Mark Liberman

Website: http://ling.upenn.edu/~myl

Posts by Mark Liberman:

    Zeugma of the week

    SOLIDWORKS Education Edition:

    We strongly reccomend [sic] that you do not purchase this software if you are not seeking a degree or a full time faculty member at a school, college or university.

     

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    Man: reduced or not?

    Ben Yagoda wrote to ask about the reduced or unreduced pronunciation of man ([mən] vs. [mæn]) in noun compounds: policeman, fireman, garbage man, mailman, gunman, lineman, etc.

    I don't know of any scholarly treatments of this precise subject. For an extensive discussion of the textual history and distribution of man- compounds, you can read Kirsti Peitsara "MAN-Compounds in English", Selected Proceedings of the 2005 Symposium on New Approaches in English Historical Lexis. And for some background discussion on the relations among structure, sense, and stress in such phrases, see Mark Liberman & Richard Sproat, "The Stress and Structure of Modified Noun Phrases in English", in Sag & Szabolsci eds., Lexical Matters, 1992. But I don't know of any discussion of (for example) why the -man in policeman is reduced, while the -man in mailman isn't. (Those are my judgments, anyhow, and Merriam-Webster's agrees with me…)

    So I'm throwing the floor open for contributions from readers.

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    Geographic idiom chains

    From James Kirchner, in response to "The directed graph of stereotypical incomprehensibility", 1/15/2009 (as featured on 3/25/2015 in the Washington Post):

    I found years ago that in Stuttgart, Germany, people said, "Es ist mir ein böhmisches Dorf," meaning, "It's a Czech village to me," (literally a Bohemian village). Then I went to work in the Czech Republic, where, as you accurately noted, they say, "Je mi španělská vesnice," i.e., "It's a Spanish village to me." (The Czechs also say, "It's colder than a German girl outside.")

    The thing that's been fascinating me the last few years is who people speaking various languages say "goes Dutch". This was triggered by an idiom lesson I was teaching to a very charming, very popular young Ford engineer stationed near Detroit from Mexico City. She ran across the idiom "go Dutch" on the sheet, her eyes popped out, and she asked me what the tradition was here. I told her that usually the man pays for everything on a date. This was a sudden revelation for her. She had been insulting her American suitors by insisting on paying for everything herself, because in Mexico "se paga a la gringa." So the Mexicans say people in the US do that, and people in the US say the Dutch do it. Now I wonder who does it.

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    Bring the calvary

    David Donnell's friend from Urbana drew his attention to the trailer for Furious 7, where Dwayne Johnson pronounces cavalry as ['kæl.və.ɹi]:

    Michelle Rodriguez: Hey, did ya bring the cavalry?
    Dwayne Johnson: Woman, I AM the calvary.

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    We're back

    Yesterday afternoon, a popular link from the Washington Post (Ana Swanson, "The equivalent of “It’s all Greek to me” in 30 other languages", Wonkblog 3/25/2015) caused a spike in LLOG page views; this happened to cause a disk drive to fill up, because the back-end database server was keeping binary logs of all transactions; this caused and/or uncovered various other problems; and so LLOG was down for about 24 hours.

    More specifically, the site displayed

    Error establishing a database connection

    in response to nearly all attempts to display WordPress pages.

    As a result of several hours of intelligent and heroic labor by Wayne Hill, we're back, with updated and better-configured version of all the underlying software packages. So performance should be better, but in any case, things are working.

     

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    Moar Verbs

    A couple of days ago, Geoff Pullum noted that William Zinsser's On Writing Well echoes the Strunkish advice that "Most adverbs are unnecessary" and "Most adjectives are also unnecessary" ("Awful book, so I bought it", 3/21/2015). I share Geoff's skepticism about this anti-modifier animus, and indeed about all writing advice based on parts of speech.

    But it occurred to me to wonder whether (various types of) good and bad writing actually do tend to differ in how much they use various parts of speech — and in particular, whether there's any evidence that bad (or at least less accessible) writing tends to use more adjectives and adverbs. Given how pervasive part-of-speech writing advice is, I decided to waste an hour exploring the question empirically.

    The results are a bit surprising.  At least in this small and conceptually-limited pilot exploration, I found that writing regarded as bad (and perhaps also certain kinds of technical writing) tends to have more adjectives but fewer adverbs, and more nouns but fewer verbs.

    The "more nouns and fewer verbs" effect seems to be especially strong — but I've never seen any writing guide that tells us to "write with adverbs and verbs, not adjectives and nouns".

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    Your tension has been exterminated

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    Vowels and consonants

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    Coherence award for Stephen King

    Jan Freeman, "Stephen King scores a grammar win", Throw Grammar from the Train, 3/20/2015:

    Stephen King, novelist and resident of Maine and (sensible man!) Florida, has refuted the Maine governor’s claim that King had left the state to escape oppressive taxes.

    "Governor LePage is full of the stuff that makes the grass grow green," the best-selling author told a local radio station. "Tabby and I pay every cent of our Maine state income taxes, and are glad to do it. We feel, as Governor LePage apparently does not, that much is owed from those to whom much has been given."

    For me, that boldface sentiment is the news here: In its long quotation history, it has rarely been rendered grammatically. “From whom much is given, much is expected” – from John F. Kennedy Jr. — is just one mangled example. You'd think a Bible quotation would get some respect, but it turns out the human mind has a hard time supplying the right number of prepositions and pronouns to say what this maxim intends.

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    "DNA-based prediction of Nietzsche's voice"

    An interesting paper was recently brought to my attention: Flavia Montaggio, Patricia Montaggio, & Imp Kerr, "DNA-based prediction of Nitzsche's voice", Investigative Genetics, Spring 2015. The abstract is pretty good:

    This paper presents a protocol for the accurate prediction of an individual’s voice based on genotype data, specifically from single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). We collected trace amounts of cellular material (Touch DNA) from books that belonged to the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). DNA was extracted and amplified using DOP-PCR technique. Five different genomic DNAs were generated. Nietzsche’s genotype was singled out after comparison to genotype data from one living relative of the Nietzsche family. Nietzsche’s genotype data was analyzed using a DNA-based phenotyping assay, termed VoiceRator, that incorporates the 24 most informative voice SNPs based on their association with genes related to the phenotypic expression of the vocal tract and larynx structure and function. An SNP-based voice profile of Nietzsche was inferred. The profile data was converted into bio-measures that were used to 3D-print a vocal tract and larynx through which phonation was organically generated. A composite of seven Text-to-Speech simulations was made using a sound morphing software. The result is presented in audio format and illustrates the first attempt at simulating the voice of a deceased person.

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    Himba color perception

    Below is an email message from Steve Mah, posted with his permission. It follows up on my post "It's not easy seeing green", 3/2/2015, about the experiment on Himba color perception shown in the 2011 BBC documentary "Do you see what I see?" (video available here).  I've also appended an earlier email from Jules Davidoff to Paul Kay, telling essentially the same story:  This striking "experiment" was a dramatization, and the description of its "results" was invented by the authors of the documentary, and not proposed or endorsed by the scientists involved.

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    bibbity ~ bibbidi, bobbity ~ bobbidi

    Manohla Dargis, "In ‘Cinderella,’ Disney Polishes Its Glass Slippers", NYT:

    You know the rest, bibbidi-bobbidi-boo and all that jazz.

    My reaction when I read that was, Gee, interesting re-spelling of Bibbity Bobbity Boo, in line with the standard American flapping and voicing of non-syllable-initial /t/. But it turns out that I'm about 66 years too late.

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    By the each

    From John Brewer:

    I was in a grocery store this morning when I was taken aback by a sign (professionally produced, not handwritten) saying that the FRESH CUT FRUIT was FRESH CUT DAILY! and SOLD BY THE EACH!  I had a strong WTF reaction, because it seemed very syntactically ill-formed and I couldn’t recall ever seeing it before.  But googling reveals that it’s Out There and other people have likewise been taken aback.  A reddit thread suggests it arose out of intra-industry jargon to distinguish items priced e.g. “$2.99 each” from items priced by the pound or by the quart or what have you,* with additional commenters saying there’s a usage among  people who work in warehouses and similar environments  who use nominalized “each” contrastively with “case”  (so if you need a co-worker to get you a quantity that’s more than 12 cases but less than 13 cases “you might say ‘hey mike, 12 cases 3 eaches.’”

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