds out hope that we might instead meet at Mcdonald’s in the old town. But he’s not going to suggest that. Instead, he opens the door a crack to acommodate, maybe even suggest, an alternative. He knows all other venues will cost less than Schloss Wülflingen. So he says something like:
“My turn to buy dinner. After work, let’s meet at Restaurant Schloss Wülflingen, or?”
James came back with:
Interesting question, oder? It’s like a hiccup in German; they use it all the time. I know that you know it’s my turn to buy dinner but I’m going to throw “oder” at the end to maybe get out of it (like maybe you think it’s your turn). However most use it as an affirmation. We are going to have fun, right? (Wir werden doch Spaß haben, order?) We say right and they say oder.
The French “n-est-ce pas” (literally, “is it not?”) is more or less a boolean expression, meaning it can be satisfied by only one of two responses. Likewise, a Chinese-speaking economics professor I had in business school had this tick where he’d end every other English sentence with “yes or no?,” a boolean clarification that comes from a common Chinese sentence ending, “dwei, bu-dwei?” (right?/not right?) But for me, hearing a German-to-English sentence ending In “or” always opens up more possibilities than just “yes or no.” Hearing James’ Austrian wife Ursula say something like, “We could walk down to the lake, or?” was, for me, always an open invitation to consider any number of ways to spend a Saturday afternoon with Ursula, James, and their son Quin. Ending that kind of sentence in “or” seems to me an anapodoton, a rhetorical device where the initial phrase of a sentence is all we need to say, counting on the listener to fill in the rest.
“When in Rome—” “If at first you don’t succeed—” are instances of anapodoton. So is “When I was younger, so much younger than today…” You tell me what comes next. (Or better still, who penned those lyrics.)
Steve tells me that ending a sentence with “oder” will often elicit suggestions or alternatives.
What if, each time we thought of a new idea, we immediately challenged it, or?
5. But / Moderation
In The Kindness of Strangers, I wrote about how a boy I met not five minutes earlier nominated me to the national party chair to run a week-long experiential civics camp in Washington, DC, known as Boys Nation, between my junior and senior years of high school. What I didn’t mention was the speech that clinched my election. With no preconception of what I might say—after the gavel drop, the “senator” from Connecticut had jumped up shouting my name so fast it took me a minute to register what election we were holding. Now, having to speak first, I did what politicians do in campaign speeches: I made a promise. It was an impromptu pledge, and I kept it simple. And like many simple but ill-conceived campaign promises, I would break it within three days.
“It looks like, by the end of this week, one of us will face off against the other party in a mock election to become the President of the United States. (You know what I mean.) If elected party chair, I will have no other agenda before me than to elect our party’s nominee for that office.”
“I promise not to run for president.”
A few days later, a number of the delegates from my party, led by the honorable senator from Connecticut, brought me the poisoned apple.
“Look, Scott, we know what you said on Monday, that you wouldn’t run. But face facts. You’ve stood at the pulpit every day this week. There’s no one in the party who doesn’t know your name. Everyone here likes you. And we think you’ll have the best chance of beating your roommate’s party6. Forget your promise; no one will remember it. It’s all pretend, anyway. Just accept the nomination.”
My week in Washington, DC, was, in some ways, the experience of a lifetime. I had lunch in the Senate Restaurant with my state’s real senators; bumped into Ted Kennedy and his my-same-age niece Caroline; was even sneaked into the Watergate Hearings by my congressman. But those events paled before the shame I felt when succumbing to the false narrative that my party’s interests—whatever that meant; we were just pretending—trumped the boundaries of my character.
The whole election thing was, at best, a photo opportunity for the book of remembrance that would come in the mail months later. No one I would show it to had any hope of grasping the experience I had had that week. In the grand scheme that was high school, the summer holiday amounted only to an ungraded writing assignment on the first day of fall semester. But it was not my popularity that was on the line, but my integrity. In an instant of empty-headed pressure, I had made a pledge. But in an instant of emptier-headed flattery, I just as easily unmade it.
1. Asked to analyze Benedick’s double-meaning in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, an all-purpose AI would need only to continue beyond Benedick’s initial exclamation in Act II, Scene iii:
BEATRICE: Against my will I am sent to bid you come in to dinner
BENEDICK: There’s a double meaning in that.
BEATRICE: I took no more pains for those thanks than you took pains to thank me.
BENEDICK: That’s as much as to say, Any pains that I take for you is as easy as thanks.
2. When in the George Roy Hill film Funny Farm, Chevy Chase and Madolyn Smith send their worldly goods from Manhattan to Vermont, their lost and impatient movers don’t wait for the full explanation of a shortcut route given by a wronged onlooker:
“But I wouldn’t go that way if I were you,” the movers do not hear as they speed off toward what turns out to be a booby trap.
3. At a T-ball game for my son Timothy in Wellesley, Massachusetts, his younger brother, David, just learning to spell, got a little possessive with a lawn quilt he had laid out for himself before going off to climb on a log fence. On his return, he found it occupied by his older sister, Sarah.
4. Spoiler alert: In the Woody Allen film, Take the Money and Run, a planned prison break unravels when Allen’s character, Virgil Starkwell, tasked with smuggling several guard uniforms out of the prison laundry, wears them to lunch in layers, fooling no one, including the cafeteria guards.
5. In Something to Write About, I chronicle my transition from earning a college degree in professional writing to embarking on an industrial career in innovation and change.
6. By coincidence, Curtis Steadman, the other elected party chair at Boys Nation in 1974, was the second of the two senators our Boy’s State cohort had sent to Washington, DC.