Archive for November, 2009

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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Going quant

From "Are Metrics Blinding Our Perception?" by Anand Giridharadas (New York Times/International Herald Tribune, 11/21/09):

In the Age of Metrics, vocation after vocation is discovering numbers. Doctors are going quant with evidence-based medicine, which promises to improve care by quantifying different treatments' probabilities of success. Wall Street has gone quant, with financial models automating trading — sometimes brilliantly, sometimes disastrously. Academia has gone quant, with once-humanistic fields like politics, on which I work at Harvard, studied in a more rigorous way, but at the price of having ever less to say about the world's big questions. Even charity, built on the instinct of altruism, has gone quant.

For a history of the phrase go quant, with links back to Mark Liberman's discussion of go rogue and other go + PREDICATIVE constructions, see my latest Word Routes column on the Visual Thesaurus.

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Hacking: who does what to whom?

A couple of days ago, Jesse Sheidlower wrote to me about the recent climate-scientist email controversy.  Since Jesse is a lexicographer, he wasn't writing about whether this is the blue-dress moment for anthropogenic climate change, or a nontroversy based on the shocking discovery that scientists are not always scrupulously fair-minded in private.  Rather, Jesse was concerned about the argument structure of the verb hack.

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Questions and conditionals

Decades ago, when I was little, I read this joke in Mad Magazine:

Do your feet smell? Does your nose run? You may be built upside-down.

I giggled for a short time — just a couple of days, I think — at the surprising coincidence of the two verb senses, and the double pun, and then got on with whatever boys in short pants do during those parts of the day that are not taken up with giggling. But I see now that there is something linguistically interesting about the joke: the two questions convey the effect of a conditional. So the content of the joke could be phrased (though for some reason much less amusingly) like this:

If your feet smell and your nose runs then you may be built upside-down.

This similarity of effect between interrogative clauses and conditional clauses has a connection to the historical reason for an identity of form between the words introducing the interrogative subordinate clause in (1) and the conditional clause in (2).

    (1) I don't know if the car will start.
    (2) We won't go if the car won't start.

The two ifs share an etymology, but they have grown apart.

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How things have changed…

In today's Stone Soup, Val tries to catch up:

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The implications of excessive praise

Yesterday's Sally Forth:

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Suppose that Edward is married to Susan and Michael is married to Susan's sister Judith. Edward is therefore Judith's brother-in-law, and Michael is Susan's brother-in-law. In my usage, and what I think is standard English usage, there is no named relationship between Edward and Michael. In particular, they are not brothers-in-law. I was therefore surprised to see a news item in which men in this situation (one of whom is accused of trying to hire an assassin to kill the other) were described as brothers-in-law.

There are languages in which the relationship between Edward and Michael has a name. In Carrier, this is the -loh relationship. One could say Lhloh 'uhint'oh "they are each other's spouse's sibling's spouse/sibling's spouse's sibling". (For extra credit, try to pronounce the onset cluster [ɬl].) German Schwippschwager seems to mean the same thing. The term "co-brother-in-law" is apparently used by some authors as a translation of such terms, but doesn't seem to be in natural use.

What I'm wondering is whether the news item that described Edward and Michael as brothers-in-law is simply in error or whether there are native English speakers for whom this is correct usage.

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Just one word after another…

Yesterday's Get Fuzzy:

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Does marriage exist in Texas?

From Dave Montgomery, "Texas marriages in legal limbo because of constitutional amendment, candidate says", Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 11/17/2009:

Texans: Are you really married?

Maybe not.

Barbara Ann Radnofsky, a Houston lawyer and Democratic candidate for attorney general, says that a 22-word clause in a 2005 constitutional amendment designed to ban gay marriages erroneously endangers the legal status of all marriages in the state.

… [T]he troublemaking phrase, as Radnofsky sees it, is Subsection B, which declares:

"This state or a political subdivision of this state may not create or recognize any legal status identical or similar to marriage."

Architects of the amendment included the clause to ban same-sex civil unions and domestic partnerships. But Radnofsky, who was a member of the powerhouse Vinson & Elkins law firm in Houston for 27 years until retiring in 2006, says the wording of Subsection B effectively "eliminates marriage in Texas," including common-law marriages.

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Another tribute to Dell Hymes

When Sally announced the sad news of Dell Hymes' recent death, she thanked him for his generosity and personal kindness to her. Thanking is a speech act that we all should use more often.

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Don't Try This at Home!

In a "Fresh Air" piece (audio, text) that aired today, I reprised a couple of the cases of quantitative quackery that Language Loggers have taken on, where someone counts up the words in a text to draw some utterly unjustified conclusions about its content or author. I mention the efforts to distill the essence of the Democrats' health care bills from the frequency of selected words, which I took up in a post a couple of months ago (it drew a number of useful comments thatI borrowed liberally from in the "Fresh Air" piece).

These enumerations have become more fevered on all sides as the bills make their interminable way  through Congress: Only seven instances of women! More than 3300 occurrences of shall, each a mandate that chips away at our freedom! On that last point, I note that, page-for-page, shall is more frequent in the Constitution than in the House healthcare bill, and conclude: "Critics of the bill are still free to insist that it opens a new fast lane on the road to serfdom. But that isn't something you can prove just by counting helping verbs."

Then there are the ubiquitous tallies of first-person pronouns aimed at demonstrating the egotism or arrogance of public figures.

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Bilingualism in Singapore

Within the short space of eight months, Singapore's founding Prime Minister and current Minister Mentor, Lee Kuan Yew, has done a nearly complete about-face in his attitude toward promoting the use of Mandarin in the republic.  As late as March of this year, when he was celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the campaign to "Speak Mandarin," Lee was claiming that "In two generations, Mandarin will become our mother tongue.”

In those days, Lee was asserting that people have only so many “gigabytes” in their brains to devote to languages.  Though admitting that speaking “dialects” in some situations can provide “extra warmth,” he warned that, by using such languages, “You are losing important neurons with data which should not be there. And like the computer, when you delete it, it doesn’t really go away. It’s there at the back, and you’ve got to go to the rubbish channel and say ‘destroy.’ And it’s still disturbing your hard disk.”  (See this useful summary and detailed list of references by Mark Swofford.)

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