Archive for Usage advice

'Concern troll' passives

You may have noticed that in a recent Washington Post blog post Alexandra Petri says "Concern trolls thrive on passive constructions the way vultures thrive on carcasses." I have briefly commented at Lingua Franca on the truly strange vulture metaphor and the whole cultural phenomenon of concern trolling. But this is Language Log, and you might be interested in more detail about whether she is correct in diagnosing the presence of passive constructions in the linguistic material she critiques. Don’t let me spoil it for you; try to guess before you read on.

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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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The Oxford Comma is your friend

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Plural problems

Reader SN writes:

One of my students has just received extensive comments on a MS. Some were extremely helpful, others less so. Two in the latter category were:

The plural of behaviour is not necessary.

The term ‘variation’ subsumes the plural. Eliminate the ‘s’ here and throughout.

“Behaviours” troubled me the first few times I came across it, but  I am now happy that there is a difference between saying an animal shows a range of behaviour and saying it has a range of behaviours. I had never come across this attitude to variation though. Do you think Elgar was aware of his solecism when he named his "Variations on an Original Theme for Orchestra ("Enigma”)",?

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Better directly: unh?

Anyone who loves language will surely cut a lot of slack for a magazine that will describe the Sunday Assemblies (increasingly popular non-religious Sunday gatherings of atheists in England) as "non-prophet organizations" (The Economist, 26 October 2013, p.34). It remains my favorite magazine, and its delicious puns are only part of the reason. But what the hell is going on with language like this (same issue, p.15)?

This newspaper has argued before that it is better directly to tax investors, workers and consumers.

Better directly? What does that mean? I had to go back a few words and re-read.

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Metaphors which you are used to seeing in print

Prospero, "The World's Worst Sentence", The Economist 7/17/2013:

FINANCIAL books are not renowned for their literary merits. Neverthless, the reader is still entitled to expect something better than the following (from Philip Mirowski's new book "Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste"):

Yet the nightmare cast its shroud in the guise of a contagion of a deer-in-the-headlights paralysis.

That is not just a mixed metaphor; it is meaningless and pretentious at the same time. One would nominate it as the world's worst-written sentence but it is only the opening clause. After a semi-colon, the author drones on for a further 32 words, from which Economist readers should be spared.

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Gove counter-Gove

In response to James Forsyth, "The Gove guide to composition", The Spectator 6/30/2013, Tom Chivers notes that "Michael Gove doesn't know what the passive voice is", The Telegraph 7/1/2013. If you read the exchange, you'll see that Tom Chivers is right: Michael Gove advises against use of the "passive voice", citing an example that is in fact not passive at all — while using the passive voice frequently, correctly, and appropriately, including in the first sentence of the letter introducing his guide to composing letters.

This example certainly belongs in Geoff Pullum's collection. And someone should recommend Geoff's tutorial on "The passive in English" to Mr. Gove.

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At last, a split infinitive in The Economist

The Economist has demonstrated several times that it would rather publish ambiguous, awkward, or even ungrammatical sentences than permit a verb-modifying adjunct to intervene between the marker to and the head verb of the infinitival clause it introduces (see here and here for two of my discussions of the topic). Last week I obtained a robustly direct reaction from an influential staff member at the magazine's offices (I've given the details on Lingua Franca today). It stated that they would not be changing their highly conservative policy — it came close to telling me to butt out. But almost immediately thereafter, I came across a sentence that (you might think) looked like counterevidence. It was in an article about computer modeling of tsunami behavior (15 June 2013, p. 82); I underline the crucial part:

To simplify the problem, the researchers looked at what happens when a computerized wave encounters a cone-shaped island on a smoothly sloping seabed in front of a straight cyber-coastline with a beach that continues to rise smoothly as it progresses inland. These approximations allow a computer to cope with the problem, yet are sufficiently similar to many real places for the conclusions drawn from them to, as it were, hold water.

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Economist still chicken: botches sentence rather than split infinitive

I have commented elsewhere on the fact that writers in The Economist are required to write unnatural or even ungrammatical sentences rather than risk the wrath of the semi-educated public by "splitting an infinitive" (putting a preverbal modifier immediately before the verb in a to-infinitival complement clause). The magazine published a sentence containing the phrase publicly to label itself a foreign agent where clarity demanded to publicly label itself a foreign agent.

It wasn't a one-off occurrence. Look at this sentence (issue of June 1, 2013, p. 57):

The main umbrella organisation, the Syrian National Coalition, was supposed to do three things: expand its membership, elect a new leader and decide whether unconditionally to attend the Geneva talks.

What an appalling decision about modifier placement!

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Ask Language Log: "differ to"?

Trevor Butterworth, "Top Science Journal Rebukes Harvard's Top Nutritionist", Forbes 5/27/2013:

In an extraordinary editorial and feature article, Nature, one of the world’s pre-eminent scientific journals, has effectively admonished the chair of the Harvard School of Public Health’s nutrition department, Walter Willett, for promoting over-simplification of scientific results in the name of public health and engaging in unseemly behavior towards those who venture conclusions that differ to his.

Barry R. asks:

"… that differ to his?"  Is this a common usage? Or is it as wrong as it sounds to me?

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Ask Language Log: indicating or stating (that) S

S.A. writes:

I'm working with someone who writes sentences like these:

"Past studies indicate teachers with high self-efficacy for providing nutrition instruction devote more classroom time to the subject."

"D____ and colleagues have stated teachers are better able to promote healthy eating among preschool children when they are more knowledgeable about nutrition content…"

Doesn't there need to be a "that" between indicates and teachers and between stated and teachers?

The absence of a "that" is a constant throughout her writing so I need to know if I'm correct, and if so, how I can explain it to her.

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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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Grammar vs. style: ignorance in The Times

Articles about English grammar in UK newspapers tend to exhibit an almost incredible degree of stupidity. In no other subject could such self-contradictory idiocy be accepted, or subjected to so little fact-checking. Today's exhibit is an article headed "English like it never should of been" by Oliver Moody in Saturday's The Times (London, 18 May 2013; don't buy a subscription just to read an article as asinine as this, but click this link if you already have a subscription; if you wasted $2.50 on hard copy as I did, look at page 3). I will deal with just one example of its boneheaded ignorance, one out of many.

This was the sub-head: "Language is becoming more democratic as even MPs fail to speak properly, a study from Cambridge reveals."

So, it is "democratic" to speak improperly? And Members of Parliament are actually doing that? Intelligent readers will seek evidence.

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