Chad Perrin: SOB

11 September 2006

correct != right (or: ‘correct’ ne ‘right’)

Filed under: Cognition,Geek — apotheon @ 01:38

People often use the words ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ interchangeably with ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’, respectively. They shouldn’t, of course: the two pairs of words are quite different in meaning. In fact, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are closer in meaning to ‘good’ and ‘evil’ than they are to ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’, in some respects.

I separate all three pairs of terms (when I remember to do so) by meaning. When I say ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’, I refer to the rules of a defined system, such as spelling. The speling of the second word of this sentence is ‘incorrect’, not ‘wrong’ or ‘evil’ (unless you’re making a moral judgment about incorrect spelling). When I say ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, I’m typically making an ethical distinction; laws which abrogate the liberties of individuals without proving beyond a reasonable doubt that they are violators of the liberties of others are ‘wrong’, not just ‘incorrect’ or necessarily ‘evil’. When I say ‘good’ or ‘evil’, of course, I refer to unprovable moral judgments, such as the common Christian understanding of Satan as ‘evil’, rather than ‘incorrect’ or merely ‘wrong’.

Evil, of course, is unprovable. Good and evil are concepts rooted in metaphysical belief systems, which are (necessarily) largely faith-based. They are dependent upon actual investment of one’s belief in something that cannot be proven. Good and evil are religious concepts, in other words, whether your religion is Christianity, some form of paganism, or even material atheism. Good and evil should never have any place in government for the same reason government should never make any law respecting the establishment of a religion: it would create a situation wherein people could be punished, disenfranchised, and/or otherwise mistreated on the basis of unprovable, illogical, inappropriate measures of faith.

In the conflation of ethics with morality, people tend to mix up the concepts to the extent that they become incapable of separating the two mentally. Working out a logically consistent system of ethics is key to developing a fair and equitable system of law, but most people are so lacking in an understanding of the differences between ethicality and morality that they see nothing wrong with trying to base a system of law on, for instance, the Ten Commandments as provided by the King James Bible. Is it any wonder the US government is so thoroughly screwed up?

A recent (as of this writing) Chip’s Quips entry, titled I thought this test was going to be about lifting pints, references one of those silly online quizzes — though slightly less silly than such quizzes usually are, as it actually tests grammar, spelling, punctuation, and vocabulary skills. It prompted me to post the following in a comment:

I of course had to pretend that I actually use commas the standard way in order to get a perfect score on this thing, rather than using them the logical way. In practice, I always place a comma outside of quotes if there is no ending punctuation in the quoted text. For instance, if a sentence I wish to quote says:
    I like it.
. . . and I want to quote it inside a sentence, like “I like it,” I’ll place the comma inside the quotes. If, on the other hand, the sentence says:
    I like it like that.
. . . and I want to quote the same three words, like “I like it”, I’ll place the comma outside the quotes because there’s no punctuation in the quoted text. It just makes logical sense, based on sentence structure. I figure that we can change the language within twenty years to operate on more logical rules in this manner if we all start working on it now in our daily communications. I’m not alone in this, by the way. Hackers everywhere seem to have the same problem with so-called ‘correct’ rules of written English: Hacker Writing Style Join the crusade.

That actually points out an interesting problem: a conflict between two forms of correctness. The logical correctness of the outside-the-quotes approach disagrees with the ‘official’ linguistic correctness of the inside-the-quotes approach. As indicated in the Jargon wiki explanation, however, this is not just a matter of aesthetics for me — there are instances (and not just in reference to source code representation) where adhering to the written English convention can actually introduce inconsistency and confusion into otherwise clear communication, whereas written English conventions are for the most part quite effective at eliminating such barriers to communication.

This is where the line gets drawn between my own occasionally lamented tendency to correct others’ use of English and the truly pointless pedantry of others: my aim is to improve clear communication by adhering to the rules of a system that were designed specifically to clarify, where I have run across others who will ‘correct’ me when I place a comma outside the quotes even when doing so would have rendered the quoted material almost unreadable, and would certainly have increased the confusion level. Simply put, at least one rule of punctuation really needs to be changed so that ‘correctness’ takes on a more appropriate, precise, and useful meaning.

It would only be right.

All original content Copyright Chad Perrin: Distributed under the terms of the Open Works License