Archive for Grammar

Fatter for longer (sigh)

Here's a doubly embarrassing confession. First it involves my use of a construction that I love to make fun of. Secondly my spontaneously generated example is unfortunately also a true sentence.
I was trying on four dresses that have been stored in the attic for a while to see if I could avoid having to shop for a formal dress in Chicago on Friday for the Friday black tie dinner that precedes the Saturday honorary doctorate. I didn't think I was going to be able to fit into any of them, since I've gained back all the weight I lost around 2008-9 and am now close to an all-time maximum. But to my in some ways happy surprise, I found that I could sort of fit into two of them, including the best one. And my surprise was expressed (just talking silently to myself, but obviously in real sentences, since this sentence immediately caught my attention as soon as I "said" it) as "Gosh, I've been fatter for longer than I thought". (The happy part is I may not have to go shopping on Friday, or at least it won't be obligatory to buy a new dress, which takes off the pressure that accompanies last-minute obligatory shopping.)
I still reject that sentence, even though I said it .

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The sparseness of linguistic data

Gary Marcus and Ernest Davis say in a New York Times piece on why we shouldn't buy all the hype about the Big Data revolution in science:

Big data is at its best when analyzing things that are extremely common, but often falls short when analyzing things that are less common. For instance, programs that use big data to deal with text, such as search engines and translation programs, often rely heavily on something called trigrams: sequences of three words in a row (like "in a row"). Reliable statistical information can be compiled about common trigrams, precisely because they appear frequently. But no existing body of data will ever be large enough to include all the trigrams that people might use, because of the continuing inventiveness of language.

To select an example more or less at random, a book review that the actor Rob Lowe recently wrote for this newspaper contained nine trigrams such as "dumbed-down escapist fare" that had never before appeared anywhere in all the petabytes of text indexed by Google. To witness the limitations that big data can have with novelty, Google-translate "dumbed-down escapist fare" into German and then back into English: out comes the incoherent "scaled-flight fare." That is a long way from what Mr. Lowe intended — and from big data's aspirations for translation.

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I saw one thousand commenting and nobody listening

Sometimes I look at the informed and insightful comments below Mark Liberman's technical posts here on Language Log, and I find myself thinking: These people are smart, and their wisdom enhances the value of our site. Maybe I should return to opening up comments on my posts too. But then something awful happens to convince me never to click the Allow Comments button again, unless at gunpoint. Something awful like the comments below Tom Chivers' article about me in the The Daily Telegraph, a quality UK newspaper of broadly Conservative persuasion (see their Sunday magazine Seven, 16 March 2014, 16–17; the article is regrettably headlined "Are grammar Nazis ruining the English language?" online, but the print version has "Do these words drive you crazy"—neither captures anything about the content).

I unwisely scrolled down too far and saw a few of the comments. There were already way more than 1,300 of them. It was like glimpsing a drunken brawl in the alley behind the worst bar in the worst city you ever visited. Discussion seemed to be dominated by an army of nutballs who often hadn't read the article. They seemed to want (i) a platform from which to assert some pre-formed opinion about grammar, or (ii) a chance to insult someone who had been the subject of an article, or (iii) an opportunity to publicly beat up another commenter. I didn't read many of the comments, but I saw that one charged me with spawning a cult, and claimed that I am the leader of an organization comparable to the brown-shirted Sturmabteilung who aided Hitler's rise to power:

Pullum is not so much the problem; he's just an ivory tower academic whose opinions are largely irrelevant to the average person. The problem is the cult following he has spawned. I don't know if he condones the thuggish tactics his Brownshirts regularly employ against the infidels, but it is certainly disturbing.

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Written Cantonese on a "Democracy Wall" at a University in Hong Kong

A Language Log reader in Hong Kong sent in the following photograph:

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Once more on the present continuative ending -ing in Chinese

On "Savage Minds", Kerim has a new post entitled "How do you pronounce '革命ing'?", which features this initially enigmatic photograph:

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How to learn Chinese and Japanese

Some years ago (in 2008, as a matter of fact), I wrote a post entitled "How to learn to read Chinese".  The current post is intended as a followup and supplement to that post.

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Ambiguous Mandarin sentences

Ambiguity exists in all languages, especially if an author is not careful to forestall it.  On the other hand, writers and poets sometimes intentionally court it for literary effect, in which case there are at least Seven Types of Ambiguity.

Two literary attributes that are perhaps more salient in Mandarin than in many other languages are ambiguity and rhyme, the former because Chinese words are not strongly marked grammatically (e.g., hóng 紅 ["red"] can be an adjective, noun, or verb [dōngfāng hóng 東方紅 {"the east IS RED"}]) and the latter because of the huge number of homophones in the language.

Currently, a set of seven sentences has been circulating on the internet.  They are preceded by a notation which states that a high level test for foreign students of Chinese in 2013 included the following sentences, each of which the students had to explain in two different ways.  Before listing and translating the sentences, I should mention that it is not immediately obvious that each of the sentences can be interpreted in two different ways.  To a certain degree, I would compare the effect of reading these sentences to that of looking at optical illusions; sometimes you have to look a very long time before you can see both versions of the illustration, and sometimes you never see more than one version, no matter how hard you look.

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The English passive: an apology

Listen, I need to apologise to thirty or forty of you (I don't really know how many). I'm really sorry. I've wronged you. Mea culpa.

You remember all those great examples you sent me of people alleging use of the passive voice and getting it wrong? Well, I have now completed a paper using many of them. It's basically about the astonishing extent of the educated public's understanding of the grammatical term "passive" and the utter lack of support for the widespread prejudice against passive constructions. It's called "Fear and Loathing of the English Passive," and you can get a 23-page single-spaced typescript in PDF format if you click on that title. It will appear this year in the journal Language and Communication; the second proofs are being prepared now. But (the bad news) my acknowledgments note (at the end, just before the references) will not contain a full list of the names of all of you who helped me. You deserved better, but don't blow up at me; let me explain.

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Putting grammar back in grammar schools: A modest proposal

A few days ago, out of the 21,595 visitors to LLOG that Google Analytics counted, 88 arrived after asking what part of speech is the, and thereby landing on Arnold Zwicky's post "What part of speech is 'the'?", 3/30/2006. Unfortunately, if they were looking for how to fill-in-the-blank on a homework assignment, they probably went away unsatisfied, because Arnold's excellent post starts by complaining, cogently and at length, that "the school tradition about parts of speech is so desperately impoverished", and closes by noting that

[A] linguist who proposes to introduce, say, the technical term determiner for a class of pre-adjectival modifiers in English that includes the articles, demonstratives, quantifiers, possessives, and more is likely to be seen as UNDERMINING tradition, casting off the sureties of the past in favor of fashionable jargon.

All true — but hard for a student to boil down to a single label. And just as hard for a teacher to use as the foundation for an assignment. This confusion and controversy about what standard grammatical terminology (and methodology) ought to be is one of several reasons that grammatical analysis has all but vanished from the curriculum of American schools.

I feel that it's past time to do something about this. So, as a Christmas present to the English-speaking world, let me propose a simple and practical way to cut through the tangled undergrowth of grammatical tradition and the dense thickets of recent grammatical argumentation. The goal: a standard, canonical grammatical description for English. Yes, really. It's already Out There — all we need to do is to recognize it for what it is.

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The degendering of the third person pronoun in Mandarin

One of the first things a student learns when studying Mandarin is the third person pronoun, tā. This was originally written 他 (with "human" radical), and it stood for feminine, masculine, and neuter — "he", "she", and "it". During the early 20th century, however, some bright folks — undoubtedly in emulation of European languages — thought it would be a good idea to introduce gender into the Chinese writing system, so 她 (with "female" radical) came to be used for the feminine and 它 (with "roof" radical) for the neuter. I always thought that rather odd, because no attempt was made to differentiate the three forms in speech, only in writing, hence 他, 她, and 它 were still all pronounced tā.

Well, it's not quite right to say that no attempt was made to differentiate the three forms in pronunciation, since there was a half-hearted effort to introduce yī for feminine and tuō for neuter, but it didn't catch on.

Beyond 他, 她, and 它, there are also 牠 (with "bovine" radical) for animals and 祂 (with "spirit" radical) for deities, etc. All of these were — and still are — pronounced tā.

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No character for the most frequent morpheme in Taiwanese

Mark Swofford sent me the following photograph of two snack stands taken on September 8 on a mountain in Tucheng, Taiwan — somewhere around here:

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Pee straight

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Not… until just now

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"It wasn't" in English and Chinese

From "Zits" for August 30, 2013 — the episode just before the one featured in "Earworms and white bears":

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Toxic grammar advice on Australian radio

Toxic grammar alert for Australians: Rodney Huddleston informs me that the ABC Radio breakfast show celebrated International Apostrophe Day on 16 August 2013 with disastrous results. Huddleston reports:

The presenter had brought in someone he called a grammar nerd/specialist and asked her about the use of the apostrophe. She managed to deal with dog's bowl and dogs' bowls, but when he asked her about children she said this was a collective noun, not a strictly plural and that in children's playgrounds and children's dreams the apostrophe should come AFTER the s.

I will not expose the grammar specialist's family to humiliation by naming her; I do have a heart. But this is really staggering misinformation. The apostrophe should never come after the s in cases of irregular pluralization. The genitive suffix is ’s unless the regular plural s immediately precedes it (in which case the genitive marker is simply the apostrophe alone). In irregular plurals like children, oxen, cacti, foci, phenomena, etc., there is no immediately preceding plural s, so the default holds: it's the children’s playgrounds, and likewise the cacti’s watering schedule, and these phenomena’s importance.

Beware of nonlinguists who appear on radio programs as grammar experts; they sometimes simply make stuff up.

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