Monday, 25 May 2020

I'm going to go ahead and know it

Today in strange agency verb use: 

Screenshot of a tweet saying "Yeah if you're standing
in front of a Bentley at a Bentley dealership,
I'm going to go ahead and know that's not your car." 

Knowing isn't something that you have much control over. You can try and know things, by learning them or finding them out or whatever, but whether you know something or not is a state of mind, literally. 

It's the phrase go ahead and that gives rise to the oddness here. Without it, I'm going to know that's not your car, is fine. It means that in the scenario described, I will know a fact based on the evidence of my eyes, and my own knowledge and judgement of the likely circumstances (i.e. the car in a dealership is not necessarily your own; you'd probably take a photo of your own car somewhere else; pretending you own a Bentley is a plausible alternative to it actually being your car). 

I hadn't realised before, but go ahead and is actually a peeve for some people. Internet people ask 'why do young people say they're going to go ahead and do something'. The answers tend to be along the lines of it meaning you have the listener's tacit approval, that no one has given you a reason not to do the thing, or that it's a more decisive, proactive action. In any case, all things that one needs to deliberately decide to do – to have agency. 

And, as previously discussed, knowing something is not something that one can do deliberately. You can go ahead and reason that it's not my Bentley, you can go ahead and say that it's not my Bentley, and you can go ahead and assume that it's not my Bentley. But knowing that it's not my Bentley is a state you arrive at, whether you mean to or not. Sometimes, there are things one would rather not know – but you can't help it. 

Monday, 18 May 2020

How much did it costed?

The Conversation tweeted about an article way back in 2018, when things like the World Cup still happened, and included the phrase could have costed (it's also in the article itself):
In Standard English that would be could have cost – cost is irregular and has cost as its past participle as well as the bare form. In fact, costed isn't even the simple past tense of this version of the verb, as that's also cost:
 It costsPresent 
 It costPast 
 It has cost  Perfect 
 and so on. 

I say 'this version of the verb' because there's another version of cost that does have costed as the past tense: the one that means 'estimate the price of' rather than 'have a price of', as in We costed the new plans and decided that they were not viable. So there is this form costed that exists, and that you might have heard just as recently as the form cost, and you might reach for that when you're looking for the relevant form to follow the perfect auxiliary have. And then that makes it nice and similar to all the other regular verbs like could have washed, could have dusted, could have wasted, etc. 

I predicted that this mistake would be much less likely to occur with did instead of could have. While could have requires the past participle (actually it's have that requires it, so you'd also get it has lasted us ten years, and by extension possible it has costed us a fortune), did doesn't – it requires the bare form of the verb: Did it last long? rather than Did it lasted long? and so presumably you would expect Did it cost a lot rather than Did it costed a lot? 

Well, never make predictions about what kind of variation people will produce. I'll leave the actual numbers to someone else, but a google search for "did it costed" brings up results, and not just people asking if it's correct to say that (though they're the top hits). There are also examples where it's used as the simple past form, as in I wonder how much that upgrade costed

English, amirite? 

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Cryptic crossword pursues rather than follows

An occasional hobby of mine is trying to get better at cryptic crosswords. I sometimes print one out from the Guardian and it takes about two weeks between two of us, but eventually we finish it and we feel like we've learnt about how the clues work.

I was stumped on one:
Party leader pursues old educational institution's growth.
Pretty quickly I spotted that 'party leader' meant 'p' – the first letter of 'party'. I also knew that 'pursues' meant that the 'p' would be chasing after the rest of the word. Already, you may notice my problem here. 

If it had said 'follows' then I'd have been looking for a pattern like ___p. The 'p' follows the rest of the word, coming at the end. No worries. But because it said 'pursues', that has a more literal or contentful meaning than 'follows' (which can be entirely metaphorical as in this case), meaning 'chase after at speed' or something. So then, somehow, my odd little mind flipped the direction from the act of writing the word (beginning at the beginning and the rest follows) to something like reading the word from left to right, where the end of the word is ahead (yet to come) and so 'pursues' means that the 'p' is behind it, at the start of the word.

So I was thinking it must be 'Palma', because of 'alma mater', but didn't see how that meant 'growth', and anyway it's clearly 'polyp' - 'poly' is an old educational institution, with 'p' following it.

Friday, 24 April 2020

Asking questions to share knowledge on twitter

Anyway, back to linguistics after all the disquisitions on the state of HE. Susie Dent posted a nice fun fact about the word two on twitter.
The first reply was best: it said simply 'Twix'. But the other replies were really interesting to someone who has recent experience of doing linguistics in public and aspirations to do more of it.

There are lots that are comments, reactions, unrelated replies, of course. The ones I'm interested in fall into two groups: questions, and related facts. Both of them fulfil the same locutionary role: to show that the tweeter has some knowledge of language, to convey enthusiasm, and something else slightly undefinable about interacting with celebrities that you don't know personally on twitter.

The related facts, first. Let's give these gentlemen the benefit of the doubt and assume that they were not mansplaining Susie (i.e. assuming that they, as non-experts in this field, can educate her about her literal field of expertise). So they're doing something else – the fact is to add to the original one, give more detail, add more context, and it's for the benefit of other readers of the original tweet. This is not how 'replying' works in normal conversations, but it's how it often works on twitter.



Then there's the questions. Some of them are simply information seeking – the fact prompted the asker to seek more information about something that occurred to them. But many of them also have a secondary purpose of showing off a bit, being a bit clever, making an observation and wanting to share it but also doing that in a deferential, face-saving way, to indicate that they are aware that Susie Dent is an expert and already knows this (a question implies that the asker believes the answerer knows the answer).

(This one is also cute and interesting because they don't mean that the /tw/ would be pronounced /twə/ in the word two, but to say the sound /tw/ on its own you would say /twə/, with an unstressed vowel at the end to make it pronounceable, and I like this a lot.)

This one is a perfect example of the 'question as knowledge-sharing' tactic (though I think in this case the answer is no):

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Dear students who want a refund

The President of the NUS, Zamzam Ibrahim, has called for students to get a refund on their tuition fees for the current year, or the opportunity to repeat the year at no further cost. I have a lot of sympathy with this position: students have been severely disrupted this year, with a sudden lockdown in mid-March following waves of strike action over this year and previous years. Their graduation ceremonies have been cancelled or postponed, and the graduate jobs market they’re going into is in crisis. 

Refunds are something you get when you haven't been given the product or the service that you paid for. The possibility of – and call for – a refund therefore comes with the introduction of student fees, and the shift to the students-as-customers model. This same model has led to the increasing cuts, more-for-less, and rising precarity we've been protesting against lately (and therefore to the strikes themselves).  

A refund for most UK students would need to be paid against their student debt. They take out a loan to cover their fees and living costs, and it’s paid back once they start earning over a threshold. So they haven’t actually paid anything up front; the government gives universities some amount of money according to how many students they have. Therefore, for these students, a refund really means writing off a year of student debt (which is what Ibrahim has asked for). So who should bear the cost of this? Would universities be asked to pay back that money, or would the government cover it in the same way that it is supposedly covering a proportion of salary for furloughed staff? 

An important consideration here is that universities are broke. I’m not for a moment suggesting that students should bail out universities, but it is also true that many universities just don’t have the money to pay this refund (maybe £54m at my place, according to my back-of the-envelope calculation), if they were required to. Hundreds of staff are about to lose their jobs in order to make cost savings at my institution; refunds would presumably mean more job losses, so it’s us who would be paying the cost of these refunds with our livelihoods. 

Should students get a full refund for the year? I think that it would make more sense for it to be a choice between a full refund and retaking the year without penalty, or a partial refund or compensation. How that amount is determined, I don’t know. Staff have worked unbelievably hard to make sure that teaching and the various support services have continued during the coronavirus, so it’s not the case that students haven’t had any teaching or support, but it has been different from what they would normally have had (online teaching is not at all the same as face-to-face). There are also some students who can’t access it, because they’re in a different time zone or don’t have internet at home or any number of other reasons. We’re making concessions for these circumstances, of course, so it’s hard to determine just how much detriment there has been. 

The other thing is about what students are actually paying for. There is a common belief that they’re just paying for their lectures, and of course this isn’t true. They (and other income sources) are paying for the library, the sports centre, classroom upkeep, new buildings, campus maintenance, the salaries of the senior management (and everyone else), and lots more. Again, it’s hard to judge how much of this they’ve been able to benefit from during this time - not the sports centre or the classrooms, of course, but much of the library holdings are online, for instance, and the staff there have been working hard throughout to make them more accessible. 

As noted before, universities have become a consumer product due to the various changes to the system - students paying fees directly, the lifted cap on numbers, and so on, all meaning that it now looks much like a transaction where you pay your money and you get the degree you paid for, on the understanding that you have to put some work in - like with a gym membership. But with most consumer transactions, there’s a clear definition of what the customer is paying for, and sometimes a contract. If you buy a handmade jumper from me, you’re not paying the cost of the jumper plus my time to make it - you’re paying a price that I think you’ll be willing to pay that covers a proportion of the money I need to live on, so you’re also paying for my food, bills, glass of wine, new coat, etc. But there is a clear agreement that if you pay this money, you get a jumper of good quality that matches what you expected. If I can’t provide the jumper because of a wool shortage, I can’t say ‘look, you’re also paying for my bills and those don’t stop when there’s a wool shortage so you still have to pay, and I’ll send you images of my jumper while you wear one you already own’. OK, this is facetious, but my point is that if we’re going to make universities into this business-focussed entity, we have to face up to the fact that the customers are going to demand the product they paid for. 

If you’re a student and you think you should get a refund, I hope you can see the link between this and the reasons we were on strike. We’re protesting exactly the situation that has led us to this mess now because it just isn’t good for students or staff. I support you in your demand for a refund, but in return, please support local campaigns against compulsory redundancies, otherwise you’re asking your lecturers, your wellbeing team, and the receptionist to pay for your refund. You’re an adult; don’t lash out at the nearest person, wailing ‘it’s not fair’ – look for who is accountable. In this case, it’s a raft of bad decisions by successive governments, and inaction by Universities. Make them pay.

Monday, 24 February 2020

UCU Strikes Back


Once again, my university, along with 73 others in the UK, is on strike. We’re striking for #FourFights: 
  1. Workload
  2. Pay
  3. Casualisation
  4. Equality

To be clear, a lecturer’s salary is OK. You start at a bit over £30,000 and if you progress up the pay scale it rises to a median of £45,000 and up to £50,000+ for senior lecturers and readers (professors can make much more). That’s fine. But it’s not outrageously high either, given the minimum of 8 years’ training (more likely to be 10+ for most), and that pay scale means you’ll never go over that £50-something cap, despite a high degree of autonomy and responsibility. You can earn much more in the private sector. But we aren’t striking over the absolute amount; we are striking because we are paid much less (in real terms) for the same work than we were a decade ago. Unless you think we were grossly over-valued back then, this isn’t right. And more importantly, I (as a woman) am paid less than a similar man, and (as a white person) I’m paid more than a similar BAME person - and that’s not right. 

Worse than that, we are doing much more than we did a decade ago, for that reduced amount. Some of it is extra work that we might not mind doing per se. For instance, we all now take on much more outreach work than we ever did before, in the form of applicant days and talks in schools and media work and blogging and doing public events and so on. All this is great, and should be done. But we are doing it as well as everything we did before. Some of the extra work is increased pressure from metrics, rankings and assessment: we have to do extra things to make sure we score well in the National Student Survey, we have to apply for a certain number of research grants, and so on. And some of it is just that we are expected to handle much larger numbers of students with fewer staff (including fewer support staff, who are also under more workload pressure). My seminar groups can now contain up to 25 students. A decade ago it was maximum 15. This means an extra 40% marking (and marking takes a long time) and 40% more emails and appointments, not to mention the fact that students don’t get the benefits of small class sizes that seminars are supposed to mean. 

And remember that the salary quoted above applies to a lecturer on a full-time, open-ended contract. Many of us are on temporary, part-time contracts. This is the norm for people in their first few jobs, and it’s usually a few years at least before you get a full-time position that lasts more than a year or less. Some people work decades on part-time contracts. Many people are working more than one job, because it’s just a few hours of teaching here and there. And they aren’t paid for the long summer, because it’s teaching only, so they also need a summer job. They’ll likely be teaching new subjects for the first time every year, with short notice, which is much more work than regular, predictable teaching. Most people doing this kind of precarious work calculate their hourly rate to be around the minimum wage or less. When I was doing it, it was about £8 an hour. For some, it’s much less. Add to this the likelihood that you’ll have to travel much further (maybe hours) to get to that one hour of teaching, because you’ve had to look further to find work. You might take on a lot of pastoral work, because you’re ‘more approachable’ (you’re younger, or female, or BAME, or all three), and because you care deeply about your students, and this won’t be properly recognised in your pay, promotion or workload calculations. And you’re also constantly applying for the next job - this takes days each time, and don’t underestimate the stress of the instability and constant rejection. When I got my open-ended contract, it was like a weight was lifted from my shoulders. 

This all means that the ‘extra’ things are not going to get done, even for those lucky enough to be on a full-time, permanent contract. If you teach a new module, you’re going to use the previous person’s materials, not update it. If you teach a module for a few years in a row, you’re going to use the same slides again and not add in new scholarship or critically examine your reading lists. The people in positions of seniority are likely to be white men, so they won’t push you to prioritise equity and justice in your work, and they won’t reward you for doing so. For those on temporary contracts, you actually can’t do any of this work - you only know you’re teaching the module a week or two in advance, so there’s no time to order any new books or change much, and you can’t do it for the following year because you probably won’t teach that module again. So inequality remains unexamined and unchallenged, the whiteness of the curriculum is not addressed, and the quality of a university education is reduced. 

Address these issues, and students get a better education and better support, the university gets better ratings, staff have better mental health and can produce better work, and the institution becomes fairer. Literally no one loses. 

Friday, 31 January 2020

Can they mean it?


Dennis Baron (@DrGrammar on twitter) linked to a text from 1789 in which William Marshall writes about a gender-neutral pronoun in Gloucestershire, ou, meaning either he, she or it. It describes the word as being analogous with plural they. So ou will means he will, she will, or it will. In the same way, they will can refer to men, women, mixed groups, unknown genders, or inanimate objects (‘how are the trains? Oh, they will all be delayed’). This made me wonder about singular they, which can refer to a male or female referent (which would also be grammatical with he or she respectively), or someone of neither/another gender, or unknown gender, etc. But I’m pretty sure it can’t refer to something that would normally require it. I don’t know if I can think of a context where it’s not clear whether the referent is animate/human or not, therefore making a word that covers all possibilities a useful addition. Perhaps ‘Someone or something has knocked over the garden fence’, where it could be vandals or the wind? 

Incidentally, I’d saved the link to this with the note to myself ‘Can they mean it?’, as per the title of this post. I was so confused about who might mean what, until I realised that I was asking whether the word they can mean the same thing as the word it.