Archive for Errors

Can you spell "bus"?

I have commented before on the psycholinguistics of signs painted on roads: in the USA it is apparently assumed that drivers will read the words in the order in which their front wheels reach them, so that what appears to be a display with "ONLY" above "LANE" above "BIKE" is supposed to be read as "BIKE LANE ONLY". In the UK, the opposite assumption is made: that drivers will read the whole display as a text that starts at the top. However, in one startling recent case in Bristol, south-west England, the people who painted the sign on the road warning of a bus stop never read it at all, in either order. They just stencilled "BUP STOP" on the roadway and packed up and left. Photographic evidence supplied herewith, just in case you cannot believe anyone capable of holding down a local government job could be unable to spell "BUS".

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Happy. Fourth.

In anticipation of the 4th of July weekend, I was compelled to read this very interesting (July 1 draft) manuscript: "Punctuating Happiness", by UPS Foundation Professor Danielle S. Allen of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. A political theorist friend's Facebook post led me both to the article and to this front-page NYT piece on it: "If Only Thomas Jefferson Could Settle the Issue: A Period is Questioned in the Declaration of Independence", by Jennifer Schuessler (July 2 online, July 3 print).

Professor Allen makes a thorough and compelling case for her claim that the second sentence of the actual Declaration of Independence parchment has a comma after the well-known phrase "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" — and not a period, as the most frequently reproduced version of the document, an engraving made by printer William J. Stone in 1823, would lead one to believe. The matter can't be resolved via visual inspection; the parchment is extremely faded, and Allen presents some evidence — suggestive but not conclusive, in my opinion, but that's neither here nor there — that it may have already been sufficiently faded at the time of Stone's engraving. Allen thus "advocate[s] for the use of hyper-spectral imaging to re-visit the question of what is on the parchment".

For everyone's reference, here is the relevant "second sentence" of the Declaration of Independence, as transcribed on pp. 2-3 of Allen's manuscript, with the "errant period" highlighted in green.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. — That to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundations on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

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Fatter for longer (sigh)

Here's a doubly embarrassing confession. First it involves my use of a construction that I love to make fun of. Secondly my spontaneously generated example is unfortunately also a true sentence.
I was trying on four dresses that have been stored in the attic for a while to see if I could avoid having to shop for a formal dress in Chicago on Friday for the Friday black tie dinner that precedes the Saturday honorary doctorate. I didn't think I was going to be able to fit into any of them, since I've gained back all the weight I lost around 2008-9 and am now close to an all-time maximum. But to my in some ways happy surprise, I found that I could sort of fit into two of them, including the best one. And my surprise was expressed (just talking silently to myself, but obviously in real sentences, since this sentence immediately caught my attention as soon as I "said" it) as "Gosh, I've been fatter for longer than I thought". (The happy part is I may not have to go shopping on Friday, or at least it won't be obligatory to buy a new dress, which takes off the pressure that accompanies last-minute obligatory shopping.)
I still reject that sentence, even though I said it .

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Wondering who did Frank think he was talking to?

Biking home listening to an old Fresh Air podcast from my backlog, I was amused to hear the story of Frank Sinatra giving a grammaticality judgment. Sammy Cahn describes how Sinatra objected to his lyric for the song "The Last Dance."

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Here's the relevant bit of the transcript from the Fresh Air site:

CAHN: So when you speak, you would say they're wondering just when we will leave. You wouldn't say, they're wondering just when will we leave. So he said that one, just when we will leave. I said no, it isn't – hold it. I said they're wondering just when will we leave. But till we leave. He said what kind of cockamamie word is…

(LAUGHTER)

CAHN: I said no one speaks like that. I said no. I said no one speaks like that, but we aren't speaking, Frank, are we? We're singing, aren't we, Frank? And that's the only time we ever kind of good-naturedly quarreled about a line.

Apparently Cahn shared the judgment but justified the inversion on artistic grounds. Sinatra subsequently did it Cahn's way, not his way.

I also love Cahn's bisyllabic pronunciation of "aren't" here.

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Carmen in Korean and Cantonese

Reader Jean-Michel found an odd example of a Sinographic typo and it's got him stumped. This has to do with the Korean Blu-ray release of "As Tears Go By," the 1988 debut feature by Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai.

In Chinese the film is known as Wàngjiǎo kǎmén 旺角卡門 ("Mongkok Carmen") after the Bizet opera (though the resemblances are very superficial). What is strange, however, is that the Korean Blu-ray art, as illustrated below, initially gave the characters as Wàngjiǎo xiàwèn 旺角下問.

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Grammar scandal at WSJ

Misspelling prosecutor as prosector is one thing; we all make letter-omission slips occasionally. But misspelling your version as you're version in a headline in a quality newspaper? It's a whole different magnitude of editorial sin. Yet at the time of writing, The Wall Street Journal's European edition has a headline up online saying "Prosector to Oscar Pistorius: 'You're Version's a Lie'"!

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The grammar of "Abide with me"

On Tuesday at my mother's funeral we sang "Abide With Me". It's a popular hymn for funerals, possibly because people like the line "Where is death's sting? Where, grave, thy victory?"; but as we sang the fifth verse (you can see the lyrics here) I couldn't help noticing a syntactic point.

No, don't be shocked that syntax could be on my mind on such an occasion. A linguist's brain does not cease making linguistic observations on entering a crematorium chapel. As I recently explained in a piece over at Lingua Franca, linguistics is not a task that one takes up only as necessary; it is more like a kind of affliction, making the afflicted person incapable of not noticing points of interest in linguistic material. Here is the stanza that I could not help noticing:

Thou on my head in early youth didst smile,
And though rebellious and perverse meanwhile,
Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee.
On to the close, O Lord, abide with me.

Perhaps you can immediately see what struck me about the first sentence (the first three lines)?

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Correction of the day

St. Patrick's Day, that is… From Michael Grynbaum and Nikita Stewart, "Amid Mayoral Missteps, Irish Eyes Are Rolling in New York City", NYT 3/16/2014:

Correction: March 17, 2014
An earlier version of this article misquoted a comment from Malachy McCourt on St. Patrick. Mr. McCourt said, “My attitude is, St. Patrick banished the snakes from Ireland and they all came here and they became conservatives.” He did not say St. Patrick banished the slaves from Ireland.

In fact, slavery was legal in Ireland (as in the rest of the British Empire) until 1833, a millennium and a half after St. Patrick's time. Though as a slave himself for six years, he might have favored abolition, if the concept had ever come to his mind.

 

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Bad shits

I received the following photograph of a sign taken by Son Ha Dinh in Damak, Nepal:

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Wantan soup for überman hubby

Here is a handwritten note left by a man for his wife:

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Transcriptional and hybrid words in Mandarin

Like all languages, Mandarin and other Sinitic tongues have borrowed and coined words throughout their history.  But it would seem that the pace and nature of the current changes in Chinese usage are of such extraordinary amplitude that an unprecedented transformation is occurring, one that may be marked not merely by differences in quantity and quality, but of order and kind.

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Sushi in Sochi

David Craig sent in this picture which showed up on the Facebook Armchair Linguists page, originally posted by Olexa Stomachenko; no one seems to know what it means:

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Everything he was in he raised the quality

According to Metro, the UK free newspaper that I pick up each morning from a stack just inside the door as I get on a double-decker bus, Steve Coogan said this about the excellent film actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who sadly was found dead with a hypodermic in his arm yesterday:

Everything he was in he raised the quality of his film just by his presence.

Quite so. Or at least, sort of so. If I defocus my syntactic eyes a lot, I can sort of get a glimpse of what Coogan meant.

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Year of the Whores

At the advent of the lunar New Year, I usually try to come up with something clever to celebrate the occasion. (See here, here, and here.) Perhaps because I was preoccupied with other things, I hadn't yet thought of anything suitable for the Year of the Horse. Fortunately, at the last minute, BBC came to the rescue and gifted me with this spectacular subtitle blunder:

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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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