09 October 2012

Confusion Is Not Stupidity

Something I always wonder is if I spend too much time thinking about words, how people use them, and, most importantly, whether or not they actually know what they're saying. In fact, I often wonder who's actually got what wrong when it comes to words, if I'm the one misreading something, or if I'm right all along and witnessed a genuine murder of English.
I have to tell myself when I'm on the internet that many of the people who commit these acts of textual homicide are either too young to know any better, or are not native speakers like myself. Sadly, unless they up and tell you so, there's no way to know, and you'll always be guessing. Regardless of the reason, however, people need to understand that since at least 99% of the people who read your words don't know you personally, have never heard your voice, or even seen your face, you have to put that much more effort into your words and how you put them together to make up for the lost paralanguage. You can be a reasonably intelligent and rational person, but if you're still mixing up "you're" and "your," no one is going to think that of you and, like it or not, your credibility will take a hit. No, it isn't right to make judgments like that, even if you're one to make them as well, but given that lack of nonverbal information, we can't exactly NOT make them.
I belong to a dating site, and it has this great big emphasis on user-generated content, especially survey questions used to help find matches. They're mostly standard fare, hypothetical situations gauging how one would react to certain social situations and the like. Other questions, meanwhile, are general knowledge questions used to help flesh out one's personal beliefs, and others are just brain teasers, or rather, someone's interpretation of a brain teaser. The question in, er, question, reads like this:

"If you turn a right-handed glove inside out, it fits ___?" with the answers: on my right hand, on my left hand, and what kind of question is that?

I was very suspicious of this question, because I felt like I'd heard it before, and it was one of those lateral thinking riddles that's meant to challenge preconceived notions, with whatever seems like the right answer not being the right answer after all. As such, some of you have probably already have an answer in mind. If so, hold onto it, especially if it's your first impression, the first thing that popped into your head without thinking too hard about it. Don't worry, no one's going to make you feel stupid for guessing wrong, unless you're the person who tried to settle the original version of this question once and for all.
Like I said, I couldn't help but feel like I was missing something about this question. I kept trying to see it as one of those "ton of feathers/ton of lead" or "zero as a number/one as a prime" type of puzzles. So, I tried putting the question itself (or its keywords) in a search to see if this had some other origin. Sure enough, it does, but it reads more than a little bit differently than the one on the dating site.

If you turn a right-handed glove inside out, will it be a right-handed glove or will it now be a left-handed one? 

If you're not seeing the difference between how these questions are worded, remember that the key words in the earlier version are "IT FITS" while now the emphasis revolves around the phrase "WILL IT BE."

What the "WILL IT BE" question is asking is whether or not misusing an item fundamentally changes what that item is to begin with. The "IT FITS" version is merely asking if the misuse can be even be done in the first place. If it still sounds like we're comparing ketchup and catsup, let's use another example:

If you hold a newspaper over your head, it will (if only momentarily) keep your head dry in the rain. Does that make it an umbrella? No, it's still a newspaper, but it's doing the work of an umbrella. If a robot in a factory is doing a job otherwise done by a human, is that robot a human? Again, no, it's just doing the work of one. It shares qualities with, can stand in for, and can even improve on, something else but it ultimately retains its original identity. With that all in mind, let's go back to those answers you were asked to retain from earlier, your knee-jerk, first-response to the "IT FITS" version of the question (as it appeared on the dating site).

If you said, "left hand," you are correct. If you said, "right hand," you're also correct, just a little ahead of the game, if not being more practical about the situation. That glove will fit on either hand, but it's going to be a better fit on the one it's made for, and it obviously won't fit both hands at once.

In the end, even if the version on the dating site is somewhat simpler than the other one, it works equally well as a kind of personality test than a lateral thinking exercise, with people answering the question divided into, say, pragmatists and pedants or outside/inside-the-box thinkers, however you want to read it. Something may have been lost in translation, but it gained insight in the process, walking away a little wiser, perhaps.

Then, there's this buffoon:


This answer was not given on the dating site, but on the other site containing the "earlier" version of the question. For starters, it's not actually a yes or no question, not the way it's worded; it's an either/or question, on both sites. Second, going back to what I was saying about credibility and, to paraphrase, "sounding as smart as you are" this site was an "Answers" site like Yahoo!Answers or eHow. In fact, it was the original Answers site. As such, it's meant to be a tad more formal than your average forum or chatroom or message board, because that's what the site expressly exists for. Between the lack of punctuation and capitalization, not to mention the all-too-pointless addendum of "lol," nothing indicates that the person writing this wants to be taken seriously or seen as any sort of expert on the subject. He may think he's solved the Sphinx's riddle, but all he's done is made a bigger riddle of himself and how exactly he believes he comes across when writing like this. Does he think that pointing out his own "out loud laughter" will highlight some absurdity of the question and potentially invalidate it as a logic puzzle? Even if he'd forgone the abbreviation and opened with, "I laugh at this question because..." it's no less irrelevant to addressing the aim of the question. 

When all is said (poorly) and done (haphazardly), the part of this so-called answer that got under my skin the worst is how this idiot tries to expand on his own point by offering what he believes to be a counterpoint, only to completely fail at doing so every step of the way, right up to letting us know, whether we want to or not, that he find this question loudly laughable. 

My biggest pet peeve when it comes to bad writing, grammar or otherwise, is when people say "but" when they really mean "and." It's a type of incompetence that goes far beyond double negatives, comma splices, run-on sentences, and even the seemingly inescapable "possessives vs. contractions." I can genuinely forgive most of those issues, mainly because they can still make sense when spoken aloud. We don't speak apostrophes and commas, we speak words and phrases. "You're" and "Your" may mean very different things, but they don't sound different, and unless someone sees your speech notes, no one's going to be able to tell one way or the other. At best, the pauses between certain words and phrases could be a verbal form of periods. Punctuation is a guide for how to read words and phrases, not a series of rails and walls to restrict how we communicate. However, confusing a word that means "like" with a word that means "unlike" is never coherent, spoken or written. If you know the difference between "YES" and "NO" there is no reason to confuse "AND" with "BUT." 

yes it does BUT you can always do it 

Whether or not you can always do it (assuming he means turning the glove inside-out) was hardly the issue in the first place; if a glove can be turned inside out, why wouldn't you be able to turn it back? Furthermore and finally, how is this meant to contrast what came before? 

My favorite fast food place is Steak 'n' Shake, but I go there often. 
I love this movie, but it's my all-time favorite. 
I can drive, but I have a license. 
You're inside, but you're in here. 
This book is on the table, but it's not on the floor. 

Whatever wisdom or intelligence this person possibly meant to convey, none of it has come through. He's treated a multiple choice question like a true or false one, he's tried to present a display of common sense as a counterpoint that doesn't counter his first point, and he's compounded that respectively mismatched and irrelevant information by revealing that he laughed out loud. Here's a riddle, was he laughing at the question or his own answer? 
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