Accessibility vs. remediation: the unintended consequences of font tag deprecation

Nature abhors a vacuum—particularly when it comes to to-do lists and worries. No sooner did I complete the big SentenceWeaver upgrade and deal with (at least for now) the various bugs that have sprung up during beta testing than I found myself worrying about a whole new issue: one that potentially undermines the entire program. This issue stems from a certain shadowy, world-wide organization that has the power to cause widespread disruption to websites.

No, it’s not Korean hackers. As far as hacking goes, I’m not particularly worried. My content is copyrighted; my code is encrypted; whole directories are blocked off from all IP addresses except mine. Then there are my web host’s gatekeeping algorithms, which are so risk-averse that they recently started blocking the IP address of my main beta-tester. A few of the thousands of words he’s typed in, as it turns out, appear on my host’s list of key words that could theoretically be used in attacking the website.

(This list includes “from” and “where”: words that appear regularly in the sentences that users input as part of their grammar training. The offending sentence, the one that got my user backlisted, was “The boy and the girl will wash the car three days from now.” Once I became aware of the issue, the solution was a simple string substitution before and after the php calls to the database.)

No, the shadowy world-wide organization to which I refer is the World Wide Web Consortium, aka the W3C. This is an organization of organizations, founded at the MIT lab for Computer Science “with support from” the European Commission and DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). Its member organizations, which must be “reviewed and approved” by the W3C, range from businesses to universities to “governmental entities.”

The W3C’s mission, according to Wikipedia, is:

to foster compatibility and agreement among industry members in the adoption of new standards defined by the W3C. Incompatible versions of HTML are offered by different vendors, causing inconsistency in how web pages are displayed. The consortium tries to get all those vendors to implement a set of core principles and components which are chosen by the consortium.

In service of this goal, the W3C has adopted new standards for HTML5, the latest version of HTML that all browsers are eventually expected to use (think psychiatrists and the DSM V). One of these new standards involves “deprecating,” or no longer supporting, any HTML code that the W3C views as purely “presentational” in nature (think Asperger’s Syndrome).

One of these deprecated elements of HTML code is the lowly font tag—the tag used to specify aspects of font text like font type and color. In the words of the W3C’s website:

The element is a non-standard element.

HTML5 classifies it as a non-conforming feature.

HTML5-compliant websites are instead supposed to be handling color via Style Sheets.

If your website’s presentational elements are static, that’s fine. Indeed, in most websites, things like font type, font weight, and font color don’t change when you interact with the site. But one of the things that makes SentenceWeaver special—and is, in fact, an essential part of its Feedback Algorithm—is dynamically generated font color, as we see in this video below.

The prospect of my entire program, within the next few years, losing an essential part of its functionality, first kept me up at night—and then propelled me towards a workaround. Implementing it took me about a day and a half, and though the changes in code, in the end, probably summed to just a few extra lines, it was a kludgy pain in the neck.

One of the problems with shadowy, unrepresentative organizations inflicting rigid standards on the rest of us is their tendency to forget about unintended consequences. What we see here with the W3C, in particular, is a failure to imagine all the creative ways in which web tools can be used. Deprecate something, however lowly and insignificant it may seem to you, and suddenly algorithms you never thought to think about stop working, perhaps requiring many hours and kludges to rewrite.

The best defense of the W3C’s rigidity has to do with accessibility for people with special needs. The more rigid the standards for webpages, the easier it is to plug in accessibility tools like screen readers. But in my world, this is yet another example of accessibility at all costs—of ignoring the tradeoff between accessibility and remediation.

In my writings on disability in the classroom, I’ve worried that the emphasis on accessibility—along with the proliferation of assistive technology—has diminished the urgency of actual instruction. If students can communicate all urgent messages via picture buttons on tablets, why invest so many hours in teaching them to communicate with words?

The W3C standards put a different spin on this tradeoff: in prioritizing accessibility over website dynamics, they’ve undermined at least one program that caters to special populations as much in terms as instructional needs as in terms of accessibility.

Blogging out some thoughts around preposition agreement

Just as subjects and verbs can agree (“he walks”) or disagree (“he walk”), so, too, with verbs and prepositions. For example, we “bring up” a topic; we don’t “bring of” a topic; we “speak of” someone”; not “up” someone. Arbitrary though preposition agreement is, it matters. As with verb agreement, errors be hard on the ears.

How hard depends on what your ears have gotten used to. For decades now, “different than” has been edging out “different from”, and “based off of,” “based on.” Then there’s the gradual displacement of “about” by “around”—as in “issues around.”

The latter, I believe, is part of a larger, older trend that begin with the spatial meanings of certain prepositions. People used to look about the room; now they only look around the room. They also used to see things before them: now they only see things in front of them. For decades, the meanings of “about” and “before” have been shifting away from the concrete and spatial, narrowing towards the more abstract and temporal.

But now even the abstract meaning of “about” is in jeopardy, what with issues around identity and discussions around immigration. Meanwhile, “around” is broadening into some sort of all-purpose preposition, with people doing work around special education and the like.

Other recent examples of preposition displacement—or is it examples around preposition displacement?–include jargon: ”follow-on” for “follow-up” (“follow-on questions”), and the superfluous “out” of “share out” and “tweet out.” When I hear these, I also hear the faint echoes of consultants and commentators coining new phrases for old concepts.

Beyond the trendy, there the sloppy—the stuff that abounds, for example, in student papers:

  • There are different elements to the question.
  • She was the subject to an investigation.
  • He felt shame towards what he did.
  • It was made in bronze.

These seem like the byproducts of mental interference from (or is it mental interference around?) similar phrases in which the verbs and prepositions do agree:

  • There are different sides to the story.
  • She was subjected to an investigation.
  • He had feelings towards someone.
  • It was cast in bronze.

Then there’s plain old weird:

  • Another key criterion that distinguishes Asperger’s Syndrome to autism is…

Or the weirdly inverted:

  • She attributes the child’s multiple supports to his academic success.

I’m guessing that many of these errors would be evident to their authors, and readily corrected by them, if only they would carefully re-read and revise. But might today’s preposition disagreement also reflect a more general decline in attention to the details of sentences—not just in writing, but in reading?

However…

Emerging from a 10-week escape into the world of autism software engineering, I’ve been thinking about “however.” In a comment on my last post, Can You Spot the Sentence Fragment, I cited “however” as a word that introduces full sentences:

…something can contain a subject and predicate and still not be a complete sentence if it begins with certain function words. “Which” (and various which-phrases) is one example (see http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/can-you-start-a-sentence-with-“which).

So is “though” (http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/120981/using-though-at-the-beginning-of-the-following-sentence)–unlike “however”.

“However, he won” is a full sentence; “Though he won.” is not. And punctuating  “Though, he won” like “However, he won” only makes things awkward. (As I argue earlier, modifiers of sentence fragments don’t lend themselves to commas).

“However,” however, is actually ambiguous–as we see when we strip it of its comma:

However, he won.

However he won.

Re-read the second sentence, and you’ll see another meaning emerging: an incomplete proposition that could be completed, for example, as follows:

However he won, he did win.

This “however” belongs to a whole family of words ending in “ever,” none of which introduces a complete sentence:

Whoever voted for him…

Whatever he did to win…

Whenever he tweets…

And adding a comma only makes things worse:

Whatever, he did to win.

“Whatever,” though, is also ambiguous. Sometimes, like “though” in the previous sentence, it can be offset from the rest of the sentence with a punctuation mark. In which case it does introduce a full sentence–rather than a fragment like the one you’re reading right now.

Whatever,” you might be thinking at this point. “Language is a mess; we all have different ears for it.”

But if the (somewhat) arbitrary rules for what’s a complete sentence and what isn’t nonetheless intrigue you, stay tuned for a post on “whatever.”

Testing, testing

I’m posting Katharine’s comment about how to tell that phrase “at which point” turns a sentence into a fragment because it brings up a technique I discovered while looking for help teaching freshman composition: intuitive grammar tests.

Most native speakers, I assume, use intuitive tests from time to time. The one everyone seems to know tests whether “I” or “me” is correct in sentences like:

They’re coming with Jane and I.

The test: eliminate “Jane.”

They’re coming with I. WRONG

They’re coming with me. RIGHT

So:

They’re coming with Jane and me. RIGHT

Turns out there are all kinds of useful tests, but nobody ever tells you what they are.

Katie’s test for “at which point”: insert a comma after “at which point” and see how it sounds.

The rules for what sorts of words can modify complete sentences seems somewhat arbitrary–i.e., not based entirely on meaning. “However” can introduce a complete sentence; “though” can’t. “At that point” can; “At which point” can’t. One way to test for this is to see if it works to pause–-or add a comma–-after the phrase in question. Cf:

“However, I did snap at friends, abruptly accessing huge depths of fury I wouldn’t have thought I possessed.” (fine)

“Though, I did snap at friends, abruptly accessing huge depths of fury I wouldn’t have thought I possessed.” (weird)

“At that point, you realize that it doesn’t express one more advantage…” (fine)

“At which point, you realize that it doesn’t express one more advantage.” (weird)

This may relate to where the intuitive ear comes in.