Necessary Unnecessary Facts

by Mark L. Levinson

Hemingway said, “Anything you can omit that you know you still have in the writing and its quality will show. When a writer omits things he does not know, they show like holes in his writing.”

Okay, Hemingway approved the first sentence as printed, but I would have used some punctuation.  “Anything you can omit that you know, you still have in the writing; and its quality will show.”  As you read through the sentence without the comma, you’re falsely cued with the concept of knowing you still have something.

I can’t find any explicit support on the internet for such a comma; the best I can find is a pseudonymous concession that “It might even be permissible to use a comma” when the structure of the sentence is object-subject-verb.  Nobody explicitly forbids the comma either, as far as I can see; for such a rare inverted structure, the question of whether to punctuate seems to be left up to the few quirksters who do the inverting, such as Yiddish grandmothers, Yoda, Hemingway, and Shakespeare (“Our hearts you see not.”).  If you’ve found it discussed anywhere, please let me know.

What reminded me of Hemingway is a box of recycled toner I bought the other day.  The box says, “All product names and model numbers mentioned in this package are registered trademarks of their respective companies and are used for identification purposes only.”  Actually there aren’t any product names or model numbers mentioned in the package.  They’re mentioned on the package.  I say it’s a mistranslation committed by a translator who received ambiguous Hebrew and, unlike Hemingway, didn’t care about any unwritten context.  “I’ve seen the marlin mate and know about that.  So I leave it out,” says Hemingway.  “I’ve seen a school (or pod) of more than fifty sperm whales in that same stretch of water and once harpooned one nearly sixty feet in length and lost him.  So I left that out.”  The toner box guy hadn’t even seen the box he was labelling.  So he tripped over something he didn’t know, and it showed like a hole in the writing.

I’ve done that.  When I took over the Scitex user manuals in 1979, one page referred to an on-screen object called, awkwardly enough, the Rotate Rose.  You pointed to a quadrant on the Rotate Rose to indicate whether you wanted to rotate a picture by 90, 180, or 270 degrees.  “Can I see it on the screen?” I said.  No, I couldn’t.  Rotating a picture on the screen took several minutes of effort from a largely hand-wired system that ran seven or eight computers in parallel, and this was back when the computers were the size of a Pharaoh’s coffin and no less demanding of special care.  Even Scitex itself couldn’t afford to keep more than one such system, and that one was always busy.  The manual’s description had been adjudged correct, and if there was something I didn’t know that wasn’t in the manual, my knowing was deemed unnecessary.

Only a version or two later did I ask if someone could, if not show, at least tell me what the Rotate Rose looked like.  “It’s an X,” they said.  Just an X?  Sure.  You point a bit right, down, or left of the intersection to rotate by 90, 180, or 270 degrees.

So why do you call it a rose?  “Because it’s like a wind rose.”

That was a new one on me.  A wind rose, or compass rose, turns out to be the decoration that indicates north, south, east, and west on a map.

If it’s an X, is it all right if I just call it an X?  “Okay,” they said.

So I called it an X, Rotate went back to being a verb, and I went home and dreamed about the marlin. 

Comments and questions are welcome:  ]]

Mark L. Levinson

Born 1948 a few trolley stops from Boston, Massachusetts. Bachelor's degree from Harvard College. Moved to Israel in 1970. Worked and learned Hebrew on Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet. Moved to Haifa and worked teaching English to adults. Did similar work in the army. After discharge, turned to technical writing, initially for Elbit. Then promotional writing for Scitex, and more technical (and occasionally promotional) writing for Edunetics, Daisy Systems (later named Dazix, SEE Technologies, and Summit Design), Memco, and Gilian. Also translated from Hebrew to English, everything from business articles to fiction, filmscripts, and poetry. Served as local chapter president for the Society for Technical Communication, editor of several issues of local literary journals, occasional political columnist and book reviewer for the Jerusalem Post, and husband & father.