Archive for Grammar

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Yesterday, Buzzfeed published an article titled "This Woman Ate A Pork Bun In A Typhoon And Now Everyone Loves Her" (9/28/16).  It featured this drawing:

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Secret appearances

The Economist, in a leader last April about the Panama Papers revelation, which I really should have brought to your attention sooner (it fell through the cracks of my life), told us that "The daughters of Azerbaijan's president appear secretly to control gold mines."

They appear secretly? Where are these secret appearances? Are they scheduled in advance, or do they occur randomly? And how would a secret appearance help to control a gold mine?

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Can Japanese read Chinese, and vice versa?

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Big bad modifier order

This is a quote from Mark Forsyth's book The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase. And Nicholas Feinberg asks

This claim seems iffy to me, but it's interesting – have you heard of this before? Do you know of anything related that I could read, or anyone else I should ask?

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Mixed literary and vernacular grammar

Radio Free Asia has published an article about a wheelchair ridden human rights activist named Li Biyun:

"Rights Activist 'Takes Refuge' in U.S. Embassy in Beijing: Relatives" (9/1/16)

The article is accompanied by this extraordinary photograph:

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Kindly do the needful

A phishing spam I received today from "Europe Trade" (it claims to be in Wisconsin but its address domain is in Belarus) said this:

Good Day sir/madam,

I am forwarding the attached document to you as instructed for confirmation,

Please kindly do the needful and revert

Best regards
Sarah Griffith

There were two attachments, allegedly called "BL-document.pdf" and "Invoice.pdf"; they were identical. Their icons said they were PDF files of size 21KB (everyone trusts PDF), but viewing them in Outlook caused Word Online to open them, whereupon they claimed to be password-protected PDF files of a different size, 635KB. However, the link I was supposed to click to open them actually led to a misleadingly named HTML file, which doubtless would have sucked me down to hell or sent all my savings to Belarus or whatever. I don't know what you would have done (some folks are more gullible than others), but I decided I would not kindly do the needful, or even revert. Sorry, Sarah.

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Clueless Microsoft language processing

A rather poetic and imaginative abstract I received in my email this morning (it's about a talk on computational aids for composers), contains the following sentence:

We will metaphorically drop in on Wolfgang composing at home in the morning, at an orchestra rehearsal in the afternoon, and find him unwinding in the evening playing a spot of the new game Piano Hero which is (in my fictional narrative) all the rage in the Viennese coffee shops.

There's nothing wrong with the sentence. What makes me bring it to your notice is the extraordinary modification that my Microsoft mail system performed on it. I wonder if you can see the part of the message that it felt it should mess with, in a vain and unwanted effort at helping me do my job more efficiently?

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Roman-letter Mandarin pronoun of indeterminate gender

From B JS:

Some interesting uses of the Roman letter third person pronoun “TA” to sidestep genders associated with the characters tā 他 ("he") and tā 她 ("she"); it seems useful enough to perhaps become a permanent fixture in the language, in contrast to more faddish-seeming things like “duang” (see here and here).  I kind of wish you could do this in English.

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Struck by a duck-rabbit effect

I was just reading along in the NYT today but had to pause at this sentence:

Mr. Trump has used bankruptcy laws to shield him from personal losses while his investors suffer.

I found myself puzzling over whether "him" was all right there or whether I wanted "himself", and even more puzzled that I was having trouble deciding. I would try out one, then the other, and the sentence kept shape-shifting on me. I didn't "feel" any particular ambiguity, and yet either choice would sound bad to me one second and good the next. Puzzled.

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(Whether) to dispose (of) or not to dispose (of)

From Florent Moncomble, a language academic in France:

My father came back recently from a trip to Japan and was intrigued by the following notice, which he found in his Tokyo hotel room one day. He gets by in English but could not make out its meaning and was wondering whether the fault lay with him or with the message — obviously the latter is the case. My interpretation is that this sign is left by the cleaning staff to apologise whenever they are unsure whether or not to dispose of (half-)used equipment such as towels and toiletries, and leave them in the room.

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Dictional levels for "again" in Chinese

This is a follow-up to "Again and again " (3/20/16), in which we looked at two different Mandarin words for "again", yòu 又 and zài 再, both of which are very common in the language, but which are used in different ways.

A commenter, Nathan, asked:

So if yòu 又 is associated more with the past and unwanted things, and zài 再 more with the future and wanted things, how do you say something future and unwanted –- "Never do that again!"?

I thought that was a good question, so I asked a number of my students and colleagues who are native speakers how they would say it, and was astonished at the wild variety of answers I received.

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Again and again

A note from Cullen Schaffer:

As a student of Mandarin, I'm fascinated by the fact that the language translates the word 'again' differently in these two cases:

He did it last month and yesterday he did it again (又).
He did it last month and tomorrow he'll do it again (再).

It seems bizarre to me to distinguish repetition in the past and future in this way.  Can you or anyone else contributing to Language Log tell me (1) if this feature is unique to Mandarin or if there are parallels in other not-too-closely-related languages (2) how this distinction came to be a part of modern Mandarin?

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That, that, that…

From a colleague:

A friend who has little or no exposure to Chinese language and culture posted the following on Facebook:

In the office where I work, there is a Chinese grad student having a phone conversation. I have no idea what he's saying. But what's striking is that, every so often, he drops a phrase that sounds uncannily like the N-word.

No, I don't think he's bitching about American ethnic groups to his friends. It's probably shop talk in his research field. It's just the way my ears process what are probably the Szechuan or Mandarin equivalent of "I think…" or "Maybe…"

But two things are kind of striking. The first is how much my ears ping when the phrase happens. (I don't think they'd ping the same way if he dropped soundalikes for other Certain Words.) The second is that I start wondering how many fights or attacks may have happened because someone else overheard an equally mundane conversation, and thought that the word was being tossed around casually.

Any thoughts?

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