Archive for November, 2009

Snuckward Ho!

According to John "Hindrocket" Hinderaker, "Snuck?", Powerline 11/27/2009:

Regular readers know that I have little regard for the New York Times. But I assumed that, no matter how misguided the paper's politics might be, it did have some standards relating to grammar and punctuation. So I was astonished to see this, on the front page of the Times' web site:

["The celebrity-seeking couple who snuck into a state dinner this week came face-to-face with President Obama and his wife, Michelle, the White House said Friday.]

My fifth-grade teacher, Miss Klock, would be spinning in her grave, except that she was a Republican and probably never had much faith in the Times in the first place. The reporters evidently knew better; here is how their piece begins:

The celebrity-seeking couple who sneaked into a state dinner this week came face-to-face with President Obama and his wife, Michelle, the White House said Friday in a disclosure that underscored the seriousness of the security breach and prompted an abject apology from the Secret Service.

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And a grammar grouch in Switzerland

The Economist this week publishes a letter (albeit tongue in cheek) from a real dyed-in-the-wool prescriptivist grouch, writing from Switzerland. (Switzerland! "They had five hundred years of democracy and peace," snarls Orson Welles as Harry Lime in The Third Man, "and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock!") The letter-writer (note the nominative-case pronoun in his absurdly pompous last sentence) is grumbling about sentence-initial coordinators in the magazine's pseudonymous column on American politics by "Lexington" two weeks before:

SIR — And I thought that The Economist followed its own "Style Guide". But Lexington set a new record for the number of sentences starting with conjunctions (November 7th). But only 12. And I suppose some people appreciate such puerile prose. But not I.
MARC RIESE
Berne, Switzerland

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Ask Language Log: "Nor did it cease to fall"

Reader KR writes:

It is reported to me that in the book The Road by Cormac McCarthy, the following sentence appears:

"The snow fell nor did it cease to fall."

At the Straight Dope Message Boards some people are discussing whether the sentence is grammatical. To some it seems ungrammatical. To others it seems awkward. And to still others it seems fine, though perhaps archaic sounding.

But I've been googling and I can't find any parallel usages of the word "nor" anywhere else. What I am wondering is whether this really is a unique usage of "nor" or whether there is precedent for it somewhere.

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The butterfly and the elephant

David Brooks, starting his conversation with Gail Collins on why "Western Men are Doomed" (NYT, 11/19/2009):

China always gets me thinking big. I look at the long history and bright future of that civilization-state and suddenly you’ve got to chase me down with a butterfly net to impose the grip of reality on my grandiose and free-floating ideas.

Wielding a butterfly net would be a welcome change, in my opinion — I feel more like the guy with a shovel assigned to follow behind a circus elephant.  Luckily the elephant is putting out pretty much the same old stuff, which makes the clean-up easier.

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No wug is too dax to be zonged

Yesterday I mentioned Wason and Reich's 30-year-old paper on sentences like No head injury is too trivial to be ignored ("A Verbal Illusion", The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 31(4):591-97, 1979), and promised to sketch their argument. Here's their basic analysis, in their own words:

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No post too obscure to escape notice

Following up on my post about the often-puzzling semantics of the pattern "No NOUN is too ADJECTIVE to VERB", here's an up-to-date list of LL postings on a cluster of related topics, which I will keep updated as the years roll by:

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No detail too small

John V. Burke wrote to draw my attention to a phrase in Walter Kaiser's "Saving the Magic City", NYRB, 12/3/2009 (emphasis added):

Roeck's book, for which he has done an impressive amount of research, tries to be a number of things at once: it is an account of the social and intellectual world of the expatriate community in fin-de-siècle Florence; it continues the biography of Aby Warburg he began with his earlier book; it is a history of late-nineteenth-century Florentine urban development; it is a cultural history; it addresses a wide variety of ancillary topics such as anti-Semitism, anarchism, labor conditions, and economic trends; and it discusses the various aesthetic theories being formulated at the turn of the century. No detail is too small to escape Roeck's net, not even the plans formed in 1898 to produce artificial ice commercially in Florence.

This echoes the classic example "No head injury is too trivial to ignore", discussed by Peter Wason and Shuli Reich, "A Verbal Illusion", The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 31(4):591-97, 1979.

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Inflected Adj/Adv

Following up on my commoner posting, I write to ask for some data. What I'm looking for is cases where person A uses an inflected adjective or adverb (comparative or superlative) and person B objects to it, saying that A should have used the periphrastic variant instead, or declaring that the variant A used is "not a word" or "not English". It's ok if you are person B, so long as you can cite the source of the material you objected to. It's also worth noting cases where someone says explicitly that they are unsure of which variant to choose.

Some things that need flagging: if person A is not a native speaker; if person A is a young child; if the original production is likely to have been a deliberate invention, intended as play or display, or to have been a quotation.

Now some information about what's in my files already. The items are listed in their base forms; some of these were collected in their comparative form, some in their superlative form, some in both. (Judgments on comparatives and superlatives aren't always parallel, by the way.)

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Giving thanks

I'm thankful that I live in a country where not even Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck want to imprison people for using unsanctioned letters like ñ and í.  This occurred to me yesterday evening as I was making the cranberry sauce and listening on the radio to "Illegal letters in Turkey":

In Turkey, a law dating back to the 1920’s bans the use of the letters Q, W and X. The law was created for Turkey’s transition from the Arabic alphabet to the Latin one. But today, it’s used against Turkey’s ethnic Kurds.

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Kaioá

This is a video clip provided by Dan Everett, in which he interviews Kaioá, a Pirahã man in his 30s.   Dan's transcription, translation, and discussion can be found here.

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commoner

James L., in a comment on Mark Liberman's "Concerning" posting:

"The second thing to say is that it's commoner in spoken registers…"

Shouldn't that be "more common"? I ask, fully expecting to be proven incorrect.

Every so often on Language Log we discuss inflectional (commoner) vs. periphrastic (more common) comparatives and superlatives, and the topic has come up again and again on ADS-L and sci.lang, often in response to someone's claim that some particular inflectional form X is just wrong.

Sometimes the claim rests on a belief in One Right Way, in this case the assumption that an adjective or adverb takes inflection or periphrasis, but not both as alternatives. If you also judge X to be not what you would say, then it must be wrong and the periphrastic variant must be right.

Even if you don't subscribe to One Right Way, you might still project your personal dislike of X onto others.

In every case I've seen where a complaint about X has been lodged, it turns out that X is attested, in fact attested in serious writing, and in many cases X is also listed in reputable dictionaries. Both things are true for commoner.

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The Full Liberman

On The Lousy Linguist, blogger Chris takes on a media report on "The Healthiest Way To Fight With Your Husband" (linked to via Slate):

It's a classic piece of idiot journalism worthy of a Full Liberman* if only it weren't so trivial and obvious as to be beneath the man, so I'll take a crack at it.

… *I'm going to start using the term "The Full Liberman" to refer to Mark Liberman's excellent manner of debunking bad journalism (see here and here for examples).

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Concerning

Reader Ileana D. asks about the use of concerning to mean "giving cause for anxiety or distress", in examples like.

I find her behavior very concerning.
The growing National Debt is concerning to me.

She notes that she sees this as a substitute for "of concern", says that she finds it "grating", and suggests that

This usage is increasing. I first heard it used in this way many years ago, but only by southerners. It has been creeping into formal usage (on the news, on NPR).

I'll leave the "grating"  part aside for now — that sort of thing is between you and your spiritual and aesthetic advisors — and get right to the history.

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Phrase rage

Fans of "word rage" may be interested in the collection of responses that Stanley Fish got to his call for "phrases and announcements that make your heart sink and make you want to commit mayhem" ("And the Winner: 'No Problem'", 11/23/2009).  The resulting collection is a bit different from the usual exercise in meta-linguistic naming and shaming, since in  his selected examples, it's generally the (insincerity or offensiveness of the) content that sets people off, not the (alleged) ungrammaticality, modishness, illogicality, or redundancy of the form.

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The texture of time: Even educated fleas do it

[Attention conservation notice: this post wanders a bit too far into the psycholinguistic weeds for some readers, who may prefer to turn directly to our comics pages.]

In a recent paper, Ansgar D. Endressa and Marc D. Hauser document a puzzling result: Harvard undergraduates fail to recognize the regularities in "three-word sequences conforming to patterns readily learned even by honeybees, rats, and sleeping human neonates" ("Syntax-induced pattern deafness", PNAS, published online 11/17/2009).

Randy Gallistel is famous for his demonstration that rats sometimes seem smarter than Yale psychology students, but if worker bees and sleeping newborns really out-test Harvard undergrads, that would be a new low for Ivy-league intellect. In this case, however, it's not really true. The insects, rodents and infants would surely also fail in the form of the task inflicted on the Harvard students, who in turn would surely succeed if tested in the same way as the other animals cited.

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