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.


  1. Nice distinction of terms. Often people like me who fall off the religion wagon will find themselves in one of two errors: (a) continue to live by and promote a moral system, or (b) fail to adopt an adequate ethical system. I’ll let you postulate on which ruts I visited when.

    You’ve probably read it, but Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil comes to mind.

    Regarding punctuation, consistent clarity should be the rule, I agree. Someone missed that long ago.

    Comment by SterlingCamden — 11 September 2006 @ 02:13

  2. Actually, I haven’t read any Nietzsche at all, though I keep meaning to. Other stuff just keeps cutting in line for my attention (these days, mostly reading material related to programming or Mars colonization).

    Comment by apotheon — 11 September 2006 @ 03:25

  3. One of Nietzsche’s points: nineteenth century Europe had outgrown religion as a belief system, yet still clung to religious morality. He advocated getting beyond that. Unfortunately, the Nazis used his arguments to justify their programmes, even though Nietzsche was not Anti-Semitic, nor was he pro-German. The Nazis are a classic case of the failure to construct a workable ethical system after rejecting religious morality (even though they kept the trappings of religion).

    Comment by SterlingCamden — 11 September 2006 @ 04:10

  4. One might make a case for Nazism as a religion, itself. It had ritualism, a religion specific to it, and a strong authority structure related to a belief in the greater knowledge and wisdom of its leadership akin to divine revelation. The fact it purported to be devoid of supernaturalism in now way changes its spiritual (if ethically bankrupt) character: it was faith, not reason, that fueled the mania of Nazism.

    The greatest irony of the use of Nietsche’s writings to justify the Nazi ideology may be in the fact that, underneath it all, that ideology violated all the principles that Nietzsche described — at least, as far as I understand it, having only read secondary and tertiary sources.

    Comment by apotheon — 11 September 2006 @ 04:55

  5. I love you, man.

    This was another post that really helped clarify things I didn’t realize I needed clarified.

    You are none-the-less correct in your assesment. As an educated people we should strive towards concisness, precicness and usefulness. English is a great language, but it still has some bugs left to work out as it evolves.

    It’s odd that Old English and Middle English resemble Modern English as much as Modern English resembles Perl code, yet they are all called English (except Perl code, which most people call insanity, vulgar expletives and other descriptive names).

    Comment by Alex — 11 September 2006 @ 07:13

  6. […] SOB: Scion Of Backronymics » correct != right (or: ‘correct’ ne ‘right’) apotheon uses my post on English skills to expound on comma-correctness, prefixed by a distinction between morality, ethicality, and correctness. (tags: linklove english morality ethics rules) […]

    Pingback by links for 2006-09-12 -- Chip’s Quips — 11 September 2006 @ 07:21

  7. Perl code, which most people call insanity, vulgar expletives and other descriptive names

    Snoopy swearing

    Comment by apotheon — 11 September 2006 @ 11:41

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