Archive for Style and register

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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Language change in progress – us and our Red Sox buddies

Just now I was washing breakfast dishes and mentally composing a Facebook post, which started out “Last night was not a good night for Orioles – Red Sox – anti-Yankees fans! The three way tie for first place got broken in the worst direction! Us and our Red Sox buddies …” and I forget how that sentence was going to end, because I was caught up short noticing how it began. I’ve known about the ongoing spread of the ‘accusative’ pronouns forever – Sapir wrote about it (as a case of “language drift”), and Ed Klima, one of my favorite grad school professors, had worked on it and talked with us about it (we tried to figure out what kinds of rules would make ‘us’ and ‘me’ not get nominative in conjoined subjects while "I" and "we" as simple subjects are obligatorily marked nominative, and discussed similarities with French ‘disjunctive’ pronoun ‘moi’ vs. clitic subject 'je'). And it was the source of my oft-repeated anecdote about my son Morriss in 4th grade asking me to proofread a composition he had just written – it started out ‘Seth and I went to the mall’ and he pointed to ‘Seth and I’, and said to me “That’s how you spell “me and Seth”, right?”.

But none of that had prepared me for having it emerge in my own dialect. But there it was. And when I think about putting “We and our Red Sox buddies” instead, it sounds over-formal, doesn’t fit in the context of baseball buddies. So it looks like “us and …” has made the move from passive recognition to becoming an active part of my (most?) colloquial register, at least the baseball buddies register.

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Depopularization in the limit

George Orwell, in his hugely overrated essay "Politics and the English language", famously insists you should "Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print." He thinks modern writing "consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else" (only he doesn't mean "long") — joining togther "ready-made phrases" instead of thinking out what to say. His hope is that one can occasionally, "if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase … into the dustbin, where it belongs." That is, one can eliminate some popular phrase from the language by mocking it out of existence. In effect, he wants us to collaborate in getting rid of the most widely-used phrases in the language. In a Lingua Franca post published today I called his program elimination of the fittest (tongue in cheek, of course: the proposal is actually just to depopularize the most popular).

For a while, after I began thinking about this, I wondered what would be the ultimate fate of a language in which this policy was consistently and iteratively implemented. I even spoke to a distinguished theoretical computer scientist about how one might represent the problem mathematically. But eventually I realized it was really quite simple; at least in a simplified ideal case, I knew what would happen, and I could do the proof myself.

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When I split an infinitive, God damn it [...] it will stay split

In the spirit of Geoff Pullum's lyrical prescriptive poppycock offering, I can offer some Raymond Chandler in verse and letter. And this being Language Log, I will follow it with a light dessert of cheap science. Here's a small sample of Chandler's 1947 poem Lines to a Lady With an Unsplit Infinitive for your edification:

There ain't no grammar that equals a hammer
To nail down a cut-rate wit.

And the verb 'to be' as employed by me
Is often and lightly split.

A lot of my style (so-called) is vile
For I learned to write in a bar.

The marriage of thought to words was wrought
With many a strong sidecar.

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What he wishes he'd been told about cancer

Jeff Tomczek has an article in the Huffington Post on the things people didn't tell him about getting cancer and undergoing the treatment. It's very good (those who have been through it or are very close to people who did will find much that resonates). But his title is a botch that I think must be due to the myth that English has a "past subjunctive" (which it does not). Here is the title under which his article was published:

The Things I Wish I Were Told When I Was Diagnosed With Cancer

That isn't well-formed English as I understand it. And I have used this language for quite a few years; I'm kind of used to it. I realize that your mileage may differ, but I would judge the above to be actually disallowed by the grammar.

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Scientific study of affirmative-response indicators

My Breakfast Experiments™ aren't quite as rigorous as Mark Liberman's. He has direct access via a high-speed line to the entire Linguistic Data Consortium collection of corpora at his breakfast table, and writes R scripts for statistical analysis as if R was his native language (it may well be, come to think of it). My breakfast table has just a digital radio, a cereal bowl, and a mug bearing the legend "Keep calm and drink tea." But I'll give you some hard quantitative data for two different ways of expressing an affirmative response to a yes/no question or agreeing with a presented statement in contemporary British English. The frequency of people (especially experts) speaking to Radio 4 news programs saying "That's correct" falls in the monstrogacious to huge range (as measured by my casual early-morning impressions), while the frequency of that mode of affirmative responding in ordinary real-life conversation is roughly zero (source: vague memories of hearing people chat to each other). I hope that's rigorous enough for present purposes.

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Language and emotion on the Costa Concordia

[This is a guest post by Bob Ladd.]

Following the wreck of the Costa Concordia last weekend (one Italian comic suggested it should be renamed Costa Codardia, where codardia means "cowardice"), I've been temporarily taken on as a correspondent by Language Log's Italian desk in order to report on a few linguistic aspects of the already notorious telephone call between the Coast Guard captain De Falco and the ship's much criticized captain Schettino.

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Two candidates for the Trent Reznor Prize

A candidate for the Trent Reznor Prize for Tricky Embedding, in the form of a BBC News teaser:

A penguin chick that was hand-reared by zoo keepers in Devon who used a puppet to impersonate an adult dies.


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