Archive for July, 2012

It's all about who?

Sharon Jayson, "What's on Americans' mind? Increasingly, 'me'", USA Today 7/10/2012:

An analysis of words and phrases in more than 750,000 American books published in the past 50 years finds an emphasis on "I" before "we" — showing growing attention to the individual over the group.

This is actually true as stated. If we take the counts from the "American English" unigram dataset in the Google Books ngram collection, and extract the year-by-year counts for the letter strings in question, the frequency of "I" has increased relative to the frequency of "we" over the period since 1960 — to the point where the ratio of frequencies is almost as high as it was in 1900:

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Thurber and the sexes: the cartoons

(This posting started from an attempt to replace all the links to James Thurber cartoons in Mark's "He bold as a hawk, she soft as a dawn" posting of 9/14/06, here, after the initial Dilbert cartoon, which is still available. All the links are broken, and Mark and I can't figure out which cartoons are supposed to go in which slots. So here's a big compendium of Thurber cartoons on the relations beween the sexes.)

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Presupposition & VP-ellipsis in the comics

Today's Doonesbury Flashbacks, 35 years ago (July 30, 1977): Trudeau here has made clever use of the fact that normally, with VP-ellipsis, the presuppositions of the antecedent VP are preserved …

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Holy s***! J-school punchy prose?

Yesterday's Missoulian, reporting on a non-shy mountain lion that was hanging around a campground in western Montana, had the following memorable sentence: `The kids were playing and Gerhard was stashing something in the minivan when her cousin hollered, "Holy (appropriate word under the circumstances), that's a mountain lion!"'  So the newspaper's editors don't want to print a classic four-letter cuss word, but surely there's a way to keep the sentence from sounding quite so silly?  Even "s***" wouldn't look as ridiculous as "(appropriate word under the circumstances)".  Better yet, they could just give up their aversion to including vulgarities in direct quotations.

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Phonetic re-analysis

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Stewart on "You didn't build that," Colbert on "Anglo-Saxon heritage"

The late-night shows on Comedy Central both took a linguistic turn last night. First, on "The Daily Show," Jon Stewart managed to give himself a "grammar wedgie" trying to explain how President Obama's now-infamous line "You didn't build that" has been willfully misconstrued by his critics. Then, on "The Colbert Report," Stephen Colbert crafted an Old English riff off of the recent comment by one of Mitt Romney's advisors that Romney is somehow more appreciative than Obama of the "Anglo-Saxon heritage" shared by the US and the UK.

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The Redemption of Zombie Nouns

Helen Sword, "Zombie Nouns", The New York Times 7/23/2012:

Take an adjective (implacable) or a verb (calibrate) or even another noun (crony) and add a suffix like ity, tion or ism. You’ve created a new noun: implacability, calibration, cronyism. Sounds impressive, right?

Nouns formed from other parts of speech are called nominalizations. Academics love them; so do lawyers, bureaucrats and business writers. I call them “zombie nouns” because they cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings.

Indeed, strait is the gate and narrow is the way which leadeth unto an approved part-of-speech mixture. Having learned from Strunk & White to "write with nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs", the apprentice writer is now confronted with a new dogma damning many nouns, along with a reminder that only "active verbs" are free of sinful taint.

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An unexpected ingredient

Reader CM writes:

Last Sunday I went to a cafe in central Wiesbaden. In Germany, some ingredients have to be declared on restaurant menus. This is usually done via footnotes, with a key on the last page. That's what was done on this cafe's menu, and the footnotes in German were completely unremarkable:

But the English version of the footnotes delivered a wonderfully weird little surprise:

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Fiddling with spelling shibboleths while the economy burns

As I write these words, the number of comments posted below Kyle Wiens's strangely contentless piece in Harvard Business Review, "I Won't Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here's Why", is just coasting up toward 1200 (yes, one thousand two hundred; that's not a typo). This cannot be out of any enthusiasm for grammar: the number of grammar issues mentioned in the piece is zero. Wiens says or implies that he wants employees who know the difference between apostrophes and apostles; between semicolons and colons; between to and too; between its and it's; and between their, there, and they're. But this isn't about grammar; these are just elementary vocabulary and spelling distinctions. How could it possibly be of interest to Harvard Business Review readers that the CEO of a technical documentation company expects his employees to be able to spell different words differently? I like literacy too, but why this fiddling with spelling shibboleths while the economy burns?

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Not true that they cannot say they aren't?

Levi Montgomery writes to me:

I have read the question in this report (TSA Let 25 Illegal Aliens Attend Flight School Owned by Illegal Alien, CNS News, 18 July 2012) at least a dozen times now, and I'm not sure which answer means what (although I freely admit the intent is clear, both from the questioner and from the answerer). I thought you'd like to see it.

Stephen Lord, who is the GAO's director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues, testified about the matter Wednesday in Rogers' subcommittee. Rogers asked him: "Isn't it true that, based on your report, the Transportation Security Administration cannot assure the American people that foreign terrorists are not in this country learning how to fly airplanes, yes or no?"

Mr Lord responded: "At this time, no."

Ye gods, that sort of crazy multiple negation makes me afraid, very afraid, of having to take the witness stand.

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How do "today's students" write, really?

There was a cute "Things Kids Write" piece in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago (James Courter, "Teaching Taco Bell's Canon", 7/9/2012), with the subhead "Today's students don't read. As a result, they have sometimes hilarious notions of how the written language represents what they hear."

Is it true that college students today are unprepared and unmotivated? That generalization does injustice to the numerous bright exceptions I saw in my 25 years of teaching composition to university freshmen. But in other cases the characterization is all too accurate.

One big problem is that so few students are readers. As an unfortunate result, they have erroneous, and sometimes hilarious, notions of how the written language represents what they hear. What emerged in their papers and emails was a sort of literary subgenre that I've come to think of as stream of unconsciousness.

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Geo-political agency

In a couple of earlier posts, I noted a gradual change in the tendency of American newspapers and U.S. Supreme Court opinions to use the phrase "the United States" as a syntactic subject  ("The United States as a subject", 10/6/2009; "'The United States' as a subject at the Supreme Court", 10/20/2009). Thus in a small sample of instances of "the United States" in SCOTUS opinions from each of 6 years from 1800 to 2000, the percentage of instances in subject position increased from 1.8% to 19%:

YEAR Rate per 100
1800
1.8
1810
3.5
1850
7
1900
7
1950
12
2000
19

It's now possible to parse unrestricted text automatically but fairly accurately, and I expect to see large collections of automatically-parsed text become generally available soon (see e.g. Courtney Napoles, Matthew Gormley, and Benjamin Van Durme, "Annotated Gigaword",  Proc. of the Joint Workshop on Automatic Knowledge Base Construction & Web-scale Knowledge Extraction, ACL-HLT 2012).  And I was recently trying to persuade some colleagues that parsing a large historical books collection would be a Good Thing, even for people who aren't interested in syntactic structure per se. So for this morning's Breakfast Experiment™, I decided to take a look at the proportion of subject positioning for three country names in three geographically diverse news sources.

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Why no "all in all" peeving?

The words and phrases that annoy people are typically criticized as over-used, illogical, fashionable among a disliked group, or shifted in a confusing way from an earlier meaning.  It's often true that such irksome usages have indeed increased in frequency — thus "at the end of the day", which was the Plain English Campaign's choice for "most irritating phrase" in 2004, was then towards the end of a rapid rise in relative frequency ("Memetic dynamics of summative clichés", 9/26/2009):

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"The nurse who has a low opinion of oneself"

The path of those who fail to follow the example of scripture is often dark indeed. In particular, in referring to singular quantified entities of indefinite gender,  the King James bible and William Shakespeare agree in recommending the pronouns they, them, themselves ("Shakespeare used they with singular antecedents so there", 1/5/2006; "Is 'singular they' verbally and plenarily inspired of God?", 8/21/2006; "'Singular they': God said it, I believe it, that settles it", 9/13/2006; etc.). But many people have become convinced that this is wrong; and as Horace put itin vitium ducit culpae fuga ("avoidance of error leads to fault").

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Annals of "What!!??"

D.D., who previously contributed some observations on Caribbean "What!!??", sends more:

After a general staff meeting concluded this a.m. at work, I was sitting with a few co-workers and for some reason the conversation turned to 'strange critters' that people of different cultures eat. ('Koreans eat dogs'… 'Some Africans & Chinese eat insects'… etc etc.)

Our workplace is currently being painted/renovated by 3 Caribbean men who have been there for a week or so–one of whom I've had a couple of chats & shared a few jokes with in passing.  Hearing our conversation, that one man (from St. Vincent) stepped away from his painting on the other side of the conference room and addressed me, "Did you ever eat POSSUM?"

I laughed aloud, wondering if he was serious. He seemed to be, so I asked, "Uh… is it good?"  His loud reply, "WHAT!!??" (Read: 'OMG it is friggin' delicious!')

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