Looking Glass Language

a word bird reflects on life & language

Wordy Wednesday: dichotomy

Platos Dichotomy (sic)

I decided to dedicate this Wordy Wednesday to ‘dichotomy’ after stumbling across Platos Dichotomy (sic), a blog which purports to be devoted to language and its origins, which, with its glaring lack of an apostrophe in the title, made my inner Grammar Nazi snap to attention. While we’re all capable of making language mistakes (I usually discover mine just after hitting Publish), the omission of the apostrophe in a standing title can only be the result of a woeful lack of basic grammar or an approach to editing that’s so slack it’s inexcusable in a language-related blog.

So, back to dichotomy… According to the Oxford Dictionary, a dichotomy is:

  • a division or contrast between two things that are or are represented as being opposed or entirely different: a rigid dichotomy between science and mysticism

While according to Wikipedia, it’s:

  • any splitting of a whole into exactly two non-overlapping parts, meaning it is a procedure in which a whole is divided into two parts that are jointly exhaustive (everything must belong to one part or the other), and mutually exclusive (nothing can belong simultaneously to both parts).

Wherever you have contrasting ideas, such as right and wrong, war and peace, good and evil or love and hate, you have a dichotomy…

A false dichotomy however, (an ‘either / or’ fallacy), is where the speaker / writer considers or sets in opposition two of a number of options, often in an attempt to force a choice, as in ‘either A or B is true. A is not true. Therefore, B is true’. For example, ‘Either she’s a fraud or she is truly psychic, and she’s not a fraud, so she must be psychic’. This is a false dichotomy because, for instance, she may genuinely believe that she’s psychic, but be wrong about it, or she may be the victim of a TV hoax show. Politicians, UFO-believers and teenagers are masters of the false dichotomy. A common example is that of ‘you’re either with us or against us’.

Dichotomy is an almost surgical word, one for use in clear-cut scenarios involving two equal but contrasting ideas: a word for philosophers and scientists, I suspect. Perhaps because I tend to see things not in black and white, but in shades of grey (no, not the one involving cable ties…), it’s not a word I can ever remember using, though I’ve seen others employ it to suggest a contrast, and the thesaurus also aligns it with division, separation, gulf, chasm, divorce, split, difference, contrast, disjunction, polarity, conflict and antagonism.

Which takes me back to Platos Dichotomy (sic). [I can’t bring myself to write it without the (sic) in case you think it’s my error.] Incidentally, without the apostrophe, don’t you agree that the title reads like a label in the Natural History Museum?

A semiaquatic mammal endemic to eastern Australia, including Tasmania. Together with the four species of echidna, it is one of the five extant species of monotremes, the only mammals that lay eggs instead of giving birth.

Platos Dichotymus: a semiaquatic mammal endemic to eastern Australia, including Tasmania. Together with the four species of echidna, it is one of the five extant species of monotremes, the only mammals that lay eggs instead of giving birth.












If you use dichotomy as a synonym for disjunction (a lack of correspondence or consistency), then the blog itself is an example of dichotomy, because the author sets himself up as a language expert, yet uses language in a clumsy, child-like way.

It’s not just the title. Take the opening sentence, with its shouty apostrophe,”Plato was the closest to getting language right!” What would getting language ‘right’ entail? And then there’s the exposition, which says that it’s ‘eerie’ that Plato was “maybe right on some points.” Where do I even start with that sentence? Its bizarre use of ‘eerie’? The tentative ‘maybe’? The failure to say which points those might be? The arrogance of appearing surprised to discover that one of history’s greatest thinkers got a few things right?  He goes on to postulate that, if Plato had only have known about evolution and the terms (nb the redundant colon) calls, cries, grunts, and proto-language, “he could have solved the problem,” but doesn’t tell us what the problem is… He then goes on to reference Chomsky and Einstein: if I did that, I’d make damn sure I knew what I was talking about. Unfortunately, he doesn’t.

When I glanced through a couple of other posts, it was clear that this one wasn’t a one-off: there’s similar clumsy construction and poor punctuation in other posts. The one below, for instance, is made nonsensical by its missing commas, and also features counter-indication (which sounds like one of those numbers you take when waiting at Social Services, the Passport Office or the Fresh Meats counter in Sainsbury’s) in place of contradiction. Not exactly the Platonic ideal… NB Although I’m a believer in attribution and in giving credit where it’s due, I’ve not given the blog’s url, in order to spare the blushes of its author.


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3 thoughts on “Wordy Wednesday: dichotomy

  1. Do you think he meant plural Platos Dichotomy? But, then I suppose it would have to be dichotomies…
    God bless your Inner Grammar Nazi’s cotton socks. I myself don’t make those kinds of mistakes… the Grammar Gremlins add them while I’m sleeping.

  2. Pingback: Real/not real dichotomy fetish | THE PSYCHO LINGUIST

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