Friday, 30 December 2011

The importance of apostrophe's

Yes - I know. It's a deliberate mistake.

Anyway, this is a screenshot from something on TV (via Tony Tooke):

As you can see, this shop offers rabbits eggs for 2/4 (that's two shillings and fourpence) a dozen.

I'm joking, of course, clearly there is no such thing. They can't possibly be selling them because if they were, it would read rabbits' eggs. Of course. I mean, the ability of grocers to use apostrophes appropriately is widely known and noted.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Bad signage again

I was in Durham for a conference at the weekend and saw this sign on the room where some of the talks were held:

It advises that no food is to be consumed or taken into the lecture room. But if we followed the instructions is gives accurately, we'd starve to death. 

Co-ordination does cause problems, and it's one of those things that people actually aren't very good at getting right. Ewa Dąbrowska, who gave a paper at the conference, has shown that adults, especially those with lower levels of education, can do very badly on tests involving passives and quantifiers. Given sentences like every dog is in a basket or every basket has a dog in it and pictures to match up, they get it wrong a lot of the time. Co-ordination is a different thing, as it's a purely grammatical task rather than a meaning comprehension task, but as I say, people get it wrong a lot. 

So if you're trying to co-ordinate something, the rest of the sentence needs to be grammatical with respect to both parts. If you say Joseph and Mary travelled to Bethlehem, then it is grammatical to leave either co-ordinated part out: 
Joseph and Mary travelled to Bethlehem.
Joseph and Mary travelled to Bethlehem.
Let's do the same with the sign. We need to identify our co-ordinated phrases first:
No food to be [consumed] or [taken into the lecture room].
Now the deletion:
No food to be consumed or taken into the lecture room.
No food to be consumed or taken into the lecture room.
Oh dear. Now we have been instructed not to consume food. At all. Let's try re-bracketing our constituents. Perhaps what's co-ordinated is this:
No food to be [consumed] or [taken] into the lecture room.
Let's try deletion again:
No food to be consumed or taken into the lecture room.
*No food to be consumed or taken into the lecture room.
Oh dear. Now it's not grammatical. We can't say consumed into the lecture room. Another co-ordination fail - add it to the list. I don't know why people don't just keep it simple and say Don't eat in the lecture room

Monday, 19 December 2011

Astonishingly bad scholarship from Creationists

Before I begin, this post is about bad scholarship. It's not an attack on Creationism (although I do disagree with every single thing about Creationism, that's not what this blog is about).

So another thing I was reading in that Dawkins book struck me. (It's been a mine of interesting facts - he writes interestingly but he doesn't always realise his aim, I don't think. He's looking to prove evolution to doubters, and so I've been reading it as if I were such a person, and there's not a hope in hell of me being convinced. He goes into great detail in some parts and then in others skips over vital facts. If I were an evolution-denier I'd be seizing those parts with glee.)

Anyway, he mentions that in The Blind Watchmaker he gives this line:
It is as though [the fossilised remains of lots of major animal phyla in the Cambrian era] were just planted there, without any evolutionary history.
Oh, Richard. Really? How naif of you not to realise how foolish that was. Anyway, so he says that Creationists have quoted this line many times, without quoting the following line:
Evolutionists of all stripes believe, however, that this really does represent a very large gap in the fossil record.
This is an example of how you must NOT do quotations. In my job as a writing tutor I see lots of students unsure of how to quote people properly. I might use this as a how-not-to-quote lesson. The absolute golden rule is that you must not misrepresent anyone's words. So, for instance, it's not OK to give this quotation:
Bailey (2010) argues that "Dairy Milk is... the best chocolate bar"
if this is the original:
"Dairy Milk is not the best chocolate bar"
And likewise, it is not OK to quote a sentence out of context if doing so would cause it to be interpreted to mean something other than what the author intended. It's quite clear here that Dawkins did not mean to say that the fossils have no evolutionary history, and so he shouldn't be quoted as appearing to say that. Not all Creationists would condone such behaviour, of course, and it's not only Creationists who do bad scholarship. But this is really an extreme example of staggeringly bad form.

Friday, 16 December 2011

They almost literally never collide

Richard Dawkins said (in The greatest show on earth) of starlings,
They almost literally never collide. 
It struck me as an odd word order to use. Surely it should be
They literally almost never collide.
What's modifying what here? Well, in Dawkins' sentence (let's label it A), almost is modifying literally:
They [[almost literally] never] collide
He means that they rarely collide; he can't say that they literally never collide, but never is used in an almost literal sense here. OK, makes sense.

Or is it that almost modifies literally never?:
They [almost [literally never]] collide
That second one seems odd to me. I don't think it's possible for that to be the structure - I can't even quite see what it would mean. So it's the first then, with literally qualified by almost, and the whole constituent modifying never. The birds, in their massive flocks, are very good at not colliding. It's not quite true to say that they literally never collide, but they almost literally never do. Ignoring the fact that this is a slightly hyperbolic and quite superfluous use of literally, it's perfectly sound.

But if he had written sentence B instead, the modificational relations are clear: as we can't say that literally can modify almost, literally modifies the constituent almost never.
They [literally [almost never]] collide. 
Literally is used, as it so often is, for emphasis: he means they almost never collide, and he means that literally. He's not exaggerating. They really do almost never collide.

Syntactically, both are OK. Stylistically, I know which I prefer.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Lucky me

I'm back on facebook. I finally made the decision to go back on Tuesday, after a gruelling start to the week made me realise it was the right thing to do.

First, on Monday I had my first meeting with my supervisors in MONTHS. It was a scary prospect, actually, even though they are lovely people and not scary at all. I was suddenly forced to face up to the fact that I had NO work to show for the whole summer and no excuse for that. This led me to conclusion 1: Being off-facebook since June has not increased my productivity.

Then a series of nice things happened to lead me to conclusion 2: Social support will help me finish my PhD.

Before the meeting I took advantage of Friend M who very kindly allowed me to whinge to her and comforted me.

After the meeting I had lunch with a bunch of nice people for Friend A's birthday, after which Friend A sent me a really nice text message telling me to keep my chin up and all would be well.

The next day I had lunch with Friends K and D, during which they took my mind off work, and Friend K reassured me and Friend D made me laugh.

And I would just like to add that I have the best supervisors ever. My first supervisor sent me a nice email on Monday night to remind me that I'm totes the most awesome ever. Or words to that effect. I think it was actually that my research area is cutting edge, but whatever.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Chinese 'yellow, gambling, poison' on Language Log

What on earth is the meaning of this sign?

I had no idea, so I asked just that question of Victor Mair over at Language Log, and he obliged by answering it speedily and fully.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Language trumps race

Young children see language as a more salient factor than race in determining identity, it seems.

A study from the University of Chicago asked groups of children aged 5-6 and 9-10 to do a matching task. They were shown images like the one below and asked which adult the child would grow up to be.
I think you and I would pick the man on the left, as we know that it's fairly likely that a white child will grow up to be a white man, and skin colour changes in later life are relatively rare. OK, he's speaking a different language, but maybe he moved to France or whatever. The 9-10-year-old kids agreed with us and matched the same pair.

But the younger children matched the boy with the black man, who speaks the same language as the child. How odd. Katherine Kinzler, the lead author of the study, says:
From a child’s perspective, language offers many of the characteristics of a biologically determined or inherited category. Children usually speak the same language as their families, and they likely do not remember the time as infants that they spent learning a native language.
They've found that accent and language are really important to kids (which I guess we knew) and this shows that a person's language is even more important than their race to a young child. So, would this be different for black Americans, to whom race is important because they early on have to learn that lots of people are racist bastards? Yes, it would. When groups of black children were given the same test, the younger ones matched according to race, not language, just like the older children. How sad. 

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

The perils of international trade

I read a really nice piece in the Bangkok Post this week (yeah, I'm global). It was written by an Australian, as far as I can gather from the textual clues, who has been living in Thailand for 22 years. This, I think, makes him qualified to comment on Thai matters with an authoritative outsider's point of view. His article concerns the pronunciation of companies when they open branches in Thailand. Ikea is the business he discusses, and how many Thai people have begun saying it as 'ickier'. The writer suggests a possible reason for this:

The answer lies in the ''I'' at the beginning of the word. In Thai, a short sharp ''I'' is a derogatory way of describing somebody. If you didn't like me, for example, you can call me ''I-Andrew'' with a scowl, though not to my face because it's very rude. I am guessing Ikea sounds like a rude way of referring to a person by the name of ''Kea''.

But some companies have fared a lot worse in the name-mangling stakes. Volvo, for instance:
First, there is no ''v'' in Thai, so they replace it with a ''w''. Second, the final sound of a syllable in Thai cannot end in ''l'', so ''Vol'' becomes ''Wonn''. And so Volvo becomes Wonn-wor.
Thai is, actually, a language with a very different phonology from English so pronunciation is hard in both directions. My Thai friends are too polite to laugh at me when I try to do it, but they can't quite hide their amusement.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Learnt vs learned

Mr T likes to get his grammar and spelling all correct when he writes facebook posts, so he checks things he's not sure about. Last night he suddenly realised he didn't know what the difference was between learnt and learned (as the past tense form of the verb learn). He googled it, and after a few dictionary entries, one of my posts was on the first page of hits. He was quite frankly astonished: of all the blogs in all the world, he had to google across mine.

I'm really pleased about that, but surprised. Does that mean that it's only me using the word learnt? I can't believe it's just me and the dictionaries. It looks like it's used more in the UK than in the US, which would explain a big lack of it on the internet. Still, there must be other British bloggers out there. For the record, either is completely acceptable and there is no preference for either in terms of formality or 'correctness'. I use learnt mostly just because that's what's in my idiolect. But if I were to justify it, well, I like it better. I like irregular verbs, I think they're pretty. And they often have something to reveal about language.

Steven Pinker, in his Words and Rules, notes the unusual fact that the 'default' (i.e. regular) plural suffix in German is -s, despite the fact that it's nowhere near the most common plural marker. He argues this on account of the fact that it's the suffix chosen for nonce words and proper names, which aren't normally pluralised. In English, although we spell our regular past tense suffixes -ed, there are actually three: /d/, /t/ and /ɪd/. I wonder if one could argue that the default one is /t/, based on the fact that it surfaces in such forms as learnt, dreamt and sent.

Furthermore, if we stopped using these irregular past tense forms, we'd lost interesting facts like this one: dreamt is the only word in English to end in the letter combination mt (apart from derived forms like daydreamt).

Monday, 5 December 2011

Kitchen tells you how to cook in French

There's an article in the Guardian about a kitchen that talks to you in French and tells you how to make French dishes. I've actually seen this kitchen, as it's at my university. I haven't used it but I understand it's very impressive. It also has accelerometers in all the equipment (the things inside an iphone) so it knows if you've stirred onions when it told you to chop carrots. Brilliant idea, and I hope it become more widespread.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Very bad Latin joke

A gentleman, having ordered a meal at a fine London restaurant, decided that he would like some wine to accompany his meal. So he summoned the wine steward and asked for a bottle of hock.

"Hock, sir?" asked the steward.

"Yes, hock, man. You know: hic, hunc, huius, huic, hoc."

"Hmm ... very good, sir."

The food duly arrived, but without the wine. This perturbed the gentleman slightly, as he was accustomed to a higher standard of service. He began to dine, and at the next opportunity he beckoned the steward again.

"Didn't I order a bottle of hock?"

"Yes, sir, you did - but then you declined it."

(From this extremely comprehensive and knowledgeable page of Latin phrases.)