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   October 2013       


Photo: Courtesy of Hewlett-Packard

Barney Oliver: Defender of Language

By Donald Christiansen

Barney (Bernard) Oliver is best remembered by followers of engineering history as the long-time head of R&D for Hewlett-Packard. A few old-timers recall that prior to joining HP he spent 12 productive years with Bell Labs. Upon his retirement from HP in 1981, he became director of the NASA Ames SETI office, serving from 1982 to 1993. His career included contributions to radar, television, pulse-code modulation, signal generators, oscilloscopes, spectrum analyzers, and pulse generators. He was instrumental in the development of HP’s first computer (HP 2116) and its first handheld calculator (HP35). During his tenure at HP, its number of products increased from about 100 to some 1500.

He had graduated from high school at age 15, earned his Bachelor of Science degree from Stanford at 19, and his master’s and doctoral degrees from Cal Tech by the age of 24. While professional historians refer to him as Dr. Oliver, his colleagues always called him Barney, and I will follow suit.

I was fortunate to be present at a few meetings (at HP and at some technical conferences) that were already underway when Barney arrived. All eyes immediately turned to him. He became the dominant presence. His sharply focused gaze and partly furrowed brow seemed to signal his intellectual curiosity. They seemed to impart the unspoken message, “Tell me what I missed, and be brief!”

One time I was visiting several Silicon Valley companies in my role as editor of IEEE Spectrum. I had just checked in at Rickey’s Hyatt House, when the phone rang. It was Les Hogan of Fairchild, asking whether I was available to have dinner. Barney Oliver would join us, he said. Barney would pick up Les, then me, and we’d find a nice restaurant. I waited in Rickey’s lobby, and promptly at 6 a convertible rolled into the parking area. I was eager to see it as I had heard Barney was a car fancier. (John Billingham, when he bought Barney’s last car, said it was in better condition than when it was new.) In the dusk I could not discern the make and year, but as I now recall, it reminded me of a Packard convertible from the early 1930s. Looking forward to an exciting ride to the restaurant, I was impressed as Barney gunned the engine and we roared away. But a few seconds later we squealed to a stop. “How is this?” Barney asked, as we reached the restaurant immediately adjacent to Rickey’s. We spent a productive evening discussing the future of IEEE as it moved into its newly authorized area of professional activities. Barney had been president of IEEE when its charter had been strictly concerned with technical activities, and Les Hogan was about to assume a position on the IEEE executive committee. Astute questions by Barney helped define the areas of concern for IEEE and its members that would surface in the coming months. It was an enjoyable and fruitful evening, in spite of my finding no opportunity to broach the topic of classic cars. At its conclusion, Barney offered to drive me back to Rickey’s, but I declined—walking would be quicker!

A Hidden Talent

Barney died in 1995 at age 79. Unbeknownst to many, he had written a book on one of his favorite topics, and bequeathed it to the SETI Institute. In 2001 it was published as Modern English Misusage: The Rules of Grammar Explained with Precision and Wit, and illustrated by his close friend, artist Herb Stansbury.

A cartoon by Herb Stansbury

In his preface, Barney admitted his pre-disposition for correcting colleagues’ English on the fly, noting that “this impolite practice was seldom accepted as gracefully by the victim as I felt it should have been.” He attributed the compulsion to his mother, a teacher in a one-room school, who solved the babysitting problem by taking him along, where he would sit quietly in the woodbox, next to the stove, and listen to all eight grades recite. Her evangelical zeal for correct English was thus instilled in Barney, as reflected in this concluding admonition in the introduction to his book: “Mastering our language—our native tongue—is the single most important skill we learn. Let’s try to communicate rather than confuse the listener. Let’s do it right. It’s not that hard.”

To give the reader a taste of what was to come, Barney began with a list of the “Top Nine Offenses.” He shows who is in charge of this classroom: “Look, I’m the umpire. I get to call the shots. These are the Top Nine Offenses because I say so. They include the improper use of: myself in place of I or melay for lie; I feel badly instead of I feel bad; like for as; The media is instead of the media are; at this point in time instead of now; anxious instead of eager; less for fewer; and if I would have instead of had I.”

In a section on unnecessary words, Barney noted that while he did not dislike prepositions, “they have a way of attaching themselves like barnacles to words that do very well on their own (e.g., “continue on,” where on is not needed). He also pokes fun at vogue words and phrases, such as definitize, finalize, and prioritize, suggesting that specify, complete, and rank might do perfectly well.

In “Miscellaneous Mispronunciations,” Barney identifies a number of words that people who should know better commonly mispronounce, including asterisk, athlete, liaison, nuclear, processes, subsidiary, and terrestrial. He also recommends “pruning dead wood,” as, for example, using consider instead of take into consideration and soon instead of in the near future,” and urges us to avoid the use of tautologies (true facts, preplanning, advanced reservations, and revert back).

He admonishes us not to expect our computer spell-checker to catch our unwitting substitutions of one homophone for another: principal for principle, for example. You can’t blame the computer, he reminds us, noting that “you may be in awe of them, but the truth is that the poor little things don’t understand anything you’re saying. They can only do what their absentee masters, the programmers, have taught them to do.”

Barney covers lots more in his fascinating book, including discussions of gerunds, reflexive and intensive pronouns, and predicate adjectives—but all in a style laced with perception and humor that was absent from my own formal education in English. Upon finishing Barney’s book I could readily understand why our meeting with Les Hogan that evening in Palo Alto was so productive. As one biographer noted, Barney’s conversations were always terse and to the point.


Oliver, B., Modern English Misusage: The Rules of Grammar Explained with Precision and Wit, SETI Press, 2001.

Zinsser, W., On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, Harper, 1998.

Safire, W., Coming to Terms, Henry Holt, 1992.

Fowler, H., A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (rev.), Oxford University Press, 1965.

Note: Photo courtesy of Hewlett-Packard; cartoon by Herb Stansbury.


Comments may be emailed directly to the author at donchristiansen@ieee.org or submitted through our online form.


Christiansen is the former editor and publisher of IEEE Spectrum and an independent publishing consultant. He is a Fellow of the IEEE. You can write to him at donchristiansen@ieee.org.


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