Monday, 21 June 2021

I extremely like this

Just a quick one this week to point out a nice non-standard usage of the word extremely. The context was as follows: 

I extremely need a break from those things. 

Extremely can normally only modify adjectives, so extremely cold, extremely unlucky, extremely happy, and so on. Here it's modifying a verb, need, which is extremely unusual and not at all like its normal behaviour. This was on twitter where one can do such things to signify metalinguistic information like hyperbole or being a bit extra. 

And it works ok with extremely because even though it doesn't normally modify verbs, we do have other adverbs (which is what extremely is) which do this job: I really need a break, I desperately need a break, I so need a break. So it's not that much of a leap to bring extremely into service in this way with its usual meaning of 'to the greatest degree possible'. 

Monday, 14 June 2021

Please use four 15p coins

Two examples of confusing signage brought to you by pragmatics and lexical connotations this week. 

First, I was waiting outside a bakery for my lunch, and there was a phone box (I know! a real one!) with a sign saying this: 

Please be prepared to use four coins to pay the initial minimum fee of 60p. 

I was very puzzled as to why you should have to use four coins to pay this, especially as 60p doesn't even divide evenly into four coins (i.e. there's no 15p coin), so you'd be using a mix of 20p and 10p coins. I thought that probably it meant that you could use more than four, as long as you met the basic criterion of at least four, but wondered why this should be how the phone worked. Does it need four to activate some mechanism? 

I'm sure you're well ahead of me and worked out that it meant at most four coins - so you can use 50p and 10p, three 20p coins, whatever you like, but you can't be there putting in twelve five pences or sixty pennies, which makes much more sense. But the wording 'be prepared' primed me to think it was a minimum requirement that you had to meet, rather than a warning not to exceed a limit. 

Next, my own employer tweeted about the coronavirus restrictions a couple of days before they were relaxed a bit in May. The weekend before the rules changed from no meeting inside at all and maximum six outside to six inside and 30 outside, they shared this image: 

It includes this wording: 

Please remember the 'rule of 6' applies outdoors only until Monday.

I knew what the rules were so I wasn't confused this time. But the placement of only is, as so often, confusing. Does this rule apply 'only until Monday'? Well, yes. Does it apply 'outdoors only'? Well, again, yes. Maybe it's doing double duty and meant 'only outdoors and only until Monday'. But either way, this is still a bit weird to me. 

If a rule only applies in Context A, then the implication is that outside of that context, the rule doesn't apply, and no further action is needed. In other words, there is a restriction outdoors, or until Monday, or both, and anywhere else the restriction doesn't apply. If only is meant to mean 'only until Monday', then it reads like some kind of encouragement, like 'Come on, it's only till Monday, we can do this, one more weekend before we can meet more people!'. But if it applies to 'outdoors', the implication is that this is the stronger restriction, when in fact there was at the time no meeting allowed indoors at all. So you have to interpret it as 'you are allowed to meet up with six people outdoors but not indoors', but a 'rule of 6' sounds like a restriction, not an allowance, because it's called a rule. 

I doubt anyone was ever seriously inconvenienced by either of these things and probably no one else even noticed them, but they both made me stop and think. 

Monday, 7 June 2021

An interesting of an observation

A recent language column in the Boston Globe rehashed the same tired linguistic peeves: irregardless, fulsome, incorrect apostrophes, and so on. With an interesting exception: in the discussion of the phrase '[adjective] of a [noun]', itself not uncommon, the author gave an example that I thought just couldn't possibly be a real usage. 

We're talking here about when people say things like It's not that big of a deal or He's not that good of a singer. The standard version omits of in this type of sentence. I had thought that this version, with of, only occurred in the form I've given here (not that X of a Y); with as, as in He's not as good of a singer as he thinks he is; or with how: the column gives the example People are finally figuring out how great of a place Boise is to live. In other words, they have to be comparative or degree adjectives. The example the columnist gave was this: He was a good of a farmer, or This is a hard of a class

This sounds to me just ungrammatical (in the sense that it doesn't sound like a sentence of any type of English, not that I think it sounds prescriptively wrong). But then I don't use the other kind either, so perhaps other people do say it. I tried to google some examples. I put in double quotation marks the string "a good of a" and "a big of a". For the first one, I got a lot of hits where it was a typo for "a good or a" or "as good of a", both of which are usages I've heard plenty. With the second, I mostly got hits for language learning forums where people were asking if it was grammatical, and the kind of people that answer on there tend to be a bit unreliable - either very prescriptive or like the person who said "a big of a deal" is fine, but then when asked about it was unclear about if it was that exact phrase or something more like "not that big of a deal". So, still unsure. Let me know if you've ever heard this for real. 

Tuesday, 1 June 2021

How many Millennials

Our topic today is the response to this tweet: 

He clarified in the rest of his tweet thread what he meant by 'rerun' (tuning in to a weekly slot to find that the episode was one from a previous series), and that he was interested to know when exactly this ceased to be meaningful. He thought Gen Z probably don't really have much memory of this, but thought younger Millennials might, and so he asked 'how many of you [Millennials]'. 

The answer to a 'how many' question is a number or proportion (in this case, people reply 'me' or 'not me' and he gets a sense of the numbers), like '50%' or 'all of them'. There is definitely a presupposition that at least some Millennials will remember this concept. Exactly how many is mostly defined by pragmatics and shared context, I think. 

Compare asking a group of your friends the following: 

How many of you are coming to my comic book launch on Friday?

You would expect a fairly high number of them to come, because it's important and they're your friends. You could also ask your colleagues this question: 

How many of you are going to the meeting this afternoon?

That might be fairly neutral and you just want to know how many of them will be there, or not available at the alternative event at the same time, or whatever. You definitely imply that you think at least some of them will be going to the meeting. You could also ask a question like this:

How many of you learnt about grammar in English lessons at school?

Now, the answer is expected to be pretty low, and is a rhetorical device to lead into your lecture on the importance of grammar or the fact that they have tacit knowledge of grammar despite the lack of formal teaching, or whatever. If more than about one person answers 'me' now, it actually spoils your flow. 

So we can ask a 'how many' question with an expected answer of everyone, no one, or anything in between, or a neutral non-expectation. 

I now present you with a lesson in asking about Millennials on twitter: this tweet got 2,700 responses and a fair number of those were people who were pretty cross about this man supposedly thinking that Millennials are kids who don't remember this stuff when in fact they're in their 30s and maybe even 40 years old now, and of course they remember it. I've tried to think of any possible syntactic or semantic reason for the question being interpreted this way, and I can't. It's purely a result of the frequent co-occurrence of the term 'Millennial' with 'kids these days' messages and the resulting knee-jerk reaction to this that you get after the billionth time of seeing it. In this case, I think it was misplaced, but you can understand it. 

Wednesday, 5 May 2021

Buckells and his bumbling Brummie burr

Apologies to everyone who's sick of everyone banging on about Line Of Duty. But I like it, so. 

Much has been said about the mis-spelling of the word definitely as definately, which kept all of us wondering if it was in fact Hastings who was 'H' (the bent copper) last series, and this series ended up being helpful in identifying the actual baddie. Spoilers, by the way. I was as much here for it as any other linguist, as it's not often you get to hear the word 'syntax' in the most-watched telly series of the year. I'd have been even more up for an extended glass-box scene where they went through every syntactic characteristic one by one, showing how they led to Buckells being found out. 

I hope they did find more than just that spelling, because it's so common I don't think you could hang anything on it. After all, we saw Hastings doing it too and don't try and tell me that was him being clever and aping the error. At a conservative estimate, about 85% of people spell it that way. (No, of course it's not that high, but I don't know how many it is, so it's a lot.) I assume they had more stuff because they literally mentioned syntax, so they must have had some. What were the patterns?? Linguists need to know, Jed Mercurio. 

I was also wondering, though, in related linguistics thoughts, about Buckells' accent. The plot twist is that he's basically an incompetent ninny, pootling through life, not caring much about policing, and so no one really suspected him of anything, but it turns out he's the linchpin, a kind of middle man on the take. He uses what I assume is his own accent, or an exaggeration of it, in the series - he's from Birmingham and he speaks with a Brummie accent. Brummie is unfairly maligned as a UK accent, and its speakers regularly derided as stupid in polls about attitudes to accents. So how much did his non-threatening, bumbling, not-very-clever accent cause the AC-12 team to overlook his role? Should they all go on a course of linguistic anti-bias training? Should I set up this service as a business model for the police? 

Monday, 19 April 2021

(Moderate) Spelling reform

Advice about keeping a blog always says not to apologise for not writing for a while, because no one will really notice, so just write whatever it is without mentioning it. But I'm not apologising; I'm noting the fact that this term was so bloody ridiculous that I didn't have one single bit of head space to knock out a blog post now and again, a task that I know from experience only takes me about half an hour while I'm watching telly (yes, sorry, I don't give you, my adoring public, my best time, or in fact much time... you deserve more, but I'm not paid for this). 

So hey, welcome back. It's been a few months. I have a few things I saved for later, so I'll go through them and see if any of them at all are still relevant. For now, let's talk about this spelling reform that got voted in by the English Spelling Society last week. It's actually surprisingly sensible, though of course totally unnecessary. It doesn't change much, and they suggest that the minimal changes are just sort of floated in as legitimate alternatives and that they'll hopefully catch on as standard. Seems fair enough. There's a screenshot of the Times article about it below, which I'm not linking to as it's paywalled but you can find if you want. 

Screenshot from the Times, with the text including respellings such as 'fields' with two Es: "We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the feelds and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surender..."  This is how Churchill's famous speech should be spelt, according to reformers who have voted on a new system after deliberating for nearly three years.

It's just things like having double consonants mean something consistent, I think syllable stress, and removing Es that don't change pronunciation. So you get surender but edducate. I can't tell what the logic is behind changing fields to feelds but not beaches to beeches; they say that it's ok to have one sound be spelt in different ways but each spelling should make one sound, so maybe it's because <ie> is taken for the /ai/ ('eye') sound. 

It overlooks that there are some things that won't make any more sense to people who don't speak Standard Southern British English, of course, as they always do. So they say good will be guud, and foot will be fuut, and blue will be bloo. Totally fine for me, as good and foot do have the same vowel, while blue has a different one. But there are some speakers who have more or less the same vowel in all three of those words and others who have a different vowel in the first two. So I'm not sure it will achieve its aim of making spelling more logical for everyone. 

I wonder whether people who are planning to adopt it will need to write a little note to say so until it catches on. So if someone wants to submit their essay with this spelling, will they put a note at the top to say that's what they've done? 

This is reminiscent of the howling of the papers recently, including the Times I might add, about universities being advised not to deduct marks for bad spelling. When I mark essays I already don't take marks off for incorrect spelling or non-standard English. We haven't 'taken marks off' for anything for years, in fact, as we award marks for what is done well against a set of marking criteria, which include 'clarity of expression' and 'accuracy'. This is likely to include a lack of spelling errors, but doesn't absolutely require it as you can be clear and still spell things differently. The Times article itself says:

[Hull] university said that it would instead “encourage students to develop a more authentic academic voice, a voice that can communicate complex ideas with rigour and integrity — that celebrates, rather than obscures their particular background or characteristics”.
But they then quote Frank Furedi (lamentably from my own institution) saying that inclusive assessment 'violates the norms of academic education', so I'll have to check with them whether it would be OK to use these new spellings or not. I don't know why they went to Furedi, a retired sociology professor, rather than one of the many linguists or pedagogy experts, no, I can't imagine the reason. 

Anyway, spelling reform, sure, whatever, it's not really needed but go ahead, but encouraging students to find an authentic academic voice seems a good thing to me, and I secretly hope that one day someone will submit an essay written entirely in their own non-standard variety as a conscious act of linguistic politics. 

Monday, 25 January 2021

So few female cellists

I like a quiz programme, as I'm sure you know, more or less regardless of what the theme is. So I listen to Counterpoint despite never being able to answer any questions. In a recent one, there was an example of gender-neutral they, still relatively unusual on a mainstream media source like the BBC. The question began like this: 

Which cellist made their debut...

Of course, they is intended to obscure the gender of the cellist so as not to give us any clues. But then it interacted with centuries of gender inequality (meaning that classical composers and musicians are nearly all men) and the Gricean pragmatic principles that say you should be appropriately specific, and resulted in me getting an answer right for once, because it implied that the cellist was not a man, and I know precisely one not-male cellist, Jacqueline du Pré, and she was the right answer. 

Why did it imply it wasn't a man? Well, if the gender would have been a clue, then that more or less tells us that the gender was not male, because maleness doesn't narrow the field much. If you google 'famous cellists', the pictures are all men apart from du Pré. Even this article from Classic FM, where they probably tried to include a couple of women, has 13 men and 3 women. So the gender being a giveaway meant it had to be a distinctive feature of the person, so it had to be not male. 

Here is a really interesting article by Kirby Conrod on how this same principle works to sometimes implicitly misgender people, if you use they inconsistently or when you could or should have been more specific. And here is an old post about the contrast that becomes implied when Mrs and Ms are the only two options to choose from on a drop-down menu, because Mrs ought to be a subset of Ms, but has to be interpreted as distinctive if they're the two available options.