Archive for This blogging life

I saw one thousand commenting and nobody listening

Sometimes I look at the informed and insightful comments below Mark Liberman's technical posts here on Language Log, and I find myself thinking: These people are smart, and their wisdom enhances the value of our site. Maybe I should return to opening up comments on my posts too. But then something awful happens to convince me never to click the Allow Comments button again, unless at gunpoint. Something awful like the comments below Tom Chivers' article about me in the The Daily Telegraph, a quality UK newspaper of broadly Conservative persuasion (see their Sunday magazine Seven, 16 March 2014, 16–17; the article is regrettably headlined "Are grammar Nazis ruining the English language?" online, but the print version has "Do these words drive you crazy"—neither captures anything about the content).

I unwisely scrolled down too far and saw a few of the comments. There were already way more than 1,300 of them. It was like glimpsing a drunken brawl in the alley behind the worst bar in the worst city you ever visited. Discussion seemed to be dominated by an army of nutballs who often hadn't read the article. They seemed to want (i) a platform from which to assert some pre-formed opinion about grammar, or (ii) a chance to insult someone who had been the subject of an article, or (iii) an opportunity to publicly beat up another commenter. I didn't read many of the comments, but I saw that one charged me with spawning a cult, and claimed that I am the leader of an organization comparable to the brown-shirted Sturmabteilung who aided Hitler's rise to power:

Pullum is not so much the problem; he's just an ivory tower academic whose opinions are largely irrelevant to the average person. The problem is the cult following he has spawned. I don't know if he condones the thuggish tactics his Brownshirts regularly employ against the infidels, but it is certainly disturbing.

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Language Log partners with Lexicon Valley on Slate

For the past year and a half, Mike Vuolo and Bob Garfield have been co-hosting the excellent Slate podcast Lexicon Valley, covering many Language Log-friendly topics (and interviewing a few Language Loggers in the process). Now Lexicon Valley has spawned its own blog on Slate, and Language Log has joined up as a partner to supply cross-published posts.

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Dolphins using personal names, again

As we have frequently noted here on Language Log, science stories on the BBC News website are (how to put this politely?) not always of prize-winning standard with respect to originality, timeliness, reliability, or attention to the relevant literature. In fact some of them show signs of being written by kids in junior high school. Way back in 2006 Mark Liberman commented on a BBC News story about the notion that dolphins have and use "names" for each other. He expressed skepticism, but the BBC forged ahead without paying any heed, and today, more than seven years later, we learn from the same BBC site once again that Dolphins 'call each other by name'. Yes, it's the same story, citing the same academic at the University of St Andrews, Dr Vincent Janik. (Mark's link in 2006 was unfortunately to a Google search on {Janik, dolphins}, which today brings up the current stories rather than the ones he was commenting on then.) And you don't need to leave the BBC page to see that the story contradicts itself.

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Accuracy versus consistency

Let me reveal to you a fiddly and rather strange detail about my latest piece on Lingua Franca, which concerns the misquotation "shaken but not stirred". In the post I crucially needed to quote a phrase from an obituary in The Economist where James Bond's favorite aperitif was mentioned. The Economist called it a Martini. But it is New York Times style to call the drink in question a martini, not a Martini, and The Chronicle of Higher Education follows New York Times style, and they own the Lingua Franca blog, and there are other occurrences of martini in my post. So a question arose between me and the editors of The Chronicle: whether to be accurate and quote the word as The Economist actually typeset it under their style, making it look as if I've been inconsistent within my post (because the Times-compliant occurrences in the text would look different), or to quote The Economist inaccurately by coercing them into Times style, making it look as if I can't even type stuff out from a magazine accurately. Talk about being between a rock and a hard place!

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Sometimes there's no unitary rule

Some Language Log readers may feel that the two rules I discuss in my latest post on Lingua Franca, "One Rule to Ring Them All," are stated too loosely for their consequences to be clear. Let me explain here just a little more carefully. The topic under discussion is whether who should be in the nominative form (who) or the accusative form (whom) in sentences with structures broadly like [1]:

[1] He's the man who(m) everyone says will one day be king.

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It's not about you

I was surprised, yesterday, to get a thoughtful letter of resignation from a LLOG commenter. To preserve the anonymity of his pseudonymity, I'll call him 'X'. Mr. X's stated reason for leaving was that

LL is becoming far too centered on my babblings.  Defending my own crudity is becoming tiresome, time-consuming, and harmful to others – notably yourself and whoever else's good names are behind the board.  I prefer to do whatever is most helpful and appropriate – in this case I've missed that target pretty goddamned impressively.

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Those who feel strongly about the issue of (not?) allowing comments should read Julian Sanchez, "The Psychological Prerequisites of Punditry", 5/3/2012, and Andrew Sullivan's comment, "The Feedback Firehose", 5/4/2012.

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More comments on comments (just between us)

I want to share something with you Language Log readers. But for heaven's sake don't mention it to anyone at The Chronicle of Higher Education or its Lingua Franca blog. This is just between us. There is no telling what would happen over at the Chronicle if they read this, so just keep it dark, OK?

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A contribution

Back in December, a fan of Language Log e-mailed me with a simple query that I answered almost immediately, after checking my answer with a Stanford colleague who's a specialist in the area of the query (as I am not).

My original correspondent thanked the two of us, adding:

As a token of my appreciation for your time and responses, I made a small donation to Stanford. I hope I was successful in seeing that it would be directed to the Linguistics Department.

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Fallows on "Comments and Community"

James Fallows explains why he doesn't allow comments on his blog at The Atlantic ("On Comments and Community: A New Plan?", 12/21/2010):

Unless a comment stream is actively moderated, it inevitably is ruined by bullies, hotheads, and trolls. If you feel otherwise, fine. This is what I think.
Corollary: The comment-communities that flourish, notably the Golden Horde of TN Coates, require real-time, frequent intervention by a moderator not afraid to put his stamp on the discussion.

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One thousand Language Log posts

With this post I reach my thousandth Language Log contribution. I wrote 676 posts for the old series, before the original server died in agony in April 2008. Those were written from Santa Cruz, California (between 2003 and 2005 and in 2006-2007), from the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard (2005-2006), and from Edinburgh, Scotland (2007-2008) The old series posts are preserved in read-only mode here, with all their typos and the occasional broken link or missing image; they can be custom Google-searched here. A complete list of links to all of my posts in the old series can be found here.

Since April 2008 I've written another 323 posts in the current series, mostly from Edinburgh (a few from other places while travelling); they are all listed here. This one brings me to the round number of a thousand. It's a convenient point at which to stop and think about whether to write any more.

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Just add "intelligent" and "informed" …

The latest xkcd:

Mouseover title: "And what about all the people who won't be able to join the community because they're terrible at making helpful and constructive co– … oh."

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Us Language Log writers

One of the secrets of Language Log is that because of its lack of any arrangement for revenue (aaaaggghh! how could we have forgotten something as vital as income?) its writers have to moonlight doing other jobs, just to make the rent or mortgage payments. We all have jobs that we do in the odd non-Language-Log moments of the day. Mark Liberman, in addition to being head honcho and contributing writer at Language Log, is a professor of phonetics, a computational linguists researcher, a cognitive scientist, a residential house master, the director of a consortium providing large text and speech corpora for industrial and academic use, and (since five or six jobs is hardly enough) dad to a teenager as well. He tends to blog just about every day, but right now he is en route to Japan for a conference, after which he will go on to Hong Kong to be an external examiner at a PhD defense.

I too (this is my home page) have a day job at a university, as the head of a large department of Linguistics and English Language at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland (for a long time I taught at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and thus had an American home base like the other Language Log staff, but I moved to Edinburgh in 2007).

You might be interested in the lives in some of the other Language Log personnel too.

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