I first became aware of the mouth-foaming passion that the Comic Sans font arouses after I published a free eBook on Ruby programming. I decided that, since Ruby was a frothy, friendly kind of language I would use a frothy, friendly kind of font for the code listings. A boring font like Courier is ok for a workaday language such as Java or C#. But Ruby deserved something more frivolous – Comic Sans would do just fine.
Little did I know what a terrible thing I had done. Soon my book was being denounced on forums and comment-threads all over the damn’ place. Some people were of the opinion that anyone who could use Comic Sans must be inherently untrustworthy and possibly bordering on the demented. So, instead of judging the book by the information it contained, they judged it by the font.
More recently I provoked similar ire when my paperback book on Ruby programming was published. There was no Comic Sans in this one (that was the publisher’s choice, not mine!) – but this time I had committed the heinous crime of indenting my code by four spaces instead of two spaces as required by some mysterious inner circle of the Ruby Elect who pass judgment on such matters.
Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds
Now Ruby, unlike, for example, Python, doesn’t pay any attention to indents. If you use two, four, eight or thirty-seven space indents your Ruby programs will work just the same. The ‘two space’ indent prejudice is arbitrary. Just like the anti-Comic Sans prejudice. In both cases, the assessment that it is good or bad is not objectively verifiable. It’s just opinion. Moreover, holding that opinion is no reflection of a person’s intelligence, skill or coding excellence. It is just like wearing a badge saying: “I agree with them. They agree with me. Therefore, we must be right.”
In classic propaganda, this is called the Bandwagon Effect. Put simply, it attempts to win you over to a viewpoint by stating that: “Everybody else believes this, so should you.” Commercial advertisers do this all the time. Propagandists often use the Bandwagon Effect in cahoots with another classic technique: Name-calling. Put the two together and you can say something such as “Anyone who uses Comic Sans is an idiot.” In that simple statement you are now using two powerful techniques of persuasion. First, you are suggesting that all rational, sensible people agree with a certain point of view (and therefore anyone else who considers themselves rational and sensible should agree too) and secondly, that anyone who disagrees is a fool (and you don’t want people to think you’re a fool, do you!). The appeal is entirely emotional, not at all intellectual. You’d think nobody would fall for it. But, on the contrary, many people accept it without a second thought.
The Grammar Police
It’s not just programmers who fall for these vapid non-arguments, however. As a writer, I have frequently had cause to take issue with the stupid ‘rules’ that are senselessly enforced by magazine and book publishers’ style sheets. On the whole, a style sheet is an arbitrary list of ‘thou shalt’ and ‘thou shalt not’ decrees aimed at people with a limited understanding of their native language. They make my blood boil!
At the most trivial level, style sheets prohibit things such as split infinitives (“to boldly go”). They also almost always forbid the use of “the passive voice”. For reasons which I’ve never understood, editors and subeditors prefer you to write in the active: “I see it” rather than the passive: “It is seen”. Why? I’ve heard all kinds of explanations over the years – active is more vigorous, it is clearer, it requires fewer words etc. etc. This is all a lot of nonsense, of course.
I’d been starting to think that I was a lone voice in defence of the passive when, to my joy, I stumbled upon a wonderful essay called ’50 Years Of Stupid Grammar Advice’, written by Geoffrey Pullum (professor of linguistics as the University of Edinburgh and co-author of ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’) who is also a regular contributor to the excellent Language Log.
In his essay, Pullum puts the blame for the widespread anti-passive prejudice on two fellows named Strunk and White, who wrote a much-revered book called ‘The Elements of Style’. Pullum describes Strunk and White as “grammatical incompetents”. Strunk and White disapproved of the passive and their nonsensical opinions have been repeated in countless style sheets ever since. Pullum shows clearly just how nonsensical their opinions were. It turns out that the authors were not at all clear on the distinction between active and passive and frequently got them confused…
“What concerns me [writes Pullum] is that the bias against the passive is being retailed by a pair of authors so grammatically clueless that they don’t know what is a passive construction and what isn’t. Of the four pairs of examples offered to show readers what to avoid and how to correct it, a staggering three out of the four are mistaken diagnoses.”
Recently I came across a similarly baffled blog post by the physicist, Lubos Motl – and that brings me back to the subject which began this post. The cause of Motl’s bafflement was the virulence of some people’s antipathy towards the Comic Sans font.
Motl recalls being in an online chat room in which people were discussing serious physics-type stuff relating to the search for the Higgs boson. The talk turned to a presentation that had been given by Fabiola Gianotti, leader of the CERN ATLAS (A Toroidal LHC Apparatus) experiment. Ms Gianotti presented slides that used the Comic Sans font. Predictably, instead of concentrating on the content of her slides, some people started attacking her choice of font…
“Oh no! Oh no! Oh my God! Why!? She has used the Comic Sans font! The sky is falling!” (someone yelled).
Motl wonders why the font makes people go ballistic. It’s his view that the fact that the font was developed by Microsoft may have something to do with it. As a not-at-all-scientific experiment, I asked some of my non-programmer Facebook friends what they thought of Comic Sans. Every one of them said they liked it. And why not? It’s a perfectly good font. Lubos Motl has promised (threatened?) to change the default font on his blog to Comic Sans as he says he’s decided that the font is “just beautiful”.
While I have nothing against Comic Sans, I don’t think I’d want everything to be written in that font. But in small doses, it’s perfectly fine. Quite nice, in fact. The anti-Comic Sans movement is spouting prejudice pure and simple. What is astonishing is that so many people are willing unthinkingly to repeat the mantra that Comic Sans is bad, thereby displaying a Borg-like uniformity of opinion worthy of North Korea.
Personally, I plan to split infinitives, use the passive, indent my code by how ever many spaces I want to, and use any font I damn’ well like. And if anyone objects, well, that’s just too bad…