Thursday, 14 June 2018

Miss Bailey, a lady doctor

Female academics on twitter have been adding their 'Dr' title to their handle today (I've done it too) to make a point. A discussion has been taking place about how women with PhDs routinely find it harder than men to have their knowledge and expertise in their field recognised. It's actually a lot more complicated than that, because people have been accused of saying that people without PhDs can't be experts (not true, of course) and that they shouldn't proclaim themselves 'Dr' 'simply' for having a PhD (a bizarre claim, as there's nothing simple about it and... you are a doctor if you have a PhD?) and also the general nonsense that you get whenever you say anything feminist on the internet.

I've seen others disagreeing with this practice as it seems exclusionary to them, and I don't normally have my title in my handle for the same reasons I don't insist on it in everyday life - a title just isn't necessary, and it can make people feel like you're trying to be better than them. I've done it today, because I also think that we should be allowed to use that title when it's relevant without it being seen as showing off or being immodest - and my twitter is semi-professional, so it is appropriate to use my professional name and title.

I also expect people who address me as "[title] Bailey" to use it, because it's my title and that is what should be written on their computer screen (the only people who use my title are cold callers). If they prefer not to, then they should absolutely use 'Ms', and definitely not 'Miss' or 'Mrs', as neither of those is accurate. (Mx would also be ok but that's yet to catch on very much.)

I most definitely do not expect non-academic people in my everyday life to use 'Dr'. For example, the removal men who are currently moving all of our offices at work do not need to call me anything but Laura. This is partly a balance of power thing: I am relatively in a position of power if they are effectively doing a job for me (moving my office). But they are relatively in a position of power too, because they are men and I'm a woman. The other day two of them were talking outside my open office door (so they knew I could hear) about who on my corridor needed a crate delivered. One, reading off a list, said "Dr Laura Bailey. One crate." His colleague, who sounded very young, repeated "One crate for Miss Bailey", and that use of 'Miss' instantly made me feel infantilised, disrespected, and powerless. (He went on to repeat my colleagues' European surnames with gleeful incredulity, which endeared him to me even less.) That opportunity for casual delegitimisation by using a title that inherently includes youth, powerlessness, lack of authority is why I put 'Dr' into my twitter handle today.

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

It ain't nothin'

I've talked about 'double negation' before, by which I really mean negative concord: using two negative elements in one clause to give a single negative meaning. I've pointed out how it makes no sense to argue against it on the grounds of it being illogical (it isn't), and I usually say that in context, you can always understand what the speaker means. That's more or less true in speech, when you have intonation to help you out. But in writing, without that clue, sometimes the context isn't quite enough. I found this example in a friend's facebook post:
15 days in jail, which ain't nothin'. 
The context really didn't tell me if 15 days was a lot or not much for the crime in question, and so without the intonational cues (in my crude non-expert terms, whether you'd give stress to both ain't and nothin' or just to nothin') I couldn't tell if he meant that 15 days was a significant time, or that 15 days was nothing at all.

Monday, 9 April 2018

ELL Undergraduate Conference 2018

We had our annual undergraduate conference on Saturday, where our dissertation students presented their work. I normally Storify the tweets but they're killing the service in May, so I've just collected the hashtag here (so they're in the wrong order chronologically):

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Can you buy macarons here?

Google sometimes asks me questions, via my phone, about places I've been to so that it can improve its information about businesses when people search for them. These are very revealing about what people search for, Google's insistence on not Britishising its communication, and the way that search data translates into queries.

Let's take the straightforward non-British terminology first. Google knows that these are places in the UK, and that I am a UK user. I've been annoyed before by how my phone's autocorrect only seems to know US places and spellings, and even the grammar is American (certain contractions that are more used in the UK don't come up in the suggested words, for instance). In its common questions are the following:
Is there a restroom here?
Is this place popular with travelers?
Is there a parking lot or structure?
The last one is specially for my friend and colleague Christina, who is very interested in who uses 'structure' to refer to what we (British people, I guess there might be variation but I don't know about it) would call a multi-storey (or underground) car park. A 'parking lot' is just a 'car park'.

This is lazy. It would be the easiest thing in the world for Google to translate 'restroom' to 'toilet'. It's not like it doesn't know. I included the 'travelers' one here too because I just felt that it struck slightly the wrong note. I think the word 'travellers' is too associated with the Traveller community (Gypsy or Romany people) and I would use 'tourists' in this context.

Some of the questions reveal differences in the kinds of places people might want to go. One of the questions asked me,
Does this place offer an all-you-can-drink option?
I think the last time I was somewhere with an all-you-can-drink option, with the exception of package holiday type places, was the Tuxedo Princess, a nightclub on a boat in Newcastle, where you paid a tenner entry and could drink rubbish alcopops all night. It's not really a thing in normal places. Similarly, another common question is this:
Does this place offer musical entertainment as well as dinner?
Apart from being a difficult question to answer because of the presupposition that it does offer dinner (how do you answer this about a place that offers musical entertainment but not dinner?), I don't think that dinner-plus-music is much of a thing. I certainly have never searched for it nor seen it offered as a tempting prospect anywhere except for a hideously old-fashioned restaurant that has since closed down.

Other questions, like the one above, pose problems because of the way they're asked. Take this one:
Does this place only serve vegetarian food? 
I was asked it about a pub that doesn't do food. So technically, it doesn't only serve vegetarian food, and the answer is 'no'. But that implies that it does do non-vegetarian food, as 'only' implies a sub-set of all kinds of food.

Then, take this one:
Can you drink outside on the street here? 
Well, at this pub that doesn't do food, no, you can't drink outside on the street. But it does have a really nice, big beer garden. Are people that ask this question just interested in drinking on the street, or do they more generally want to know if they can drink outdoors? That's another question, so I've been answering this literally, but I'm not sure it's the most useful thing to ask.

My favourite kind of question is the ones about weirdly specific products at random shops. I was asked of Morrison's (a low-end supermarket):
Can you get carpets here? 
And I was asked of Aldi (a cheap European supermarket):
Can you get macarons here? 
I... don't know. I suppose sometimes people ask where they can buy macarons or carpets and that translates, via algorithm, into a question for me.

Monday, 11 December 2017

They's using singular verbs as well now

There's been a bit of a flurry of discussion about the use of pronouns for nonbinary people in linguist twitter lately, because of a blog post by the well-known Geoff Pullum on the well-known platform Language Log (so, a person using their position of power and privilege to complain about something that is far less onerous than constantly being misgendered). Kirby Conrod has written a good response and it was posted on Language Log, so no need to add my own comments here, especially as I'm cisgender and so don't really have anything to contribute to the debate.

What has been interesting to me is something that I hadn't seen before: people using they+3rd person singular verb, so They is joining us later. I would have always assumed that singular they took the unmarked verb form, same as all the other pronouns apart from the third person singular he, she and it, and crucially, the same as the plural they. Then the verb form follows the pronoun form, and in this sense it's the same as you, which takes the same form in singular and plural. Similarly, in German the polite form of you is identical to they and takes the same verb forms. Using the -s form, is, is logical if we think that verb form is attached to the semantic (person and) number, rather than just the form of the verb, so it shouldn't be so surprising, but nevertheless I was surprised by it. I think we haven't settled down on this yet, so I will watch developments with interest.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

I'm literally lowkey a telly star now

I was on the telly recently! It may just have been the local station, but it's a start. Media stardom beckons! If you want to watch it, it's here.

It's a funny thing, being asked to talk about some research that's not your own and that you may not have actually read (as I hadn't, in this case). I was talking about what the papers had been calling 'gradable adverbs'. As I attempted to explain, it's the adjectives that are gradable and the adverbs that do the grading, so you can describe something as hideously old or bizarrely purple. We are apparently, says a linguist from Lancaster with a book to promote, using less of these and this shows we're becoming more confrontational. Furthermore, this is something we are learning from the Americans. Ding ding ding, all the boxes ticked for a news story: language is fundamentally changing, it reflects a deep and sweeping cultural change, American English is ruining our language.

I haven't read the original research, as I say, so I don't know how much of this Paul Baker actually says. I also couldn't really comment on the veracity of British usage following US usage by around 30 years. But I could say that we definitely are not losing all our adverbs, and it definitely can't be ascribed to us becoming more confrontational. I did agree with my interviewer that the words we are losing are the 'posh' ones (frightfully, awfully and so on), and there is, I'm sure, a link between your desire to sound posh and how direct your attitude is.

But we've got LOADS of these adverbs. We use them all the time. Kind of and sort of and a bit are pretty common, as is pretty, really, etc. They go in and out of fashion. You can check corpora, as Baker did, to find out what ones were preferred in a certain type of text at a certain point in history, and you can do other kinds of searches of online corpora to find out what's going on right now.

Two that I really wanted to mention and didn't manage to are literally and lowkey.

I can't believe that all the papers missed the chance to moan about literally as well, and can only assume that (as evidenced by them using the meaningless phrase 'gradable adverb') that they don't really know what an adverb is so didn't realise that it is one. Anyway; it is.

Literally gets a lot of column inches (or whatever the online equivalent is). People get upset because other people use it as an intensifier rather than using it to mean what they think it should mean. Other better people than me have written about why worrying about this is a fruitless activity, and why the peevers aren't using the literal meaning anyway (=to do with letters) and the slackers aren't using it figuratively (go on, try it - try replacing literally with figuratively. It won't make sense because that's not what it means) so I won't try. But what it is is an intensifier, exactly like what Baker says we are losing, although it's a bit more versatile in terms of its syntax. So there's one more new one we can all adopt.

Lowkey is not so familiar to me; I've never heard it in the wild, I don't think. I've seen it written, online, so it's obviously used by people outside my own social circle (=young people, probably). Gretchen McCulloch has written about it and gives some examples. It means kinda, so it's a 'downtoner' of the kind Baker also says we are losing. There's something more going on, I think, as one of Gretchen's examples has it combined with an intensifier af (= as fuck):
When you're lowkey sad af but trying not to care
But there's another one. We've got tons of these. Come on, people. Use your adverbs. Those adjectives need grading!

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Picking up your litter is dangerous

Right, here's the other post I promised yesterday. The other litter-related sign I saw said this:
Picking up your litter puts road workers' lives at risk. 
This time, it's not ellipsis that causes the ambiguity, as it was in my previous post. Rather, it's a choice between two people who are doing the picking up:
You picking up your litter puts road workers' lives at risk.
Them [road workers] picking up your litter puts road workers' lives at risk.
And also unlike yesterday, it's clear which one is meant here. There's not any obvious way that you picking up your own litter puts anyone else's life at risk; it's a good thing and you should do it. On the other hand, a road worker having to dash out into the traffic to pick up your crisp packet is a danger to that person.

This is another example of ambiguity in the reference of a pronoun, just like yesterday. But in this case, it's the invisible pronoun that linguists call 'PRO' (pronounced 'big pro', to distinguish it from 'little pro', which is a similar but different invisible pronoun). It's the subject of the clause picking up your litter, which has a gerund form of the verb in it (the -ing form). When you have that, you can have a subject which isn't pronounced (PRO) and gets its meaning (reference) from something else in the surrounding discourse context.

If something is the topic of the sentence, that's likely to be what's assumed to be the meaning of PRO, but other things are also relevant, like where the other possible referents are in the sentence, and what kinds of things they are (e.g. litter is not a likely candidate to be picking itself up here, for many reasons!). Shameless plug: you can read some actual research by me and my colleague Vikki (mostly her) here, on a related subject, and we cite a load of previous research that you can look up if you like.

In my sign, the road workers are the topic (well, their lives are, but you also need to be an animate creature to pick up litter). 'You', the reader, are also an option, because your litter is in there too. It's also closer in the sentence to the PRO that needs a meaning, which counts for something, but a strong combination of the road workers being both the topic and the more sensible meaning ensures that no one would read it and think that PRO meant you. Except me. I thought that. That's why I wrote this whole blog post about it.