What’s Your Poison: Math or English?

The ambiguity possible in an English sentence is often brought about by the very fact that English is syntactic, rather than, for example, inflected.  That is, the function of a word is determined by its relationship to other words in a phrase, clause, or sentence.  “Adverbs” in particular like to roam, and where they stop to rest often affects the meaning of the constituent parts of the phrase, clause, or sentence.

Or take a look in the dictionary at the many parts of speech and the large number of meanings of the single word “set.”

Let’s take a quick look at the adverb “only.”    There is a great difference in the meanings of these sentences:  (1) I only have eyes for you ;  (2) Only I have eyes for you; (3) I have only eyes for you.  

A sequence of more than two “form words” (nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives) can also sometimes cause misunderstandings.  This occurred recently on the most recent (as, last Sunday on USA) episode in one of my favorite TV dramedies,  “Monk.”

For those not familiar,  Adrian Monk is a former policeman/detective turned P.I. who has a terrible obsessive-compulsive complex, especially when it comes to cleanliness and order.  Some of the disorder that plagues him is the fault of the English language.

The last episode was about a mysterious bike theft.   In this episode,  Monk is shot in the leg by the purported thief.  When the thief’s cousin Vince appears to inquire, he is told that Monk was hurt by a parolee, “a former cop shooter.”  Vince:  “You mean a former cop shot him?” Reply: “No, this guy [Monk] who was shot by your cousin used to be a cop.”  Vince, “Well, why didn’t you say so in the first place?”

NOW: ON TO THE TOPIC OF MY TITLE 

A while back I posted a blog on the sentence, claiming it to be the “greatest invention of the human mind.”  And I suggested three different ways to classify sentences:  structurally, rhetorically, and stylistically or aesthetically.

More on that specific topic later.

 What I’d like to do now,  hoisting myself on my own petard (as the Bard of Avon might say), however, is to take a contrary view and suggest that perhaps the greatest invention of the mind of the mathematician (going back in time to Ancient Egypt) was the concept of pi. 

As Richard Preston defines it in a wonderful “New Yorker” article that appeared in the March 2, 1992, issue, “Pi is approximatelty 3.14–the number of times that a circle’s diameter will fit around the circle.”  Mathematicians have tried for many years to reduce the value of pi to a specific calculation and have been eternally baffled by the refusal of the concept of pi to be cornered.

Preston’s article is obviously outdated so far as using supercomputers to try to arrive at a solution to the code that some are certain would bring pi to bay.  His article is essentially about two immigrant brothers,  Gregory and David Chudnovsky, who, living in an apartment in Brooklyn, not far from Columbia University (where they hold special positions as “senior research scientists in the Department of Mathematics”) have themselves made their apartment into a supercomputer, rivalling  those possessed by research institutions, think tanks, and so forth.

After getting so far as a stretch of two billion sequential numbers (which , printed out, would stretch as far from their apartment as to the middle of Kansas), they reach the tentative conclusion that there is still no pattern found and therefore that “Pi goes on forever. . . .”  Yet they  wonder whether “the digits contain a hidden code, an as yet unseen architecture, close to the mind of God.”

I will soon offer more on a separate post about the continuing seduction and beauty of the English sentence and why it should be respectfully studied as well as carefully deployed in discourse.

RJR 

      

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