Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Double modal or double fluff?

Those of us who are interested in dialect syntax but don't make it their business to conduct experiments into it are always on the listen-out for interesting examples. You can't help it, after a while. On the Antiques Roadshow back in April, I heard one of the experts say this:
What date would that might have been?
He didn't stumble over it, it was very fluent production, so he either meant to say it or didn't notice what he'd said. But we seem to have a double modal construction here, something which is not found in Standard English and is attested but not common in certain dialects.

The modals are would and might, and if we put the sentence into a declarative form, you can see what the issue is:
That would might have been what date.
Either modal on its own is fine, but both together is not permitted in Standard English. As this is not part of my dialect I can't be sure that this particular combination is allowed in any dialect, but certainly two modal verbs can co-occur in many people's speech.

Not, however, in the antiques expert's speech, I'll bet. I would put money on this being a performance error, which went unnoticed because the fronting of the first modal would means that it's not adjacent to the second modal might. I would guess that he started out asking what date it would have been, and switched halfway through to asking what date it might have been, and the two met in the middle in a sticky mess. Perhaps the much higher frequency of would-questions than might-questions had some influence too (frequency estimation not based on any data or actual facts at all).

This kind of thing makes it so much harder to do dialect syntax through data collection. You might only have a few instances of double modal questions in hours of data, if you're working from interviews, and if a couple of them might be performance errors, how can you be sure of anything? This is why dialect syntacticians have to be cunning as a fox who's just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford, and devise data collection methods that they think will cause people to use more double modals, but without telling them that they want them to use double modals. And getting people to say something in a certain way is really bloody hard. Normal people seem to have this quaint idea that what you say is more important than the way you say it.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Prepositions in Prague

I've been in Prague, because my lovely parents took me (and my sister) there for my 30th birthday. It was beautiful and interesting and relaxing (though also tiring because there are a lot of steps and hills). 

When I go to other countries where they speak not-English I generally try to learn a few phrases so as not to be a total rudeperson. This goes down well in France, where they either don't speak English that well or just generally prefer it if you speak French (can't blame them) and luckily my French is passable enough that that works OK. In other countries they seem to have decided it's just easier if we all speak English and it's quite hard to get them to talk not-English to you. 

In Amsterdam, they can spot an English person at twenty paces and get in their English greeting before you even have a chance to say 'hallo' (which is basically English anyway, because a lot of Dutch is English with a funny accent). In Prague they aren't quite as sure, because you might be Italian or Spanish or French or German instead, so they're sometimes a bit more tentative with the English opener, so you do have a chance to go in with the Czech (and from your poor pronunciation they obviously realise that you're English). 

There's a different type of problem though. In Amsterdam, I quite happily parallel-talked, doing my best Dutch beer-ordering and thanking, and they replied in English so that I could actually understand. This worked quite well. But in Prague, it didn't go so well. If I tried to thank them in Czech, they didn't always seem to understand. This is partly because three phrasebooks gave me three different ways of saying it, so I wasn't quite as sure of myself. I'd specifically learnt some phrases, and discovered that my ten weeks of basic Russian would be quite handy (I successfully rustled up the words for 'four tickets'). 

But I think the biggest problem is that they're making it up. Those three ways of saying thank you, for instance. And look at these signs. They all show what appear to be the words 'from' and 'to' (the first one may not, but the second two definitely do), and there are THREE different ones. The second two, especially, are a dead giveaway that they're making it up, because they're saying the exact same thing. There's no way a difference in the length of time you're allowed to park changes what preposition you use with the times you're allowed to park between. 

Reminds me of Welsh, which is definitely doing a similar thing. On one weekend visit not long ago I counted at least three different way of writing 'car park' on signs in just Pembroke Dock.

[08/08/12 Update! 366daysinthelife has informed me that Po - Pa and Po - Ne mean Mon-Fri and Mon-Sun. Of course! It's so obvious once you know. Come back Czech, all is forgiven.]

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

They call it

I noticed a thing the other day. It's a thing I've noticed about the Northeast (English) dialect before (specifically, I've noticed it in the Ashington dialect), but then I heard someone from Sheffield do it too, so maybe it's more widespread in the north.

What I noticed was that where I would say
It's called...
some people would say
They call it...

The exact context was that on Pointless, a contestant was trying to think of Adam Sandler films. He was trying to think of 50 First Dates, though he thought it was called 42 Dates, and he said
There's one, they call it 42 Dates.
This is not a part of my dialect at all, despite having lived in the north east most of my life, and it's sufficiently salient for me to be blogging about, but it's not unusual. I've also heard people introducing a character to the discourse who needs to be contextualised like this:
Margaret's son, I think they call him Michael, works in Asda now. 
For me, they call him has to have a sort of habitual meaning (the action happens habitually, on many separate occasions). To get the stative interpretation (he is in a state of being called Michael) I need to say He is called, where the verb is passive and the subject the person in question. But for these speakers, they call him, with an active verb with generic subject they, can have the stative reading.

Interestingly, it is always they as the subject, never people or any other subject meaning 'everyone in general'. This suggests that it's a fixed expression, they call NP (or perhaps it has to be a pronoun, though I think not), with they an impersonal pronoun like one.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Agreement fail

In British English, at least, we can use either plural or singular for organisations like the government, the staff  or the audience. So it can be 'the government has announced...' or 'the government have announced...'. On the radio the other day, Sandi Toksvig (yes, she's been in this blog before - I just really like her, OK? Jeez.) said this about stopping terrorists from getting to the Olympics:
Transport for London are doing its bit.
This is in no way a criticism of Sandi - she can do no wrong in my eyes. It's simply an observation on the oddity of English. She's started out with plural agreement (are), because TfL are semantically plural. Like I said, this is totally OK in British English (I think there's some difference between the UK and US on this, but I'm not sure what it is). But then in the same sentence, she uses singular agreement (its) because TfL is grammatically singular.

This variation is common, and speakers are often inconsistent in their use (I know I am) but it's unusual to see it in a single sentence.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Cummerbund. Not cumberband.

There was a thing, for a little while, when some people thought a journalist had made a hilarious typo and referred to Sherlock actor Benedict Cumberbatch as Bandersnatch Cummerbund:

Language Log notes the 'typo' and clears it up for us that it is, very obviously, a joke. Benedict Cumberbatch is a funny name, you see, and sometimes hard to remember, so she humorously misremembered it on purpose. (Bandersnatch is the frumious creature from the Jabberwocky, and a cummerbund is an item of men's dress wear.)

But look! She spelt cummerbund right! That's more than most people on the internet can manage. Before long, one or both of those variants is going to become accepted as an alternative spelling. And of course that's fine with me.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012


What did you read the title of this post as? A noun, or a verb?

I've written both the plural form of the noun analysis and the 3rd person singular form of the verb analyse squillions of times, and only last week did I realise they are spelt exactly the same way.

Call me a doofus, if you like, but it's true. In my mind they are two totally distinct lexical items, though obviously related, and I knew how to spell both. Because they can never be confused in context, I've never once thought one when I meant the other, and so never noticed the spelling was the same. Just shows, there is no ambiguity in the language of thought.

Monday, 7 May 2012

A strange case of misattributed prescriptivism

I recently treated myself to this book for the princely sum of 5p (plus £2.80 delivery from America - really,  you can't say fairer than that). It's called Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog, though unless you have been through the US education system you might not be able to tell that from the cover:

It's about sentence diagramming, which, when I first heard the term, I thought was the same thing as what we do in syntax, representing the structure of sentences as tree diagrams. Apparently not: it's a different way of doing a similar thing, and US kids were taught it in school until quite recently (I think around the same time they stopped teaching grammar in UK schools). It's a nice little book, and I'll review it at some point, because I did find it quite interesting. 

But today's post is about a passing mention on page 116-7. In a chapter in which the author, a copy editor named Kitty Burns Florey, ponders incorrect usage and whether diagramming sentences could help to eliminate it, she says this of Lynne Truss's punctuation book Eats, Shoots & Leaves:
...as exemplified in Truss's ridiculing of what she considers bad English - including the attempts of immigrants to use it (resulting in such less-than-hilarious errors as "Plum's 49c a pound"...
Florey then devotes a paragraph to her admiration for people whose first language is not English, and the cuteness of their errors. I think this is a fairly uncontroversial stance; in this largely monolingual country, I at least (a monolingual speaker surrounded by amazingly competent non-native speakers and polyglots) share this admiration. And Lynne Truss is ridiculing foreign greengrocers? Not fair.

Now I do happen to have my copy of Eats, Shoots & Leaves to hand. Lynne Truss is a massive prescriptivist, at least in the realm of punctuation, by anyone's standards (and actually, if you are going to be a prescriptivist, you might as well be a punctuation prescriptivist because at least it is a contrived system with entirely invented rules and no natural existence other than its sometimes arbitrary relation to prosody). She says things like this:
Someone wrote to say that my use of "one's" was wrong...and that it should be 'ones'. This is such rubbish that I refuse to argue about it.
Well, OK, fine, but she has just spent several pages arguing about other incorrect apostrophisation, so this seems a bit like sticking your head in the sand. Anyway. Not the point. The point is, I'm not saying she isn't a prescriptivist; that's the whole point of the book. But does she really go so far as to ridicule immigrants' attempts to use English? My memory of the book told me no. And anyway, it's entirely written in British English, even as far as the lack of a serial ('Oxford') comma in the title, which in most US publishing house styles would be Eats, Shoots, & Leaves, so why would she refer to the price of anything in cents?

So obviously I checked. There is a long chapter on the apostrophe, and in that chapter she does refer to greengrocers' famous misuse of it (which the "plum's 49c" example must surely be an example of). However, at no point does she even mention immigrants, or the price of plums, and she also writes this:
The only illiteracy with apostrophes that stirs any sympathy in me is the greengrocer's variety. 
So not only does she not mention immigrants and not use the quoted example, she excuses errors such as the one she supposedly ridicules.

I did consider, of course, that the US version of the book might be different. It seemed unlikely that it would have been completely rewritten, but perhaps a word changed here or there for US readers might give an unintended interpretation. These days, we can check this kind of thing because Amazon allows you to search inside a book. I did, and at no point in either edition does the word plums come up, however you punctuate it. In fact, the editions appear to be exactly the same, even down to the same pagesetting.

Did Florey read the book wrong? Did she misunderstand something that was never there? I can't see how she possibly could. Are greengrocers mostly immigrants where she comes from? Round my way they're exclusively English. Just a case of misremembering? Maybe, but I can't help thinking that if you're accusing someone of something, you should double-check they do actually do it.

(By the way, Florey is just as big a prescriptivist as Truss. I think you have to be, to be a copy editor. She spends the next few pages after this comment railing against ain't, youse and double negatives as 'seriously low class'.)

Friday, 4 May 2012

Stop selling essays on my blog

I don't get a lot of spam comments on this blog. In fact, I get almost none at all. The very small exception to this rule is a specific type of comment, which may well come from a human rather than a robot commenter (which is how they get through the spam filter). They're all on one particular post (this one) and they all, in slightly faulty English, praise the post and then put a link to an essay-writing service (not always the same one). I'm fully expecting to get similar comments on this post now.

I checked out these sites once, just to see what exactly they claim to offer. They're invariably quite badly written sites, which doesn't exactly instill confidence (although I suppose if you need to buy essays, you're not going to be the type of person who notices or cares about such things). Anyway, they all say that the essays (written by postgraduate students) are not to be passed off as your own work, and are examples only. Why you would pay a fairly large sum of money (not a fortune, it's affordable for a student who really wants to pass, but not a trifle) for an example of a good essay, I don't know. Obviously, they know that people are handing these in as their own work, which is plagiarism, but they cover their backs by saying explicitly that they aren't to be used that way - then they can say, well, it's not our responsibility what people do. We told them not to and they did it anyway.

But this kind of plagiarism must be the hardest to detect, or at least prove. If you copy big chunks off the internet then it's easily spotted and easily proved. If you 'forget' to reference an article, you'll get very swiftly found out and again, can easily be shown to be plagiarised. If your work is very similar to someone else's, you're both going to have some explaining to do. But if you hand in a bespoke essay, containing original research and writing, just not your own, what to do? Your tutor might notice that your writing style is suddenly completely different, or that your punctuation has suddenly improved or your ideas are suddenly vastly more sophisticated. They may be pretty certain that it's not your work. But how can they prove it? It gets to be a big, complicated process where people have to look at your work and you have to show that you really wrote it and explain the improvement in your work... (you can of course buy an essay that gets an average mark, which is a bit smarter, but then why would you?).

So this is why these comments all get marked as spam as soon as I spot them. I won't have them, and I think the services advertised within them should be outlawed. Although I may be looking for a job from them if things go belly-up with the PhD.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Forever and for ever

There are lots of expressions, mostly with quantifiers (all, every etc.), that can be written as one word or two. Generally, it makes a difference to the meaning:
Every day: daily (it rained every day for a week)
Everyday: common, unexceptional (it was an everyday occurrence)
All right: everything correct
Alright: agreement
Any one: free choice of one out of all of these (you can choose any one ice cream)
Anyone: existential or universal pronoun (anyone could understand that)
And so on.

But I got to thinking about forever/for ever. Most of the time, it doesn't seem to make a difference which one you use:
It was taking for ever to finish the essay.
It was taking forever to chop all the potatoes for the stew. 
It's sort of surprising that, given that these other expressions have different meanings, that it would just be free variation. For isn't a quantifier, but I don't know that that should make a difference. I checked my copy of Fowler's and found the following:

  1. It's two words when the meaning is 'for all future time' or 'in perpetuity' (he said he would love her for ever).
  2. It's one word when the meaning is 'continually, persistently, always' (the children are forever asking about more pocket money).
  3. It doesn't matter when the meaning is 'for a long time' (as above). 

I still think you could get away with forever even in the first one, though perhaps not for ever in the second. Almost free variation, then.