Friday, 18 December 2015


German is famous for its compounds. I'm not sure this is fair, really, because as far as I can tell it just doesn't write the spaces (I'm being facetious - but there is a conceptual issue here). No matter. It is famous for them. I said to my first years the other day that while English can't have plurals within compounds (eg it's toothbrush, not teethbrush, even though it's a brush for your teeth), German can. And this is true: bookshelf in German is Bücherregal, literally booksshelf. But it's not that simple. This is language we're talking about, after all.

German and English can both have irregular plurals in compounds, as well as singulars. English can have teethmarks, for instance (although personally I would prefer toothmarks). But neither language can have regular plurals in compounds, so we have mice eater but not rats eater and Bücherregal but not Autosberg ('cars heap'). (Links go to articles testing this idea.) The difference is that German has many more irregular plurals: their default (=regular) plural is the -s suffix that I mentioned in my Euros post. All the others, which put together are way more common, are in effect irregular.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

German suddenly makes Esperanto make sense

As you know, I'm learning German and dabbling in Esperanto. Esperanto is primarily based on romance languages as far as the vocabulary goes, with a bit of English and German thrown in, and its cases are a bit like German. One thing that was bugging me about Esperanto was that when I learnt about subordinate clauses, there was always a comma after the main verb. Like this:
I hope, that I get something nice for Xmas. 
This is weird to me, as it's just not the way we do it in English and I can't help reading it with a strange Shatneresque style. But I have discovered that German does this (romance languages do not, at least in my experience), so it appears to be another aspect of Esperanto borrowed from German rather than the romance languages.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Grainy painies

For some reason, the other day I remembered a thing that happened on TV years ago. Frank Skinner had a chat show at the time, and Britney Spears was big, so I suppose it was probably the late 1990s. Britney was on Frank’s programme, and she at some point used the term ‘granny panties’ to mean ‘big knickers’.

Normally, we translate effortlessly between accents, so much so that we don’t even notice that we’re doing it most of the time. If someone tells you their name and they have an accent different from yours, you repeat it back in your own accent, not in an imitation of the way they said it. Let’s say you’re from London and your friend is from Vancouver, and her name is Martina. She’s probably got a ‘rhotic’ accent so she’ll pronounce the ‘r’ in her name, but you probably won’t. When you say her name back to her to check you heard it right, you aren’t going to pronounce the ‘r’ just because she does.

That’s why it’s weird when this doesn’t happen. When Britney said ‘granny panties’, it wasn’t a phrase Frank had ever heard before. Britney’s accent is also very different from Frank’s, and when she said it, what he heard (and repeated back to her) was ‘grainy painies’. If you can’t relate the sound string you hear to a known word or phrase, the only thing you can do is approximate the way it sounded. What you say sounds just like the phrase but you don’t know what it is you’re saying.

I see something like this in my first year seminars. One week, we do an exercise where they have to work out what phrase is written in phonetic transcription. The way to do this is to ‘sound it out’. Often, they are literally saying the exact phrase perfectly, but they can’t hear the words or extract the meaning from the string of sound. It’s fascinating and completely hilarious.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Francis Nolan and Parseltongue at UKC

We had a talk from Francis Nolan of Cambridge University yesterday. Actually, we had two. He did a research talk on the unintelligibility of sopranos, which I unfortunately had to miss, and he also did a talk for our undergraduate student society on Parseltongue, which he created. I sneaked in and live-tweeted it.

Monday, 30 November 2015

Lazy to do laundry

This advert appeared in my workplace recently:

It offers laundry services under the line 'Lazy to do Laundry?'. This is not quite felicitous for me (that's linguist-speak for 'there's something not quite right about the syntax'). Of course I can understand what it means: it doesn't seem to me to be any different from 'Too lazy to do laundry?' or 'Lazy when it comes to doing your laundry?', and that's obviously the intended meaning.

I can't find any more examples like it: Google, CoCA and the British National Corpus all have the string 'lazy to+infinitive' preceded by 'too'. Normally, adjective+to+infinitive means 'To [infinitive] is [adjective]', as in 'It's lazy to sleep all day', and indeed there was one example of this in CoCA.

[Update] My friend Stuart pointed out that there are some examples on Twitter. Interesting in itself that they are there but not on Google: They must be rare enough that they're drowned out by the 'to lazy to' examples.

Monday, 23 November 2015

This is likely an Americanism

One other thing I've noticed in student essays much more this time than previously is the use of likely. Here is the relevant use:
This is likely a result of X. 
I understand what this means, it's not ungrammatical, but it's not in my idiolect (=the variety of English specific to me). I'd have to write one of the following:
This is likely to be a result of X.
This is probably a result of X.
Because the first type isn't in my idiolect, I can't tell whether it's proper 'academese'. It sounded informal to me, until I asked Twitter and was directed to this blog post by Lynne Murphy. It is apparently a UK/US difference. Why my students are using it, I don't know: presumably this usage is spreading to this country.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

The preposition with which you are filling it in

I am currently mired in marking. As you know, I keep note of which mistakes are currently popular. One that I spotted recently was a sort of preposition doubling but with two different prepositions. Let me explain.

So, there are two things English can do. You can either move your preposition (in, in this example) along with your wh-word:
It depends on the newspapers in which you are reading them.
or you can leave it where it is:
It depends on the newspapers which you are reading them in.
It's a stylistic choice nowadays (used to be frowned upon, not so much now, and the first sounds a bit stuffy in casual conversation). Ignore the fact that which probably ought to be that in the second example (incidentally, that's evidence that this which/that rule is a bit daft). English is unusual in allowing this choice: most languages can't 'strand' the preposition and have to move it, as in the first example.

Sometimes, people get halfway through the sentence and forget they moved the preposition, and stick it in at the end as well:
It depends on the newspapers in which you are reading them in
Oh well - no problem. Speech error. It happens. Paul McCartney is sometimes said to have sung 'this ever-changing world in which we live in' (though he thinks maybe it was actually 'in which we're living').

But today I read sentences like this from two different students:
It depends on the newspapers with which you are reading them in
How exciting! So I think here, the student has left the preposition at the end on purpose, because that's fine, but also felt like there really ought to be something in that space before the which, so stuck in another preposition (with) that sounds OK there. Add it to the list of 'more words = better' mistakes.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Euros and the emergency plural

I'm learning German - I don't think I said. It's quite fun, although you never learn much at an evening class because there are lots of people of mixed ability and you can't ask the teacher important linguistic questions because it's not fair to expect non-linguists to know the answer to such things.

Anyway today, we learnt about currencies and big numbers, among other things. Germany obviously uses the euro as its currency, which is Euro in German. I checked, and it's not pluralised. Languages vary on what they do with the plural, so in Spanish you have 1 euro and 10 euros, but in Italian you have 1 euro and 10 euro, not 10 euri (which just looks weird). I think the most interesting thing about this is the difference between British English, which is spoken in a country where the euro isn't used and pluralises it (10 euros), and Irish English, which is spoken in a country where it is used (so it's a much more frequent word) and doesn't pluralise it (10 euro). I don't know what Northern Ireland does - I'm sure someone will tell me. I remember noticing it when an Irish friend-of-a-friend and thinking it was funny to hear an English speaker do what I'm used to hearing in other languages.

German doesn't pluralise it, as I say. Nevertheless, my teacher today definitely said '10 euros' at one point. A slip of the tongue, no doubt, or perhaps it is pluralised in some non-standard variety that she is not teaching us. But either way, it's interesting for a morphology reason. Steven Pinker published a book in 1999, too early to mention the pluralisation of euro because it had only just been introduced. But he did talk about German plural suffixes. -s is 'by far the least common' of the several possibilities (-e, -er, -en, -s, or nothing), but it is the Notpluralendung, or 'emergency plural' (p.222). It's the one you pick if the word is new, or doesn't normally pluralise. That's why it turns up on foreign words or names, and, in this case, on Euro.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Professional toilet paper

Normally, ‘professional’ quality means better quality. Artists’ paints, for instance, come in ‘student’ and ‘professional’ grades, and the professional ones are made with real pigment instead of synthesised stuff and are correspondingly more expensive for the ones made of precious things. A professional bricklayer will do the job better than some bloke who does it in his spare time (in theory, anyway). A professional musician plays music for a living and can be assumed to be pretty good at it.

Olympic athletes are not professionals, though: they’re amateurs. It’s in the rules. If you ‘turn pro’ in boxing you can’t compete in the Olympics any more. Here, ‘professional’ means ‘does it for money’.

And the toilet paper they use in my workplace is ‘professional quality’, which in this context means ‘not the good stuff that you buy for yourself’. 

I was going to photograph the actual packaging but it's been thrown away, so here's The Professionals instead. 

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Michael Rosen loves grammar

This isn't a post, just a link. It's a post by someone who criticises Michael Rosen. I won't have this. Michael Rosen tirelessly defends good language teaching. This person says he is down on grammar, when grammar is important. But he isn't - he gives every impression of finding it fascinating, and is admirably intelligent and well-informed on modern linguistic thinking. He just thinks the SPaG test for children is stupid (which it is). It also seems that the post's author regards grammar as a set of terminology that help you to write well, whereas Rosen appears to see grammar as something interesting and exciting in its own right (which it is). Anyway, here's the post and below it you can read Rosen responding at length.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Trompe l'oeiling

There's an episode of The Simpsons (Flaming Moe, s22ep11 - a reference to the episode Flaming Moe's) in which Moe, for reasons, reinvents his bar as a gay bar for average-looking men.

It's tremendously successful, and he says this:
Now we can afford real bowls of pretzels instead of trompe l'oeiling them on the bar.
This is a fantastic bit of morphology. It's yer bog-standard noun-to-verb conversion (verbification, if you like), transforming the noun trompe l'oeil to a verb to trompe l'oeil (and notice, of course, that the noun is itself a translation of a French verb-plus-object: 'to fool the eye'). Then we are free to stick the verb suffix -ing on the end, because we can do that with verbs in English.

But it's so cool. For one thing, it means that the normally unpronounced final 'l' gets pronounced (he says it like trompe-loyling) and for another, it reveals how when we borrow a phrase wholesale with an idiomatic meaning like this we can put a verb suffix on a noun no problem at all.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

The Oxford, comma

For those that don't know, the Oxford comma (or serial comma) is the comma that can come before 'and' in a list. I was taught not to put one there when I was at school, but it is a stylistic choice (and a regional one: it's more used in America). It's massively controversial and people get far too worked up about it. Just google it and you'll see.

These examples are frequently cited as evidence that the Oxford comma is essential:

What they show is that sometimes, the writing would be clearer with the comma before 'and'. It's true; it would be. But there are also times when it would be better without:
Those at the ceremony were the commodore, the fleet captain, the donor of the cup, Mr. Smith, and Mr. Jones.
Here, the sentence could read as if Mr Smith donated the cup, but he is meant to be just another person in the list.

And then there are times when you'd have to be some kind of weirdo to misunderstand the meaning:

Note, of course, that all of these examples are only ambiguous in writing. In speech you have different intonation patterns to tell you what the meaning is.

What this boils down to is people on the internet wanting a rule that they can blindly apply and then criticise those who don't know it. What would be a more sensible strategy would be if people just read their work through and applied punctuation where it helps to make the writing better, and not where it doesn't.

(FWIW, this excerpt from Mental Floss seems to get the balance about right: 'George Ives, the author of a 1921 guide to the usage style of the Atlantic Monthly Press, ... [shows that] making the comma before "and" standard practice is more economical. This way, the reader will know for sure that if it's missing, there's a good reason.')

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

If you could read this blog post

Sometimes, a request is expressed like this:
I'm snowed under, so if you can just book that room for me. Thanks! 
My colleague/friend/fellow twitterlinguist Damien Hall (@EvrydayLg) says that this has an implied 'that'd be good' after the if-clause. I think he's right about this, and the full form would be this:
If you can just book that room for me, that'd be good.
The if-clause is a conditional, and conditionals have to be subordinate to a main clause. So technically, this is a fragment: it's a subordinate clause set adrift, with no main clause to modify the meaning of. But we see it a lot. I do it myself, because it's a very convenient way of making a request in writing.

Written requests have become a problem, if they are from one person to another on the same level. You have to be polite and grateful, and one by one, our ways of doing it have become too abrupt. A plain request would be Please book that room for me. This is way too imperative, so we have questions. Can you book that room for me? is not technically a request: it's a question, and the askee could say I'm sorry, I'm not able to without having to say I won't. But then we feel we need to add please, and then could seems to sound more polite, and we get Could you please book that room, and then we add hedges like just as in the first example... and so on. Eventually you sit at your computer rephrasing it over and over but it all sounds like you're ordering the person around. Right now, to me, this 'unfinished conditional' construction seems to be non-imperative. It's a simple statement of fact: I'm not asking you to do anything, but if you were to happen to do it anyway, that'd be grand.

But here's why I love it most of all: it looks just like the way you ask a question in some other languages. We aren't really using it to ask a question in English: conditional-if is different from question-if, and they just happen to have the same form. But if it was question-if, look at this question in Polish (source):
Czy Basia ma kota?
'Does Basia have a cat?' (literally: 'If Basia has (a) cat')
Here, the same word czy that is used for if in an embedded question (as in English I wonder if Basia has a cat) is used for a main clause question and it looks really like the English unfinished conditionals.

We said that the English one is a conditional, not a question, and I think this is right. But imagine that it was a question: If you can book that room for me means Can you book that room for me? and we have what is apparently exactly the same syntax as Polish. (I'm not claiming it is the same - just noting the parallel.)

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Not as much hedgehogs

On the RSPB's website there's this rather charming text (emphasis mine):
Many of us feel there are fewer bumblebees bumbling around our flowerbeds, less sparrows flitting between our gardens and not as many hedgehogs sniffing around our green spaces. 
We might also add 'not as much' to complete the set.

Of course, a pedant would say that less is ungrammatical for a countable noun like sparrows, and that both ought to be fewer. Similarly, it would be 'wrong' to say not as much if it were followed by something like hedgehogs, but in this paragraph it provides a nice variety in the expression used.

Monday, 19 October 2015

How to be a lecturer just as good as me

Lately, perhaps as a reflex of the news that there will soon be a TEF, articles have often included advice on how to do lecturing better. This THE article, for instance, talks about how to engage with sullen students. It has some good practical advice in it, if you scroll down, but the contribution from Tara Brabazon is about as useful as her earlier advice on how to write a PhD thesis just like hers. She tells us everything that was wrong with the way her unfortunate colleague has been teaching the students, leaving them unresponsive and robotic. She tells us that she plays music five minutes before the start of her lectures, and '[they] have a dance and a sing and it orients students into a learning experience'. Eventually, after 'exertion and stress' and 'the constant trickle of stress down [her] back', the 'students revealed a shard of light'. Great. I'll just do that then, shall I? 

This person writing in the NYT is similarly exercised:

Holding their attention is not easy. I lecture from detailed notes, which I rehearse before each class until I know the script well enough to riff when inspiration strikes. I pace around, wave my arms, and call out questions to which I expect an answer. When the hour is done, I’m hot and sweaty.
I don't know what kind of place these people teach in. I can't play music five minutes before the start of my lectures: there's another lecture taking place in the room. I do see the benefit, though, as playing music during group discussion in seminars seems to help students relax (though it didn't make a difference to their marks in a study I conducted last year).

I don't think it's necessarily good advice to promote the idea that because you're working up a sweat and pacing around, that you're working hard and lecturing well. Students don't often appreciate pacing around, for example. It would be much better to find out what actually works in a lecture scenario from the students' point of view (and the advice lower down in the THE article does just that). Much of the subjective, I-work-bloody-hard stuff seems to be defensive in the face of a perceived slight against the traditional lecture format. I've seen other articles defending chalk and blackboard over PowerPoint and so on. If there is any attack on traditional lecturing, it's coming from the right place: from research showing how effective learning takes place, and from the need for accessibility for those with dyslexia, visual impairments, and other conditions that make taking down an hour of uninterrupted talking difficult.

I put a lot of effort into my lectures, because I genuinely find the topic interesting and I get excited about it. I hope that this comes across and helps students to find it interesting too. But sweating? I don't know how you work up a sweat by walking and talking, because I don't. Working from a detailed script is another matter. I don't. I have slides, and I know what I want to say, but I don't read a script because I think it can be boring for the listener. If you can do it well, I daresay this is an inspiring type of lecture to be in. But I don't have time to rehearse thoroughly before each lecture when I teach around 12 hours a week. Is the TEF going to penalise those of us with heavier teaching loads?

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Maximum (of) flavour

I get emails from Carluccio's, for some reason, and today this one arrived.

At the bottom, it says:
These dishes capture Antonio Carluccio's 'MOF MOF' philosophy - 'minimum of fuss and maximum of flavour'
This reminded me of the chapter we read for our Syntax Reading Group yesterday, in which Richie Kayne demonstrated microcomparative syntax for various constructions in English and French, like the following contrast (p.19):
English: something heavy
French: quelque chose de lourd (literally 'some thing of heavy')
In other words, French requires de in this construction (*quelque chose lourd), while English disallows it (*Something of heavy). In the email I got, the phrases minimum of fuss and maximum of flavour are similar, in that English doesn't use of here. You can say with a minimum of fuss and that's OK, but not a maximum of anything. Antonio Carluccio is, obviously, Italian, so without knowing for sure I speculate that perhaps in Italian, the construction with of is grammatical and thus a point of microcomparison between English and Italian.

Reference: Kayne, Richard S. 2008. Some notes on comparative syntax, with special reference to English and French. In Guglielmo Cinque & Richard S. Kayne, The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Syntax. Oxford: OUP. pp. 3-69. 

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Lol it on yourself

This is the best thing I've seen today. Maybe all week. I present.... 'lol' used as a transitive verb!

Friday, 2 October 2015

Iceland in translation is less icy

I read one of Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen books, And then you die. Part of the plot (not really a spoiler) involves Zen (an Italian) finding himself unexpectedly in Iceland. The Italian consul, who meets him there, tells him where he is, and they have this exchange (in Italian):
Snæbjörn Guðmundsson: This is Iceland.
Aurelio Zen: I don't see any ice.
Snæbjörn Guðmundsson: No, Greenland's the icy one. 
This is true. Iceland isn't specially icy (not all over it, anyway) and Greenland is very icy. This fact always pleased me.

But Zen is Italian, and does not speak English (he originally believes himself to be in America, where he was bound for, and assumes the people are speaking in some obscure regional dialect of English). The Italian for 'ice' is ghiaccio, though, so the etymology of the Italian name of the country, Islanda, is not obvious as it is in English. It comes as a direct borrowing from the Icelandic name, and the Italian Wikipedia page has to explain this fact, indicating its non-transparency. Similarly, Greenland is Groenlandia in Italian, while 'green' is verde. In Italian, the confusion should never arise.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Not all moths

I host a quiz night in our local micropub (it's cosy). Recently, in the 'insects' round, I asked whether insects are warm- or cold-blooded. They are cold-blooded, of course (this is not a technical term: they are actually ectothermic, which means they don't regulate their body temperature internally). One quizzer challenged me, because there are in fact three species of moth (out of maybe 10 million species of insect - we don't know exactly) that are warm-blooded.

Leaving aside the fact that rounding this off to, say, 3 significant figures is 0.00%, we have a question of genericity. Now, either my statement 'insects are cold-blooded' is an absolute statement meaning 'all insects are cold-blooded', in which case a single warm-blooded insect is enough to prove it wrong, or it's a generic statement: 'insects in general are cold-blooded'. I meant the latter, of course, and in the context of a quiz question where two options are given, this should be clear. One of the things Steven Pinker said, actually, was that to avoid the hedging ('almost', 'in general', etc) you find in bad prose, you should allow your reader to assume the generic interpretation. In academic writing there is a place for the precision afforded by hedging, but for much other writing I agree.

There's limits though. While researching my quiz, I read the supposed fact that 'babies are born with blue eyes'. That, I thought, was astonishing. It turned out that what the author meant was 'white babies who will have blue, green, hazel or grey eyes', not 'babies in general' - there is a very high proportion of babies in the world who have dark brown eyes, and are not born with blue eyes. If you're going to make generic statements you do have to be clear about what the universe of discourse is and your generic statement has to actually apply to the majority of things in it. (In this case, the author had made the very easy mistake of forgetting that not everyone is exactly like them.)

Another of my quizzers challenged another question. In the picture round I had asked for the name of the species of fish pictured. One was a goldfish, and the team had written 'carp'. I didn't allow this, and the challenger wanted to know why, when a goldfish is a carp. It's true that goldfish are carp, but not all carp are goldfish. 'Goldfish' is therefore a hyponym of 'carp' (and 'carp' is a hypernym of 'goldfish').

I am clearly not strict enough with my quizzers. If I keep blogging about their complaints perhaps they'll stop.

Monday, 21 September 2015


In case you don't follow James Blunt on twitter, here's a tip: follow him. His tweets mostly consist of sporadic bursts of sarcastic retorts to people's Blunt-hate. Here's one:

Screenshot of a James Blunt tweet
I have in the past been guilty of criticising James Blunt. I seem to remember writing a not-very-complimentary article about his music many years ago. But then he was on something on telly and was very funny and likeable, and then he started tweeting, and, well, now I think he's great.

The tweet he's responding to includes an adverb from the 'literal-to-intensifier' group: physically. Along with literally, legitimately, virtually and the like, it's at risk of becoming an intensifier adverb like totally or actually. This use of physically does retain most of its lexical meaning: she wants to physically punch him, with her hand, rather than mentally wishing it upon him. But it seems like it might be an example of the kind of usage that can easily leak into more metaphorical usage.

And then Blunt responds with a clever pun on the word slapper, as well as a grammatical correction. Normally one doesn't approve of correcting grammar to win points in a fight but here it's intended to make the other person feel foolish so it's OK, I suppose? And also it's nice to see an over-correction re-corrected back down again. The over-correction comes about because we are often told not to say things like 'me and James Blunt', and that it should be 'James Blunt and I'. So it should, if it's the subject of the sentence. But when it's the object of a preposition like between, the pronoun needs to be in 'oblique' case, or in other words me rather than I. So would all nouns, in fact, if we had a richer case system, but we only have different forms for the pronouns in English.

Friday, 18 September 2015

LAGB 2015

I've been at LAGB this week. It's the annual meeting of the Linguistics Association of Great Britain, held around this time in a university in the UK. This year it's at UCL, which is a very nice university. I've spent most of the week in talks, of course, but there are also some nice museums that belong to the university itself to see while I'm here. I'll post something more shortly, but for now I just thought I'd better say why I haven't been doing much on the blog lately.
Jeremy Bentham's auto-icon at UCL

Sunday, 13 September 2015


The Morris group that I dance with did some workshops for some Dutch children this week. One of the girls said that the evening was gezellig - and she asked me did we have this word? Well, we don't, of course. I tried to kind of mutate it into English and got this far:

  1. -ig is an adjective suffix, meaning -y or equivalent. 
  2. ge- is a kind of verbal past tense thing, I believe, so this is an adjective formed from a verb

But then I got stuck (it also turns out I was wrong about the ge- bit anyway).

Just from the way it sounded, I suggested 'cosy', even though it didn't seem right in context. I looked it up when I got home and 'cosy' is one of the things it can mean, but the internet also tells me that this is an 'untranslatable' word.

Untranslatable words, it seems to me, come in two or three flavours. There's one kind where a language happens to have a word for a very specific concept. This is not untranslatable; it's just that language X encodes something in one single word that language Y does with a phrase. See, for example, German schadenfreude or Japanese origami (I have no idea how much Germans or Japanese people actually use these words). In this case, as with many others, the way we get round not having a word for this concept is to just borrow it. We also do this with foreign things like food (risotto, wasabi, pak choi, tea...).

There's also words where the translation isn't exact, although there's a bunch of words with similar meanings. See the Language Log entry on 'accountability', for instance. Prepositions are also a problem - they never seem to translate quite right from one language to another, partly because they don't have 'meaning', as such, but rather a grammatical function. These must be annoying for translators and make learning languages a little bit harder/more interesting, but we can learn what the nuances are.

Then there's the kind that seem somehow exotic because they refer to some concept that we hadn't thought about before. These have a great appeal on the internet. I suspect this is because they tend to refer to highly emotional states of mind. Nostalgia would be a good example of this in English, and saudade in Portuguese. They are often claimed to say something about the temperament of the nation that uses that word, so Portuguese or Brazilians are typically melancholic or nostalgic. We know the fallacy of attributing a characteristic to a whole nation, but nevertheless we like to do it because it helps us to label people.

Gezellig is said on Wikipedia to 'encompass the heart of Dutch culture', so it's a good example of one of these 'untranslatable words'. Wiktionary says it means 'companionable, having company with a pleasant, friendly atmosphere, cosy atmosphere or an upbeat feeling about the surroundings'.

It also says it comes from gezel, which means 'companion'. So much for my etymological analysis.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Something you never realised about factive predicates! This is epic!

There's a post about Guardians of the Galaxy. It's a cute story: blockbuster film helps child appreciate slash believe in self. But it's got one of those flippin' annoying clickbait headlines, which says this:
Something you never realised about Guardians of the Galaxy. This is epic. 
The problem, apart from clickbait headlines being a problem in general, is that realise is what's called a factive verb. That means that whatever is 'realised' should be a true fact. In this case, it's 'something about Guardians of the Galaxy'. Perhaps some hidden in-joke, or an 'easter egg', or trivia about how the film was made.

Compare these examples, taken from Wikipedia and modified by me, where the # means that it's pragmatically weird (doesn't make sense) to say the second part:
Marc realised that he was in debt...
#...although in fact he wasn't in debt.
Eliza regretted drinking John's home brew...
#...and in fact she didn't drink it.
With these, which are non-factive and can be cancelled without it sounding contradictory:
Marc thought he had scored full marks...
...although in fact he had got two questions wrong.
Eliza believed she was the winner of the race...
...but in fact she had come second. 
The thing that is realised or regretted must be true, while the thing that is thought or believed might not actually be true, as long as the person thinks or believes it (they may be mistaken).

This particular post is someone's personal story, and they freely say that it's not based on any factual knowledge, just on their own personal experience of the film. This isn't a fact that we might possibly have realised, so this headline is not only annoying, it doesn't even make sense, and whoever wrote it is now on my List Of People To Tut At Should I Ever Meet Them.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Steven Pinker at the Royal Institution

I went to a talk by Steven Pinker to promote his book, The Sense of Style. It was held at the Royal Institution, which is a science institution and this book is probably the least scientific thing Pinker has ever written, but still. I went along because although I'm now enough of a linguist to know that Steven Pinker is not some kind of god, his book The Language Instinct is still indirectly the reason I'm now a linguist (I read it aged 15 or so and found it fascinating, and that was my first introduction to linguistics). I took my copy along to sign and he very graciously did so despite me not buying a copy of the one he was plugging.

The talk itself will be available to watch on the Ri channel so I needn't summarise it too thoroughly. Pinker was a very entertaining speaker, with lots of jokes that most of the audience didn't seem to have heard before (I had heard them but still laughed because he tells them well). He began with the standard 'everyone has always said language is degenerating' bit, and the 'look how silly most style advice is'. So far, so expected. But the interesting part was when he got onto his own advice.

Digression: style guides serve one useful purpose, which is to ensure consistency within a particular publication. So the Guardian, for example, has a style guide, and it means that the writing of many different people published in the Guardian follows the same rules (usually). It's a slightly different style from the New York Times, but that too is internally consistent. Everyone knows the rules are arbitrary to some extent (else they'd all be the same), but the important thing is to follow the ones for whoever you're writing for. Therefore, style guides that lay out pernickety rules as if they're gospel are never going to be useful. They just cater for nervous writers who think there is a right way to do things that they need to know. People who think they need style guides really just need to read more and to have more confidence in their command of language, not to be told they're doing it wrong.

So this was why I thought it was odd that Pinker had done a style guide at all: what makes him think that his advice is any more likely to stand the test of time than Strunk and White's, now hopelessly outdated? While he did have some arbitrary peeves (he seems not to like the intensifier use of literally, for example, which is currently 'wrong' but very common and no doubt on its way to being unremarkable), his main focus was on the big picture. This is unusual in style guide land and, I would guess, more along the lines of what you'd get if you took a writing course (I've never taken one so I don't know, but I'm assuming they don't teach you not to split infinitives). But developing a good, readable, accessible style is of course much more what 'style guides' should help with, rather than minor grammar issues.

He promised that there would be insights from cognitive science and linguistics. I'm not sure how much there was from linguistics in the talk (perhaps there was, and I missed it as it's too familiar to me?) but his main point was that a good writer uses 'classic prose' style. I'd never heard this term before, but having now googled it a little bit, it seems that it's related to something called 'plain style'. I'm not totally clear on what each is - either classic style is a fancier version of plain style, or else it's plain style with some sophisticated thought. Either way, classic style apparently has clarity as its main aim. This is obviously a very good aim. Pinker criticised 'academese' among others as being very verbose and not at all clear, and much of it is, but I always aim for simplicity and clarity and encourage simplicity for the sake of clarity in my students' work. The focus is on the thing being shown and guiding the reader with not too much hedging, narrating a story.

The cognitive science part came when he compared this to the idea of knowing what someone else knows (theory of mind, illustrated by the Smarties tube task or the Sally-Anne task). Bad writers, he said, can't forget that just because they know some jargon or fact doesn't mean that others also know it. Good writers are better at putting themselves in other people's shoes and bringing the reader along with them.

This was pretty cool, and also linked into a hoary old chestnut of style advice: passive voice. He demonstrated how narrating a story means that sometimes it's better to use active and sometimes passive, so it's silly to say never to use passive. But he also said that passive voice is more common in bad writing. Why? Because bad writers work backwards from their own knowledge and don't properly tell a story in order, beginning from the position of not knowing something.

I hope I haven't spoilt all the good bits of the book. I'm putting it on my reading lists, as I think it'll be useful for students. Their 'curse of knowledge' is different, though: rather than being unable to forget that they know something and wrongly assuming their reader does too, they are unable to forget that their reader does know the material and feel as though they don't need to explain it. And although I didn't feel exactly that I learnt something, as such, the talk did make some subconscious knowledge conscious and that always makes it easier to apply it. But don't analyse the writing in this blog post because I publish these totally unedited (because time) so the style is bound to be all over the place.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015


I'm currently reading English for the Natives by Harry Ritchie. I might try and do a proper review sometime, but for now here's a snippet.

I knew that this book was not going to be sympathetic to my linguistic views when I saw Ritchie at the English Grammar Day this year and he went on about how wrong Chomsky was about Universal Grammar. I work within the paradigm of Generative Grammar, which is what people outside GG call 'Chomskyan' grammar. Chomsky himself does not use this term, and I dislike it as it implies uncritical acceptance of all his ideas (and, actually, the worst critics of Chomsky do assume this of his 'followers', as they inevitably call them, as if he is a cult leader).

Generative Grammar has been extremely successful, and is a flourishing research area, but there is an equally flourishing anti-GG crowd as well. Some of these people simply work within different frameworks and don't pay too much attention to us, but others actively attack Chomsky's ideas in particular. A characteristic of these people is that they tend not to engage with very up-to-date work, they tend to look at Chomsky only and no other researchers, and they often misunderstand or misrepresent things. Ritchie is not a linguist, although he has had some training, and so I'm going to put the mistake I'm about to talk about down to misunderstanding rather than deliberate misrepresentation. (One thing that is definitely misrepresentation is when he switches from a reasoned exposition of the ideas of Universal Grammar into using terms like 'magical', which is simply ridiculous when he outlined the non-magical explanation a few pages earlier.)

On page 51, during the 'ah, but it turns out Chomsky was totally wrong' section, he describes Geoffrey Sampson's work refuting Chomsky's claims using the British National Corpus. At one point, he says that he simply 'dusted down his 1947 edition of Teach Yourself Malay' to show that there is no universal distinction between nouns and verbs - apparently this language doesn't have this supposedly universal demarcation. They must think generative grammarians literally never look at other languages. If it was that easy to disprove just by looking in one book, would the theory really have stood up all these years? He even then says that English 'often dispenses with any noun-verb distinction and relies on the speaker to figure out how the word is functioning', with examples like 'cut' which can be either, depending on context.

This is such a basic misunderstanding. English and Malay both do distinguish nouns and verbs. Having them behave differently in the two different contexts precisely is distinguishing them. When cut is a noun, it can take an article, for instance ('make a cut along this line'), while it cannot when it's a verb, but then it can have a subject ('she cut the cake'), which nouns cannot. This is distinguishing nouns and verbs. Malay is even less of a good example: it actually has affixes to indicate if a word is a noun or a verb. This is not even just context: the form of the word itself distinguishes the categories.

The literature, especially popular books like this one, abounds with such fundamental errors. See, for example, the recent book by Vyvyan Evans, criticised here for its many, many misrepresentations. See also the lengthy debate about recursion, admittedly not helped by a fantastically unclear definition of recursion, but which once properly defined ought simply to have ended but trundles on regardless.

Anyway, I'm expecting the book to get much better once we're past the Chomsky-bashing, because Ritchie had a lot of interesting things to say at the English Grammar Day and spoke (and writes) in a very entertaining manner.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Esperanto 2: Warning, contains meat

Esperanto has certain suffixes for various grammatical purposes, and others that add some extra meaning. One of the latter is -aĵ, which you add to the name of an animal in order to get the word for its meat. Some examples:
Chicken (the bird) - koko, chicken (meat) - kokaĵo
Cow/bull - bovo, beef - bovaĵo
One of the sentences I had to translate was kokaĵo estas viando, which means 'chicken is meat'. Now obviously the word for 'chicken' in that sentence has the 'meat' suffix already in it, so there's a certain redundancy here. It's a bit like saying chicken meat is meat in English. (Incidentally, I don't know if any other language has a suffix specifically for 'meat', and I don't know if it can be extended to fruits, for instance, as in the flesh of a peach, which I'm sure does exist in other languages.)

I was thinking about this redundancy and its counterparts in English. We don't have exactly the same thing, of course, as our words for meat are either the same (chicken, fish) or a different word entirely (beef, pork). So I suppose what we have is a kind of semantic redundancy: 'meat' is part of the meaning of beef. In other words, beef is a hyponym of meat. But someone might not know that beef is a meat (say they were learning English and you were explaining what the word meant, for instance). That wouldn't happen with Esperanto because the meaning is right there in the word if you know what the parts mean. It's 'compositional'. 

That said, people are not always that conscious of the grammatical parts of words, especially if the word is common. It's pretty usual for me to discover that many of my second and third year students can't correctly identify clauses as past or present tense, for instance. (Sorry students, if you're reading, but it's true.) They know as a native speaker what it means, but it's subconscious knowledge. 

And we have comparable redundancy in English. Imagine if you said I've been hurt in the past. Well, I've been hurt is past tense so in the past isn't necessary. It is possible that it might remove the 'immediate past' meaning that we would normally understand from the perfect tense if it's uttered out of the blue, but in context it is definitely redundant and still perfectly fine to say. Similarly, a little duckling doesn't normally mean a duckling that is particularly small compared to other ducklings, and the -ling tells us it's little anyway. 

I might need to find a fluent Esperantist to give me some 'native' speaker judgements on whether the sentence I had to translate has the 'explaining the meaning of the word' interpretation or not. 

Incidentally, Esperanto is literally the only language that uses the character ĵ, which means it's not on my computer's keyboard and is hard to type and that's annoying. 

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Titles again

I wrote a while back about the absolute stupidity of having a choice of Mr, Mrs and Ms. Normally I don't get called by my title and it's only on forms that I ever use it, but lately I've been called by it a lot, because I've been interacting with banks and estate agents and so on. It turns out that estate agents are an extremely conservative lot.

Estate agents are not capable of using Ms - it simply doesn't exist for them. You have to be Mrs or Miss. OK, well, then I'll be Miss, I suppose. But, distressingly, they've been tending to opt for Mrs (which makes me feel old). OK, so I'll correct them. Normally, even call centre staff are capable of switching to Miss when given a sharp reprimand after the first Mrs. Not so estate agents.

OK, well then I'm Dr. This has provided estate agents across Margate with the most scandal they've seen in a while. Every one that I've corrected has then made a big point of using it frequently. One, who had written 'Mrs' on a bit of paper told me a number of times that he'd get it changed in the computer system, and also decided that I was unlikely to like the place he was going to show me (which was insulting in itself, actually - am I not living in an appropriate place for my job?). Another called me 'Doc' and appeared most amused about the whole thing. And with another, I had this conversation:
Her: Is it Miss or Mrs?
Me (embarrassed): It's Dr, actually.
Her: Oh, I'll just put it in your name [rather than your husband's??] *writes Miss*
I mean, OK, there probably aren't that many people with a PhD in Margate, and the real doctors probably all live in St Peter's or somewhere, but... but.

And I'm pretty certain that the mortgage affordability calculator discriminated against me on the grounds of my gender, but I can't prove it.

Anyway, this is becoming not-linguistics, so I'll just mutter something here about the odd power-imbalance created when one person in a conversation (the bank person) uses your title+surname and you use their first name.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Still here

Sorry for the non-posting lately. Things have got a bit manic as summer draws to an end and I try to finish off all my various research projects before I have to begin thinking about teaching again (plus some personal life things).

Sometimes (often) people outside academia ask me if I'm on holiday, or what I'm actually doing. I don't get too annoyed by this, because admittedly it does look very much like I'm on holiday when I'm in the pub on a Tuesday afternoon (for instance). But it's simply that the work we do over  the summer is a different kind of work from term-time work.

There are basically three things lecturers do: teaching, research and admin. The idea (I think) is that the proportion should be 2:2:1. My contract is fairly teaching-heavy, so during term time I do a lot more teaching than anything else (and by teaching I mean the actual contact, preparation such as writing lectures and working out module outlines, marking, responding to students, etc). However, I want to remain employable so I still have to do research, and the best time to do this is during the long summer 'holidays'.

We finish teaching in April at my university, and don't begin again till the end of September. There's a lot of admin to be done during that time, and plenty of marking, but there are a good few clear weeks to focus just on research projects in a way that's not possible in term time. Some of my colleagues go off for the whole summer and either work from home or go abroad, maybe to do fieldwork or just to get away. I tend to mix working from home and going into the office, and I allow my working hours to be more flexible so that I can take advantage of what sun we do get if it turns up on a weekday.

This summer, I set myself a few projects that I wanted to work on. Some of these are collaborative, and I've been having regular research meetings with three different people about three different projects. These are all just coming to the point where we have results to analyse and discuss, so now is the time to try and get our teeth into that before there's no more time to think about it.

One thing that I think is essential is not to start on teaching preparation too soon. If you begin it, it can take up the whole summer. That can wait: the 1st of September is when I begin doing it. This is tricky (and there are a couple of little things that have to be done sooner) but it helps me to get more research done. This is a lesson it's taken me a while to learn. Teaching-related tasks are typically more focussed and manageable than 'doing research' so the temptation for me is to 'just do that one thing'. I've learnt now to leave aside those small, easy tasks because otherwise the big, scary ones never get done.

And this year, I've been pleased with what I've done over the summer. It'll take a little bit more effort to get us to the point of having a paper to submit, but a lot of the work has been done.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Esperanto 1: Duolingo

I've been learning Esperanto. I'm doing this not because I have too much free time, but because I'm a big language nerd but don't feel like I have time to practice languages as much as you need to to get good, so Esperanto allows for quick progress and no need to actually speak it.

I'm also interested in it because I'm interested in invented languages generally: given that they can have any rules their inventors choose, why do they have the rules they have? So I'm keeping one eye open for the grammar quirks as I learn it.

You'll notice I've put a numeral in the title of this post; that's normally a death knell for a series of blog posts but I will attempt to follow it up with more.

I'm using Duolingo to learn it, as the much awaited option to do so became available a while ago. I find Duolingo pretty good. It's not perfect, but it's easy to use and does the trick well enough, and is free on all my various devices. I'm supplementing it, though, when I feel that it doesn't give me enough information. It likes to drip-feed grammar, but I like having the full paradigm so I can see the patterns more clearly. And sometimes something it teaches me raises a question: it told me, for instance, that the -in- suffix marks a noun as feminine, and bebo means 'baby', but it didn't tell me if bebo has a feminine form or is used for any kind of baby (cultures differ over whether a baby can be an 'it' or not). I looked it up and in this case, bebino does also exist.

So, for now, just my first impressions: I like it, I suppose, as an intellectual exercise, but I'm not loving it. Maybe because I'm not actually using it? Or maybe I haven't got into it yet - so far it seems more like a cobbled-together mishmash of Italian and English than its own language, which I'm certain is not the case.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015


Yesterday, quite coincidentally, two of my colleagues sent me electronic communications and used the word bumf. (This is not a reflection of their opinion of my work, of course.) But what was interesting was that both of them mis-spelt it bumpf.

Bumf is a 'clipping' or shortening of the word bumfodder, and both used to mean 'toilet paper'. I always thought it was Dutch and have just this very moment discovered that it is not. It's dated back to 1889 and is given as 'British schoolboy slang'. This mis-spelling as bumpf might come from mixing up the two spellings: it can also be bumph.

Bum-fodder is three syllables, with the first two divided between the /m/ and the /f/. This is unremarkable: if you have an /m/ and an /f/ together in English, they're normally either side of a syllable boundary. Ham-fisted, chamfer and bumface are all other examples of this. But when it's shortened, it's just one syllable, so that single syllable ends in the consonant cluster /mf/. This is a bit unusual in English. Try and think of other words that end in this combination. There's a few, but they're rare. The OED has nymph, galumph, wumph, triumph and harrumph, among others. And they're all spelt with a 'ph'. I don't have an explanation of this spelling quirk (some come from Greek, which is where most of our 'ph' spellings come from, but not all). I can tell you why that rogue 'p' gets into bumpf though.

Basically, /m/ and /f/ are very nearly as different as two sounds can be. This means that when we say them next to each other, we add in another sound that's halfway between them to make the transition a bit easier. /p/ is made with the same lip-shape as /m/, and the airflow is the same, but the vocal folds are like they are when we say /f/. This insertion of a sound is called 'epenthesis' and we do it all the time: adding a 'p' in 'hamster' is a famous one, showing that this isn't because the cluster comes at the end of the syllable. It only occasionally shows up in spelling mistakes (like bumpf or hampster), and this is a really cool insight into what we say and what we are aware of when we say it.

Monday, 3 August 2015


I saw this advert last week:

It's an advert for Ribena. It's got some wordplay around the suffixes -y (which makes nouns into adjectives) and -est (superlative) and the combination of both of these. So in the slogan at the top, we have tastiest and fruitiest, both of which are common enough words, but also blackcurrantiest. That's the kind of word that people might ask 'is that a real word?' and of course it is, because it's made with perfectly legal word-creation processes, but it sticks out because it's new. Blackcurranty isn't normally an adjective, but of course we can make it easily (I just did) by sticking the -y suffix, which turns nouns (like blackcurrant) into adjectives. And then once you've got an adjective that ends in -y, you can make the comparative blackcurrantier and the superlative blackcurrantiest. With a word this long, we'd normally use more and most instead, though, so this word is eye-catching because it sounds unusual.

At the bottom, we have one the fact of it the exact same thing: it says 'You can't get any more Ribenary'. Again, just stick a -y onto a noun (Ribena) to get the adjective. Unfortunately here there is a spelling issue. Ribena, unusually for English words, ends in an 'a'. You can't stick -y onto the end of that, because Ribenay doesn't look at all like the word it's meant to be. So they've spelt it the same way we say it: with an 'r' that wasn't there to start with. This is called 'intrusive r' and all it does is make it easier for us to say two consecutive vowels.

Intrusive 'r' is closely related to 'linking r', which is the one that is there in the spelling but that people who speak dialects like mine wouldn't normally pronounce - like at the end of computer. When that word is followed by a vowel, like in the phrase my computer is switched on, the 'r' comes back again. For me, these two types of 'r' are so similar that I usually have to look them up to check I've got the names right.

Now, I believe that rhotic speakers don't have this intrusive 'r'. Rhotic speakers are the ones who would normally pronounce the 'r' at the end of computer. For those people, linking 'r' isn't really a thing because the 'r' is always there anyway, and the problems we might solve with intrusive 'r' are solved another way. So for those people (and that's most of Scotland, Ireland and North America, for instance), is this advert just weird? Does the word Ribenary work?

Tuesday, 21 July 2015


In the Guardian, ages ago now, Stephen Poole defended 'basically' against the charges brought against it by Harris Academy in Upper Norwood:* 
The case of "basically" is similar to that of "obviously", also regularly dismissed as vapid huffery. I once worked at a newspaper where an editor sought to eliminate all use of "obviously" from the pages, on the grounds that, as he wrote: "If it's obvious, there's no need to say it."
This sounds pithily convincing until you consider common rhetorical strategies. Very often, it helps to state the obvious before moving on to more debatable claims that you will argue follow from it. To signal this, one may preface the statement with the word "Obviously", as an economical way of saying: "I know you know this, for it is obvious, and you are no fool, but the rest of my argument depends on our agreeing on this, so I beg your indulgence for stating it at the beginning; if you can be patient just a little longer, I promise I will at length have something more interesting to say." In this way, the use of "obviously", like that of "basically", is a little show of deference, a drop of conversational lubricant.
This kind of thing catches my eye when I mark essays. I always, without fail, cross out words like basically, obviously and so on, for the same reason Poole attributes to his editor. In my opinion (and it is just my opinion, as it's a style choice, even though I'm obviously right), these words do not belong in formal academic writing at all. I wonder if this is a reflection of linguistic style. In some disciplines, I think rhetorical flourishes are prized but linguistics likes a very pared-down, spare style, with no fiddle-faddle. To linguists, elegance means simplicity. That means that everything included is there for a reason, and so you don't need obviously in the way Poole describes it.

*For a comment on the idiotic and unnecessary re-spelling of woz in their poster, see this post.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Hot water is hot

This sounds like an oxymoron or a tautology or whatever: please note, hot water is very hot. 

Well, thanks for that. Hot water is hot. Big surprise. It sounds like the 'redundant adjectives are redundant' meme (which pleasingly derives from the Simpsons: Ralph says 'fun toys are fun').

But it's just a warning telling us that the water coming from the hot tap is hotter than is comfortable, and to be careful. How do we get from one to the other?

The 'hot water is hot' interpretation arises if we understand the sentence as telling us something about hot water in general, namely that it has the property of being (very) hot. Note that in this context, 'very' seems to have lost some of its meaning and all hot water is very hot, not just some of it.

The warning about the hot tap interpretation relies on us knowing that wording on signs often omits function words like 'the' and interpreting it as if it was there: 'the hot water is very hot'. Then the definite article 'the' makes the sentence about some specific, relevant hot water that is known to us; in this case, it must be the hot water in the immediate environment, which is to say the water in the hot tap. Then it means that the water in the hot tap is very hot, where 'very' has its full meaning of 'more than usually'.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Redefining objectively defined facts

In the budget yesterday, the Chancellor, George Osborne, announced a new National Living Wage which will replace the National Minimum Wage. It's a bit higher, at £7.20/hour from April compared to the current NMW of £6.50. This is to reflect the fact that the minimum wage is not a 'living wage'.

Except of course this is ridiculous. This is an astonishingly audacious misuse of names of things.

The National Minimum Wage is whatever the government says it is. It's the minimum that companies are legally allowed to pay their employees who are aged over 21. It could be £1.50 or it could be £25 - it's not related to anything in particular. The living wage is a measure of how much money is required to live on, and it's based on the actual cost of living in the UK (currently £7.85, or more in London). That means that you simply can't introduce a 'living wage' that is anything other than the actual living wage. If you do, you're just using a name for one thing to label an entirely different thing. This is at best a bit daft and at worst deliberately deceitful. He might as well have just promised everyone a kitten and then introduced a new tax called a Kitten.

It's so brazen. Already there's a #CallingThingsTheLivingWageThatArent hashtag.

(For those who prefer their wages conceptualised as an annual salary, the current NMW is about £12,500 (£11,500 after tax) and the current living wage - the real one, not the made up one - is about £15,000 (£13,300 after tax).)

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Explicit instructions

Instruction manuals ought to vary in size and detail with the complexity of the technology in question. Therefore, a car has a very detailed manual because it's a complicated piece of machinery, while a desk lamp has very minimal instruction because it just has one switch and one function. 

This isn't actually how things work, though. For one thing, sometimes we don't use all the functions of a thing: my desk phone at work came with incomprehensible instructions because it does fancy things, but I literally just use it to dial numbers and answer incoming calls. My washing machine came with a booklet but I just turn the thing to the same option each time and press 'on'. 

Other times, the manufacturers have just made the instructions unnecessarily complicated: my slow cooker just has one knob with Off, Warm and High but it needs a booklet of explanation so you can't sue them if you electrocute yourself or whatever. 

And sometimes, it reflects a change in our relationship with technology. Here's a photo of a hand dryer in the Quarterdeck in Margate (there's a side note about my collection of photos of hand dryers which I will relate at the end of this post): 

As you can see, it has the following instructions:
Shake off excess water
Place hands in dryer
Starts automatically
I expect that these instructions seemed fairly minimal when the thing was made, probably about 20 years ago. Now, though, I think this is more instruction than anyone really needs - we all know that you stick your hands under a dryer to make it work. We are used to things starting automatically. I doubt anyone except me reads these instructions and certainly not before they've already done what they say.

Compare this to something like a smartphone. Mine came with no instructions whatsoever. That's not strictly true; it has 'hints and tips' and a 'setup wizard' built in, which are instructions. But there was no manual. I can't remember what the first piece of tech I bought was that came with no manual, but I do remember it feeling a bit weird (it was on a CD that came with whatever it was). We are used to things now - we know that to work a gizmo you press the 'on' button and see what happens. Everything more or less works the same, and as you would expect. Things are relatively intuitive. So we don't expect careful step-by-step instruction on how to dry our hands. And I think manufacturers have got better at writing for their audience, and anticipating what you actually want to know and can understand.

So, that side-note. I have a collection of photos of hand dryers in Margate establishments because, adorably, the hand dryers are mostly made by this local company, Arlington Supreme. Everywhere else in the country, they're made in Honeypot Lane, Stanmore, Middlesex, HA7 2PY (yes, I know that from memory - if I look at words for long enough and enough times I apparently commit them indelibly to memory).

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Some cheeky findings

[This relates to my recent post about 'cheeky Nando's'. If you want to take the survey, do so here. We'd be really grateful!]

Do you call a misbehaving child a cheeky monkey? Do you ever go for a cheeky beer after work? Would you take your Significant Other out for a cheeky Valentine's Day dinner at a nice Italian restaurant? Chances are you said no to the last question, not because you wouldn't make such a romantic gesture, but because cheeky doesn't sound right in that sentence. What's more, if you're from the United States, you probably aren't as keen on the word cheeky in the first place. At least that’s what we thought when the cheeky Nando’s meme went viral a few weeks ago. 

The cheeky Nando’s meme  involved British internet users coming up with ever more incomprehensible (to Americans) explanations of what a cheeky Nando's means. But how come Americans don't know what it means? And, actually, what does it mean? We tried to find out by sciencing.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Gove's random writing style rules

Michael Gove has been the subject of this blog in the past. These days, he's no longer Education bod and is now Lord Chancellor, if you can believe that. Because this job apparently doesn't involve much actual work, he's got a lot of time on his hands and is spending it complaining about the way people write and making lists of things his people should do or not do when they respond to letters.

His list of things is a mixture of surprisingly sensible advice on general style (don't be repetitive, don't be pompous, be nice and thank people for their letters), content (refer to the inherited economic situation at every opportunity) and really random concerns about punctuation and grammar.

He also seems to have been influenced by Strunk and White, as his advice also includes 'if in doubt, cut it out' (which is good advice if you are writing formal documents), and 'in letters, adjectives add little, adverbs even less'. (There is a point here, although it cannot be taken too literally, as 'little', 'even' and 'less' are all adjectives or adverbs.)

According to the Independent article I linked above, his 'rules' include the following:

Use active voice and present tense. 
This is a well-worn rule. It's good advice in some ways, because people do sometimes use passive sentences to 'pad out' their writing, but there's so much nonsense written about it and people are so demonstrably unable to tell what's active and passive anyway (scroll down to section 3 at that link for examples), it's not actually very helpful advice.
Don't use 'impact' as a verb.
Lots of people have peeves about words that were originally nouns being used as verbs. That's fine. It's illogical, because so many of our verbs were originally nouns it seems silly to pick out just one or two, but whatever. I think it's because this particular one is perceived as a 'management-speak' buzzword, which is indeed annoying.
Don't use contractions.
Fair enough. Formal writing does usually avoid contractions (so 'don't' should be 'do not', for example). I used to enforce this quite strictly in student essays, but these days I let it go, as I recently noted, because I'm on a mission to discourage the lumpen, clumsy, underconfident writing style I see too much of. I don't know what kind of letters these civil servants write; if it's very formal then they should follow Gove's rule, but if they want to adopt the 'warm tone' he elsewhere encourages, I'd use contractions.
While 'best-placed' and 'high-quality' are joined with a dash, very few others are. 
Bit of a weird thing to say. There are well-established rules about when you use a hyphen. There are some that are a matter of preference, such as with prefixes (so some newspapers prefer to hyphenate 're-think' while others prefer 'rethink'), and these are (or should be) flexible enough to allow for violations in cases of potential ambiguity. If we turn to examples of the type Gove cites, there is a rule: 'best-placed' and 'high-quality' are spelt with a hyphen if they are used attributively (which basically means before a noun, like I used 'well-established' just now) and not if they are used predicatively (which basically means after a verb like 'to be', as in 'the rules are well established'). You would not write 'the food is very high-quality', for instance. So it's daft to pick out two random examples and incorrectly state that they always have a hyphen and incorrectly state that others don't, when you could just follow the correct way we're all already doing it. But hey - what do I know.
Don't use 'unnecessary' capitalisations.
Agree. Some people like to use capitals to make words seem more important, I think. Capitalisation rules are pretty arbitrary (compare English with German, which capitalises nouns) and it has changed even since I was at school (when I was taught to capitalise seasons), but there are rules and not following them makes you look like you don't know them.
Replace 'ensure' with 'make sure'.
OK. Random, but I guess it seems simpler.
Don't start a sentence with 'however'. 
As I recently wrote, 'however' is tricky. Sometimes people introduce a silly rule in order to rule out a genuinely incorrect usage without having to explain its complexity, but in the process rule out a lot of other correct usages. 'Don't end a sentence with a preposition' used to be one of these. I have a strong suspicion that the common ban on first person pronouns in essays is one too - if students can't write 'I', they can't write stupid waffly phrases like 'I believe that'. Likewise, banning sentence-initial 'however' would also rule out some incorrect used of 'however'. But it would not catch those I complained about in my post linked above, and it would rule out a lot of perfectly fine ones. So I think this another Strunk & White rule, who apparently allow uses like 'However much you complain, I'm not going to stop doing it' but dislike it when it's used with a comma: 'However, we were unable to change her habits'. This is silly, out-of-date advice which will lead to old-fashioned, distant writing. I'm saying nothing about whether that says anything about Gove's character.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Overly specific signage

It's been a while since I mocked some signage. Let's do that today. Sorry about the poor quality photo:

'Please do not store items under these stairs for fire safety reasons'
You can store items under these stairs for other reasons though.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

ELL research day 2015

This week it was staff and postgraduates' turn to present research. Here's a storify:

Monday, 8 June 2015

Undergraduate conference 2015

Our undergraduates had their conference on Thursday last week. Only a few students were able to present this year, but they did some excellent work and it was a really nice day. Here's a Storify of the tweets from the day (mostly by me, but not all).

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

A cheeky survey

You may have noticed the 'cheeky nandos' meme that was travelling the internet recently.

Me and my colleague Mercedes Durham at Cardiff University are interested in how people do (or don't) use 'cheeky'. If you want, you could help us out by completing our survey.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Metaphysicians and metaphysicists

I spent a couple of days this week at a philosophy conference. It was really interesting, especially as some of the talks were about the philosophy of language. On the first evening, I went to the pub with some of the philosophers and we talked about things I didn't understand all night. One of those things was metaphysics, which I had of course heard of, but didn't know what it was. We talked about it and its relation to physics, and I think I kind of now know vaguely what sort of a thing it is.

At some point I used the word 'metaphysicist' to describe someone who studies metaphysics, and was told that it is actually 'metaphysician'. This surprised me, because I formed the word without really thinking about it (which indicates that the word-formation process I used is highly productive), but probably on the basis of 'physicist' - someone who studies physics. 'Physician' is a word as well, of course, but it means basically the same as 'doctor'. The suffixes -ian and -ist are both used to form nouns meaning 'someone who does X'. Someone on Stack Exchange suggests -ian is more general and -ist more specialist, and this article by Laurie Bauer notes that -ician gained a 'trivialising' effect at some point around a century ago (though it's since lost that negative connotation).

I suspect it might be an effort on the part of metaphysicians to distance themselves from physicists. Or maybe there are people who, like me, enjoy being contrary and using the other one (I frequently refer to myself as a linguistician).