What the…?

“What the…?” is a handy phrase. Two short words and two punctuation marks allow you to express a range of sentiment, from “That’s odd,” through “Oh, my god!” to “Are you out of your mind‽” That flexibility is wonderful in speech, but it comes at the cost of clarity in writing. Regular readers are aware that ambiguity is QA’s choice of Public Enemy Number One. Outside of a few special cases, it’s just as bad in fiction.

As a result, “What the …?” rarely appears by itself in dialog. Instead, authors add one of several clarifying words. Let’s take a look, shall we? Warning: some mildly NSFW language ahead.

“What the heck…?” In this phrase, the ellipsis generally stands for the phrase “is that/this”; the formulation denotes curiosity or a low level of puzzlement. One might, for example, use it as I did when I found this object in an antique store recently.
The shop owner suggested it might be a cheese fork. I’m dubious because in my experience cheese forks typically serve double-duty as cheese slicers, and neither edge of this object is sharp enough to slice even the softest cheese. You might be able to crumble a blue cheese, but even in a field notorious for single-tasking tools, that seems improbably specialized.

It’s clearly not a primitive spork, as it lacks even a hint of a bowl. The tines are not just decorative; in particular, the outside pair are quite sharp.

If you’ve got any idea what the heck this thing might be, please leave a comment!

“What the hell? Note the lack of an ellipsis in this variant. Hell stands for nothing but itself. The phrase indicates a greater level of confusion, with added connotations of disgust or dismay. I used it in a supermarket when I encountered these objects:
Note the legend at the lower left. That’s right: Doritos has introduced video-enabled foodlike substances. Allow me to put my curmudgeon pants on. Back when I was a kid, good manners included the proviso that one should not play with one’s food. (The rule was formulated as “Eat it or leave it, but don’t play with it!”) Apparently modern civilization has reached the point where playing with your food is actually expected!

(For the record, the way this works is that there are several different shapes of chips in the bag. You scan a chip with your smartphone’s camera and upload the picture to a website run by Doritos. The website then uses the chip’s shape to decide which of several videos to display on your phone. Of course the videos are in 3D, because 3D is hip today. But you do need to supply your own red/blue glasses, as they’re not included in the package.)

I was ready to condemn this as yet another sign of civilization in decline, but after considering it, I’m not so sure. According to the nutritional information on the back of the package, it holds three servings. I’d be willing to bet that most people consider a bag this size to be a single serving and scarf it down in one session. But if scanning and watching the videos encourages the consumer to eat more slowly, they may fill up more quickly and leave some chips for a later time. Alternately, consider how obnoxious it is for several people to look at one phone; that may result in people sharing a bag of these miracle chips so that each person can watch the videos on their own phone.

Even with the possible health benefits, video-enabled chips are a definite “What the hell?”

“What the fuck‽” (No ellipsis and an interrobang instead of a question mark.) Indicates extreme dismay and a complete failure to process information. As, for example, when you encounter something like this:
Click to see this at full resolution, but in case you can’t read the text–and, given the obnoxious color choices some designer made, you probably can’t–allow me to transcribe.

This is “Black Snail Repair Cream” from Holika Holika, and it contains “70% of Korean Black Snail Slime Filtrate”. Despite what the name implies, it’s not shell glue for the use of veterinarians specializing in invertebrates. No, this is for “Whitening & Anti-wrinkle care” and it’s a “Premium Cream infused with Black Snail slime to revitalize and replenish your skin for a youthful glow.”

Yes, you really read that. The package goes on to explain that “Korean Black Snails, 10 times larger and richer in secretion than normal snails, soothe and protect your skin from environmental damage, strengthen skin barrier with absolute skin hydration.” It then directs you to “Apply and gently massage your face until absorbed.”

Uh-huh. Massage snail slime into my face to make me look younger. Sure. I’ll get right on it–after someone explains who came up with this idea and how. I’m picturing someone staggering home after a long night drinking with the gang and falling asleep in the yard. Hours later, he awakens covered in snails. He dances around the yard, screaming and batting snails off his skin. Invertebrate-free, he then steps inside, only to be thrown out again by his wife, who refuses to believe that the young-looking dude covered in slime could possibly be her hard-drinking, scaly-skinned husband.

“What the fuck‽” indeed.

What’s Up?

I indicated last week that I was willing to risk the fall of civilization by accepting the modern usage of “literally” to mean “not literally”. The risk is small. If I were doing QA on the use of the English language as a means of destroying civilization, and time or budgetary constraints forced a reduction in test scope, that would be among the first tests to be omitted.

But there’s another trend in English usage that’s of much greater risk. That’s the greengrocers’ apostrophe, and I am not going to compromise on that! Get your plurals correct or risk my wrath!

“Oh, come on,” I hear you say. “Is there really such a big risk in a few extra apostrophe’s? What doe’s it matter if I add an apostrophe in writing plural’s?”

To which I reply “AAAAAAAAaaaaaaaaargh!!!!!”

Yes, there is a risk. Not only are you wasting time, effort, and ink, but you are also decreasing your readers’ ability to understand you.

The rules for making a word plural are simple:

1) Add an es if the word ends in s, sh, ch, x, or z.
2) Otherwise, add an s.


One bus, two buses
One fox, two foxes
One brunch, two brunches


One bust, two busts
One moose, two mooses
One mouth, two mouths

Watch out for irregular words, though. Some words use non-standard plural forms (one mouse, two mice) or the same word for both singular and plural (one deer, two deer). It’s amazing how few people will notice if you slip up, as long as you use the correct standard form, so be careful.

Please note that there are no apostrophes in any of those plurals. That’s because the apostrophe is used to indicate a relationship between two things: a relationship of ownership or possession. (Note: the apostrophe is also used for contractions (leaving out letters), but that’s a subject for another time.) The rule of thumb to use for possession is that if the relationship can be stated using the phrase “of the”, it can also be stated using an apostrophe.

The rules here are also simple:

1) Add if the word ends in s.
2) Otherwise, add ‘s.


The drivers of the bus or the bus’ drivers
The scale of the fish or the fish’s scale
The tails of the foxes or the foxes’ tails


“Free of the bananas” makes no sense, so not “the banana’s free” (or worse yet, “free banana’s”)

That’s really not so difficult, right? Right.

And it matters. Consider these possible newspaper headlines:

  • Bay Bridge Bolt’s Break
  • Bay Bridge Bolts Break

The first tells us that one of the bolts on the bridge has had a break. We’ll have to read the article to find out whether the bolt has snapped or won the lottery, but either way, it’s only one bolt.

The second tells us that whatever happened, it happened to more than one bolt. I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to be driving across the bridge, I want to know how many of the bolts have retired to Hawaii.

So now you know the rules and you have no excuse for misusing your apostrophes. Henceforth, violators will be sentenced to hang by their ears’.

Uh… ears’ lobes! Yeah, that’s it!

You Could Look It Up

Lior strikes again. He seems to have a knack for finding articles I want to talk about. His latest find is this io9 article accusing Google of contributing to the decline of society.

The article points out that Google’s definition of the word “literally” includes the modern usage to mean “not literally, but I feel strongly about it”. The author apparently feels that this is a symbol of the impending collapse of society.

Note that the author seems more concerned about Google’s legitimization of the practice than the actual usage itself, though he seems to fear both. I disagree on both counts.

Face it: language changes. Even in France, where the Académie française has been working to officially define the French language for more than 375 years, the language continues to change and grow. The eighth edition of their dictionary was published in 1935. The ninth edition has been in progress since 1986. Not exactly a sign of a stationary target.

The last really popular English dictionary to document a specific vision of what the language should be (i.e. a prescriptive dictionary) is arguably Noah Webster’s “An American Dictionary of the English Language”, which was published in 1828. Since then, dictionaries have become increasingly descriptive, defining the language as it is actually used. (As a point of reference, the dictionary considered by many to be the ultimate to which all dictionaries should aspire is the Oxford English Dictionary aka “The OED”. It was intended from the beginning to be descriptive, covering every word used in the English language from 1150 AD to the present. The decision to begin the work was made in 1857 and began in 1879. The original schedule called for publication around 1890; over a century and a half later, they’re still at it. Optimistic release schedules did not begin with the software industry.)

So dictionaries, even popular ones, have been documenting how the language is actually used for almost two centuries. Even if that is a sign of the impending end of civilization, Google’s inclusion of the modern usage of “literally” isn’t going to do much to accelerate the arrival of the final collapse. Google isn’t the first to include the modern usage, nor will it be the last. Note that The OED itself has included the modern usage since 2011. Interestingly enough, the “modern” usage actually predates The OED itself: the oldest documented usage comes from 1769.

What about the author’s other point, that the two definitions are contradictory and “that seems like it’s going to be problematic”?

English has been coping with internal contradictions for millennia. I won’t open the “flammable/inflammable” discussion now. I will point out that nobody has experienced personal harm due to the use of “custom” to mean “the normal, common way” and “a special version”. Ditto for the “dust” meaning both “sprinkle fine particles on something” and “remove fine particles from something”.

So even though the modern usage literally makes me grind my teeth, let us sanction its usage. Your choice whether “sanction” means “approve of” or “boycott”.

PS: Lior, your check is literally in the mail.

Fucking Businessweek

A special bonus post. This was something that occurred to me while I was working on the Hyperloop post. I tried to fit it in, but it just wasn’t working, so you get it as a side dish.

I was a bit startled to see that Businessweek quoted Elon Musk’s use of the word “fucking” in full.

I’ll grant that Businessweek isn’t exactly a staid, stogy venue. I’ll even grant that this was on the web rather than in print, but it still surprised me.

It turns out though, that this isn’t the first time that word has appeared under their title. Quite the contrary, in fact. A check via Google shows over 14,000 hits for “fucking” on businessweek.com.

I did a quick sampling to get a sense of how many of those hits are in reader comments as opposed to actual articles, and came up with about a 50/50 split. I suspect that’s skewed, but even if we assume it’s 90% reader comment, that’s still a lot of fucking going on in Businessweek.

Am I really that far out of the loop, or does this surprise anyone else? Has the word really lost that much of its power to shock?

Where’s it going to turn up next? The New York Times (6,190 hits)? USA Today (1050 hits)? The Wall Street Journal (572 hits)?


People, can we raise the level of discourse just a smidgeon? Please?

Right 2 Left

I’ve had this post sitting in my backlog for a while, waiting for the right time to share it. It seems to me that it’s a nice follow-up to yesterday’s post about the EEEEEville Lernstift pen, so here it is.

I will warn you, though, that it’s something of an incomplete post. Not only can I not fill in the “why”, but I have more questions than answers. I’m throwing this out in the hope that you, the reader, can help fill in some of the blanks.

My nephew Simon is three years old, and beginning to learn to read and write. A little while ago, some of his writings came out backward: written right-to-left and the letters flipped around the vertical axis.

Don’t start thinking “dyslexia”, though. It turns out that this is actually very common with children learning to write. A pediatric physician sums it up nicely:

There is no need for concern if your granddaughter is otherwise well. It is completely normal for children to write “backwards” at this age. In addition to letter and number reversals, some children will truly write in mirror image: going from right to left with all the letters reversed. There is nothing wrong with this. The brain does not completely form the concept of left and right until somewhere between ages five and eight. This means that almost all children will have persistent reversals when they first start writing.

The “why” I can’t find an answer for is what’s actually going on in forming the concepts of right and left? Is it a change in brain structure (there’s a lot of physical brain development happening at that age) or is it a software change (something learned)? Logically, I would think it was the latter, given that left/right distinction can be taught well into adulthood (I’m thinking here of the ancient military trick of tying hay to one foot and straw to the other to get recruits marching with the correct foot first.) But that doesn’t really answer the question of whether there is physical development that has to happen first – and if so, what is that change, and what else is tied into it? There doesn’t seem to be a lot of concrete information out there on the web (at least not in layman-friendly language), but as best I can tell, adults learning a new language don’t exhibit mirror-writing in the absence of strokes.

The other question I can’t find an answer to is whether this phenomenon is seen in other languages, especially languages that are not written left-to-right. I’d be particularly interested in the behaviour of children who are learning Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or other languages that can be written horizontally or vertically. Are there occurrences of children writing bottom-to-top?

I note also that there are several languages which are traditionally written in alternating directions on successive lines. Apparently, it’s not uncommon for English-speaking children who exhibit mirror-writing to write this way – I can’t help but wonder whether children learning to write in those languages have directionality issues, and if so, what form they take (spiraling around the page to the center, perhaps?)

Any parents out there want to chime in with your experiences? Any developmental psychologists with data?

Don’t Say It

Say what, now?

I’m as unhappy about the events playing out in Valley Springs, California as anyone else who’s not directly involved, but for the last couple of days, every story has tripped a mental fuse for me.

In case anyone has missed it, the story in question is that of eight-year-old Leila Fowler, who was stabbed to death in late April. Yesterday, her twelve-year-old brother was arrested. (No links, it’s not hard to find all the coverage anyone could want, and then some.)

What keeps tripping me up is the statement in every story yesterday and today: “His name is not being released since he is a minor.” Just to be clear here, it’s not just this case, it’s every news story reporting on a juvenile accused of a crime.

Yes, I understand the desirability of keeping the names of minors out of the press, especially given the fact that an arrest is far from proof of guilt. For that matter, I hope that all of the various news agencies have updated any earlier stories that gave his name. I’m even in the apparent minority that would be happy to have his name continue to be withheld even if he is tried as an adult.

I’m not suggesting that the news media should give his name. Quite the contrary, in fact.

What I’m getting stuck on is the incessant repetition of that sentence. Is it really necessary to say the same thing every time? It wouldn’t be that hard to find out his name if one were motivated to do so – let’s face it, how many twelve year old brothers is she likely to have had? Repeating this sentence over and over just feels like it’s calling attention to the omission, and daring someone to start digging.

I’ll grant you that it’s not as easy to find someone’s name as it often appears in mystery novels, but that might just make it worse. If someone goes to the effort of doing the research and learning the brother’s name, he’s going to want to do something with it, and the harder he has to work, the more likely he is to want to show off.

Really, if the paper didn’t say “His name is not being released…” would you notice? Would you care? Most of you probably wouldn’t. Those few who would care are going to care regardless of whether the disclaimer is present or not; at best, the presence of the disclaimer serves no function, and at worst it provokes a few people.

Let’s just drop the disclaimer, state the facts, and move on.

Strange Butter

Several people have noticed the phrase “butter strange butter softly” in yesterday’s post on the butter grater. It has, as one commenter mentioned, a haunting quality.

Have you ever had a word or phrase get stuck in your head – the non-musical equivalent of an earworm? Clearly this is a prime example. But where did it come from?

Let’s take a little trip through computer translation. There’s an urban legend that early attempts to use computers to translate between Russian and English resulted in the aphorism “The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak” becoming “The vodka was good, but the meat was rotten.” Snopes has a nice write up on the legend. The key here is that early machine translations worked on a word-to-word basis with no examination of context. As computer technology has improved, translation software has also gotten better. It now considers common phrases as well as the words in proximity to each word and phrase in the source document.

The result is typically something that conveys the original meaning, though grammar can suffer. As a quick test, I fed “The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak” into Google’s translator The resulting Russian (Дух бодр, плоть была слаба) I then fed back into the translator and it came up with “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh was weak.” Pretty good.

To really give it a workout, I asked for a Thai translation of the Russian version, and then pushed that (จิตวิญญาณก็จริง แต่เนื้อหนังยังอ่อนแอ) through Hebrew (רוח היא אמת. אבל הבשר חלש) and back to English. The result? “Spirit is truth. But the flesh is weak.” All things considered, that’s not bad at all.

As a follow-up, I thought I’d try using Google to translate some of the words of J.S. Bach’s latest incarnation into something he would understand. So a few lines of one of Ms Spears’ works went into Czech, German, Italian, and then back to German. The details are at the bottom of the post[1], but in short, the essence definitely comes through. One interesting note, though: if you compare the original English and final German versions, you’ll note that Google recognized a certain phrase and declined to translate it. Right in line with the notion of working in terms of phrases instead of individual words.

As I mentioned earlier, grammar tends to suffer in machine translations; that can have significant impact when moving between languages that have very different grammatical rules. Note that English and German have a lot in common (English is, in fact, considered a germanic language), and English also borrows heavily from French, giving it ties to fellow romance language Italian. So Czech was really the only wild card in our language test (and even then it should be noted that there’s a significant German minority in the so-called “Czech lands”). Perhaps not so surprising that the translation chain worked as smoothly as it did.

Things get a bit less clean when going between unrelated languages, as can be seen in our English/Russian/Thai/Hebrew/English example. Another example along the same lines. Plugging a phrase from the description of a popular app into Google’s translator to go from English to Japanese and back gives us this sequence:

  • Facebook is only available for users age 13 and over.
  • Facebookはユーザーが13歳以上のためにのみ利用可能です。
  • User is available only for age 13 and older Facebook.

I suspect Facebook’s legal staff wouldn’t appreciate the implication that Facebook is in the business of selling its users, but if pressed, the marketing department would admit that it’s a reasonable summarization of their business model.

So what happened with “butter strange butter softly”? What the heck did the original Japanese say?

I tried several different machine translations to see if I could shed any light on the matter. In all cases, I pasted in the relevant sentence from the website: ふんわりバターは不思議なバター

Google: Butter strange butter softly

Babylon: Butter is a mysterious fluffy butter

Microsoft: Mysterious fluffy butter butter

SYSTRANet: Softly the butter the strange butter

I can’t help but appreciate Microsoft’s translation; it’s almost as enigmatically memorable as Google’s. But none of them give anything hugely intelligible in English, though there are a couple of common elements: the doubling of “butter” and the emphasis on “mystery” or “strange”.

In a last-ditch attempt to make sense of it, I paid for a human translator to take a look at the critical sentence. (Yes, Erin, the pizza is on me next time I’m in town.) Her translation: “Fluffy butter is marvelous butter.” OK, that explains the double-butter, but where did the mystery go?

And frankly, I have to argue with that characterization. Anyone who has accidently left an uncovered butter dish out in a house that contains cats will tell you that not only is fluffy butter not marvelous, it’s downright disgusting.


  Quote from website Musical Selection
English (B. Spears) You’ll never see it my way, because you’re not me.

When I’m not with you

I lose my mind

Give me a sign

Hit me baby one more time.

English (B. Marley) N/A N/A
Czech (P. Haas)

Nikdy neuvidíš to svým způsobem, protože ty nejsi já.


Když nejsem s tebou ztrácím rozum
mi znamení
Hit me baby ještě jednou.
German (J. Strauss II) Nie sehen es auf
meine Weise, weil du nicht ich bist.
Wenn ich nicht bei dir bin ich verlieren
Gib mir ein Zeichen
Hit me Baby One More Time.
Italian (A. Salieri) Mai vedere a modo
mio, perché tu non sei me.
Quando non sono con te perdo la
Dammi un segno
Hit Me Baby One More Time.
German (J.S. Bach)

Nie sehen es auf meine Weise, weil Sie nicht mich sind.


Wenn ich nicht bei dir bin, verliere ich das
Gib mir ein Zeichen
Hit Me Baby One More Time.
English (N/A)

Never see it my way, because you are not me.


When I’m not with you I lose the feeling
me a sign
Hit Me Baby One More Time.

Thanks, Chris

Thank you, Chris Hinton.

OK, I know you’re all asking who the heck Chris Hinton is.  Thirty minutes ago, I would have been asking the same question, but now I have an answer.

He’s the author of “The Dimwit Diary”, a blog which appears to be devoted to warping the minds of its readers with the evil magic that is Photoshop.

And he liked today’s movie review.

Take a couple of minutes and go take a look at his tribute to autocorrect.  Best 10 minutes I’ve spent all day.

So thanks, Chris.

(PS to anyone reading this post: No, liking one of my posts will not guarantee that I will promote your blog, or even look at it. But not liking my posts will ensure that I don’t promote your blog…)


If you’ve read more than about three sentences I’ve written, you may think that I think “why” is important. You would be correct. If something is wrong, “why” gives the information needed to fix it. If something is right, “why” gives the information needed to do it again.

Some examples:

Which of these is the more useful feedback?

  • This ice cream sucks!
  • This ice cream sucks! It tastes like the main ingredient is floor sweepings!

If you chose the first, please go away. The second leads me to make a note that brooms are not, in fact, kitchen multitaskers.


  • Oh, come on. Joe Shlabotnik was the greatest ball player of all time.
  • You’re totally off-base. Clearly, Joe Shlabotnik was the greatest ball player of all time.

The second example with its link to Joe’s bio on Baseball Reference allows us to have a discussion about the relative importance of stats and “intangibles” in defining “greatest”. (In this case, with apologies to Charlie Brown, I’ll take stats as being rather more important. I can’t see any amount of intangibles outweighing a batting average of .004. But that’s a discussion for another day.)

One final note: “why” works for positive feedback too. Maybe you like floor-sweeping ice cream. If I know there’s a market for it, I’ll be much more likely to make it again.