Archive for May, 2008

Clarity, choice, and evidence

I was surprised to find Jay Livingston, an intelligent and sensible person, subscribing to the prejudice that words like which and this, when understood as referring to some situation or proposition alluded to in the preceding discourse, should be shunned as "non-reference pronouns".

On the contrary, it seems clear that (what Arnold Zwicky calls) "summative" expressions normally do have referents, that summative reference helps makes discourse coherent, and that summative use of which and this is generally no harder to understand than the alternative ways of accomplishing the same goal.

In my post this morning, I gave a few examples of well-regarded writers using summative which. I started with Shakespeare, and most of the other examples were from poetry as well; but some people (like Jay's high-school English teacher, Miss Elliott) discount such examples as poetic license, so I thought I'd add some evidence from expository writing.

But first, let's consider the argument that such evidence is intended to support.

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Do you mind if …

You're asked:

(1) Do you mind if I ask you a question?

How do you respond? There's a complexity here, no matter what your opinions about question-asking are. The problem is that (1) has the form of a yes-no question (about what the addressee's sensibilities are) but also conveys a request (for the addressee to allow the questioner to perform an action). An affirmative response to the yes-no question is a negative response to the request, and vice versa. Oh dear. (Actually, there's more.)

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Parrots and children: still silly season at the BBC

Stupid pet communication stories are back. (Did they ever go away?) Yesterday the BBC published a story (thanks to Sam Tucker for the reference) about a stray red-tailed African grey parrot that told police how to find its owner. It was in Chiba prefecture near Tokyo in Japan. After repeating its name and address at the local veterinary clinic (where police had turned it in after capturing it), the bird greeted people for a while, then sang some popular children's songs, and then supplied its name and address. From what it said, police tracked down its owner, and took the parrot home.

The story is probably true in outline. No one disputes that parrots can be trained to do a pretty good acoustic reproduction of a human utterance. And they will do just as well on an address as on a line from a children's song or a few verses from the Kor'an; the content doesn't matter — for them, there is no content. But a paragraph at the end of the story reveals that the BBC still brings out its most gullible writers (or perhaps its most cynical and dishonest writers) as soon as anything to do with the cognitive or linguistic sciences comes on the scene. The last para says this:

The African Grey parrot is considered one of the most intelligent birds and is said by experts to have the cognitive ability of a six-year-old.

They mean a human of age six. There are people writing purportedly serious stories for the British Broadcasting Corporation who think that a grey parrot has the cognitive ability of a normal six year old human child. Have these people never met a normal six-year-old human child?

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Poor pitiful which

I'm used to the which-hunters' ill-informed prejudice against the traditional role of which in integrated relative clauses (discussed here, here, here, here, here, and in many other LL posts over the years). But I now learn that some extremists have targeted which even in its grammatical ghetto of supplementary relative clauses, ("Why are some summatives labeled 'vague'?", 5/21/2008; "More theory trumping practice", 5/22/2008.)

The endangered examples of supplementary which are those that have a "summative" function, "understood as referring to some situation or proposition alluded to in the preceding discourse". A simple example: "Neptune opposes Apollo, which implies that things moist and dry are in continual discord."

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More theory trumping practice

In my last posting, I noted that reference work after reference work condemns summative uses of pronouns (He snores, which bothers me. He snores, and that bothers me.) on theoretical grounds: a pronoun must have a noun or pronoun as an antecedent (this is a theoretical assumption), but these summative pronouns lack such antecedents – they refer to a situation or proposition alluded to in the preceding discourse context – and so they are unacceptably vague and should be avoided, though summative non-pronominal NPs (He snores, a fact that bothers me. He snores, and that fact bothers me.) are judged to be acceptable in the same contexts.

Examining the practice of good writers would show that they don’t avoid summative pronouns in general (though of course in many contexts alternative constructions would be preferable). But the advice above has theory trumping practice. Then in looking through the sections of Laurie Rozakis’s Complete Idiot’s Guide to Grammar and Style (2nd ed.) that deal with pronouns, I came across an old acquaintance, the Possessive Antecedent Proscription (the PAP), and, by golly, Rozakis (p. 94) advocates it, and gives an entirely theoretical justification for it.

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A Cupertino of the mind

Yesterday, Stefan Valdimarsson wrote to tell me about an interesting error in one of my recent posts. It was a typing error, but not one of the common slips of the finger that have been catalogued, counted and modeled over the decades, from D.D. Lessenberry's 1928 "Analysis of Errors" (published by Corona Typewriters, and reprinted in Dvorak et al., Typewriting Behavior, 1936) to the "Glossary of Terms Including a Classification of Typing Errors" by D. Gentner et al., in W.E. Cooper's Cognitive Apects of Skilled Typewriting, 1983.

This wasn't a keystroke substitution error, nor a transposition of two sequentially adjacent keystrokes, nor an interchange of keystrokes that are not serially adjacent, nor a migration of keystrokes to a position earlier or later than the canonical order, nor a keystroke omission, nor a keystroke insertion, nor an abstract doubling error (like "aad" for "add") or alternation error (like "threr" for "there"). Such errors are a fascinating subject, as you can learn by reading David Rumelhart and Donald Norman's seminal paper "Simulating a skilled typist: A study of skilled cognitive-motor performance", Cognitive Science 6(1) 1-36, 1982.

But this wasn't really a keystroke error at all.

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Just send us your gene

The most interesting spam email that I've gotten recently:

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Just send us your gene.

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You will receive:

· At least 3 mg of purified soluble protein
· Expression construct(s) and strain(s)
· QC materials (protocols, SDS-PAGE images, sequencing reports, etc.)

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How you can help evaluate speech synthesis systems

The University of Edinburgh is co-ordinating the Blizzard Challenge, the only regular speech synthesis evaluation campaign in the world. And you can help. The systems are evaluated by having people listen to them in operation and reporting on what they hear. The listening test has now started, and if you have a computer with sound capability, and maybe a nice pair of headphones, you can be one of the expert evaluators. It's a chance to hear synthesis samples from over 20 leading academic and commercial research groups (and some lesser-known ones). Hundreds of listeners are needed for this test, so the organizers are turning to Language Log. Do think about taking part.

There are in fact have two parallel tests running this year: one on English, accessible if you click here, and if you have the necessary language skills, one on Mandarin Chinese, accessible if you click here. You can do both, if you speak both languages. Each one should take under an hour and can be done in several sessions if you prefer (the system will remember where you got to and pick up from there next time). If you know other people who might be interested in evaluating the speech quality of machines that talk, please encourage your students to take part.

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Why are some summatives labeled "vague"?

I've long reflected on the accusation that certain types of expressions are (unacceptably) "vague". There is, of course, a certain amount of troublesome vagueness and unclarity out there — what WERE they trying to say? — but some of the standard targets of this charge are, it seems to me, entirely innocent.

But there's a story about why they get targeted. Well, several stories, different for different cases.

Here's one story. The crux is unexamined grammatical dogma that's been transformed into folk linguistics (and bad advice).

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Admin update

I've recently done a bit of site-administration hacking — more details are below, but the bottom line is that URLs like now do the right thing. Despite this progress, a few problems remain. There's one problem in particular where suggestions from readers with expertise in website administration would be appreciated.

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Presidential pronoun watch

Early last week, Hillary Clinton had a bit of pronoun trouble, as Daffy Duck would say. The AP reported:

"All the kitchen table issues that everybody talks to me about are ones that the next president can actually do something about," Clinton said Sunday night, "if he actually cares about it."

The word hung in the air only for a moment.

"More likely, if she cares about it," she added.

Tonight after her overwhelming victory in the Kentucky primary, Clinton made sure she didn't repeat her mistake. She told supporters:

And that's why I'm going to keep making our case until we have a nominee, whoever she may be.

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Sometimes language is not enough

The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has upheld the decision of a lower court in a suit by the American Council for the Blind, holding that US paper money violates the rights of blind people and ordering that it be modified so as to make it possible for blind people to distinguish one denomination from another. Another advocacy group, the National Federation of the Blind, sided with the Treasury Department, arguing that modifying paper money to accommodate the blind would make business take blind people less seriously and make it harder for blind people to find employment. Of the more than 180 countries that produce paper money, only the United States uses bills whose denomination can be determined only by reading. Euro banknotes, for example, are larger for larger denominations, are of different colors, so that people with limited vision can more easily tell them apart, and have the denomination printed in intaglio, which allows the denomination to be read with the fingers.

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Retinal sex and sexual rhetoric

This post follows up on my promise ("Sax Q & A", 5/17/2008) to respond to Dr. Leonard Sax's answer to my 2006 critique of the sensory physiology and psychophysics in his 2005 book Why Gender Matters. The first installment, yesterday, was about hearing ("Liberman on Sax on Liberman on Sax on hearing", 5/19/2008). This one is about vision. I'll try to make it shorter, and I'll try to keep it entertaining — but I'll warn you again, this is probably more than you want to know about the subject, unless you're deeply interested in the anatomy and physiology of vision, or in the rhetoric of Dr. Sax's movement.

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Disappointing Movies

I'm sorry that Geoff and Barbara had such a disappointing movie experience last night. Myself, I watched The Scorpion King on TV. For a movie to watch while doing other things it was fine. It has exotic settings and clothing, plenty of fighting and stunts without excessive gore, beautiful women, everything a guy could want.

This was not the first time I had seen it, so I knew what to expect, but when I first saw it, I was quite disappointed. Why? Well, I naively thought that it would be about the real Scorpion King, one of the small number of known figures from the late Pre-dynastic period of Egypt. He may have been the immediate predecessor of Narmer, who unified Upper and Lower Egypt and founded the First Dynasty, or he may have been the same king under a different name. Naturally, I figured that a movie called The Scorpion King would be about the unification of Egypt and perhaps would even portray the origins of the Egyptian writing system. Alas, that movie remains to be made.

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Come back, Dan Brown, all is forgiven

WHY did we walk all the way from the New Town to the Edinburgh Odeon without reading the goddamned movie reviews first? Are we so stupid? I guess we must be. It has been years since either Barbara or I was at a film so bad that we felt we had to just get up and walk out of the cinema. Great God in heaven, is The Oxford Murders ever baaaad.

How bad is it? Kevin Maher said in Times Online (only we failed to read it beforehand): "Imagine The Da Vinci Code remade by a philosophy student, set mostly in Oxford bedsits and starring Elijah Wood in the Tom Hanks role, and featuring the world's most unerotic sex scene…" Kevin has been there.

And since he mentions The Da Vinci Code, let me say that I hereby repent — I retract and repudiate all of the harsh words I have uttered about the writing in the works of that fine novelist, the excellent Dan Brown. I did see the movie version of The Da Vinci Code, on a plane, and let me tell you, the writing in The Oxford Murders is much, much, much worse. I am not sure that the English language has appropriate words or phrases to express it…

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