A typographic proposal: replace cumbersome inline citation formats like 'Foo et al. (2010)' with subscripted dates/sources. Intuitive, easily implemented, consistent, and compact.
8 Jan 2020–23 Mar 2020 · finished · certainty: certain · importance: 2
I propose reviving an old General Semantics notation: borrow from scientific notation and use subscripts like ‘Gwern2020’ for denoting sources (like citation, timing, or medium). Using subscript indices is flexible, compact, universally technically supported, and intuitive. While (currently) unusual, subscripting might be a useful trick for clearer writing, compared to omitting such information or using standard cumbersome circumlocutions.
I don’t believe the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis so beloved of 20th century thinkers & SF, or that we can make ourselves much more rational by One Weird Linguistic Trick. There is no far transfer, and the benefits of improved vocabulary/notation are inherently domain-specific. You think the same thoughts in English as you do in Chinese. But, like good typography, good linguistic conventions may be worth all told, say, even as much as 5% of whatever one values—and that’s not nothing. In ‘rectifying names’, be realistic: aim low. (It’s definitely worthwhile to do things like spellcheck your writings, after all, even though no amount of spellcheck can rescue a bad idea.)
Checklist approach. I already use a few unusual conventions, like attempting to use the Kesselman Estimative words to be more systematic about the strength of my claims or always linking fulltext in citations (and improving using link annotations which do not just link fulltext but present the abstract/excerpts/summary as well), and I employ a few more domain-specific tricks like avoiding use of the word ‘significance’ in statistics contexts, automatically inflation-adjusting currencies (to avoid the trivial inconvenience of doing it by hand & so not doing it at all), or using research-specific checklists. Without straying into conlang territory or attempting to do everything in formal logic or serious eccentricity, what else could be done?
One idea for more precise English writing which I think could be usefully revived is broader use of subscripts.
Distinguishing things named the same. The subscripting idea is derived from General Semantics (GS)1, which itself borrows it from standard scientific notation, like physics/statistics/mathematics/chemistry/programming: a superscript/subscript is an index distinguishing multiple versions of something, such as quantity, location, or time, eg xt vs xt+1. They’re typically not seen outside STEM contexts, aside from a few obscure uses like ruby/furigana glosses.
However, there are many places we could use subscripting to be clearer & more compact about which version we are referring to, using them as evidentials, and because it’s clearer & more compact, we can afford to use it more places without it wasting space/effort/patience. Citations are a good use case. Why write “Friedenbach (2012)” if we can write “Friedenbach2012”? The latter is shorter, easier to read, less ambiguous (especially if we use it in parentheticals, see Friedenbach (2012)), and doesn’t come in a dozen different slightly-varying house styles.
But why restrict subscripting to formal publications or written documents? Apply it to any quote, statement, or opinion where indexing variables like time might be relevant. Refusing to allow easy references to anything not a book is but codex chauvinism.
One convention, arbitrary metadata. It is a unified notation: regardless of whether something was thought, spoken, or written by me in 2020, it gets the same notation—“Gwern2020”. The evidential can be expanded as necessary: if it’s a paper or essay, the ‘2020’ can be a hyperlink, or if it’s a ‘personal communication’, then there can be a bibliography entry stating as much, or if it’s the author about their own beliefs/actions/statements in 2020, further information neither necessary nor usually possible (and it avoids awkward custom phraseology like “As I thought back in 2020 or so….”). In contrast, normal citation style cumbersomely uses a different format for each, or provides no guidance: how do you gracefully cite a paper written one year but whose author changed their mind 5 years later based on new results and who told you so 10 years after that? (“Dr. Bach originally maintained A (Bach et al. (2000)) but gradually modified his position until 2005 when he recalls writing in his diary he had lost all confidence in A (personal communication, according to Frieden 2015)…”)
Subscripts: already in a theater near you. Because it’s already used so much in technical writing, subscripting is reasonably familiar to anyone who took highschool chemistry & can be quickly figured out from context for those who’ve forgotten, and it’s well-supported by fonts and markup languages and word processors: it’s written
x~t~ in Pandoc Markdown & some Markdown extensions like
markdown-it (but not Reddit),
x<sub>t</sub> in HTML,
x<subscript>t</subscript> in DocBook,
x_t in /,
x\ :sub: \t in reStructuredText; and it has keybindings
C-= in Microsoft Office,
C-B in LibreOffice,
C-, in Google Docs etc. So subscripting can be used almost everywhere immediately.
Example: here are 3 versions of a text; one stripped of citations and evidentials, one with them written out in long form, and one with subscripts:
- I went to Istanbul for a trip, and saw all the friendly street cats there, just as I’d read about in Abdul Bey; he quotes the local Hakim Abdul saying that the cats even look different from cats elsewhere (but after further thought, I’m not sure I agree with that there). I and my wife had a wonderful trip, although while she clearly enjoyed the trip to the city, she claimed the traffic was terribly oppressive and ruined the trip. (Oh really?)
- In 2010, I went to Istanbul for a trip, and saw all the friendly street cats there, just as I’d read about in Abdul Bey’s 2000 Street Cats of Istanbul; he quotes the local Hakim Abdul in 1970 saying that the cats even look different from cats elsewhere (but after further thought as I write this now in 2020, I’m not sure I agree with Bey (2000)). I and my wife had a wonderful trip, although while she clearly enjoyed the trip to the city, on Facebook she claimed the traffic was terribly oppressive and ruined the trip. (Oh really?)
- I2010 went to Istanbul for a trip, and saw all the friendly street cats there, just as I’d read about in Abdul Bey2000 (Street Cats of Istanbul); he quotes the local Hakim Abdul1970 saying that the cats even look different from cats elsewhere (but after further thought, I’m not sure I2020 agree with Bey2000). I and my wife had a wonderful trip, although while she clearly enjoyed the trip to the city, she claimedFB the traffic was terribly oppressive and ruined the trip. (Oh really?)
In the first version, suppressing the metadata leads to a confusing passage. What did Bey write? We don’t learn when Abdul expressed his opinion—which is important because Istanbul, as a large fast-growing metropolis, may have changed greatly over the 40 years from quote to visit. When did the speaker become skeptical of the claim Istanbul cats both act & look different? What might explain the wife’s inconsistency, and which version should we put more weight on?
The second version answers all these questions, but at the cost of considerable prolixity, jamming in comma phrases to specify date or source. Few people would want to either write or read such a passage, and the fussiness has a distinctly fussy pseudo-academic air. Unsurprisingly, few people will bother with this—any more than they will bother providing inflation-adjusted dollar amounts of something from a decade ago (even though that’s misleading by a good 15% or so, and compounding), or they’d want to check a paywalled paper, or redo calculations in Roman numerals.
The third version may look a little alien because of the subscripts, but it provides all the information of the second version plus a little more (by making explicit the implicit ‘2020’), in considerably less space (as we can delete the circumlocutions in favor of a single consistent subscript), and reads more pleasantly (the metadata is literally out of the way until we decide we need it).
I considered 3 alternatives:
Superscripts: already overloaded as footnotes & powers
Bang notation: another possible notation for disambiguating, is the “X!Y” notation (apparently derived from UUCP bang notation), which is associated with online fandoms & fanfiction, and gives notation like “2020!gwern”.
This notation puts the metadata first, which is confusing yodaspeak (what does the ‘2020’ refer to? It dangles until you read on); it makes it inline & full-sized, and then tacks on an additional character just to take up even more space; it’s confusing and unusual to anyone who isn’t familiar with it from online fanfiction already, and to those who are familiar, it is low-status and has bad connotations.
Ruby annotations: as mentioned above, there is standardized HTML support (but with spotty browser support & no support at all in most other formats) for ‘ruby’ annotations which are similar to superscripts and intended for interlinear glosses.
Unfortunately, in a horizontal language like English (as opposed to Chinese/Japanese), they require extremely high line-heights to be at all legible. Example:
New symbols: no font, editor, or word processor support kills any new symbol proposal, and can be rejected out of hand.
Deal-breaker: low status? The major downside, of course, is that subscripting is novel and weird. It at least is not associated with anything bad (such as fanfics), and is associated with science & technology, but I’m sure it will deter readers anyway. Does it do enough good to be worth using despite the considerable hit to weirdness points? That I don’t know.
Actually, it’s not even Latin because it’s an abbreviation for the actual Latin phrase, et alii (to save you one character and also avoid the need to correctly conjugate the Latin—this is fractal, is what I’m saying), but as pseudo-Latin, that means that many will italicize it, as foreign words/phrases usually are—but now that is even more work, even more visual clutter, and introduces ambiguity with other uses of italics like titles. A terrible notation.↩︎