Archive for Style and register

The scandalous Ms. Jodelka

Filipa Jodelka, "The Scandalous Lady W: a disturbing tale of sex and sensibility", The Guardian 8/17/2015:

When looking for evidence of the death of love, it’s normal to wheel out divorce stats, but the BBC’s newest period extravaganza tells a different story. A look at the nasty business between Lady Seymour Worsley, her lover George Bisset and her politician husband Sir Richard Worsley, an affair that culminated in a criminal trial in 1782, The Scandalous Lady W (Monday, 9pm, BBC2) is perhaps the biggest advert not only for divorce but radical, militarised feminism and premarital sex, too.

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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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Don't even know the rules of their own language

Bob Ladd points out that a commenter ("RobbieLePop") on a Guardian article about Prince Charles (the opinionated prince who is destined to inherit the throne under Britain's hereditary monarchical and theocratic system of government) said this:

The moment the Monarchy, with he at its head, begins a campaign of public influence is the moment the Monarchy should be disbanded.

With he at its head ? Let's face it, the traditionally accepted rules for case-marking pronouns in English are simply a mystery to many speakers.

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Honesty about leadership

The Dilbert strip continues to make me laugh out loud almost every morning. If you missed the day when the boss asked Dilbert for an "honest assessment" of his leadership, go back to it and catch up. Dilbert's 30-minute response to this invitation ended with the words "like being stabbed by an angry clown while drowning in a septic tank." Simile of the week, for sure. I wonder if anyone told Microsoft's Satya Nadella anything similar in the past few days.

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Officer-involved passives

Radley Balko's Washington Post article "The curious grammar of police shootings" begins by reminding us about "mistakes were made" (an utterance so famous that it has its own Wikipedia page), and proceeds to quote a description of a shooting that is not by a policeman ("The suspect produced a semi-automatic handgun and fired numerous times striking the victim in the torso"). He comments with approval: "Note the active voice. We have a clear subject, verb, and direct object."

So far so good: the suspect is clearly identified as the agent. But that reference to the "active voice" clearly implies an upcoming allegation that the police use the passive voice when talking about their shootings. And the article signally fails to establish this. One quoted police report says: "The suspect then ran towards the officers still armed with the sword and an officer-involved-shooting occurred." Another says: "When the suspect continued to advance on the officer while refusing to comply with his repeated commands, an officer-involved shooting (OIS) occurred." I grant you that this phrase "officer-involved shooting" (it even has its own abbreviation!) is a weird piece of slippery and evasive bureaucratic jargon. But the examples given are just as much in the active voice as the earlier one where the suspect does the shooting.

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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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Whom loves ya?

What a fool I've been, thinking all the time that the important stuff was about evidence and structure and the search for genuine syntactic principles — trying to find out through study of competent speakers' usage what are the actual principles that define (say) marking of accusative case on pronouns in Standard English. God, I've been wasting my life.

Wired magazine has published (just in time for Valentine's Day) a large-scale statistical study of what correlates with numbers of responses to online dating ads (and let me say here that I am deeply grateful to Charles Hallinan for pointing it out to me). Much of the survey relates to the words used in the ad. For example, mentioning yoga or surfing in your ad has a positive influence on the number of contacts that will result. Some of the discoveries are curious: for men, it is much better to refer to a woman using the word "woman", but a woman's ad will do better if she refers to herself as a "girl". And (the point that has turned my life around, made on the infographic here), it turns out that men who use "whom" get 31% more contacts from opposite-sex respondents.

This changes everything! It's not just about the inflectional marking of relative and interrogative pronouns any more, people; it's about getting more sex!

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'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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More on Bokmål

[During the last week or so of December, we had a vigorous, extended discussion on "Cantonese as Mother Tongue, with a note on Norwegian Bokmål".  The following is a guest post by Håvard Hjulstad that takes up many of the issues that were raised in that earlier post and and attempts to situate them in a more systematic and comprehensive framework.]

It isn’t simple to explain the Norwegian language situation in a few words, but I shall try.

The word “mål” means “tongue” (or “language”; it also means “voice”) in the case of “bokmål”. It is very close to synonymous with “språk”, and it is used both for spoken and written languages. The word “mål” = “goal” and “measure” is a homograph. So “bokmål” could be translated as “book language”.

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Despicable human scum

For those wondering why on earth an official announcement about the solemn business of executing a traitor would use wildly overheated language like "despicable human scum" and "worse than a dog" (especially about the uncle of the reigning monarch), the BBC has published a short article on the language of North Korean posthumous character assassination.

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More on Juola's stylometry

Worth reading if you were interested in the computational stylometric analysis by Patrick Juola that helped to unmask J. K. Rowling as the author of The Cuckoo's Calling: an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about Juola's work.

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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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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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