Monday, 31 October 2011

14 punctuation marks that you never knew existed

I did know that some of them existed, actually. The full list is here. It's an annoyingly ad-full page but worth persevering with to learn that marks like these exist (comments are from the original site, not mine):

Because Sign

Because Sign
This one's so cool. It's like the "Therefore" sign, but upside-down, and it means because.

Exclamation Comma

Exclamation Comma
Just because you're excited about something doesn't mean you have to end the sentence.


Hedera is Latin for ivy. Why that is relevant here is not very clear at all, but this little glyph was used back in the day to mark paragraph breaks. Seems like it was probably really hard and annoying to draw, but it looks nice.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Setting exam questions

My job for today is to set exam questions for my portion of a first-year module. I'm in charge of the phonology bit (lord knows why) so I need ten reasonably easy exam questions on phonological transcription, stress, intonation, assimilation, etc. It's hard to know what they will find far too easy or far too hard, so I'm trying to vary the difficulty a bit. They're made easy by virtue of the fact that it's an online exam, so they're all either multiple choice or short answer. I won't put them on here, for obvious reasons (I don't think any of my students read my blog, but you never know, and that might cause a rather sticky situation...).

Saturday, 29 October 2011

'All the protagonists'?

When I was young I liked to learn facts about language. I was also a smug little git so what I liked best of all was to learn a fact that would allow me to say to people 'You're using that word wrongly'.

I'm still a smug little git but now I know that this is prescriptivism and a Bad Thing. Linguists try to avoid it, and instead describe language usage As She Really Is. For this reason, I've decided to revisit a prescriptive usage that I remember learning as a small child. This was an extra-special one for me, because it involved knowing the  etymology of a word and applying it to modern usage, and this is always a good way to make people feel stupid. (What, you don't know classical Greek? You utter ignoramus.) Yeah, I was insufferable. 

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Really quite shocking grammar fails

Really, it's astonishing what errors you can find on printed material. In many cases it shows a real lack of any care at all. Take this photo:
It's a poster for the Xmas party nights on at Newcastle City Hall. This is a local government poster, then, which goes some way towards explaining it; it was almost certainly made by someone with inadequate training, low salary and even less interest in doing it well.

Let's look at what's wrong with it.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Active voice allows speaker to hide agency

People often get over-excited about politicians using the 'passive voice' to hide their errors. There was an example of just this in last week's Fry's Planet Word, when Armando Iannucci (the famous linguist....oh no wait, he's a comedy writer) said that politicians say things like
Mistakes were made
and he, much amused and outraged, hooted
By who?
OK, that is a terrible way to apologise for anything, and it doesn't fool anyone. If people even say that kind of thing any more they're idiots. But the point is that it's not the passive that causes agency (the person who did the thing) to be hidden - you can easily say
The cakes for this week's charity sale were all eaten by me, and I'm very sorry.
Geoff Pullum has ranted about this much more extensively and accurately than I can, and he has myriad examples of stupidity. So on to the topical bit.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Learn to type

I don't know if they teach typing in school these days, in the same way we used to be taught handwriting (and hopefully children still are!). If they don't they definitely should, because it's not something you just pick up, as is evident from the zillions of two-finger typists.

As a PhD student I type a lot, either emails and web browsing or actual writing of text documents. And I spend a fair amount of my leisure time typing too, doing things like write this blog. Furthermore, I (and many other people) need to type for my job - when I used to work for a talking newspaper, much of the day was spent typing articles to record later.

I can type quite adequately for my purposes. I just tested my speed and I got 59wpm, which is just in the range of 'average professional typist' (50-80wpm) according to Wikipedia. But this wasn't always the case: when I started working for the talking newspaper I was another two-finger typist. I was actually really quick, and Wikipedia tells me that such typists can reach 60-70wpm in bursts, but I was always aware that I could be better, and it would be faster and more comfortable.

One day, I can't really remember why, I googled free online typing course and just picked one, and have never looked back. It took me about two hours to complete the course, and it was probably the most useful two hours I've ever spent. I urge you to do the same if you're like me. Do the course as slow as you like - I wanted to get maximum gains in as little time as possible, but I could have been more thorough. But do it, because the time it saves you and the difference it makes to your writing is astonishing.

It's not just the increase in speed and accuracy, either. If you can touch-type, you don't have to be looking at the keyboard the whole time so you can focus on what you're actually writing. And secondly, if you can type quickly and without real conscious effort, you can concentrate on the content instead of thinking about where the next key is.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Please rejobulate me

This completely amazing letter comes to you from Letters of Note via Language Log.
This poor chap was violently dejobbed in a twinkling, and he is very bewifed and much childrenised! He hopes that he will be rejobulated with as much alacrity as may be compatible with [the recipient's] personal safety. How could you refuse?

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Reanalysis of cheese as an adjective

My brother-in-law (sort of - my partner's brother) sent me a text recently that included the name of a type of a squeezy cheese that comes in a tube, called Primula. It looks like this (this is one that - bizarrely - has prawns in it):

He was texting to tell me that his cat likes it, if you're interested. There's no accounting for taste, I suppose.

Anyway, point is, he spelt it Primular. (He has a non-rhotic accent, being from North-East England so it sounds the same as the actual brand name.)

So is this spelling error due to the reanalysis of the name Primula as an adjective, primular? Would it be a type of cheese, primular cheese? I wonder what it means. It sounds a bit like rectangular, regular, circular; I wonder if it's to do with the shape?

Perhaps it's more linked to primary, and it is the supreme squeezy cheese, the squeezy cheese above all other squeezy cheeses. I wouldn't know, as there is no way in the world I'm going to eat that.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Chinese show movement of travel right to left, and email is becoming unmarked

Just two things that I've noticed today, with no real comment added.

First, my attention has just been drawn by Valdemar over at The Door in the Wall to a blog called Ministry of Tofu. It covers all sorts of Chinese issues, and is written in an absolutely adorable style with ever-so-slightly misused metaphors and so on. For instance, in a story about a hitch-hiking student, a driver "let him into the truck with a grain of salt". Lovely.

Anyway, what struck me was this image of the student's journey. Simple enough graphic, but as the text explains, he started on the right and ended on the left. I find that to be the wrong way round, and presume that the difference is due to Chinese writing going the other way from English.

Secondly, I was looking for a contact address (postal) for a company. These things are hard to find on the company's website, so I Googled it. In a forum someone else was asking the same thing, for "an address" for the company, and they were given the postal address. They replied with thanks but said that they would prefer an email. So they meant email address when they said simply address. Normally I've found that to be the case only when the context of online communication is clear, not generally. So this is an interesting new development in what the unmarked sense of the word is. For me, it's still postal (I would use email if I wanted an email address) but for this person, email address has become the unmarked sense of address. The times they are a-changin', as Dylan is probably saying to himself as he reads this.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Texes? New plurals in English

I'm having some trouble with my mobile phone tariff at the moment, and I rang up the other day to ask how it's going. The woman I spoke to in the call centre had an accent from south-east England; let's say it was a London accent, though I can't really tell the difference between accents down there. She told me that she had added some texts on to my account, but she pronounced the word something like /'teksɪz/.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Word count shock - higher than expected

It's been a while since I've done a post about word counts. Since I moved here from Tumblr I've tried to be, you know, interesting, so there's been fewer posts about the trials of writing a PhD (which is what this blog began life as).

However, this new development is so shocking that it merits a post. I recently compiled all my comments on all my drafts, and taking a tip from Monica Macaulay's excellent Surviving Linguistics (for some reason not easy to get hold of anywhere but from the publisher), I printed them out and filed them. While doing this I added up all the word counts and it came to.... 37,774. This is astonishing, considering I would have said I had around 20,000, so I'm pretty chuffed with myself. However, I now have to write the other 40-odd thousand, so perhaps I should stop congratulating myself and get on with it.

Monday, 10 October 2011

SFTY1ST in the N.T.

Superlinguo over at Tumblr has posted a list of number plates that police cars in Australia's Northern Territory will carry to promote road safety. Superlinguo says: 
You’ve gotta admit, these winners have used incredibly creative word combinations to create a message within a seven-character limit.
How many can you decipher? How does your brain deal with the lack of spaces, case markings and vowels?

•    INDIC8
•    NO2DUI
•    COPPA
•    N4SIR
•    BSAFE
•    YDUI
•    BSAFEM8
•    SBRBOB*
•    NO*BUZE
•    WATCHIN  
* We’ll give you a hint with this one, because we found it a bit obscure and had to look it up: Sober Bob is a long-running campaign by the Northern Territory police to discourage drink driving by urging people to organise their ride home before they go drinking, i.e. nominating a ‘Sober Bob’ option early, to make sure they get home safe.Thanks to Alice Springs resident Emily for forwarding us the list.
It's easy enough to work out what most of them mean, though doing it at speed with only a brief glance at the plate might prove harder (MYISONU would be particularly tough). Some of them are also more effective than others.

I especially like CLKCLAK, which I imagine is the equivalent of our 'clunk click' slogan, meant to represent the sound of a seatbelt buckle. That's a much better message than BUCKLUP or BELTUP, which are just simple instructions. CLKCLAK works because it's memorable, sticks in your head and you know immediately what it means.

Another personal favourite is BSAFEM8, perfectly reflecting the Australian dialect. Nowhere else in the world would you call anyone and everyone 'mate', especially from a policeman to a member of the public. We do have 'mate' as a generic term of address in the UK, though usually more among men, and in this case it's fine to use it with a stranger if you're both on an equal footing socially. It would be just about possible for a policeman to say it to someone they didn't know, but it would be for a reason, like if they wanted to calm them down and make themself more approachable. It can't be used as universally as it can in Australian English.

And finally, those SBRBOB and SOBABOB ones. As the note says, they're referring to a character called Sober Bob. What interests me is that there are two spellings, one reflecting a rhotic (r-pronouncing) pronunciation of 'sober' (SBR) and one not (SOBA). I think Australian English is generally non-rhotic, so I wonder if there are some varieties that are rhotic, or whether it's simply because of the spelling, and the R is not intended to be pronounced.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Original OED

The Oxford English Dictionary celebrated its centenary a while ago, and to commemorate it they published this limited edition print run of the first edition, from 1911.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary: The Classic First Edition

There's a nice blog post here about the differences between then and now, which as always make for a fun read. While it's quite nice to learn about the words that haven't made it this far (marconigram, kinematograph and so on), my favourite thing is the style of the older edition. It seems so quaint nowadays.

A terrier, for instance, is a
kind of active & hardy dog with digging propensity
And to greet is to
accost with salutation
And relatedly, the blog post notes that while the OED defined cancan simply as 'indecent dance', Percy Scholes, editor of the first Oxford Companion to Music (1938), wrote that
Its exact nature is unknown to anyone connected with this Companion.
Quite right too.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Shallow Fry

Heh. The post title is a reference to Stephen Fry, so I will now probably receive hate mail for daring to criticise the sainted National Treasure. In his defence, before we start, he didn't write Fry's Planet Word, but he did put his name to it so he has to answer for it.

The programme mentioned above is a BBC2 series currently running, on language. The second episode is the one linked to above, and the first episode is here. I think the first episode was better, actually, but both have the same good and bad points. I'll begin with what's good about these programmes.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Elephants yell 'Bees!'

I don't have anything to add to this Language Log post on the news that elephants have an alarm call for bees. I just like the idea of elephants yelling 'BEES!' when they see bees. Apparently African bees are one of the few things that are dangerous to elephants (these are presumably the terrifying African killer bees that they every now and then tell us are headed for the UK). The bees can sting them round the trunk and eyes and as they travel and attack in swarms, can be very dangerous indeed. Elephants (African ones only, of course) have a specific alarm call that means 'BEES!'. Or possibly 'BEES!! Run away, run away!!'