There is a joke my father used to love to tell.
There’s an astronomer, a mathematician, and an engineer walking through a field in Scotland. They see a black sheep on a hill in front of them. The astronomer looks at the sheep and declares, “I conclude there are many black sheep in all of Scotland.” The mathematician shakes his head disapprovingly and says, “I conclude there is at least one black sheep in all of Scotland.” The engineer shakes her head and says, “I conclude that the sheep is black on the side facing us.”
When I was a kid, he explained it to me, and I didn’t get it. In my twenties, I got it, but didn’t think it was funny. Now, I both get it and think it’s funny.
The engineer can only swear to that which she can verify for sure. You don’t want to build a bridge assuming the pilings are thick enough. You want to measure, design, and plan to be sure. This is how copyeditors look at the words they are paid to edit. Is there a period there? There should be a period there. But is it actually there? Would you bet your paycheck on it?
All day I read scientific papers that might as well had been in a foreign language for all I understand them. This lack of comprehension means there is nothing to distract me from how these sentences are constructed. Eventually I become familiar with the vocabulary and although I do not know what the words mean, I learn what part of speech they are, how they tend to be used in a sentence and how they fit together. I am a structural engineer of language.
Do you think the joke is funny?