Where’s my copy of the social contract?

contractYesterday’s "word of the day" at Wiktionary.org was …

social contract:

(philosophy, politics) An implicit agreement or contract among members of a society that dictates things such as submission of individuals to rule of law and acceptable conduct.


David Friedman has said, “There may be two libertarians somewhere who agree with each other about everything, but I am not one of them.” Nevertheless, there are certain things that all libertarians do agree on. One of them is that the concept of the social contract is bogus. Here are my thoughts on the subject from about 7 years ago: Read more of this post

a gift from the people of France?

LadyWithAPastI must apologize for an error in my recent post “on seeing Lady Liberty in Paris.”

On the subject of the Statue of Liberty I wrote, “The one in New York Harbor was a gift from the French government, so I can imagine Parisians consider Lady Liberty to be as much a French symbol as an American one.”

But the statue was not, in fact, a gift from the French government. I believe my mistake is based on a 20th-century reading of a 19th-century idiom.

The National Park Service, which maintains the monument, makes the claim I learned in grammar school: "The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World was a gift of friendship from the people of France to the people of the United States.…"

To quote Max Borders from the Freeman, “There is probably no greater threat to real community than the conflation of community with State power.”

And yet that conflation surrounds us. I certainly grew up with it as a common refrain in my schooling. Most of the time when the teacher said “the people,” she meant the state.

Really, how can “the people of France” give anything to anyone? I just assumed it was the standard rhetorical trick, using the people as a euphemism for the government.

The real history turns out to be much more interesting. Read more of this post

words of war

WarOfWordsThe grownups at my Quaker high school objected not only to actual war but also to all the rhetorical wars of American politics: the war on poverty, the war on drugs, etc.

Or rather, they objected to using the language of war for policies and campaigns they may well have otherwise supported. The principal was certainly anti drug — although she refused to use the D-word; it was always "substance," as in "substance abuse." And the history teachers, when they weren’t indoctrinating us to worship FDR (who did have something to do with a certain war, didn’t he?), were pushing LBJ and his all-important war on poverty.

The problem for a skeptical teenager was that this Quaker objection to war rhetoric seemed reflexive and perfunctory. Read more of this post

national haiku day

So apparently April is national poetry month, and the 17th is national haiku day. Rather than trying to compose something new, I’ll share these Austro-libertarian haikus from a few years ago:


the vagaries of eggcorns

Yesterday’s word of the day at Wiktionary.org was vaguery:


I’ve never seen this word before. My spell checkers all reject it. When I look it up in my dictionary app, it isn’t there; not only that, but the app tries to correct it to the word with which I’m much more familiar: vagary, for which it is apparently an "eggcorn."

Read more of this post

the power of the comma

Lets eat[,] Grandma.Reuters editor, Tony Tharakan, sneaks a spurious comma into his post on how a comma allowed a Malaysian airline to sneak into the protectionist Indian market (h/t Grammar Girl).

He invites readers to identify his spurious punctuation mark.

Very clever.

I think I’ll follow his lead and invite you to find the (not one but) two (yes, 2!) false commas in this very post.

(Hint: they’re more than unnecessary; they change the meaning of what I’ve written to imply something that is false.)

(Crossposted at InvisibleOrder.com.)

What is a style sheet?

DigitalChicagoIn the world of digital publishing, style sheet is an ambiguous term.

It originated in the print-publishing industry. A style guide (or stylebook) is a book that lists the important rules of capitalization, punctuation, some basic grammar, some spelling issues, and the syntax of citations in footnotes and endnotes. At Invisible Order, our standard style guide is The Chicago Manual of Style. Other style guides you may have used or at least heard of include the Associated Press (AP) stylebook, the guide for the Modern Language Association (MLA) — even the venerable Strunk & White probably counts.

But there are various reasons a particular publication or company may want to diverge from the rules given in a style guide, while still wanting to remain consistent. If so, they maintain a document for their "house style." To avoid confusion, in IO we call this our house style guide, but the common term from the print world is "style sheet." As the name implies, it was not supposed to be longer than a single sheet of paper. It doesn’t have to be a list of differences from the main style guide; it can also be a list of the most important rules from the main style guide. You can see ours here.

Why would it cause confusion to use the term the way the print world does? Because at Invisible Order, we do both editorial and technological work. And on the technological side, "style sheet" means CSS (i.e., "cascading style sheets"): instructions to a web browser or ebook reader for the visual presentation of text and images.

I’ve worked on teams where someone would say "style sheet," and everyone thought they knew what the term meant, but the coders thought it referred to typeface, character size, and layout, while the writers and copyeditors thought it referred to commas, semicolons, and compound adjectives.

Fortunately, it’s easy to avoid the ambiguity. On the editorial side, we use the term "style guide" to cover both the Chicago Manual and our house style. We use "CSS" to be unambiguous on the tech side. And when someone talks about a style sheet, I smile and nod and look for an opportunity to make sure I know which kind they’re talking about.

(Crossposted at InvisibleOrder.com.)