Archive for Ignorance of linguistics

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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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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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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Dolphins using personal names, again

As we have frequently noted here on Language Log, science stories on the BBC News website are (how to put this politely?) not always of prize-winning standard with respect to originality, timeliness, reliability, or attention to the relevant literature. In fact some of them show signs of being written by kids in junior high school. Way back in 2006 Mark Liberman commented on a BBC News story about the notion that dolphins have and use "names" for each other. He expressed skepticism, but the BBC forged ahead without paying any heed, and today, more than seven years later, we learn from the same BBC site once again that Dolphins 'call each other by name'. Yes, it's the same story, citing the same academic at the University of St Andrews, Dr Vincent Janik. (Mark's link in 2006 was unfortunately to a Google search on {Janik, dolphins}, which today brings up the current stories rather than the ones he was commenting on then.) And you don't need to leave the BBC page to see that the story contradicts itself.

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Hopefully no need to comment

A number of people have written to ask me why I have made no public comment on the preposterous old fraud Nevile Gwynne and his highly publicized recent book Gwynne's Grammar.

Well, one reason is that a certain amount of collapse in the will to live had come over me when contemplating the sheer dopiness of Mr Gwynne's pontifications about grammar and his lack of any grasp of the subject (declaring that too much too young is incomprehensible does not make a retired accountant into a grammar expert). Another is that Mark Liberman covered the topic very nicely, with an unerring eye for syntactic reasoning, in a comment on the first Bad Grammar Award, ostentatiously given to the authors of a short letter criticizing the UK education minister, which was really just a strategy for getting the press to show some interest in Gwynne's Grammar. (The citations and evidence relating to the Bad Grammar Award have apparently never been published on the web; I have been unable to find even the original press release, let alone anything more detailed.) But I now have discovered a third reason for not offering detailed comments: there are at least two beautifully aimed non-credulous posts about Gwynne already available in the blogosphere (and the superior quality of the blogs over the newspapers here is really striking).

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Diagramming sentences

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Coming up: lecture in Seattle

One week from tomorrow (Tuesday) night I give my Jesse and John Danz Lecture at the University of Washington in Seattle. And although the summary published on the registration page is entirely accurate, I would still conjecture that as many as half the people planning to attend will think that the scandal is people who write bad. They will assume that I will be dinging ordinary folks for writing (and speaking) ungrammatically. Little will they know what lies in store: that my target is the grammarians. It is the rule-givers and knuckle-rappers and nitpickers that I will be castigating for their ignorance of the content of the principles of English syntax.

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The mystery of the missing misconception

I recently wrote on Lingua Franca about my astonishment over Piotr Cichocki and Marcin Kilarski. In their paper "On 'Eskimo Words for Snow': The Life Cycle of a Linguistic Misconception" (Historiographia Linguistica 37, 2010, Pages 341-377), they mistook my 1989 humorous opinion column "The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax" for a research paper, and bitterly attacked it for dogmatism, superficiality, offensiveness, and all sorts of scholarly sins. But there is an additional thing about the paper that puzzled me deeply. It concerns the word "misconception" in the title.

I have read the early sections of the paper over and over again trying to figure out what Cichocki and Kilarski think the misconception is, and I just cannot figure it out.

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Reddit blewit

Reddit, for those few who might not know, is a popular bulletin-board site for posting and discussing links and texts. A voting system determines the order and position of entries. The site is divided into "subreddits" devoted to paticular topics, of which there are now tens of thousands.

One of these countless subreddits is /r/grammar. Here "grammar", as usual, is mostly taken to mean "spelling, punctuation, and word usage" — but the items posted are generally questions rather than peeves, and the questions are sincere and sometimes interesting. Like other subreddits, /r/grammar has moderators, and they've chosen a few select links for the right-hand top of the page:

The five selected topics seem a bit random, but at least the first four of them (a vs. an, sentence-ending prepositions, I vs. meCompound possession) link to plausible discussions of the cited issues. The fifth one, however, points to a grammatical disaster: a page on "That Versus Which" from Marc A. Grinker's "The Legal Writing Teaching Assistant: The Law Student's Guide to Good Writing" (1994).

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It just looks so much better in sign

On my commute home from Language Log Plaza West yesterday, I heard this brief piece on NPR about Lydia Callis, NYC Mayor Bloomberg's American Sign Language interpreter. (See also here, here, here, here, here — screw it, just search for "Lydia Callis".) A couple choice quotes from some of these stories:

From the NPR piece I heard: Callis was animated – both in her facial expressions and hand movements – the antithesis of the stoic mayor.

From this Bloomberg News piece: "She's awesome," Lynn Correa, 30, who has watched YouTube videos made about Callis, said today at a bus stop in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood. "She's much more expressive than [Mayor Bloomberg] is."

Don't get me wrong: I think it's great that Callis, and sign language interpreting generally, are getting some postive attention. But looking at the videos, I don't see anything other than a (very good) ASL interpreter — in other words, Callis is not doing anything extra special here, she's just doing her job, which is to translate what people are saying into ASL. I understand that there's the contrast with the otherwise somber Bloomberg, and that what is being translated is news about Hurricane Sandy, and that for many folks this may be one of the first times they've seen sign language interpretation up close — but I can't help pointing out here that the hand movements and facial expressions are defining features of ASL (and of other signed languages). The perception that we non-signers have that these hand movements and facial expressions are particularly "animated" and "expressive" is precisely due to our lack of experience with them as linguistic features.

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Drawl from all over

On Lingua Franca today, Allan Metcalf of the American Dialect Society has a cute piece on dialect description citing numerous examples of different regional dialects being characterized by the same layperson's description: the utterly undefined but oh-so-popular phrase "nasal drawl." They come from from all over: Missouri, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, California, Massachusetts, the Deep South, Texas, Chicago, anywhere. There's no phonetic reality to this imaginary sound quality: Metcalf says "If you want to say something specific about a person's pronunciation but aren't too comfortable with phonetic terminology, you can say 'nasal drawl' and people will understand. It means—well, it's hard to say what it means…" It's only language you're talking about; just make stuff up.

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They cut me out

The two mutually reinforcing ulterior motives that we Language Log writers share are (i) to have a bit of fun writing about language in ways that are not necessarily all that serious, and (ii) to slide in little bits of genuine public education about the cognitive and linguistic sciences to which we devote our time when we're at our day jobs. I have the same twin motives in the writing I do for Lingua Franca on the website of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Often, being me, I let the fun side predominate, and there's a lot more of humorous hyperbole and (let's face it) outright fantasy than there is of the cognitive and linguistic sciences. While Victor Mair sweats over sheets of Chinese characters and Mark Liberman generates graphs to see if the results of refereed papers can be replicated from reprocessed raw data, I just play. There's no linguistics at all in a piece like "I Wish I'd Said That", though it is sort of basically about language; and something similar is true for quite a few other posts listed on my reference page of Lingua Franca posts. But in today's piece, for once, everything I say is completely true, and I actually try to teach a tiny bit about syntactic ambiguity. And my reward was swift and cold: the compilers of the daily email newsletter through which The Chronicle points its subscribers to what they can find today on the web refused to include a pointer to my piece.

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One more misidentified passive (can you bear it?)

You know, people keep telling me that I shouldn't blame Strunk & White for the way so many Americans are clueless about identifying passive clauses. Others tell me I'm being prescriptive: I should let people use the word 'passive' however they want. (And you can, of course; you can use it to mean "box containing electrical equipment" if you want.) But I'm unrepentant in my conviction that page 18 of The Elements of Style has been confusing people for decades. Let me give you (if you can bear it) another example of why.

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The New Yorker vs. the descriptivist specter

Readers of The New Yorker might be getting the impression that the magazine has it in for a nefarious group of people known as "descriptivists." They're a terrible bunch, as far as I can tell. First came Joan Acocella's "The English Wars" in the May 14 issue (see Mark Liberman's posts, "Rules and 'rules'," "A half century of usage denialism"). And now the vendetta continues online with Ryan Bloom's post on the magazine's Page-Turner blog, "Inescapably, You're Judged By Language," which promises to unmask the dastardly descriptivists and their "dirty little secret."

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Rules and "rules"

Philipp Sebastian Angermeyer writes:

Is there going to be a language log comment on the article "The English Wars"  in the current issue of the New Yorker?  I find it completely shocking to see that an author who purports to be writing about prescriptivism vs. descriptivism has so little understanding of the subject, and that the editor (presuming that such a position still exists at the New Yorker) would not catch the absurd claim that John Rickford is a prescriptivist.

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