Archive for August, 2008

Trademark sanity restored

The US Patent and Trademark Office recently embarrassed itself by granting preliminary approval to a ridiculous application by Dell to trademark the generic term cloud computing. It partially reversed course soon afterward by canceling the Notice of Allowance. The matter has now reached a conclusion: USPTO has denied the application. The letter to Dell, which contains numerous examples of the use of cloud computing as a generic term, is available here.

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When zombie rules attack

My post on "The split verbs mystery", which was stimulated by a comment from Alan Gunn, in turn stimulated a couple of informative reactions from copy editors.

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RIP, Larry Urdang, Logophile

The New York Times carries an obituary today for lexicographer Larry Urdang, who was the managing editor of the first edition of the Random House Dictionary of the English Language and the founding editor of the language quarterly Verbatim. He studied linguistics at Columbia University and lectured on the subject at New York University, but he never completed his dissertation. His wife Nicole told the Times, "He always said he considered the Random House dictionary his dissertation."

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Tapping on the aquarium glass?

The most recent Partially Clips strip:

(Click on the image for a larger version.)

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2008 political parapraxis II

A lovely example of a word-substitution error, from David Kurtz's commentary in "TPMtv's View of Michelle's DNC speech":

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and uh below us is speaker of the house Nancy Pelosi
((uh)) and a coterie of other Republic- or Democratic leaders

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The languages of the Caucasus

The New York Times has a piece by Ellen Barry entitled Barriers that are steep and linguistic about linguistic aspects of the situation in Georgia, which quotes both me and Johanna Nichols, who unlike me is an authentic expert on the languages of the Caucasus. As newspaper articles go this is actually pretty good, but I thought it might be useful to fill in some of the details.

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Crotch mistake?

My little posting on Nico Muhly's "I like the crotch on the idea that …"  has elicited a flood of e-mail suggesting that crotch is just a malapropism of some kind — an eggcorn, perhaps — for crux. I've dismissed this proposal, in part because of the preposition on in Muhly's sentence, in part because R. Kelly's song "I like the crotch on you" seemed to me to be an obvious model, and in part because I'm disinclined to jump to simple error as the explanation for examples I find remarkable at first (especially in the writing of people who take some care about their style).

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The Chinese word for "graboid"

Last night the movie Tremors 4: The Legend Begins was on TV. This is the prequel to the other three Tremors movies, and I had never seen it, so in the interest of learning the fictional-historical background, I watched it. For those lacking a classical education, the Tremors movies are about monstrous worm-like creatures known as "graboids" that emerge from underground to terrorize the population of the tiny desert town of Perfection, Nevada. A Chinese family figures prominently in Tremors 4, and from time to time one of them speaks Chinese. By dint of careful observation I am therefore able to report that the Chinese name for graboids is 土龍 tu³ long² "earth dragon".

P.S. I think that a Chinese dub of any of the Tremors series would be hysterically funny. Whether the film industry shares my sense of humor and will take on this project remains to be seen.

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Trackback it

This just hit me in a blog my son Morriss just sent me a link to:

"I was going to post this as a comment there, but it’s rather long so I’ll just trackback it. "

My first reaction: no, it has to be "I'll just track it back".

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Maya Soetoro-Ng: what's in a name?

Tonight is the opening night of the Democratic National Convention, and the headliner is Michelle Obama. I'm actually more interested to hear from another speaker who will be brought out to "highlight Barack’s life story," as the Convention schedule says. That's Maya Soetoro-Ng, Barack's half-sister, who is scheduled to speak shortly before 7 p.m. Denver time (9 p.m. Eastern time). At the very least, I expect her to lead off with some self-deprecating remarks about her difficult-to-pronounce surname. Since there's already been such a to-do over Barack's name (see my two posts from Feb. 2007), you can bet there will be a lot of head-scratching over "Soetoro-Ng." Let me try to break it down.

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When a word is redundant enough to be omitted

I am greatly enjoying Steven E. Landsburg's book More Sex Is Safer Sex (Free Press 2007, paperback 2008). Landsburg is a brilliant popularizer of his academic subject, economics. He writes the way popular material should be written, I think. I wish I could do it that well. His sentences are exactly the right length. Mine are too long (this one isn't, of course, or at least it wouldn't have been, except that I went and added this bit… oh, damn…). However, just because someone is a brilliant writer, that doesn't immunize them against unintentional grammar slips. We all make those. And although we on Language Log often defend users of the language against stupid claims of ungrammaticality by prescriptive usage authorities who don't know their facts, we don't deny the existence of flatly ungrammatical sentences that occur anomalously in excellent prose. Take a look at this clearly ungrammatical sentence on page 33 of the paperback of Landsburg's book:

(1) *This accounts for the fact that family sizes of seven, eight, or nine children were common in the nineteenth century but rare today.

The question is how to say in precise terms why it is ungrammatical. Keep in mind that this alternative would have been perfectly grammatical:

(2) This accounts for the fact that family sizes of seven, eight, or nine children were common in the nineteenth century but rare in the twentieth.

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Rushdie 1, Fish 0

Random House recently cancelled publication of Sherry Jones' novel The Jewel of Medina, about Muhammad's child bride Aisha, for fear of violent reaction by Muslims like that engendered by Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. In a whine entitled Crying Censor in the New York Times, Stanley Fish takes Rushdie to task for describing this as "censorship" on the grounds that it is only censorship when governments forbid absolutely the publication of a work.

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Political slips of the tongue

Here we go again. Reporters and Republicans have been making a big deal out of two slips of the tongue that occurred in quick succession during yesterday's rally introducing Joe Biden as Barack Obama's running mate. The ABC News version, for example, is Obama Misspeaks, Calls Biden 'The Next President'; Biden Calls Obama 'Barack America':

When introducing his running mate, Obama said, "So let me introduce to you the next president – the next vice president of the US of America, Joe Biden."

And then when it was Biden's turn to speak, the Delaware senator called the presumptive Democratic nominee "Barack America" instead of Barack Obama.

"My friends, I don't have to tell you, this election year the choice is clear. One man stands ready to deliver change we desperately need. A man I’m proud to call my friend. A man who will be the next president of the United States, Barack America,” Biden said, per ABC News' Sunlen Miller.

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The split verbs mystery

As a result of an exchange (1, 2 ,3 ,4, 5) with Alan Gunn in the comments yesterday, I was reminded that for many years, legal scholars throughout the U.S. were subjected to a peculiar form of stylistic tyranny, imposed by a curious work known as The Texas Manual on Style. According to James Lindgren ("Fear of Writing", California Law Review 78(6):1677-1702, 1990):

Unquestionably, the most dangerous advice in the old fifth edition of the Texas Manual was its disapproval of split verbs: "Avoid splitting verb phrases with adverbs. . . ." In other words, don't place an adverb between the parts of a compound verb. Yet Fowler and Follett (both praised in the Foreword to the Texas Manual) argued that the normal place for an adverb is in the midst of a multiple word verb. Thus the fifth edition of the Texas Manual seemed to have gotten the rule backwards. It prohibited what the experts recommend.

Specifically, this means that choices like "has always been" are to be suppressed, in favor of "always has been" or "has been always".

This is not the only bad advice in the book — Lindgren makes a strong case on other grounds for his view that "The Texas Manual on Style is one of the most pernicious collections of superstitions that has ever been taken seriously by educated people". But "avoid split verbs" is certainly the most eccentric piece of voodoo syntax since the prohibition of clause-final prepositions.

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To gay marry

Along with "I like the crotch on the idea…" on composer Nico Muhly's blog (commented on here) comes a use of the verb gay marry, in

I did an interview with a guy in Seattle – totally random, I had never met him before – who had such a smart, interesting read on the piece [Muhly's most recent album, Mothertongue], I wanted to gay marry him right there on the phone.

The moderately common gay marry is undoubtedly a back-formation from gay marriage (with its non-predicating modification), the result being a compound verb of a pattern (Adj + V) that's not at all productive in English. Meanwhile, some people have asked me why anyone would use gay marry at all; why not just use marry?

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