Archive for Usage

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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Annals of singular 'they': another case with known sex

Karen Thomson, a Sanskritist and antiquarian bookseller living in Oxford, wrote to me to point out the following very significant example of singular they in a Financial Times interview with TV writer and director Jill Soloway:

People will recognise that just because somebody is masculine, it doesn't mean they have a penis. Just because somebody's feminine, it doesn't mean they have a vagina. That's going to be the evolution over the next five years.

You see what makes this not just a dramatic claim in terms of sexual politics but a linguistically very revealing example?

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Mea culpae? Meae culpae? Meis culpis? Mea culpas?

The following is a guest post by frequent LLOG commenter J.W. Brewer:


Someone forwarded me a link by a distinguished emeritus professor (I recognize the name, think I once saw him speak at a conference, have the impression his scholarly work is generally well-regarded by people whose judgment I trust) writing about current campus turmoil, and I was caught short by the sentence. “Reflexive mea culpae may buy temporary peace and goodwill but only invite more extreme demands.”

I got distracted from the substance of the piece (with which I largely agreed, give or take some matters of tone or emphasis) by the notion that this was not only pretentious but Wrong Wrong Wrong (so serves him right for letting pretension lead him into error).  Google books, however, suggests that it’s not an original error, and there are instances in English going back at least to the 1870’s.

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More on various types of whatever(s)

Yesterday, we saw that in the publications indexed by Google Scholar, phrases like "two types of hypothesis|hypotheses" and "three kinds of question|questions" run about 75% plural; and a search in the Google ngram viewer supports the opinion of some people that there may be a tendency for Brits to prefer the singular and Americans the plural ("Various types of whatever(s)").

I took a few minutes this morning to compare some similar phrases as indexed by an American newspaper (the New York Times) and a British newspaper (the Guardian). In both cases, the plural preference is much greater, and there's no sign of a British preference for singularity (93.5% overall for the NYT, and 96.5% overall for the Guardian).

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Behind "The Humble Petition of WHO and WHICH"

A few days ago, I reprinted Richard Steele's "The Humble Petition of WHO and WHICH", where he voices their complaint that "We are descended of ancient families, and kept up our dignity and honour many years, till the jack-sprat THAT supplanted us". This item appeared in The Spectator for May 30, 1711, and Joan Maling emailed me to ask what we know about the relative frequency of various relative pronouns across time.

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Various types of whatever(s)

Joan Maling writes:

The various co-authors on a neurolinguistics paper (I am one)  have different judgments about the following:

a.    two principal kinds of hypothesis  
b.    two principal kinds of hypotheses  

The two British co-authors prefer singular hypothesis; two Americans prefer plural hypotheses.  Curious. Has anyone looked at this variation, either as an idiolectal or a dialectal difference?

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The Humble Petition of WHO and WHICH

In 1711, long before E.B. White over-interpreted the Fowler brothers and sent out mobs of zombified prescriptivists to hunt down whiches, Richard Steele gave us "The Humble Petition of WHO and WHICH", The Spectator 78:

' The humble Petition of WHO and WHICH,
' SHEWETH,
' THAT your petitioners being in a forlorn and destitute condition, know not to whom we should apply ourselves for relief, because there is hardly any man alive who hath not injured us. Nay, we speak it with sorrow, even you yourself, whom we should suspect of such a practice the last of all mankind, can hardly acquit yourself of having given us some cause of complaint. We are descended of ancient families, and kept up our dignity and honour many years, till the jack-sprat THAT supplanted us. How often have we found ourselves slighted by the clergy in their pulpits, and the lawyers at the bar? Nay, how often have we heard, in one of the most polite and august assemblies in the universe, these words, "That THAT that noble lord urged ;" which if one of us had justice done, would have sounded nobler thus, "that WHICH that noble lord urged." Senates themselves, the guardians of British liberty, have degraded us, and preferred THAT to us; and yet no decree was ever given against us.  …

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