Archive for March, 2009

Passive voice: two out of three isn't good enough

David Alpert ("Excessive passive voice, linguistic detachment observed in Culpeper road fatality", 3/23/2009) complains about Martin Weil's lede in the Washington Post:

Four people ranging in age from 19 to 21 were killed early yesterday in Culpeper County, Va., when their car collided with a vehicle that was going the wrong way, Virginia State Police said.

Police said a Chevy Tahoe sport-utility vehicle was driving on the wrong side of a two-lane stretch of Route 3 when it struck the Toyota Corolla about 2:50 a.m.

Alpert's suggestion:

Just based on the facts in the Post article, we can say, "A 29 year old man was driving his Chevy Tahoe SUV on the wrong side of Route 3 early yesterday when he struck and killed four people in a Toyota Corolla." Why can't the printing press at the Washington Post say that?

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Had did

From a recent circuit court opinion on a case with defendants Ike Brown and the Noxubee County [Mississippi] Democratic Executive Committee:

… Mable Jamison, an independent notary, testified that Brown phoned her in an effort to dissuade her from collecting absentee ballots from voters that “his people,” such as Windham, intended to collect: “[h]e pretty much said that his people had did the initial leg work and I shouldn’t be picking up his ballots.”

(Hat tip to Victor Steinbok. An earlier version of this posting was posted on ADS-L.)

Two aspects to Jamison's had did: had plus PSP (past participle), possibly conveying simple past rather than past perfect; and did (rather than done) as PSP of the verb DO. The first of these is a well-known feature of AAVE, but the second hasn't been so much discussed, though it wasn't entirely new to me. The most common (non-standard) leveling of PSP and PST (past) forms for DO is in favor of done ("I done it yesterday") — OED2 lists it as colloquial, dialectal, and U.S. — but here the leveling is in the other direction, in favor of did, and it's not in the OED.

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"Proximate cause" in the legal news

The fine line separating what a jury should know and learn from what it should not know and learn became either finer or blurrier, depending on your perspective, in a recent New Jersey case (here) where a lawyer was empanelled on the jury. I don’t know how common it is for a lawyer to be selected for jury duty, but I’d guess it must be pretty rare. I know that as an expert witness I’ve never made it past the voir dire stage in the many times I’ve been summoned for jury duty. I’ve always been “struck” by the lawyers when they learn that I’ve been an expert witness in scores of trials. They don’t seem to want to let anyone who has professional experience analyzing evidence be a trier of the fact in their cases. And that may be the right way to do it, for all I know. In this case, however, the opposing lawyers actually picked another lawyer to be a juror.

The personal injury case was Barber (a customer) v. Shoprite (a grocery store chain), in which Joyce Barber slipped on the floor and was severely injured. During the usual voir dire of potential jurors, the opposing lawyers decided to include attorney and state senator Robert Martin as one of the six jurors to decide the case. At the end of the trial, this jury awarded the plaintiff $876,000 in damages resulting from her fall in a Shoprite store.

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A new preposition is born

People seem to imagine the prepositions, like other so-called "function words", belong to a fixed and fairly small list that is handed down to us unchanging over the centuries: at, by, for, from, in, into, of, off, on, to, under, with, within, without, a few others, and that's it for our lifetime. But it's not like that. Not only is the list of prepositions longer than people think (probably over 200 items in all), it is growing. New prepositions pop up from time to time, some borrowed from other languages and others derived from various sources within English. Brett Reynolds and Rodney Huddleston have discovered a new one. Brett heard somebody say (about a water contamination in Walkerton, Ontario): "How is the water, post Walkerton?" And he suspected this meant post had to be a preposition, so he mailed Huddleston about it. Huddleston had already collected an example of the same kind: Post the wash-out from the credit crunch, most assets globally were overpriced (The Weekend Australian, 26-27 April 2008, page 39). And then just today he got a piece of mail including the sentence Post the entitlement offer, the only remaining bank facility is with ABN AMRO Bank. That's three. Get used to it, folks: we have a new preposition amongst us. Post is already in most dictionaries as a prefix. Expect the dictionaries to add "prep" to the entry in… oh, about fifty years or so would be my guess (dictionaries don't exactly work like greased lightning when it comes down to new usages like this: the new words they add every year or two are mostly new nouns).

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The Language of the Lake

Following up on last year's discussion of the local slang of Nonantum, outside Boston, Max Heiman sent in a link to a feature article by Erica Noonan, posted last month on boston.com ("Speaking the language of "the Lake" in Newton's Nonantum", 2/26/2009).

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Grammar protects us

Searching for something else, I happened across this quotation about language, attributed to the German (and later American) philosopher Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy (1888-1973):

Grammar and logic free language from being at the mercy of the tone of voice. Grammar protects us against misunderstanding the sound of an uttered name; logic protects us against what we say having double meaning.

I stared at these remarks with some astonishment. Have you heard of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest managed by the Department of English at San José State University? The one where people try to construct an opening sentence for the worst conceivable novel? The quotation above is like the winner of a bad writing contest where the task is to construct an opening sentence for the worst conceivable book about language and meaning.

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Compound semantics

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Яolcats!

In the beginning, there were lolcats; now, there are Яolcats!


Translation provided: "Is most powerful laptop in all of Tbilisi, can it be?"
Comment: "(The cat, he is quoting famous Russian comedian)"

TIME Magazine's Claire Suddath commented on Яolcats last week, claiming that it is funny (she's right) but that lolcats are not (she's wrong). Suddaths's (tongue-in-cheek?) complaint about lolcats is most relevant here on Language Log:

Lolcats is stupid. There, I said it. People who attribute grammatically incorrect statements to unsuspecting housecats are the same people who speak to children in baby voices and pat pregnant women's bellies without asking permission. Besides, even if your cat could speak, and it happened to ask for a cheeseburger, why would it spell "cheez" with a "Z?" Why? It's one thing to pretend that your cat can talk, but it's another thing to pretend that it has a debilitating speech impediment.

If Suddath pronounces "cheese" in any way that sounds different from what "cheez" is meant to represent, then I hate to tell her, but she's the one with the speech impediment.

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How fast do people talk in court?

This morning, let's take a break from the analysis of headlines, and look at some phonetics research. Recently, Jiahong Yuan and I have begun working with a woman who aims to revise and improve tests that are used to certify court reporters. (For some background about the techniques and devices that the court reporters must learn to use, see here or here.)  The (preliminary) results of our (pilot) experiment may be interesting to some of you; I think that they also point to a broader opportunity for linguistic research of other kinds.

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Oh no, it's ngmoco:)

Apple previewed iPhone OS 3.0 earlier this week, and they conveniently posted a video of the event on their website. I was grateful to be able to watch the video, mostly because I wanted to hear how the folks at Apple pronounce the name of the iPhone-centric game designing firm ngmoco:).

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'Psycho' in No. 10?

Some sub-editor at the  Telegraph has recently held a sort of master class in prepositional phrase attachment. It starts with the headline: "Gordon Brown is frustrated by 'Psycho' in No 10". The sub-head then leads the reader down a parenthetical garden path with  virtuosic bravado (though purists may object to the use of missing punctuation):

While not exactly a film buff, Gordon Brown was touched when Barack Obama gave him a set of 25 classic American movies – including Psycho, starring Anthony Perkins on his recent visit to Washington.

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The reverse eggcorn, or acorn

Victor Steinbok reports that a Google search on {eggcorn} pulls up some strange stuff, in addition to hits for things like the Eggcorn Database and discussions of eggcorns on Language Log, ADS-L, and elsewhere. It also pulls up sponsored links to sites that don't have eggcorn anywhere on them, but do have acorn on them, in particular, sites selling Acorn brand slippers.

This is, in a sense, a reverse eggcorn effect, in which acorn is interpreted as a variant of eggcorn.  We could call it an acorn.

The effect seems to be limited to the sponsored links. Web searches work the way you'd expect them to.

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Obama goes all chalk

Or was it just mostly chalk? Did he not stray too far from chalk, or did he go with the chalk all the way?

Opinions on this subject were all over the news today. But what did it mean? Were they talking about our president's sometimes-professorial demeanor? Was he pale with rage at the AIG bonuses?

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Mistakes were made

Edward Liddy chose, bizarrely, to start the third paragraph of his Op-Ed piece in today's WaPo ("Our Mission at AIG: Repairs, and Repayment") with a classical allusion:

Mistakes were made at AIG, and on a scale that few could have imagined possible. The most egregious of those began in 1987, when the company strayed from its core insurance competencies to launch a credit-default-swaps portfolio, which eventually became subject to massive collateral calls that created a liquidity crisis for AIG. Its missteps have exacted a high price, not only for the company and its employees but for the American taxpayer, the federal government's finances and the global economy. These missteps brought AIG to the brink of collapse and to the government for help.

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We've met the enemy, and that would be in the modal auxiliary, Bob

From yesterday's editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer about the conviction of a local political boss, Vince Fumo, on 137 corruption-related charges:

There was an unindicted co-conspirator in the case against Fumo. That would be the city that spawned him, took what he delivered and then pretended to be shocked, shocked at the unsavory details of how he manipulated the process.

That, of course, would be Philadelphia. That, of course, would be us.

The editorial's headline is "We've met the enemy, and he is us".

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