Friday, 29 April 2016

Antidisestablishmentarianism is a very long word

There's a really great post at Merriam-Webster about why the word antidisestablishmentarianism isn't in the dictionary. Basically, it's because it isn't a word in common usage. This raises interesting questions about the nature of lexicography, what 'in common usage' means, meta-linguistic mention vs. use, and compositionality of meaning.

The word clearly does have a meaning. Merriam-Webster say it's this:
opposition to depriving a legally established state church of its status
I thought it was something like the movement against the separation of church and state, but maybe that's the same thing - I'm not at all clear about what that actually means. But the point is that the meaning arises directly as a sum of its parts: it's compositional. Well, this isn't strictly true: there is some idiomatic meaning to do with the church and the law as well. But the length of it comes from attaching affixes with strictly compositional meanings. When you have compositionality, you can theoretically create longer and longer words, up to the limit of your cognitive capacity. I could add a morpheme and create antidisestablishmentarianismation, for instance. Some long words in quite common use aren't in the dictionary simply because they're made by standard suffixation processes, and that suffix is in the dictionary so you can work out the meaning for yourself.

So antidisestablishmentariansim is a real word, in the sense that people recognise it and can understand its meaning and it's made with proper word-formation processes. But for M-W, it's not a word in common usage. They have only three quotations for this word which use the meaning they give above, and dictionaries rely on written uses of words. This is why they can seem slow: words only get in when they've achieved plenty of use in print materials.

They do have plenty of quotations of the word with reference to it being a long word, however. It is in the OED, and their quotations refer to this:
1984   T. Augarde Oxf. Guide Word Games xxvi. 216   The longest words that most people know are antidisestablishmentarianism..and supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
This is metalinguistic mention of the word, not an actual use of the word. We're stepping outside language and talking about the word itself, not using the word to say something. This is sort of difficult to get your head round because we have to use language to talk about language, a long-recognised philosophical problem in linguistics.

Interestingly, M-W say at the end of their piece that it might be considered a viable entry 'simply because it's a well-known word'. The meaning is not well-known, however, so it would be an entry whose definition read something like 'famous long word', and the definition as a secondary bit of information. That would be quite cool and very meta.

Irrelevant postscript: There's a really stupid joke that goes like this: 'Antidisestablishmentarianism is a very long word. How do you spell it?' and the answer is, of course, 'I, T'. I sometimes try that out on my students and some of them groan but a lot of them simply don't understand the joke. Maybe it's the way I tell 'em. 

Monday, 18 April 2016

You and your family's best interests

There's been a leaflet sent round lately about the EU referendum happening in the UK. The government has sent this leaflet to all households, setting out the case for remaining in the European Union. Here's how it puts it:
The Government believes it is in you and your family's best interests that the UK remains in the European Union.
A friend mentioned on facebook that he was disappointed that despite the £9m spent on this leaflet, it contained this grammatical error. I begged to differ: this is stylistic variation, not a mistake.

He argued that it should be your and your family's best interests, as both conjuncts should be possessive. This is right, as you should be able to leave either out and it still be grammatical.

But there's two complicating factors here. The first is that the possessive your is kind of already a combination of you plus 's, so perhaps the 's is redundant. I don't actually think this is the case, because I think there's another reason why it's OK to say you. 

It's to do with the nature of 's. This is what we call a clitic, which means that it's phonologically dependent (has to attach to) another word, but is not as tightly linked to the word as a suffix like the plural s. While the plural suffix can only attach to countable nouns, the possessive can attach to a much wider range of things. The only requirement is that the noun it refers to be within the phrase it attaches to. This means that we can have phrases like the following, where the possessive attaches to something other than the possessor, and sometimes not even a noun:
The woman with the long hair's dog
The guy I was talking to's friend
The girl dressed in blue's mother
It's a little more complicated with coordination, of course, as we have to have the 's referring to both conjuncts. But I think that's OK. Language Log have discussed this before, and examples like this are all right:
I and my friend's work (a bit clumsy in my opinion, but not bad)
Me and my friend's work (perfectly well-formed)
So, unusually, I'm with the government on this one, both in terms of their grammar in in staying in the EU.

Friday, 8 April 2016

(At) home

It's a well-known fact that home has no preposition when it occurs with go:
I went (*to) home
(The asterisk inside the brackets means that it's ungrammatical if you include to.)

And it has to have one if it's an adverbial phrase (optional extra information about the event):
I worked *(at) home today
(The asterisk outside the brackets means it's ungrammatical without at.)

There are some verbs where the preposition is optional, such as stay:
I stayed (at) home.
I think there might be some regional variation on that one, though I'm not sure.

But when it's with be, omitting or including the preposition gives a meaning difference. I ran a twitter poll to make sure I wasn't alone in this, and found overwhelming agreement with my judgements. In a context in which I've been for a night out and want to tell my friend that I've arrived back at my house safely, I would say I'm home. If my friend had rung my and wanted to know where I was, I would say I'm at home. I could use either in either context, but both I and those who responded to my twitter poll felt that the distinction above was right. So that preposition at being pronounced has a kind of locative meaning - location in a place - while omitting it has some sort of directional meaning - movement to (or arrival at) a place.