Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Is Coldplay singular or plural?

A good example of the variation permitted between singular and plural for semantically plural but grammatically singular entities like bands in (British) English:

Here we have 'offends' with the singular agreement, and in the very same sentence the plural verb 'are' (contracted to 're).

We also have a pronoun 'they' which can be used for both singular and plural referents, at least in colloquial usage and probably in many formal registers too. However, it's prescriptively plural, and this can affect its usage in funny ways. For instance, it's unusual to hear 'themself' and spellcheckers don't allow it, even when referring to a singular antecedent in a sentence like 'a student has left their file here. They'll be kicking themselves later'.

It's impossible (for me, at least) to refer to a band as 'it'. This is a bit surprising seeing as a band can be singular, as noted above. I don't know the reason for this. But it means that we have to use 'they' and we have a singular verb 'offends' in the tweet above, followed by the frequently singular 'they', followed by the plural 'are', all of which should be one or the other. But because at no point is there a mismatch between two adjacent items, the long distance mismatch comes out just about ok. 'They' mediates between the singular and plural verbs and both are deceived into thinking they're in the right number form.

Friday, 21 December 2012

What came upon a midnight clear?

On Thursday, Jeremy Paxman asked this question in the Christmas university challenge: 'according to the carol, what came upon a midnight clear?'. Stephen Bayley, who as my parents noted made a bit of a tit of himself otherwise, correctly said 'it'. This was not accepted as the right answer, however. What Paxman wanted was 'that glorious song of old'. Here's the lyrics:
It came upon a midnight clear,
That glorious song of old
'That glorious song of old' is, in fact, the understood subject of the preceding clause. But it's extraposed (put outside) and the grammatical subject is 'it'. 'It' stands in here for a subject that is too long or (in this case) doesn't scan in the usual subject position.

Harsh, Paxo, very harsh.

UPDATE [23/12/12]: One of the twitterlinguists, @drswissmiss, pointed out the following:
And she is, of course, correct. As I was typing the post I was thinking about the status of it - and one thing it isn't is an expletive. An expletive subject is something that English (among other languages) does when it just needs to fill in a gap. If you take a suitably seasonal verb like snow, then in Italian you can say nevica, 'snows', whereas in English you need to say 'it snows'. What snows? Nothing snows, and the Italian reflects that by not requiring a subject. English has this thing that it has to have a subject, so it bungs in this meaningless filler it. There does the same job in There's no easy way to say this, and you can check: it's not felicitous to ask 'Where's no easy way to say this?', so you're clearly not referring to a place when you say there.

But in the carol, something did come upon a midnight clear: the glorious song of old. So it is not an expletive it, it's a referential pronoun (i.e. a pronoun that refers to an actual thing rather than being a filler). That's why I called it extraposition in the original post. But that's not the full story. Because it does refer to the noun phrase 'that glorious song of old', we can say that it is co-referential with it (it refers to the same thing in the world). This is right-dislocation (putting some noun to the right of where it would normally be). When you do right-dislocation, you leave behind a pronoun to fulfil the grammatical requirements of the language (English's afore-mentioned need for a subject of some kind) and to point you in the right direction to get to the real subject.

You can also get left dislocation, which is pretty common. In some of the Romance languages it's called clitic left dislocation because the noun is moved to the front and a 'clitic' (a kind of pronoun which has certain special properties) is in the place where the noun 'should' be. Here's Spanish (example from Karlos Arregi's paper here):

Estos libros, Juan los leyĆ³ ayer.
These books, Juan read them yesterday (literally 'Juan them read'). 
The object of the verb is estos libros 'these books', but it's fronted. This often has the effect of making the noun into a topic or the focus of the sentence. In English we usually do this to contrast with something else ('these books he read, but those other ones he hasn't started'), but in Romance languages it's used for more purposes. Some languages, known as topic-prominent languages and including many (or all?) sign languages, put the topic of every sentence at the beginning (usually without a clitic though) simply to indicate that it is the topic of the sentence.

Back to the carol. I don't actually know enough about the syntax of dislocation to say whether the dislocated noun phrase is 'really' the subject of the clause. There is some evidence that the pronoun and the noun phrase are connected in this type of construction: for instance, if the language has case inflections on nouns, they may have the same case ending. (Non-linguists, move on to the next sentence; for linguists, here's a thesis chapter arguing that the pronoun in Czech left dislocation is a spelled out copy of the dislocated element.) OK, non-linguists, back in the room.

To settle this question once and for all, I'm going to refer to playground logic:
'Antidisestablishment' is a very long word. How do you spell it?
Answer: I T.  

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Thoughts on semantics

Today was the final lecture in my semantics module. There's still an assignment to mark, but apart from that I'm all done with it for this year.

I've had a good time teaching it, even though it was a lot of work. It was the first course I've taught at this university so I didn't know what the students would be like in terms of their knowledge, ability or motivation, and that makes a huge difference to what you can do with them. Some of them had done a module in their first year that introduced them to semantics, but others had done nothing at all, so we basically started from scratch. I soon found that the students were quite highly motivated to learn and to understand the material, and they've been good at grasping new ideas and thinking about them properly. This makes the course so much easier to teach and so much more fun as well.

The module was a sort of introduction to various aspects of formal semantics, using Kearns (2011) as a starting point and supplementing where appropriate. Given that most students doing English Language degrees didn't sign up for the kind of thing we make them do in formal linguistics (they almost all come from an arts background), you can't tell how they're going to react to mathematical stuff like operators and functions. We didn't get too heavily into all that, but we did cover the basics, and they liked it! Or at least didn't hate it. Some comments from today's lecture were that they were pleased that they can now write logical expressions using these operators for sentences of English. They're proud of themselves and rightly so.

Monday, 3 December 2012


Aw, look, I just noticed this reference to 'person-in-charge' on my fire safety instructions.

What a cute construction.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Footballers' Foreign Accent Syndrome?

You might have seen that Joey Barton has been filmed speaking English in what sounds very much like a French accent (he's playing for a French team at the moment). It's hilarious, obvs, and gives us all another chance to snigger at Steve McLaren, who spoke English with a Dutch accent when he went to the Netherlands.

We can ask why they might do this. It's likely to be at least partly because they're surrounded by other people speaking English with a French or Dutch accent. This is especially true for McLaren, living in a country where everyone speaks English, but also for Barton, because in the football world there are so many players from all over the world I imagine English is something of a lingua franca in the dressing room. They're bound to be a little bit affected by this and pick up something of the accent.

Another factor is probably that they both have fairly strong regional accents (Merseyside for Barton, and something that sounds like Yorkshire for McLaren), and they will have made an effort to speak more slowly and clearly to non-native speakers. They are therefore not speaking in a completely natural way, and might pick up different mannerisms accordingly.

You know what else we might ask? Are they really speaking in French/Dutch accents at all, that's what. There's a condition called 'foreign accent syndrome', usually a result of brain damage, which causes a person to speak in what sounds like a foreign accent. Family members may be convinced that the sufferer has a New York, Eastern European or Chinese accent, and this can cause problems: one woman in Norway had great difficulties when she began speaking in a German accent in the 1940s. However, it's not actually a specific foreign accent, but simply difficulty in speaking. The accent is never one that listeners are very familiar with, and this is crucial. The brain damage can cause particular problems with speech, which the listener hears as some or other accent. Wikipedia suggests that an American who normally has a rhotic accent (pronounces the 'r' sounds in car park) might have difficulty pronouncing 'r' and therefore omit it. This might sound like a Boston accent to a listener because non-rhoticity is a very salient feature of a stereotypical Boston accent. So is there some other feature of their speech that we're hearing as a foreign accent?

I've had a listen to both, and what follows is entirely unscientific speculation and waffle. You can very definitely hear their original accents in both cases. What is noticeable to me is that they both use very few contractions, saying we are instead of we're, for instance. They also speak slowly, perhaps as a result of the afore-mentioned concession to non-native speakers or possibly even interpreters, in the case of Barton's press conference. I think that some of the filler sounds Barton uses do seem a bit French, but that's because the vowel sounds used in er and similar noises are different from the standard southern English er, and it might well be the same as is used in Merseyside er. Likewise for some of the vowels in his words. His intonation and prosody sound quite Frenchified too: his fairly constant stress placement, for instance, differentiates French from English quite markedly. But it could also be a result of slower speech than he's used to. The frequent final rising intonation he uses is a feature of a Merseyside accent but might well sound French if one was listening in the expectation of hearing one.

I'm just not convinced there's much in it. I think that a combination of some minor changes in their accent and a bit of pareidolia on the listeners' part has made this into something more than it is. One case of foreign accent syndrome involved a woman who went from Geordie to Jamaican, French Canadian, Italian or Slovak. Those are not similar to each other, and there is known (among Geordies, at least) to be some similarity between Geordie and Jamaican. As further evidence, this video is of McLaren supposedly speaking with a Dutch accent, and many of the commenters hear only unremarkable 'northern English'. You make your own mind up.

Wikipedia has this to say on Barton's case, though probably not for much longer:
Barton is now currently under examination by medical professionals and although they are uncertain, the cause of Barton's condition is believed to have been caused when he used both Heads and Shoulders and Aussie Hair Shine Shampoo at the same time. However, this is only an early prognosis.

So perfect they brought out a slightly different one

I received one of Apple's regular email exhortations to buy their stuff as presents, as if I spend that much on people who aren't me. It had this as its subject header:

I'm not sure that's possible. I mean, there is of course the possibility for there to be more than one perfect thing in the world, but not two such similar things, surely. It's reasonable to say that a rhubarb & custard sweet is perfect, in that it's a perfect example of its type of thing (a sweet, or a boiled sweet). It's also reasonable to say that a Moleskine notebook is perfect, and these two things don't conflict - they're different types of things. But if you say that rhubarb and custard is the perfect boiled sweet, it's impossible to improved upon it. You couldn't add a bit of vanilla flavour and say 'now it's even better!', not if it was perfect to start with. You can't improve upon perfection.

Similarly, if one of the ipads is perfect, I don't think the other one can be. The small one may be perfect for you, and the big one perfect for me, but that makes both of them slightly imperfect in some way (the small one is not perfect for me, nor the big one for you).

Or can it be? In fact, people use perfect in a somewhat looser way than I've used it here. This is a review from TripAdvisor:

Clearly, this person thinks you can improve on perfection, and there are a gazillion more examples just the same. I still think both ipads can't be perfect though.

I'll have the larger one, if anyone's thinking of getting me one for Christmas.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Getting overexcited and swearing

We all know that linguists love to swear and lecturers love to shock their new students, so yesterday in my introductory lecture on morphology, I had the students try to work out the rules of expletive infixation. That's when you do this:
Now obviously the students found this completely hilarious and had a whale of a time swearing at the tops of their voices in the lecture. At one point I though the neighbours might come round to complain.

Importantly, though, as well as swearing a lot, they actually got on and did the exercise, and did it well. It stands to reason that the best way to get them excited about and interested in a language data exercise is to make it be about something they find interesting in the first place. Earlier in the week, they'd had to do the same type of exercise, working out how noun pluralisation works in Armenian and Spanish, and they did not like that so much. They did it, and made a decent job of it, but they clearly didn't find it exciting in the same way.

Partly this is natural, but a true linguist also gets excited about noun pluralisation rules. We find it REALLY COOL that there are rules about how this stuff works, that native speakers of a language don't know about consciously, but do perfectly subconsciously. We love to find out what the rules are and try to understand this magical language ability that allows us to communicate with each other so effectively. The rules for doing language could be anything in the world, but they aren't! They're consistently of particular types, and some other types of rule are just never ever found anywhere.

I notice the same issue when I give talks to non-syntacticians. What I'm presenting is obviously fantastically exciting stuff - there's this real issue that is there, and needs explaining - and yet it doesn't seem to excite everyone in the same way. How can we get across that this is really fascinating? Why doesn't everyone appreciate just how amazingly brilliant language is?

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Well, that's what he said...

On the music news on today's Radcliffe & Maconie 6Music show, the music news correspondent Elizabeth Alker was telling us about the Killers' gig being stopped halfway through. She said that from the start, the singer Brandon Flowers hadn't looked well and...
He started drinking what he said was a Chinese herbal remedy.
This caused Radcliffe and Maconie to ask her what it was then, if it wasn't a Chinese herbal remedy.

What? She just said it was!

See, what's happened here is that she explicitly said that the drink was a herbal remedy, but she implicitly communicated that she had reason to think that it wasn't. We can see this from R&M's response, and from the fact that the conversation continued and they said things like this:
Which you clearly think was a lie!
What reason have you got to doubt him?
It's handy, this implicature business. We can say all kinds of things without really saying them. There are two things interacting here, I think: contrastive stress and Grice's Maxim of Quantity.

The Maxim of Quantity is one of Grice's conversational maxims. These are principles that all speakers ought to abide by in order to keep conversation flowing smoothly. It gets interesting when speakers don't abide by them (which is a lot of the time), because we go through some complicated processes in order to keep the conversation from being derailed. We always assume that the person we're talking to is not flouting the maxims, so if they seem to, we work out a way in which they aren't. So if someone gives the apparently irrelevant response B to A's question, A will work out a possible meaning that makes it relevant and infer the intended meaning:

A: Do you want to go for pizza?
B: I'm on a diet.

B's being on a diet isn't an answer to the question, but A can work out that B means 'no' by assuming that B is being relevant, and therefore must be answering the question, and that the information provided must somehow have a bearing on the invitation. A works out how being on a diet might relate to eating pizza and fills in the gaps.

Here, Alkerpops (as she's known) seems to be giving too much information. She doesn't need to tell us that Flowers said it was a Chinese herbal remedy; we can work that out ourselves. By telling us too much, we have to assume that she's told us too much for a reason, and that it must be significant that he said that's what it was.

Secondly, she stressed the pronoun he. One job of stress in English is to contrast things. So you can say:
Sam wasn't the ring bearer, Frodo was. 
You're contrasting Sam with Frodo, in this case. If you don't mention two things, you can still be contrasting a thing, but you're contrasting it with either something from earlier in the discourse, or alternatively an implied contrasted thing. In our example above, he can only contrast with other people (things have to contrast with things of the same type), so she's implying that other people would say that it was something else:
He said it was a Chinese herbal remedy, but I think it was something a bit stronger. 
So we get almost the exact opposite meaning from what she said, with no difficulty, almost never any misunderstanding, and very consistent intuitions.

Sunday, 11 November 2012


There's an article on the Guardian today (one of several recently) about free online university courses. These are offered by companies like Coursera, Udacity, and EdX, and the content is provided by 'proper' universities. They don't charge, and they allow thousands and thousands of people, from all over the world, to follow a module from a respected institution, without having to be in the country or paying the fees. Free education for all!

Obviously there's lots of practical issues, about all aspects of this. These thousands of people can't have their work marked by a human, so it only works well for subjects that can be marked by a computer (unless you go the crowdsourcing route, as one of the pioneers of this method suggests). It's only possible to offer this for free because the academics are paid by universities which are funded in part by students who do pay fees. You miss out on the other aspects of being a student. Et cetera.

The biggest difference between this method and actually attending university is of course the quality - it's never going to be the same watching videos as it is having a real human expert to talk to and learn from, and face-to-face class time. But there are some aspects of it which are worth looking at. One obvious benefit is that people who are otherwise unable to attend university or pay Open University fees can still get access to university-level education. For them, it doesn't matter so much that it's not quite as good as the 'real' thing, because anything is better than nothing. If it became the normal way to learn, well, then it's not up to scratch. But is that right? Is it OK to say 'anything is better than nothing so it's all right that it's not as good'? The pioneers of this learning paradigm have an ideal in mind of free  education for all. Those people who can't pay for university or can't physically attend should have the same opportunity as those who can, assuming equal ability.

That's another thing - there's no entrance requirements for these courses. That's not necessarily a bad thing, because entrance requirements are only really useful if you need to limit intake, and you don't when it's online (a Massive Online Open Course: MOOC).

One aspect I like is similar to how Open University works: you can just take one module if you want to, rather than a whole degree. With OU you can build them up into a degree or diploma, which is not yet the case with MOOCs, but give them time. It means that a person who just needs or wants an introduction to a subject can have it in a structured way with no obligation.

Most interestingly for me, at the moment, is the implication it has on the way we teach in universities. This MOOC thing allows a potentially lot better use of class time. At the moment, we give lectures and seminars. Lectures vary from lecturer to lecturer, from a simple stand at the front of the room and read out your notes, to a more interactive experience for the students when they have to do more than just sit and listen. Lectures have been around a long time and they've never gone away, partly because you need to be able to impart a lot of information to a lot of people at once and it's the most economical way to do that. You could tell them to go and read, but what do they read? Most of the time you need to explain the complicated stuff that written in books and journals, and even introductory textbooks just seem to make more sense if someone explains it to you. The reading is supplementary to the lecture, giving the student more information which they can go and understand after having the 50-minute explanation of the basics. But all the same, lectures seem slightly wasteful.

Even if you try and make them as interesting as possible, and make that there is some benefit to actually being there rather than just reading the slides, an alternative is to combine the MOOC idea with the current system. What if we did video lectures, and then used the class time for something else? Explaining difficult concepts, working through problems, that sort of thing. Of course the extra 50% teaching time and preparation would need to be factored into teaching loads, or teaching hours adjusted, but we can do that. Many classrooms are equipped with the technology to record a lecture, or with YouTube we can do it from our desks. Sites like TED, and people like RSAnimate, have shown that people are really super keen to watch videos in order to learn stuff. We might as well embrace it before it overtakes us.

Monday, 29 October 2012

A @name

Twitter has a search bar thing and in it, it says "enter a @name or username". Now, I've been pronouncing @name as "at name", because that to me is an "at sign". I don't know if twitter is calling it something else. That's what the article "a" rather than "an" suggests. But what could it be calling it?

In other languages, it's called things like "monkey tail", "elephant's trunk", "little dog", "snail" and other animal-based names reflecting its shape. But in English it's really only called the "at sign".

So twitter, why you no obey phonological rules?

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Maximal destruct of pairing

I get occasional spam comments on my post about spam comments. I got this one today:

I'm glad to know that Mary is in position to support me with the maximal destruct of pairing in essay penning. But I really think she should employ a good exclusive educator writer to impact on her own naming.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Toilet language

This sign is in the toilet near my office:

It describes the toilet as 'communal'. Nothing wrong with that; communal means shared by members of a community. But somehow it just makes me think of us all using it at the same time, like a communal changing room.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

LOL is a verb

Well, you knew that. It's short for 'laugh out loud'. Is that a verb? Well, depends how you use it. If you mean '[I am] laughing out loud [right now]' then not really; it's a gerund or maybe a participle. But if you say 'I totally LOLed at that' then yeah, you just verbed LOL.

But I'm not talking about boring old English. In French (which, remember, people love to hold up as an example of a sensible language with a prescriptive Academie Francaise to uphold the standards of purity in the language) they've only gone and verbed it there too!

As you might expect, it's an -er verb, the 'default' conjugation (see Steven Pinker's 'Words and Rules' for a lay-person-friendly explanation of default inflections). This means you get this paradigm:
je lole
tu loles
il/elle/on lole
nous lolons
vous lolez
ils/elles lolent
(I totally just conjugated that from memory so it may not be absolutely accurate.)

Notice that this is an English acronym with French morphology applied to it. A knowledgeable colleague told me today that French has its own acronymic (yes, it's an initialism, not an acronym, whatever) equivalent of FML. It's VDM, or 'vie de merde', apparently. Go French.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Thesis - done

I finished my PhD thesis today. I'm not submitting until Friday, but I needed to send it off to my super-helpful and kind friend so she can print and bind it for me. It's been a long, hard slog, especially these last few weeks getting it finished, and today I finally did the last read-through.

Until last night I didn't even know if it was any good - I've worked on it too long to get any kind of distance and objectivity. But then I left it few hours and did a last check for typos and I think it's not that bad, in the end.

I don't feel ecstatic or anything, though. I haven't been out celebrating because I don't really know anyone down here in Canterbury, plus I'm teaching at 9am tomorrow so I can't get drunk. I am having a celebratory glass of wine though: my first alcohol in a couple of weeks so it feels like a treat.

I'm submitting on Friday so I head back up north tomorrow afternoon (if the trains are running - the track's flooded) and it'll be great to see everyone and celebrate properly.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Learning and teaching forum

I've been at the faculty Learning and Teaching Forum this afternoon. I don't know what I was expecting, but I wasn't expecting to find it quite so interesting and inspiring.

I'll perhaps write more on these topics another day (you know, when I don't have a thesis to finish) but I  just wanted to mention it now while it's fresh.

We had six interesting sessions. The first dealt with new technology that's being introduced to record lectures. Nothing new there, I thought, but I was wrong. The technology that they're using is so much more advanced than anything I've seen before, and it's really exciting stuff. It can record several things simultaneously, including the speaker in audio and/or video, the powerpoint, anything that's on screen and essentially anything that you can plug into it. Students can make notes, and it's all attached to the relevant module. As some people suggested, we won't need to actually turn up to lectures soon. In fact, some people are apparently recording lectures and posting them and then using the timetabled lecture slot for something else that requires face-to-face time in a way that lecturing actually doesn't.

The second talk was about using digital tools for teaching, including social media, discussion tools and digital resources like databases and Google Ngrams. There were a lot of interesting suggestions made of how to use this stuff to enhance a course, and some advice about how to get the best of it. I felt quite inspired to go away and put it into practice, and I think I probably will do. If I do, I'll try to remember to report on how it goes.

We had a talk about how to use reading week as a force for good, rather than a sort of gap in the timetable. The speaker showed how his school are scheduling all sorts of events that are designed to get the students to re-engage, think about their learning and their university experience and what they can do to get the most out of it. A comment from an audience member was that in some music colleges, they use their equivalent of reading week as a time for the students to work on collaborative projects. That's an idea that's obviously very well-suited to music, as a week is a good length of time to produce something interesting that can be entirely student-led. In other fields, it might be a time to spend on a field trip or some other activity.

A talk I particularly enjoyed was from an architect. He showed us simultaneously some fancy hardware/software they've got and the plans for a space on the campus which is going to look pretty darn awesome when it's done. Although his talk was ostensibly less directly relevant to me, I found it fascinating stuff. Partly I was very engaged with the way he talked about making space work for the people who use it and the plans that they've got. But I spent quite a bit of the time admiring the software. He was using a big touch screen with a nice presentation tool that allowed him to bring up images, video and stuff from a bar at the bottom into a workspace, manipulate the images in the space (for example, with drawing tools) and flick it away again when he'd finished with it. It was very neat and would allow a presentation to be non-linear in nature, which is the biggest restriction that something like Powerpoint makes on the user.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

No posts for a bit

I'm submitting my thesis next Friday. At least, that's the plan. It's going to be a PhD-heavy time until then, so I won't be posting anything till at least Wednesday next week, which is when I hope to have sent it off to be printed by. Then I'll be back to my usual language-based waffle and twaddle.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

I doubt that you would suspect this

A recent Language Log post pointed out a humorously ambiguous headline:

The joke is of course that it sounds like the kebab van drove over and duffed up the hapless teen, with the by phrase expressing the agent of the jaw-breaking incident. The intended meaning is the one in which by is a preposition, and the by phrase locates the teenager at the time of the attack (ie he was by a kebab van). Much lolz ensues.

This wasn't the only humour to be wrung from the language in the headline: commenter Bobbie made the following quip, which was immediately either genuinely or wilfully misunderstood by Victor Mair:

Bobbie is taking advantage of the fact that in English, we can say that you have broken your X (if X is a body part) and it does not mean that you did the breaking. There's a term for that which I can't remember just now. Anyway, so Bobbie says what (s)he says, implying that it is unlikely to be the case that the teenager did it himself. Victor Mair's comment was initially baffling to me, because of course American English speakers wouldn't use suspect instead - that would mean the exact opposite! Other commenters said much the same lower down the comment thread.

Some of those commenters also noted that doubt used to mean roughly what suspect means. It's sense 6d in the OED, marked as archaic, and from the examples there, you can see how the semantic shift could have happened. Just add it to the long list of English verbs whose meaning has completely reversed over time.

Monday, 10 September 2012

LAGB 2012

LAGB 2012 was just about the most well-organised LAGB I've ever attended. Everything ran smoothly, the venue was nice (if uncomfortably hot/cold depending on which room you were in) and the papers were good. Well done to the organisers, who must have done a heck of a lot of work to make it work so well. This is the Lady Hale building at Salford, where the conference was held. That weird white thing lights up pretty colours at night:

There was this sign, and another one the same at the other end, on this path on the campus:

'This land is private and there is no intention to create a public right of way across it'

We were all baffled by this. As a friend remarked, it's cancelling an implicature that was never there in the first place. Do they get a lot of people asking if there is any intention to create a right of way across the land? No one stopped us walking along that path. Did we have permission to do so? What does it even mean?

They seem to go in for overly explanatory signage in Salford - there was another sign which I didn't get a picture of, which said 'Cyclists dismount. This is not a cycle way.' The first part of that is surely enough to achieve the desired effect, but in Salford they like to explain why you must dismount.

Anyway, now I've moved down to Canterbury to start properly at my new job at Kent. First meeting is this morning.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

LAGB 2012, and random observations

I'm at the annual LAGB meeting, held in Salford this year. Yesterday we had a workshop on Case, and indeed case (there's a difference). 

I really enjoyed the plenary talk, by Mark Baker. He had used what's called The Middle Way, which is a good methodology if you can do it. It means that you find a middle ground between your typical theoretical generative linguist (who looks at just one or two languages, often their own) and your typical functional or typological linguist (who looks at a lot of languages but not in great detail, and maybe only from published grammars) and you take a sample of unrelated languages and you look at them in as much detail as you can, ideally from primary data. It's what I wanted to do with my thesis but in practice, it's really really hard to do because you need to find native speakers of all these obscure languages. And that's before you even get to interpreting all the data. I won't summarise his talk here because it was excellent and I won't do it justice, and because you can get the slides here: [link]

On a completely unrelated note, he used this sentence, which I consider to be slightly ungrammatical (that's what the ? means - linguists, at least those who don't do quantitative stuff, use a scale of ungrammaticality. * means it's ungrammatical, ? means a bit iffy, and then ?* in between for a totally subjective and non-quantifiable scale of badness. Grammatical sentences are just presented as sentences):

(1) ? You do nothing in the transitive one either.

'Either' (in this sense) is a sort of NPI, which means it's allowed if you have a negative which 'scopes' over it, but not if you don't. So (2) is not at all grammatical:

(2) *I like hornpipes either.

The 'nothing' in the sentence Baker used should be enough to license 'either', and evidently for him it is. And for me, it's totally OK to say something like (3):

(3) There's nothing in here either.

That's completely parallel, on the face of it. There's no reason that I can see that one should be OK and the other not. And yet, for mysterious reasons, for me it's a heck of a lot better to say (4) than (1), but (5) is no better, and probably a bit less natural, than (3):

(4) You don't do anything in the transitive one either.

(5) There isn't anything in here either. 

Answers on a postcard please. 

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Spoffles, flanges and pobbling

Words get into the language in lots of funny ways. Most of them have been there so long we don't know, or we just know that we brought them with us when we left Germany. Lots of them were borrowed, from Latin and French in the case of English. Lots of words we make ourselves, with our word-making tools like suffixes (brightness) and compounding (carwash). My favourite type of words are the ones that someone makes up, and they catch on.

Quiz was supposedly an early example of this, when (according to anecdote) a Dublin man had a bet that he could introduce a new word into the language. Sadly, as with so many such anecdotes, it's probably bunk, as it was in use already by the alleged time of this bet. Still, there are some words that we know were invented this way, as the people who did it either did so on film or are around to tell us.

Spoffle, quite apart from being a great word, is a useful one, if you ever have anything to do with microphones, as I sometimes do. It's this thing, in front of Stephen Fry:

It's the foamy cover for a mic that prevents 'popping' and cuts down wind noise. Essential item, apparently unnamed (people seem to use the very dull microphone cover) until Hugh Laurie called it a spoffle (in Stephen Fry's hearing, which is partly why he's in the photo above). This is what I always call it, and lots of others do too. At my old job it was the common name for such things. But, astonishingly, it's not in the OED and it doesn't have a Wikipedia article. Apparently it used to but it was deleted, and now it's not even mentioned in the section on microphone covers.

Another word that came out of British comedy is the collective noun for baboons, a flange, and for gorillas, a whoop. Flange has caught on remarkably well and, although it too doesn't get into the OED (they're so cautious, those lexicographers) it's used by people, including (allegedly) academics (although I have not read the papers or books in which it's used). Here's the sketch, with Mel Smith and Rowan Atkinson talking to Pamela Stephenson:

Literature has been a source of some good words. Lewis Carroll invented the word chortle as a blend of chuckle and snort, although not many of his more creative efforts from the Jabberwocky have caught on. This OED blog post talks about Edward Lear, who made up a lot of words (runcible spoon being a particularly well-known example) and also used obscure real words. It has a charming anecdote about the blog-writer's doctor friend who was certain that pobble meant 'to amputate toes', until the blog-writer introduced her to the rhyme The pobble who has no toes. Pobble's Bay also seems to be a place in Wales, which does rather remind one of The meaning of Liff by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd (who created QI, presented by Stephen Fry - we have come full circle so it's time to stop waffling).

Monday, 20 August 2012

Pussy Riot and swearing in the media

The other day, Ben Zimmer at Language Log covered the way that Pussy Riot (the name of a Russian punk band currently in the news) can be rendered into Russian (the band is Russian, but the name is in English). Then Arnold Zwicky blogged about the way that the New York Times is coping with having to write naughty words in its articles. He takes this Guardian blog post as a jumping-off point.

I was wondering about this myself. The thing is that it's a sort of pun, or at least a double entendre. It's what the whole point of Mrs Slocombe was in 'Are you being served':

So that means that the word itself can be said quite freely without causing offence, provided that it means 'cat' rather than... its other meaning. After all, here it was being said on a pre-watershed sitcom as long ago as the 1970s. But as Zwicky notes, the 'cat' meaning is pretty much non-existent these days. We all know it means that, but it's rarely used to mean 'cat' (perhaps because of its rude meaning). Furthermore, the band presumably mean it to have its naughty connotations, as they're a punk band and that's what punk bands do. They have a handy get-out by being able to say that it's simply a name about cats, which is apparently what they told the police it meant. So if the word is ambiguous, and has these two separate meanings, does it mean the rude one if that's what its authors intended it to mean? Does it mean 'female genitalia' here? Or is it a word that can mean that, but not necessarily? I don't know. I kind of feel like it does.

Anyway, according to the blog posts mentioned above, the US papers are struggling a bit and basically not banning it, but trying not to mention it more than absolutely necessary, and definitely not in headlines. From what I can tell, in the UK, the media are more than happy to use the name in the papers, on the radio and on TV (and everywhere else). This means that the lovely lunchtime newsreaders have to say 'pussy' quite a lot, and are essentially using rude words in the news.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Functional and lexical words

Words are split up into two major classes, which we can call functional/grammatical and lexical/content words.

Functional, or grammatical, words are the ones that it's hard to define their meaning, but they have some grammatical function in the sentence. The, for instance. What does it mean? Well, that's hard to say. But its function is easy: it's the definite article. It makes things definite (says that you're talking about a particular instance of whatever follows). Or could - hard to describe its meaning, but its function is clear. Prepositions like on or at or if are also functional. Functional words are a closed class, which means we can't add new ones very easily. Try and remember the last time you heard a new preposition or article.

Lexical words, however, do have meaning: cat and armchair and toilet-brush and velociraptor all have clear meanings that you could describe to someone. They're also all nouns, which is one type of lexical word. Verbs can be lexical too, like fly, arrange and steal. Lexical words are open class, and we can make up new ones willy-nilly, by all the different word-formation rules we can muster. You can probably invent a new word now: just noun a verb or add -ify to something.

Did you know all that already? Maybe you did. If you think you didn't, well, I'm here to tell you that your subconscious knowledge of language includes this.

In The Jabberwocky, Lewis Carroll invents a whole stack of nonsense words. But every single one of them is a lexical word. If they weren't, you wouldn't be able to understand the poem the way you can.
I've emboldened the nonsense words in the first verse here, and they are all easily interpretable by the reader as nouns, adjectives and verbs (which are all generally lexical). The English words are all function words.
Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
  Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
  And the mome raths outgrabe.
We can understand it because although we don't know what the unfamiliar words mean, we can recognise them for the right part of speech. We can tell that slithy is an adjective and toves is a noun. How? Well, there's a definite article just before that phrase, and we know that in English, a definite article comes at the start of a noun phrase. We expect it to occur with a noun, which we expect to find at the end of the phrase, and if there's another word in there we expect it to be an adjective and to come before the noun. We also know that nouns can have a plural -s ending, like tove-s, and that adjectives can have a -y ending, like slith-y.

The function words are what give us the sentence structure, so if you turn them into nonsense syllables, you're left with no clue. You've just got a string of words, some of which you know the lexical meaning of, but no idea how they fit together.

If you're still not sure that your brain knows this stuff, here's proof. I was watching an episode of slightly naff 00s game show 'Win, Lose or Draw Late' (presented by Liza Tarbuck) the other day (don't judge me, I like game shows, OK?). Paul Tonkinson, who had to draw the book title Life of Pi, began by drawing lines to signify the words in the title. He drew something like this:
____ __ ____
Now, if he was representing the length of the words, he would have drawn the last one the same length as the middle one. But he didn't; it's clearly much longer. He is not representing the length of the words but rather their status as functional versus content words.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

I got a job!

Part of the reason why I was so busy a couple of weeks ago is that I had a job interview, and I got it! I'll be starting at the University of Kent in September, for ten months. I'll be teaching semantics, morphology and research skills.

I'm really excited. It's going to be weird leaving Newcastle after being a student here for 8 years and a person here since 1993, but Canterbury seems like a really nice place and the department very friendly. And I'm thrilled to have got a job, with a proper salary, so quickly.

But all this means that my PhD thesis really needs to get a wiggle on and start writing itself. I'd been expecting it to do it before now but perhaps it's waiting till the very last moment. In the meantime, I'm helping it along. I'm up to the last chapter of substantial writing/finishing, and then will be able to go back and do the fiddly bits. I'm hoping to get the majority done before I go, otherwise there'll be some very late nights till I submit.

Here's a screenshot, in case I wake up in the night and need proof:

Monday, 6 August 2012

Replace all

I've just finished reading the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. It was all right, not great literature but a fun enough read. Odd typos in the last book though.

One thing was that there very often lacked a space between sentences. I have no explanation for that. Another thing was three misspellings, all related. The first was evapourate. The second was elabourate. The third was labouratory. In each case, the error is an extra u where there shouldn't be one. Can you see why?

Friday, 3 August 2012

Search for nouns

Some people have noticed that the search bar on facebook looks like this, and suggested an improvement:

They think it should read 'Search for nouns'. 

I'm not having a go at these people; the OED defines 'noun' as follows:
A word used as the name or designation of a person, place, or thing.

Wikipedia sensibly adds or idea to its definition, however, as liberty and disappointment are both nouns, and further down expands this to: 
personplacethingeventsubstancequalityquantity, or idea, etc.
Because Wikipedia is often written by experts, it's a lot more detailed than the OED and goes on to tell us that this definition is not very useful on account of it's a bit fuzzy and doesn't tell us much, and that it's better to have  a formal definition based on the properties of the elements we class as nouns. 

One way to do this is to use such characteristics as 'can occur with a determiner like a or the', or 'can take plural inflection -s'. These characteristics are often not cross-linguistic, but can help to identify nouns if you know the rules for the languages you're interested in. In beginning syntax classes I hand out a cheat sheet with just such tests. 

As I think I've mentioned before, the distinguishing characteristic of nouns that linguists generally use is if they behave like nouns. Does that sound circular? What I mean is, the name 'noun' is used to refer to a class of words that all behave in the same way. They can be the subject of a sentence, for instance, or the object of a verb or preposition. These are grammatical characteristics. The 'people, places and things' definition is a semantic definition: it describes what nouns mean or refer to. 

We can use both to identify nouns, but the semantic definition is not appropriate to denote what facebook wishes you to search for; it does not think you should search in that box for love, peace and understanding; it will not bring you success (or at least, not as an abstract noun). 

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Lost 'lost ''lost' sign' sign' sign

A wonderful example of centre embedding from a ridiculously silly blog, via my friend Valdemar:

The image shows a lost sign, and the lost thing that it's advertising is another lost sign. And the thing that sign was advertising (before it got lost) was a lost sign... and so on. 

It's called centre embedding because, unsurprisingly, it means embedding a phrase in the centre of another one. By 'in the centre' we don't mean that it's precisely central, but rather that words from the higher-up phrase are on both sides of the embedded one. Here's an example of the more common type of embedding we find in English:
I really hate people [who don't think of others]
The bracketed part is a relative clause, which means that it tells you more about people, and it's embedded in the main clause. It's at the end, which is nice and easy to understand. We can go on for a surprisingly long time like this:
This is the farmer sowing his cornThat kept the cock that crowed in the mornThat waked the priest all shaven and shornThat married the man all tattered and tornThat kissed the maiden all forlornThat milked the cow with the crumpled hornThat tossed the dog that worried the catThat killed the rat that ate the maltThat lay in the house that Jack built!
Every line in that rhyme is a new embedded clause, but we can keep track of it all and it's not terribly remarkable. We actually do it quite a lot in normal speech. This example, which inspired Language Log's Trent Reznor Prize for Tricky Embedding, contains a whole stack of embedded clauses and other stuff but is completely understandable, and was produced in natural speech in an interview:
"When I look at people that I would like to feel have been a mentor or an inspiring kind of archetype of what I'd love to see my career eventually be mentioned as a footnote for in the same paragraph, it would be, like, Bowie."
The thing with centre embedding is that it is totally grammatical (it does not break any of the rules of English (by which I mean the rules that speakers intuitively know and that cannot be broken, rather than the prescriptive rules that we all break in our everyday speech), but not acceptable (i.e. speakers don't say things like this and if asked, don't think they are good sentences at all). This is very different from most other grammatical puzzles that we (linguists) have, which are far more often of the type 'this is ungrammatical in most dialects but some speakers produce it - why?' or 'this theory predicts this to be ungrammatical but it's not, because it occurs in language X - why?'. 

It's really striking how quickly examples of centre embedding get impossible to parse (work out the grammar of). In the poster, we can of course easily understand the phrase with no embedding at all:
Lost sign
But then even just one layer of embedding, equivalent to I hate people who don't think of others, is a bit hard to work out:
Lost lost sign sign
And then when you get just one more, it's too hard:
Lost lost lost sign sign sign
The quotation marks help a bit here, but not much, and that's obviously no good in spoken language. This example is obviously designed for humour, and some are more or less easy to work out. Wikipedia (yeah, I'm being lazy today - I've got a PhD to write) cites this example of double embedding, attributing it to De Roeck et al (1982):
Isn't it true [that example-sentences [that people [that you know] produce] are more likely to be accepted]?
The double-embedded part that might cause trouble is the that people that you know produce part, but here it's not too difficult, perhaps because we're used to hearing know+verb constructions. But the Wikipedia page also says (summarising Karlsson 2007) that three is the maximum degree of embedding in written language, and even two is vanishingly rare in spoken language. It gives this example of super-tricky centre embedding, where the first one (with one level of embedding, and not centre embedding) is fine, but adding just one centre-embedded clause makes it incredibly difficult to parse:
A man [that a woman loves]

A man [that a woman [that a child knows] loves]
It means a man who is loved by a woman, who in turn is known by a child. But you try working that out while you're in full conversational flow. It's supposed to be basically just that while we're super-good at keeping track of relations and actions, we're really really bad at keeping track of a whole load of subjects without linking them to their predicates (what they did). 

Finally, this completely incomprehensible paragraph from SpecGram

An apparently new speech disorder a linguistics department our correspondent 
visited was affected by has appeared. Those affected our correspondent a local grad student called could hardly understand apparently still speak fluently. The cause experts the LSA sent investigate remains elusive. Frighteningly, linguists linguists linguists sent examined are highly contagious. Physicians neurologists psychologists other linguists called for help called for help called for help didn’t help either. The disorder experts reporters SpecGram sent consulted investigated apparently is a case of pathological center embedding.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

SAT visitors: sorry

I'm getting a lot of extra page views and a lot of them are for the post on SATs, grammar and British grandmas. I presume that means that SAT time is near and people are googling for advice. If that's how you found me, then I apologise - that post was almost certainly no use whatsoever. I hope it mildly entertained you as compensation.

This post will now also come up in searches and it's even less useful, and not even entertaining. Sorry again.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Busy busy

I've got a massively busy week coming up so there will be a temporary lack of posts here, unless I happen to see any hilarious signs on my travels that don't require time spent commenting. Hopefully, next week (or maybe the one after) I'll be able to finish all the draft posts I've got waiting.

Friday, 20 July 2012

'Informant incompetence'

I can't now remember where I heard the phrase 'informant incompetence', but it's a slightly cruel way of describing a perennial problem in linguistics (and presumably other disciplines too): when the people giving you linguistic data simply fail to understand what you want from them.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Forensic linguistics for spam detection

We're all getting quite good at spotting email spam now. Our filters are pretty clever and get rid of all the obvious stuff anyway, so that leaves us with just the non-malicious stuff from companies we've bought things from, and the ones that the filter can't quite detect. Most of us don't fall even for these ones, but some people obviously still do, or they wouldn't still be doing the rounds. Almost all of these tell you something about your account, either the email account you're using or some other account that they purport to be from, and ask you to verify your details. By doing this, you're giving your details to some scammer who will then use them for nefarious purposes.

Now I think that this is the chance for linguistics to come into its own, and simultaneously force everyone to learn how to write properly. The plan is twofold:

Friday, 13 July 2012

Twitter makes girls more aggressive!

Or not. As usual it's a Daily Mail article ranting about something that has no substance and which it knows nothing about in any case. It's published an article saying that using Twitter and Facebook make girls, especially, speak in a 'curt' manner with 'terser sentences'. Actually, it doesn't even say that. It says that this phenomenon applies to young people's languge generally, but that it's more evident in girls because they 'communicate more'. Oh, and it's not a linguist who's said that, it's Marie Clair of the Plain English Campaign (no, no idea what it's got to do with them - they campaign for removing jargon and legalese from public communication).

We should be clear: before I point out that this claim has no basis, the Mail basically does that itself by using the phrases 'it is claimed' and 'research shows', but never actually saying who claims it or what research it was. The Telegraph is even worse, repeating the story by quoting the Daily Mail, and saying 'experts believe'. All of this is clear indication that the journalist or some news/publicist person has made it up.

Let's begin. Citing Twitter and Facebook as being the culprits of degrading young people's language is dubious to start with. Young people use other types of online communication far more than these largely adult media. What you mean is 'whatever online communication young people use these days'.

Using 'terser sentences' or being 'curt' may well make a person appear 'aggressive'. But what are the measures by which these girls' speech is being judged as 'terser' or 'curt'? Shorter, maybe? Than what?

Marie Clair says this:
To any outsider, there aren’t those pleasantries that there were when you wrote a letter to someone.

No - because we've all worked out that it's a bit daft writing 'yours sincerely' in a facebook comment. It's all about register. If these girls don't know how to write a letter properly, well, that's another problem and one that should be addressed, but it's not Twitter's fault.

Apparently girls 'communicate more than males'. Well, I've no idea if that's true. Seems like one of those claims that doesn't really stand up, but maybe it's true. Let's give her the benefit of the doubt and say it is. (Still doesn't excuse the use of 'males' when she means 'boys'. They're not animals.) But I think 'Deborah Cameron, professor of language and communication at the University of Oxford' (gasp! they asked an expert!) is more likely to be right when she says, in a different part of the article,
The teenage years are a period of life where you find linguistic innovations of all kinds, and girls are generally ahead of the curve. People often put down as ‘girls’ language’ something that’s actually going to spread through the whole speech community.

The article also says this:
Professor Cameron said it could be right that teenagers’ language styles in general are getting more aggressive, however there is no ‘hard evidence’ of this at present. Hard-core swearing is still most associated with adolescent and young adult, working class males.

So what she basically said was 'no, there is no evidence for this claim'. Which actually entirely contradicts the whole message of the article, but what the hell, let's include it anyway - no one will notice (and actually the commenters don't notice).

Anyway, let's all calm down with this article which says that there is no evidence that texting harms spelling, and might even be good for it, and this one in which Carol Ann Duffy says texting is good for poetry.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Taking words for granite

I was going to write a post about an 'eggcorn' (what Language Log calls misheard and reinterpreted idioms, words and phrases - it is itself an eggcorn for 'acorn'). Apparently, some people believe that the expression
to take X for granted
is actually
to take X for granite.
Which is odd. Nothing like each other, are they?

Well, not in spelling, no. But then it occurred to me that in some dialects, they might be pretty similar, if you simplify the cluster [nt] to [n] (as is common) and devoice the final [d] (which I've heard some US speakers do, on telly). I personally could only do the former, which is why it seemed such a strange mistake to me. So like I say, I was going to write a post about it, but then I googled it to get some information on it, and found that Language Log beat me to it by a good seven years.

Monday, 9 July 2012


It's a funny old thing, researching language, because you've got to use your object of study to describe your object of study. You have to talk about language using language. Mostly, this is OK, because we can distinguish between metalinguistic mentions of language and actual use of language.

One thing that often happens (and this one isn't linguistics-specific) is that you find yourself using the non-technical version of a word more when you're talking about the technical term (or maybe you just notice it more). I'm researching questions, and I catch myself using question all the time: 'the question is how this can be applied to X' and so on.

We linguists have a fun extra game to play, however. We can use the very linguistic things that we are talking about in the language we use to talk about them. Sometimes this happens by accident, similarly to the above example. But sometimes, you see the opportunity to slip one in as a little in-joke for your readers who are paying attention. I read this sentence today:
The idea... is supported by the fact that only in embedded finite clauses is it possible to front an XP.*
This is a classic example of its type. It's talking about fronting XPs (moving phrases to the start of the clause) in embedded (subordinate) clauses, and in doing so, does just that itself. that only in embedded finite clauses is an embedded clause - it's the complement of fact (it tells you what the fact is). And within it, we have a fronted phrase, only in embedded clauses - it would normally be at the end:
It is posible to front an XP [only in embedded clauses].
Linguist humour. There are whole blog posts to be written about humorous example sentences, comedy names for new generalisations and the like.

*Reference: Breul, C. 2004. Focus structure in Generative Grammar: An integrated syntactic, semantic and intonational approach. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

SATs, grammar and British grandmothers

This question came up on Quora, which is a question-answering website along the lines of Yahoo! Answers but with good spelling and less stupidity: How do you prepare for a perfect score on the SAT? The SAT is a test that, Wikipedia tells me, is taken in the US and is 'intended to assess a student's readiness for college'. It also tells me that although SAT used to stand for Scholastic Aptitude Test or Scholastic Assessment Test, it now doesn't stand for anything, which seems odd but there you go. We have SATs in the UK too, to assess school pupils' achievement at various ages throughout their schooling, but there is no consequence to the individual: the idea is to measure the school's success, not the child's. In the US it seems to be a big important thing and it is measuring you as an individual: it's one of the things that will determine if you get into college or not, so people want to do well. It seems from what I have read that it's mostly a test of how well you take tests, but that's often the case with this sort of thing so we won't dwell on that.

This Quora question has been answered by several people, in several different ways. One stood out because of its 'holier-than-thou' attitude. This person said that he did well with no preparation because he grew up without a TV and read books all his childhood. (By the way, I too read just as much as he claims to have done, and I still managed to fit in some TV-watching and generally being a well-rounded person. But that's not relevant.) He also said this:
I had an English teacher as a mother and a proper British grandmother correcting my grammar.
The English teacher as a mother, fair enough - that might help you to do well on the written part of the test, as she presumably knows what's involved and how to do well. But the British grandmother part is just plain wrong. (Not wrong that he has a British grandmother; I'm sure he does. His assumptions are wrong.)

Firstly, there is the implicit assumption that simply because she is British, or 'proper British' as he says, her grammar will be impeccable (read: Standard English). She might well speak absolutely Standard English, with no non-standard forms whatsoever. If she does, it is not likely to be because she is British. She might just as well do that no matter where she was from. There is some idea that 'British' grammar (FYI: no such thing) is 'better' or 'more correct' than US grammar. It ain't true. The chap answering the question did mention that he reads fantasy and plays RPGs, so perhaps he's basing this on Lord of the Rings. Or perhaps his grandmother also believes this. Whatever.

Secondly, even assuming his grandmother does indeed speak Standard British English and knows all the prescriptivist grammar rules, if he follows her British conventions, some of what he writes will be marked incorrect in the US. For instance, the title of this post lacks the Oxford (or serial) comma. That's standard British English. In the US, that would get a big red mark. Using plural agreement with grammatically singular but logically plural referents is OK in the UK, but not the US ('the government have/has announced...'). I say dreamt; an American might be more likely to say dreamed. I say a bird shat on me; an American might say it shit on him. I say I have already eaten; a US speaker might say she already ate. I say that the event will take place on Monday; a US speaker might say that it will take place Monday. Hyphenation and compound words have different rules. I won't go on, but there's a list here if you're interested.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Because reasons

because can be followed by a finite clause:
I left him because [he sold my prize-winning armadillo].
It can be followed by a prepositional phrase:
I left him because [of his unbearable stench]. 
But a non-standard usage is gaining wider and wider acceptance, namely because+noun (often a proper noun):
I can't come out tonight because Skyrim.

This isn't a straight nonstandard equivalent to the other uses - it's different. It means something like 'I'm so busy being totally absorbed by X that I don't need to explain further, and you should know about this because it's a completely valid incredibly important thing to be doing'. This page is all posts that were tagged with #because Skyrim.

But has a similar use (taken from the same Tumblr page):
Okay I’d totally love to read my dash and everything but Skyrim.
I like it.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Inferior stationery

I am currently unhappy about my stationery situation. The most recent deprivation I have had to suffer is that I have had to purchase 'binder clips' (also known as foldback clips) in dull colours. This is not, in itself, a disaster, although I do think it is sadly indicative of the unimaginativeness of the people who make office-type stationery. I have paper clips in all manner of fascinating shapes and colours: shaped like stars, speech bubbles, aeroplanes... but when you get to the more heavy-duty stuff like foldback clips, it's boring all the way.

[Update: since discovering the name 'binder clips' I've done another search and found that M&S does eye-wateringly expensive floral ones and a dodgy-looking online company does pretty coloured ones. Search terms are everything, as always.]

Anyway, all that's not really the problem, I just like whinging. What is a problem is the fact that my notebook is not a Moleskine. I can get a bit evangelical about Moleskines, but they really are my absolute favourite notebooks ever and I don't like not having one. I normally have a red one like this:

As you may be able to tell, I take a lot of trouble to ensure I write on and with nice things. Then I enjoy the act of writing and I do it more. If I don't enjoy it I do it less, and I'm considerably more productive if I write more. I write any old thing down just for the sake of it and that leads to thinking more and better. If I don't write it down I'm trying to do it in my head and that's just not as good. 

I've got a notebook, and it's fine, but it's spiral bound and the paper's not as nice and it's not the right shape and stuff. So I only write down what I need to, and when I do write it down it doesn't look as nice so I don't look at it again so much. 

Just buy a Moleskine, you say? No, I can't, because they last a really long time and I won't get to the end of it before I finish my PhD and that would be wasteful. 

I do realise that all this makes me sound completely insane and also like a complete brat. But I do think it's an interesting thing that what stationery you have can affect the quality (or at least the quantity) of your work. Or mine, anyway. Might be just me. 

Monday, 25 June 2012

Homo sapien

The name of the human species is Homo sapiens, which means literally 'thinking man' ('man' obviously used in this case with its meaning of 'person of unspecified gender', rather than 'male human').

It's a bit unsatisfactory that part of the name for the human species is a word that means 'human', and that that same word also refers to all other species in the genus, which most people probably wouldn't consider to be 'humans' but rather closely-related species (Neanderthals and so on). Usually, people mean 'modern human' when they use the word 'human'. Still.

So, thinking man. Homo sapiens. Ever heard the song Homosapien by Pete Shelley? Or the band Del tha Funkee Homo Sapien? Both, you'll notice, use the 'sapien' part without the final s. Why? Well, it's a pretty straightforward case of mistakenly analysing a singular ending in s as a plural. 

The same thing happened to give us peas: we had a substance, which we knew as pease. We made pease pudding out of it. One day, someone started thinking that each of the little individual things was an instance of a pea (spelling not being people's strong point back then). It's as if we'd begun to refer to a grain of rice as a rie. That didn't happen because the final [s] sound is pronounced as [s], whereas in pease it's pronounced [z], which is just how the plural <s> is pronounced after a vowel. 
So we've got some people thinking sapiens is the plural of sapien. Can see how that happened: generally, when you hear the term Homo sapiens, someone's talking about the species as a whole, so it makes sense to assume it's plural (referring to all the members of the species). When you want to talk about just one, you use the singular. Obvs. 

So why am I blogging about it? Doesn't seem that fascinating. Although you have learnt about pease, which is definitely worth knowing. Well, I'm blogging about it because although this is a totally predictable, plausible, not-surprising reanalysis and you would think millions of people would get it wrong, no one does. Seriously. Apart from those two musical references, the google hits are sparse. There are not thousands and thousands of people typing blogs and questions and comments and all the other things you'd expect. Why not? How are they all getting it right all of the time? Are they always using the plural and so getting it right without knowing it? Is it just a term that no one who isn't reasonably well-educated uses? What's happening? I feel like I can no longer rely on real-life language to be messy and complicated.

Here is a link to Wikipedia's list of alternative names for the species. 

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

When is a draft full?

I've got a note on my calendar that says I intend to have a full draft of my PhD thesis ready by the end of this month. I don't know if that will happen, because I don't know how I'll know when it's a full draft.

I know some people write a draft and it's very rough, and then they go back and edit it, and edit it again, and eventually it's a nice polished version. This is a good way to write, as it means you improve it several times until it's as good as it can be. When I write, I get bored very quickly and don't really fancy going over and over it. I know I have to edit and proofread, so I do, but I do it minimally. So my finished versions are usually not that much different from the first version. (Luckily, the first version is awesome. Ahem.)

With a thesis, you can't help but edit to a greater extent, I suppose, and some sections have been moved around and tweaked to show something different, but then there are whole chunks that I wrote in one go and haven't been back to since. All of these count as first draft material to me.

So how will I know when the cut-off point is, when I've got a full draft, but not a finished thesis? Do I have to have filled in all the gaps and written all the sections? Because once I've done that I'll be fairly close to finishing and it's not going to happen by the end of the month. Is it OK to have notes to myself in it, saying things like 'find out if this is true'? Because that means there's more research to be done, and it's not a full draft. Or is it OK to have the majority of it written, but a few bits still to fill in?

The other issue is that I'm not doing what a lot of people do, and writing one chapter at a time. I've got all my chapters partially written. I would like to have completed each in turn, but that's not the way it worked.

I feel like I want some kind of cut-off marker, a goal to aim at, other than 'finishing'. So I think the solution is to say that a 'full draft' means not having bits to fill in, having done all of the sections and only needing to edit the text that's already there. So I'm also going to move that deadline to a bit later on, I think.

Monday, 18 June 2012

'Scare quotes'

Lately I've seen two very effective uses of scare quotes - the quotation marks you put round a word or phrase to indicate to your reader that you don't mean the word or phrase literally. 

There's a whole blog of scare quotes used wrongly or with unintended effect, including examples like this one:

This is the equivalent of doing the bunny-ears gesture when you say something (and it's weird that I just defined a writing convention by the gesture that clearly arose from the written form). 

Anyway. So there's this sign up in my department, because someone's phone is 'lost'. (I've removed the person's details so as, you know, not to put people's phone numbers on the internet without their consent, but if you've seen the phone let me know and I'll pass it on.) The sign looks like this:

Those magnificent scare quotes around lost convey, perfectly, this person's passive-agressive attitude to this: the phone is not lost, it has been stolen, but because the sign-maker has no evidence for this, he will keep up the pretence that it is merely lost. But you know who you are, phone-pincher.

The other scare quotes I saw this week performed a very different function. Our region is switching over to digital TV in September, and so 'they' (don't know who is in charge of this) have sent us a booklet telling us what will happen and what we need to do. One of the things we might need to do, if we have outmoded equipment, is buy a new telly. Luckily we're OK, but there might be some old people who need to buy a digibox but don't have a SCART socket on their telly (stay with me, we're going somewhere). The booklet tells them that if this is the case, they need to ask for a digibox with an 'RF modulator'. In scare quotes. This tells the reader, effectively,
Don't worry, we know all these technical terms are meaningless. You don't need to know what it is, just ask for this and you'll be given the right thing. 
The same punctuation mark, used in two different ways, to such different effect.

In the 'lost' sign, it's almost like lost and stolen are scalar implicatures, which means that stolen is a type of lost but more specific. If a phone is stolen it is also lost, but if it is lost it is not stolen (by implicature, as you would say stolen if you meant it, because you use the strongest term on the scale that is true).

In the second case, it's the use of quotation marks in the same way we might use them in academic or technical texts, when you use a term and need to show that you're using it as a term, for the first time. It's interesting, actually, that this is a type of punctuation that doesn't seem to need much explicit teaching. It must be an intuitive thing. Which might, of course, lead to the signs on the blog I mentioned earlier - the writers think they are defining terms, although they aren't really. The writer of the sign above thinks he needs to point out that (s)he is using the term 'urine drops'. Although why the writer felt the need to use the term 'urine drops' I really don't know.