Archive for Usage advice

The possessive Jesus of composition

Let me explain, very informally, what a predictive text imitator is. It is a computer program that takes as input a passage of training text and produces as output a new text that is composed quasi-randomly except that it matches the training text with regard to the frequencies of word or character sequences up to some fixed finite length k.

(There has to be such a length limit, of course: the only text in which the word sequence of Melville's Moby-Dick is matched perfectly is Melville's Moby-Dick, but what a predictive text imitator trained on Moby-Dick would do is to produce quasi-random fake-Moby-Dickish gibberish in which each sequence of not more than k units matches Moby-Dick with respect to the transition probabilities between adjacent units.)

I tell you this because a couple of months ago Jamie Brew made a predictive text imitator and trained it on my least favorite book in the world, William Strunk's The Elements of Style (1918). He then set it to work writing the first ten sections of a new quasi-randomly generated book. You can see the results here. The first point at which I broke down and laughed till there were tears in my eyes was at the section heading 'The Possessive Jesus of Composition and Publication'. But there were other such points too. Take a look at it. And trust me: following the advice in Jamie Brew's version of the book won't do your writing much more harm than following the original.

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Paper cut to the heart

Merriam-Webster's twitter account has been offering good usage advice, for example

This particular tweet led to an exchange that went viral.

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McCrum's 100 best ways to ruin the 4th of July

The many Americans in the University of Edinburgh's community of language and information scientists had to celebrate the glorious 4th on the 3rd this year, because the 4th is an ordinary working Monday. I attended a Sunday-afternoon gathering kindly hosted by the Head of the School of Informatics, Johanna Moore. We barbecued steadfastly in the drizzle despite classic Scottish indecisive summer weather: it was cloudy, well under 60°F. Twice we all had to flee inside indoors when the rain became heavier. No matter: we chatted together and enjoyed ourselves. (I swore in 2007 that one thing I was not going to do was spend my time in this bracing intellectual environment grumbling about how the weather in Santa Cruz had been better. I'm here for the linguistic science, not the weather.) So it was a happy Fourth of July for me. Until this morning, the actual 4th, when people started emailing me (thanks, you sadistic bastards) to note that Robert McCrum had chosen America's independence day to make his choice for the 23rd in a series called "The 100 Best Nonfiction Books of All Time," in the British newspaper The Observer. He chooses The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White. For crying out loud!

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Don't be awkward

Mark Liberman's discussion of an absurd modifier placement rule in the Associated Press Style Book reminded me of an ancient and not particularly funny joke that, the way I first heard it, is based on an offensive stereotype of gay men. I was going to explain on the Chronicle of Higher Education's language blog Lingua Franca a couple of months ago, but to my surprise I was forbidden to do so. The Chronicle lives in abject terror of offending gays or blacks or women or Asians or prudes or any other identifiable section of its readership that might take offense at something (and they may be right to be afraid: this week I was accused of ageism by a commenter for using the phrase "between 60 and 70 years old" as part of a description of an imaginary person). I'll tell you here on Language Log what I was going to say, and you can decide.

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Needless words

I know I've been a long-time critic of everything in The Elements of Style, not least William Strunk's platitude that you should omit needless words. "Needless" is not defined even vaguely; nobody really writes in a way that sticks to the absolute minimum word count; and if neophyte writers could tell what was needless they wouldn't have to be handed this platitude (which they don't really know how to use anyway). But every now and then one really does see a case of a word that screams at you that it should have been left out. The University of Oxford has an official form on which this is the heading:


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Adjectives and adverbs

A puzzling note arrived in my inbox a few days ago:

I came across an article you wrote about the use of adverbs and adjectives.  To count the use of adverbs and adjectives you actually wrote a program. Is this something you would be willing to share or give me some advice on how to create myself? I am looking for a tool that our marketing team can use to keep the puffery to a minimum.

It was puzzling because the cited article was  "Stop Hating on Adjectives and Adverbs", Slate 9/10/2013.  And as the title suggests, my attitude towards eliminating adjective and adverbs was a skeptical one:

Calculating the relative percentages of adjectives and adverbs in texts tells us nothing useful about their readability, clarity, or efficiency.

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Pressing the House of Commons swiftly

There is a designated staff member whose job at The Economist is to make the magazine (my favorite magazine) look ridiculous by moving adverbs to unacceptably silly positions in the sentence. She is still at work. This is from the December 12 issue, p. 58, in an article about preparations for a referendum next year on whether Britain should abandon its membership in the European Union:

Most pollsters reckon a later vote is likely to boost the leave campaign. Avoidance of delay was a big reason why the government this week pressed the House of Commons swiftly to overturn a House of Lords plan to extend the referendum franchise to 16- and 17-year-olds.

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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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Another victim of oversimplified rules

On page 4 of the Metro newspaper today (it's distributed free on all the Edinburgh buses, so whatever its faults, the price is right) I read this sentence:

A record number of companies has been formed by Edinburgh University in the past 12 months, taking the total created over the past five years to 184.

A grammar tragedy. It's a verb agreement error. The writer recalls being told sternly that the verb must agree with the head noun of the subject noun phrase, and number seems to be the head noun, so common sense has been thrown to the winds, and the verb has wrongly been put into the singular agreement form—which, of course, is what the simplistic how-to-write books seem to demand.

In this case the correct agreement form happens to be the one that comports with the meaning: the University of Edinburgh has not been forming a number over the past year; it is the companies that have been formed, a record number of them. The singular agreement makes no sense. Lesson: verb agreement is not as mechanical and syntactic as the oversimplified handbook versions would have you believe.

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A decision entirely

Urgent bipartite action alert for The Economist: First, note that my copy of the July 18 issue did not arrive on my doormat as it should have done on Saturday morning, so I did not have my favorite magazine to read over the weekend; please investigate. And second, the guerilla actions of the person on your staff who enforces the no-split-infinitives rule (you know perfectly well who it is) have gone too far and are making you a laughing stock. Look at this sentence, from an article about Iran (page 21; thanks to Robert Ayers for pointing it out; the underlining is mine):

Nor do such hardliners believe compliance will offer much of a safeguard: Muammar Qaddafi's decision entirely to dismantle Libya's nuclear programme did not stop Western countries from helping his foes to overthrow and kill him.

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Word rage, discreet firearm edition

Oxford University Press has published the fourth edition of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. The name "Fowler" has been retained as a source of prestige, but this is really the work of editor Jeremy Butterfield (as the third edition was the work of Robert Burchfield). Butterfield has already been getting some press attention for some of his more curmudgeonly reactions to points of modern usage. From The Times (UK), "Modern language makes dictionary compiler see, like, red" (3/31/15):

Readers fretful about crumbling standards will be relieved, and possibly amused, that the compiler of the latest edition of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage has admitted to being overcome by grumpiness at some of the 250 new entries.

Jeremy Butterfield said that he was unable to hide his disdain while writing entries such as "awesome", "challenging" and "issue" – all of which are classified as clichés. So annoyed was he by the use of "like" as verbal punctuation that he suggested violence may be an appropriate response.

Ooh, violence! Looks like it's the latest episode of word rage.

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Moar Verbs

A couple of days ago, Geoff Pullum noted that William Zinsser's On Writing Well echoes the Strunkish advice that "Most adverbs are unnecessary" and "Most adjectives are also unnecessary" ("Awful book, so I bought it", 3/21/2015). I share Geoff's skepticism about this anti-modifier animus, and indeed about all writing advice based on parts of speech.

But it occurred to me to wonder whether (various types of) good and bad writing actually do tend to differ in how much they use various parts of speech — and in particular, whether there's any evidence that bad (or at least less accessible) writing tends to use more adjectives and adverbs. Given how pervasive part-of-speech writing advice is, I decided to waste an hour exploring the question empirically.

The results are a bit surprising.  At least in this small and conceptually-limited pilot exploration, I found that writing regarded as bad (and perhaps also certain kinds of technical writing) tends to have more adjectives but fewer adverbs, and more nouns but fewer verbs.

The "more nouns and fewer verbs" effect seems to be especially strong — but I've never seen any writing guide that tells us to "write with adverbs and verbs, not adjectives and nouns".

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Awful book, so I bought it

A long time ago (it was 2010, but so much has happened since then) I noted here that Greg Mankiw recommended to his Harvard economics students not just the little book I hate so much (The Elements of Style), but also William Zinsser's book On Writing Well. About the latter, I said this:

I actually don't know much about Zinsser's book; I'm trying to obtain a copy, but it is apparently not published in the UK. What I do know is that he makes the outrageous claim that most adjectives are unnecessary. So I have my doubts about Zinsser too.

Well, last Thursday, as I browsed the University of Pennsylvania bookstore (I'm on the eastern seaboard in order to give a lecture at Princeton on Monday), I spotted that a copy of the 30th anniversary edition of Zinsser was on sale at the bargain price of $8.98. Should I buy it? I flipped it open by chance at page 67: "Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb…" Uh-oh! More passivophobia. I've definitely got a professional interest in hatred of passives.

I turned the page and saw "ADVERBS. Most adverbs are unnecessary" and "ADJECTIVES. Most adjectives are also unnecessary." Of course! I remember now that I tried to skewer this nonsense in "Those who take the adjectives from the table", commenting on a quotation from Zinsser in a book by Ben Yagoda. Zinsser only uses five words to say "Most adjectives are also unnecessary," but one of them (unnecessary) is an adjective, and another (also) is an adverb.

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