Archive for Usage

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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Systematic wanting

Says Bagehot, the pseudonym-cloaked correspondent of The Economist who writes a page of comment on British affairs every week (25 June 2016, p. 27 in Brexit-delayed UK edition; not present in the US edition dated June 25):

As early as January a top Brexiteer freely admitted to Bagehot that his campaign planned to turn the public against its leaders; it wanted systematically to delegitimise Britain's pro-EU political, bureaucratic and business elites.

Is that the first time you've heard anyone talking about systematic wanting? It's a first for me. But of course The Economist is just sticking to its dreadful policy of syntactic self-harm, by mechanically moving adverbs to the left so that they don't follow to in an infinitival complement.

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Brexit: Christmas or The Fourth of July?

Or, we could ask, is Brexit like Passchendaele or like The Somme?

I mean, of course, whether the noun Brexit should normally be used with a definite article ("Are you for or against the Brexit?") or without ("Are you for or against Brexit?").

We need to ignore all the constructions in which Brexit is a modifier of another noun: the Brexit vote, the Brexit campaigners, the Brexit turmoil, etc.  But when Brexit is the head of a noun phrase, I've been assuming that it's a strong proper name that should be anarthrous, like Christmas or Passchendaele or Language Log.

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The ADJECTIVEs

The discussion about Donald Trump's exhortation to "Ask the gays" has focused on several linguistic dimensions: the definite article the,  the nounification gay, and the pluralization of gays.  This reminds me of (what I think is) a recent trend: the novel use of definite pluralized nounified adjectives, often in ironic contexts.

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Ask Language Log: why is "whether or not" more frequent?

Ton van der Wouden asks:

The Google Ngram viewer shows a tenfold increase in the frequency of the string "whether or not". Can the readers of language log think of any explanation for this growth? Can it perhaps be traced back to some prescriptive source? Is it perhaps accompanied by a comparable decrease of the frequency of the variant with postposed "or not", as in "whether you like it or not" — a string that is too long a search term for the Ngram viewer.

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Setting injustice back

Mitch Albom, "Austin pastor’s false cake charge sets real injustice back", Dallas Morning News 5/23/2016:

Brown set back every future case of intolerance, allowing critics to ask if it’s real or fabricated.

As Albom's column explains, Jordan Brown is the openly gay pastor who accused the bakery at Whole Foods of adding an anti-gay slur to the decoration of a cake that he ordered there. Store surveillance video from the check-out line demonstrated that part of his story was false,  and eventually he confessed to having fabricated the claim.

What motivated Vance Koven to send in this link  was the use of the verb set back in the headline and the body of Albom's column. Wiktionary defines the relevant sense of set back as "to delay or obstruct"– and Albom obviously meant that Brown's attempt at deception will delay or obstruct future campaigns against the type of "injustice" or "intolerance" that Brown claimed to have suffered.

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Scientific prescriptivism: Garner Pullumizes?

The publisher's blurb for the fourth edition of Garner's Modern English Usage introduces a new feature:

With more than a thousand new entries and more than 2,300 word-frequency ratios, the magisterial fourth edition of this book — now renamed Garner's Modern English Usage (GMEU)-reflects usage lexicography at its finest. […]

The judgments here are backed up not just by a lifetime of study but also by an empirical grounding in the largest linguistic corpus ever available. In this fourth edition, Garner has made extensive use of corpus linguistics to include ratios of standard terms as compared against variants in modern print sources.

The largest linguistic corpus ever available, of course, is the Google Books ngram collection. And "word-frequency ratio" means, for example, the observations that in pluralizing corpus, corpora outnumbers corpuses by 69:1.

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"Feel that" has been disappearing

The recent flurry of posts on feel as a propositional attitude verb has, I now feel, buried the lede. Kids today may have started using "feel like S" with increasingly frequency in recent years. But their elders have apparently been abandoning "feel that S" ever since the middle of the 20th century.

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Feeling in the Supreme Court

In a NYT Op-Ed a few days ago, Molly Worthen identified as "a broad cultural contagion" the "reflex to hedge every statement as a feeling or a hunch", and urged us instead to "think, believe or reckon". I countered that emotion has largely been bleached out of feel used with sentential complements — "feel that SENTENCE" has long been a standard way to present SENTENCE as the result of a rational evaluation of evidence. (See "Feelings, beliefs, and thoughts", 5/1/2016.)

In support of that view, I gave some examples from biomedical research reports in the MEDLINE collection, starting in 1974, the first year available from that source. Today, I'll give some examples from the U.S. Supreme Court.

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When is Ex- ?

This title on a Reuters story on Yahoo gave me a double-take:

Ex-Heisman winner Troy Smith arrested on DUI and drug charge

There is no suggestion that the Heisman trophy award was ever rescinded. I think in my dialect, once a Heisman trophy winner, always a Heisman trophy winner. I've never heard anyone called an ex-Nobel Prize winner. Am I missing something, or is this really unusual usage? I think even O.J. Simpson is still a Heisman trophy winner.

But I can imagine that the line between where I clearly use ex- and where I don't might not be sharp. Ex-president, ex-spouse are clear. (Hmm, there's also 'former' in competition — that's what I would use for 'department head', not ex-.) I find myself sometimes starting to say "Some of our former Ph.D's (never ex-!!)", but then I usually stop and remove 'former'. Aha, they're our former students, but not our former graduates – they're our graduates forever.

But back to the Heisman trophy. Even if you only hold possession of the trophy for a year, actually or symbolically, you're still a trophy winner forever, aren't you?

 

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Alleged misuse of reflexive pronouns

Philip B. Corbett, "Me and Myself", NYT 12/22/2015:

Several readers have lamented a tendency, in The Times and elsewhere, for writers to misuse so-called reflexive pronouns — the ones that end in “-self” or “-selves.”

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