Archive for Usage

Court fight over Oxford commas and asyndetic lists

Language Log often weighs in when courts try to nail down the meaning of a statute. Laws are written in natural language—though one might long, by formalization, to end the thousand natural ambiguities that text is heir to—and thus judges are forced to play linguist.

Happily, this week's "case in the news" is one where the lawyers managed to identify several relevant considerations and bring them to the judges for weighing.

Most news outlets reported the case as being about the Oxford comma (or serial comma)—the optional comma just before the end of a list. Here, for example, is the New York Times:

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Tentative "would"?

Andrew Kaczynski, "Pence calls Assange tweets about 'Pence takeover' of White House 'absurd' and 'offensive'", CNN News 3/14/2017:

Vice President Mike Pence said Tuesday that two tweets from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange claiming a possible "Pence takeover" of the White House were "absurd" and "frankly offensive."

"I would find all of that dialogue to be absurd and frankly offensive," Pence told radio host Laura Ingraham.

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Daylight(-)Saving Time

Julian Hook writes:

The attached plot corroborates my vague recollections: a few decades ago many people spelled Daylight-Saving Time with a hyphen, but now almost nobody does.

The hyphen makes sense by the same logic as the hyphens in other N-Ving compounds like man-eating and blood-curdling. (Those who would object that Daylight-Saving Time doesn’t actually save any daylight should consider that man-eating plants and blood-curdling screams don’t really do what the words say they do either.)

More interesting than the punctuation, perhaps, is the pronunciation. Every other N-Ving compound I can think of is accented on the initial noun, but for some reason everybody seems to accent Daylight-Saving Time on Saving. Why do we do this? Could it have something to do with the fact that the noun daylight is itself a compound, with a secondary stress on the second syllable? And could this pronunciation explain the disappearance of the hyphen—if, perhaps, the odd stress pattern disguises the logic of the compound?

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Decoding political attitudes

I was initially baffled by the political stance of "John Q. Esq.", who submitted this NYT comment:

Having simultaneously benefited from Obamacare and despised Obama and his party for bringing it to them, I have absolutely no doubt what-so-ever that the low information voters who voted for the Republican Congress and Trump will enthusiastically turn out to vote for them again in 2018 and 2020, respectively, while angrily blaming Obama and Democrats for the loss of healthcare that the GOP has stripped them of. The vicious cycle will continue in our broken democracy – this I am sure of.

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Ask Language Log: "*I very like"

From Jonathan Lundell:

The first comment on this performance of the Brandenburg 6 (nice one, btw): "I very like this authentic manner. And I very like first violist. Who is it?" It's from one Artem Klementyev (so Russian?).

So, a question: why can't we say "I very like X"? …when we can do it with, say, truly & really?

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Not ending a headline with a preposition

"Dear Abby: Creepy boy follows around eighth-grade girl", Chicago Sun-Times 2/25/2017:

DEAR ABBY: I’m an eighth-grader with a good life. I go to a good school, have good friends and a happy family.

But at school, there is this boy who follows me around. I tell him to stop, but he keeps doing it.

So upstream in the publications process from that headline, there was apparently someone who has drunk the don't-end-a-sentence-with-a-preposition koolaid.

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Impact Effect

I recently saw a list of revisions suggested by the editor of a scientific journal, which combined technical issues with a number of points of English usage, including these two:

Please try to avoid the word ‘impact,’ unless it is part of a proper name.  It is now over-used (its ‘impact’ is diminished), and doesn’t communicate anything specific.  If used as a verb, it is better to describe exactly what happens.  As a noun, ‘effect’ (or similar) would suffice.  For example, “The impact on quality of life…” could be rendered as “The reduction in quality of life…” […]

Be clear and direct; avoid the passive voice.

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Flaunting party discipline, or flouting it, whatever

I'm afraid the flaunt/flout distinction may be a lost cause. Yesterday in the UK parliament three Labour Party whips voted against the instructions they were supposed to be enforcing on behalf of the leader of their party, and three times already this morning (the radio has been on since 5:30) I have heard a parliamentary report on the BBC's flagship Radio 4 program Today in which a reporter referred to party whips "who were supposed to impose party discipline, rather than flaunt it."

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Editing wars at London Bridge Street

As of the time of writing, you only get one hit if you ask Google to show you all the pages on the web containing the word sequence in order legally to minimise. That lone hit leads you to an anonymous leader in The Times (there is a paywall) in which this sentence occurs:

Companies are gaming the system in order legally to minimise their tax liability.

The highly unnatural syntax has the hallmark of having been created or edited by someone who would rather poison a puppy than allow an adverb to intrude between infinitival to and its following plain-form verb. But in this case there is more to the story.

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Ask LLOG: "(the) people who"

A retired English teacher sent in this question:

Please look at a) and b):

a) The American government spends billions of dollars a year defending the rights of people who cannot defend themselves because they are weak.

b) For your examples of injustice, you mention only birth defects. Horrible as they are, they make up only a small percentage of human suffering. What about the misery that is the direct result of human action or inaction?

As you see, in a), PEOPLE is followed by a restrictive relative clause and in b) MISERY is followed by a restrictive relative clause, too. But why isn't there a "the" in front of PEOPLE but there is a "the" in front of MISERY? I think a restrictive relative clause always makes the noun which is in front of it identified. So, a "the" is needed.

As a matter of observable fact, the proposed generalization is wrong. The proverb "People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones" is fine without an initial the.

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Mad

I'm in San Francisco for InterSpeech 2016, where I'm involved in four papers over three days, so blogging will probably be a bit light. But I have a few minutes before the morning starts, so let me continue the discussion of Gabriel Roth's feelings ("Paper cut to the heart", 9/8/2016) by quoting from Bill S's comment:

Some of the context for M-W's reply is (I would think) the prescriptivist injunctions against the use of "I feel like" for "I think that" — I've seen waves of complaints about "I feel like" washing up on various internet shores over the past year (may be recency effect though). If read as ironic deployment of prescriptivism against prescriptivism, it has enough artfulness to counter the rudeness (to me, anyway — you don't get a good opportunity for a one-liner like that every day, and it would be a shame to pass it up).

Indeed: some prior LLOG coverage:

"'I feel like'", 8/24/2013
"Feelings, beliefs, and thoughts", 5/1/2016
"Feeling in the Supreme Court", 5/3/2016

And it's also worth quoting John McIntyre's comment:

I rather thought his set of tweets was a labored attempt at humor that, whether he knows better or not, appeared to betray an ignorance of what dictionaries are for and how lexicographers work. His talking about feeling ambivalent made the Merriam-Webster response concise and apt. The language doesn't care how you feel about it.

But I want to add a note about the history and current status of mad used to mean "angry",  which makes this case an especially problematic one to use as the starting point for a complaint that "Merriam-Webster is turning into the 'chill' parent who lets your friends come over and get high".

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The NOUNs

Back in June, I started a post with this sample of quoted phrases:

"Ask the gays what they think and what they do"
"The Muslims have to work with us"
"I will be phenomenal to the women"
"I think the Mexicans are going to end up loving Donald Trump"
"I'm the only one in the world who can raise almost $6 million for the veterans"
"People don't know how well we're doing with the Hispanics, the Latinos,"
"Well, what do we do with BET? Over there, the whites don't get any nominations."
"I have a great relationship with the blacks. I’ve always had a great relationship with the blacks."

These are all attributed to Donald Trump, and this aspect of his approach to the English language has been widely noted (e.g. here).

I've got audio verification only for a few of these examples, but despite the notorious inaccuracy of journalistic quotations, I'm inclined to believe that Trump really does refer to groups of people as "the Xs" more often than other public figures do.

But where I got stuck, three months ago, was in figuring out what's wrong with that.

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How not to not write

The first of 14 tips from Zachary Foster ("How not to write: 14 tips for aspiring humanities academics", Times Higher Education 7/7/2016):

Titles. Once upon a time, scholars thought titles should be succinct and descriptive. Now we know better. Instead, introduce your work with an unintelligible phrase such as “Interrupted Modernity”, “Sovereign Emergencies”, “Overthrowing Geography” or “Violent Accumulation”. “Bodies that Speak” and “Empires without Imperialism” also make for great titles, even if bodies cannot speak and empires cannot exist without imperialism. Everyone knows that confusion attracts attention. Obscure quotes also make for great titles, especially if they include grammatical errors or antiquated speech. “Oh motherland I pledge to thee”, “What does not respect borders” and “Fortress Europe in the field” are good examples.

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