Archive for Silliness

Death by french fries

The Daily Telegraph did not do much for its reputation, at least in my eyes, when it confused the defense with the prosecution after a celebrity sexual assault mistrial. Nor when it recently consulted me about whether there were grammar mistakes on a banknote, learned that there clearly were not, but went ahead and published the claim that there were anyway. Now for a sample of the Telegraph's science reporting, written by Adam Boult, who I suspect didn't complete his statistics course:

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On whether prairie dogs can talk

Ferris Jabr recently published in the New York Times Magazine an interesting article about the field research of Con Slobodchikoff, professor emeritus of biology at Northern Arizona University, on prairie dog alarm calls. The article title is "Can Prairie Dogs Talk?"

It is an interesting question. People who have read my earlier posts on animal communication have been pressing me to say something about my reaction to it. In this post I will do that. I will not be able to cover all the implications and ramifications of the question, of course; for one interesting discussion that has already appeared in the blogosphere, see this piece by Edmund Blair Bolles. But I will try to be careful and scholarly, and in an unusual departure (disappointingly, perhaps, to those who relished my bitterly sarcastic remarks on cow naming behavior), I will attempt to be courteous. Nonetheless, I will provide a clear and explicit answer to Jabr's question.

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Annals of incompetent spam: the weeding ceremony

A spam email I received this morning (addressed to me and three other addresses, no subject; the sender was "david mark" at davidmark0066@gmail.com) had the following text:

Hello this is david i will like to know if you can handle my weeding ceremony  and do you own the service ??

I actually never realized people had weeding ceremonies. I thought you just got out there with a trowel and a pair of kneepads and dug out those unwanted plants without benefit of any rituals of any sort. But some may have different traditions. We must be open to cultural diversity.

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Active seeming: dumb grammar fetishism yet again

Last January 21 The Economist actually printed a letter I wrote pointing out that how wirelessly to hack a car was a ridiculous way to say "how to wirelessly hack a car," and resulted from a perverted and dimwitted obeisance to a zombie rule. But did they actually listen, and think about changing their ways? They did not. I have no idea how they manage to publish a beautiful magazine every Thursday night when they are so mentally crippled by eccentric 19th-century grammar edicts that they will commit syntactic self-harm rather than go against the prejudices of a few doddering old amateur grammarians in the middle 1800s who worried about the "split infinitive." Take a look at this nonsense from the magazine's leader in the issue of April 22, about UK prime minister Theresa May's chances of having more flexibility after the general election she has called:

With a larger majority she can more easily stand up to her ultra-Eurosceptic backbenchers, some of whom seem actively to want Britain to crash out.

Seem actively??

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Or the arbitrary cat, horse, or pig

I think Mark Liberman may have been concerned that perhaps my post "Pronominal reference to the arbitrary dog" hinted at being tempted toward the Recency Illusion. Not true, of course: even when surprised by some point of usage that I notice, I never conclude I must therefore be the first to have encountered it. On encountering the use of singular they for a dog, I didn't say "This has never happened before"; I said "we should expect this sort of use to increase in frequency." But anyway, just in case, Mark sent me some other cases of animals being referred to with singular they. They presumably indicate that where sex is irrelevant, the use of it should nonetheless be avoided, because it might offend the animal.

https://www.bengalcats.co/why-do-cats-knead/
You see, the repetitive movement is not only serving as a way to promote milk flow, it also encourages maternal instinct and establishes a bond between a cat and their kittens.

http://www.ancientegyptonline.co.uk/cat.html
When a cat died, their human family would go into a deep mourning and shave their eyebrows.

[By the way, notice that the foregoing example is ambiguous (cat's eyebrows vs. family members' eyebrows), and the ambiguity is caused solely by the refusal to use it for the arbitrary cat. People will risk being incomprehensible rather than change their mind about whether they could compromise on a pronoun gender choice. Or maybe the point is just that people do not avoid, and do not know to avoid, or even notice, dangers of ambiguity for the hearer or reader.]

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Siri and flatulence

An acquaintance of mine has a new iPhone, which he carries in a pocket that is (relevantly) below waist level. He has discovered something that dramatically illustrates the difference between (i) responding to speech and (ii) responding to speech as humans do, on the basis of knowing that it is speech.

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"On notice," as meaningless as ever

Donald Trump, conducting foreign policy by tweet, announced that "Iran has been formally PUT ON NOTICE for firing a ballistic missile." National Security Advisor Mike Flynn reiterated that point at a news conference, though press secretary Sean Spicer was unable to explain what "on notice" actually means in this context. Could be because in diplomacy, putting a country "on notice" is not actually a thing.

The use of "on notice" did not go unnoticed by Stephen Colbert, who, in his "Late Show" monologue last night, accused Donald Trump of stealing the old "on notice" bit that he used to do on his Comedy Central show, "The Colbert Report." Fans of that show will recall Colbert, in his blustery conservative talk-show persona, would put the names of people and entities on an "On Notice" board for various slights, real or imagined.

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The SISSILY countries

Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Yemen. We're going to need an acronym, in case we forget which are the seven countries on the blacklist. And Language Log is here for you: we have prepared one. Somalia-Iran-Sudan-Syria-Iraq-Libya-Yemen: SISSILY. We can refer to them as the SISSILY countries. And to convince you of the threat they pose, I have prepared a table of the statistics for all of the terrorist murders that the evil citizens of those countries have perpetrated so far. The table is below. I warn you, the data are rather shocking.

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The temperature is struggling

I commented back in 2008 on the ridiculous vagueness of some of the brief weather forecast summaries on BBC radio ("pretty miserable by and large," and so on). I do sometimes miss the calm, scientific character of American weather forecasts, with their precise temperature range predictions and exact precipitation probabilities. In recent days, on BBC Radio 4's morning news magazine program, I have heard an official meteorologist guy from the weather center saying not just vague things like "a weather front trying to get in from the north Atlantic," or "heading for something a little bit warmer as we move toward the weekend," but (more than once) a total baffler: "The temperature is going to be struggling." What the hell is that about?

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How wirelessly to hack

You don't think the ridiculous split-infinitive avoidance contortions at my favorite magazine could have started being exaggerated just as a sort of private joke on me, do you? I have reported many times on the absurd syntax that The Economist is prepared to countenance rather than ignore its cowardly advice of its style guide ("The ban [on split infinitives] is pointless. Unfortunately, to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it"). A leader on internet security ("Breaching-point") in the Christmas double issue (December 24, 2016) tells us, in what I think is not just unstylish but actually a violation of normal English syntax:

At a computer-security conference in 2015, researchers demonstrated how wirelessly to hack a car made by Jeep, spinning its steering wheel or slamming on its brakes.

How wirelessly to hack ?? Unbelievable. (You can find the article online with a Google search on "how wirelessly to hack". As I write, it is the only hit: no one has ever written that misbegotten four-word sequence in the prior history of the world.*

Nobody who hadn't been driven into a state of nervous cluelessness by bad style advice could think that was the right order of words. Part of the reason is that how often functions as an initial modifier constituent of an adjective or adverb phrase.

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He comfortable! He quickly dry!

A neighbor of mine, a respectable woman retired from medical practice, set a number of friends of hers a one-question quiz this week. The puzzle was to identify an item she recently purchased, based solely on what was stated on the tag attached to it. The tag said this (I reproduce it carefully, preserving the strange punctuation, line breaks, capitalization, and grammar, but replacing two searchable proper nouns by xxxxxxxx because they might provide clues):

ABOUT xxxxxxxx
He comfortable
He elastic
He quickly dry
He let you unfettered experience and indulgence. Please! Hurry up
No matter where you are. No matter what you do.
Let xxxxxxxx Change your life,
Become your friends, Partner,
Part of life

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Talk amongst yourselves

Please, talk to each other. It's important to linguists that there should be plenty of chat. We need language live, on the hoof. Millions of spoken word tokens everywhere, so that we can (for example) compare Donald Trump's amazingly high proportion of first-person singular pronouns to the average for non-narcissists like typical Language Log readers. tubechat

However, beware of engaging in chat to strangers on the subway if you are in London. A new campaign for people to wear a "Tube chat?" button when traveling on London Underground trains, intended to provoke random conversation with other passengers, has been met with horror and disdain by the misanthropic curmudgeons who use the services in question. No chat please; we're Londoners.

[Comments are turned off out of respect for readers in London.]

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Sex, lies, and childishness; and insomnia

It's a bit early for Language Log to do any analysis of the presidential debate last night. Where I live, it came on after 2 a.m., and where Mark lives it is still only 5:15 a.m. right now. But Vox has already analysed the interruption rate, a well-known index of gender in speech style. Trump interrupted Clinton exactly three times as often as she interrupted him. I think Language Log can confidently affirm that here we have convincing linguistic evidence that Trump is male and Clinton is female.

But one other thing I noticed, as I struggled to stay awake in the darkness of the middle of the night here in Edinburgh, with the bedside radio softly relaying the debate via the BBC World Service, was the astonishingly childish nature of many of Trump's interruptions.

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