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.