The Wherefore of Style

by Mark L. Levinson

It’s been gift-giving season in the English-speaking world, and the latest edition of the TiePlumb manual has not gone over well.  People receive the software from their friends, and they have trouble understanding what it does.  I contacted Richard Mateosian, who had convinced me that the manual’s opening sentence doesn’t need to say what the product does because by the time you buy the product, you must know what it’s for.  Richard wrote back, “I don’t remember where this whole thing started. I think I was reacting to something by going overboard in the opposite direction.”

Now, however, Richard — who like me had failed to take gift-giving into account — agrees that sometimes it is fitting and proper to start a manual by telling what purpose the product serves.

In 1965, Bill Cosby brought out an album called Why Is There Air?  In the title joke, a fellow student is majoring in philosophy and walks around wondering “Why is there air?” to which Cosby says, “Any phys ed major knows why there’s air.  There’s air to blow up volleyballs!  Blow up basketballs.”

The joke is funny partly because it plays two meanings of “why” against one another.  By “why,” we assume the philosophy major is asking what brought the thing about.  Cosby’s answer tells her, instead, what purpose the thing serves.

It might have been funny to the Elizabethans, but only because the phys ed major attributes a trivial purpose to air.  The Elizabethans wouldn’t take for granted a laughable distinction between cause and purpose, because they believed the cause for every phenomenon was the divine intent that the phenomenon serve a particular purpose.

My Hebrew teacher back on the kibbutz, Rachel Spitzer, explained to us that Hebrew had one “why” word to ask about purpose and another one to ask about underlying cause.  “Aha!” I thought, and I ran to the Internet — after a technical delay of thirty-five years — to check my theory that in English the same distinction properly separates “why” and “wherefore.”  No such luck.  No clean distinction in the King James Bible, and no clean distinction in the dictionary.

That’s a shame, in my opinion, because most of our thinking is limited to what we have words for.  Lacking the distinction in words, we leave the distinction unthought. 

Several times as a technical writer, I’ve lived the Cosby joke in reverse.  I ask about the purpose, and I’m answered about the background.  “Why do the user’s neckties appear on the screen in that particular order?” I ask, expecting to hear how that particular order serves the purpose of benefiting the user.

“They appear according to the sequence in which they arrive from the database,” says Dror the developer, giving me the background that engenders the phenomenon.

“But why?” I say, “Why not alphabetically, numerically, chronologically, according to the color spectrum, or even in a fresh random order each time?  How can I describe this to the user?  The user wants to hear some logical explanation that has to do with neckties, not with databases.”

Sometimes the developers do really want to load the manual with technical explanations that only glaze the user's eyes.  But Dror merely nodded and went away.  I thought he was going to come back with a decision in favor of alphabetical or numerical order.  He came back with the boss.

The boss said, “Tell them this.  Take it down.  The neckties are displayed in order of preference, according to a sophisticated proprietary algorithm.”

“Patent applied for?” I said.

“You’re a riot,” said the boss.

Questions and comments 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.