Archive for December, 2012

Misnegation mailbag

Here are some items sent in by readers over the past few weeks, to add to our list of misnegations. Larry Horn, on ADS-L:

"We'll see the fate of the coaching staff of Dallas…This cannot be understated, though, or overstated: whether it's his fault or not, Tony Romo is now 1-6 in win or go home games, either in Week 17 or the playoffs."

–ESPN SportsCenter anchor Steve Levy following another last-game elimination of the Dallas Cowboys

Maybe that should be the general strategy for all hypernegations:

"No head injury is too trivial to ignore, or to pay attention to."

"His problems can't be underestimated, or overestimated."

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Prestigious nonsense, tendentious frames

Kimmo Ericksson, "The nonsense math effect", Judgment and Decision Making 7(6) 2012:

In those disciplines where most researchers do not master mathematics, the use of mathematics may be held in too much awe. To demonstrate this I conducted an online experiment with 200 participants, all of which had experience of reading research reports and a postgraduate degree (in any subject). Participants were presented with the abstracts from two published papers (one in evolutionary anthropology and one in sociology). Based on these abstracts, participants were asked to judge the quality of the research. Either one or the other of the two abstracts was manipulated through the inclusion of an extra sentence taken from a completely unrelated paper and presenting an equation that made no sense in the context. The abstract that included the meaningless mathematics tended to be judged of higher quality.

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Human behavior is behind so much of what we do in our lives

I happened to catch this Q&A on the radio today, at the start of program segment about a course on "Shakespeare and Financial Markets":

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Q: All right, right away can you make the link for us between Shakespeare's writings and economics?

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A: I- I think it's uh clear when you delve into Shakespeare –
and of course I've spent a lifetime  looking at Shakespeare
and also you know being in the financial markets  –
human behavior is behind so much of what we do  in our lives,
and also most important in our decision making,
and Shakespeare held up a mirror to humans and
showed us how we behave, probably one of the first artists  to really capture that.
And when you look at some of the mistakes,
both policy-wise and also by investors in the last  twenty or so years,
you see a lot of those behaviors,
and so  drawing out those connections is part of what made the course I think for-
for me and also for the students a lot of fun this year.

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Innovation, rules, and regulation

John McIntyre, "I said pound sand, sticklers", 12/27/2012:

Yesterday I sent out this tweet: "Just waved through a singular 'they.' Pound sand, sticklers."

The singular they was in a sentence on The Sun's editorial page: "Although experts say only a tiny proportion of seriously mentally ill people ever resort to acts of violence, the odds of someone doing so are greatly increased if they aren't in treatment or refuse to stay in it."

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Literary moist aversion

Over the years, we've viewed the phenomenon of word aversion from several angles — a recent discussion, with links to earlier posts, can be found here. What we're calling word aversion is a feeling of intense, irrational distaste for the sound or sight of a particular word or phrase, not because its use is regarded as etymologically or logically or grammatically wrong, nor because it's felt to be over-used or redundant or trendy or non-standard, but simply because the word itself somehow feels unpleasant or even disgusting.

Some people react in this way to words whose offense seems to be entirely phonetic: cornucopia, hardscrabble, pugilist, wedge, whimsy. In other cases, it's plausible that some meaning-related associations play a role: creamy, panties, ointment, tweak. Overall, the commonest object of word aversion in English, judging from many discussions in web forums and comments sections, is moist.

One problem with web forums and comments sections as sources of evidence is that they don't tell us what fraction of the population experiences the phenomenon of word aversion, either in general or with respect to some particular word like moist. Dozens of commenters may join the discussion in a forum that has at most thousands of readers, but we can't tell whether they represent one person in five or one person in a hundred; nor do we know how representative of the general population a given forum or comments section is.

Pending other approaches, it occurred to me that we might be able to learn something from looking at usage in literary works. Authors who are squicked by moist, for example, will plausibly tend to find alternatives. (Well, in some cases the effect might motivate over-use; but never mind that for now…)

So for this morning's Breakfast Experiment™, I downloaded the April 2010 Project Gutenberg DVD, and took a quick look.

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Chinese character of the year: mèng 梦 ("dream")

Raymond Li has an article in the South China Morning Post (Friday, 21 December, 2012) in which he announces the results of a poll by the Education Ministry that has selected mèng 梦 ("dream") as the character of the year, ostensibly because it represents the hopes and achievements of the nation.  But mèng 梦 ("dream") is definitely a double-edged sword, and critics of the government put a totally different spin on the word.

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Reddit blewit

Reddit, for those few who might not know, is a popular bulletin-board site for posting and discussing links and texts. A voting system determines the order and position of entries. The site is divided into "subreddits" devoted to paticular topics, of which there are now tens of thousands.

One of these countless subreddits is /r/grammar. Here "grammar", as usual, is mostly taken to mean "spelling, punctuation, and word usage" — but the items posted are generally questions rather than peeves, and the questions are sincere and sometimes interesting. Like other subreddits, /r/grammar has moderators, and they've chosen a few select links for the right-hand top of the page:

The five selected topics seem a bit random, but at least the first four of them (a vs. an, sentence-ending prepositions, I vs. meCompound possession) link to plausible discussions of the cited issues. The fifth one, however, points to a grammatical disaster: a page on "That Versus Which" from Marc A. Grinker's "The Legal Writing Teaching Assistant: The Law Student's Guide to Good Writing" (1994).

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The true history of the split verb rule

The "split verb rule" says that an adverb must not be placed between an auxiliary and the following verb. On this account, you should never write "you should never write", but rather "you never should write". In an earlier post, I followed (what I thought was) the lead of James Lindgren ("Fear of Writing", California Law Review 78(6):1677-1702, 1990) in attributing this bizarre idea to The Texas Law Review Manual on Style. But in a comment this evening, Jon Weinberg cited Allen Black, "Judge Wisdom, the Great Teacher and Careful Writer", 109 Yale L.J. 1267 (1999-2000):

He was death on split infinitives and split verbs. A sentence such as "The burdened vessel was slowly proceeding down river at the time of the collision" would never survive.

Since John Minor Wisdom would have learned his attitudes towards such things in the 1920s, and the Texas Law Review's Manual does not seem to have appeared until the 1950s, Jon suggested that we need to look elsewhere for the source of this peculiar prejudice. And indeed, a quick Google Books search turns up a more promising source — Henry Watson Fowler and Francis George Fowler, The King's English, 1908, section 46 on "'Split' Auxiliaries":

Some writers, holding that there is the same objection to split compound verbs as to split infinitives, prefer to place any adverb or qualifying phrase not between the auxiliary and the other component, but before both.

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Learning to speak Imaginary American

Tim Parks, "Learning to Speak American", NYR:

In 1993 I translated all 450 pages of Roberto Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus & Harmony without ever using the past participle of the verb “get.” The book was to be published simultaneously by Knopf in New York and Jonathan Cape in London; to save money both editions were to be printed from the same galleys; so it would be important, I was told, to avoid any usages that might strike American readers as distractingly English or English readers as distractingly American. To my English ear “gotten” yells America and alters the whole feel of a sentence. I presumed it would be the same the other way round for Americans. Fortunately, given the high register of Calasso’s prose, “get” was not difficult to avoid.

Now in 2012 I am obliged to sign up to “gotten.” Commissioned by an American publisher to write a book that explores the Italian national character through an account of thirty years’ commuting and traveling on the country’s rail network, I am looking at an edit that transforms my English prose into American. [...]

Or again, does a “newsagent” really need to become a “news dealer,” a “flyover” an “overpass,” a “parcel” a “package,” or in certain circumstances “between” “among” and “like” “such as”? Does the position of “also” really need to be moved in front of the verb “to be” in sentences like “Trains also were useful during the 1908 earthquake in Catania,” when to me it looked much better after it?

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Annals of dialect prejudice

Neetzan Zimmerman, "Pronunciation Nazi Pat Sajak Steals Thousands of Dollars from Wheel of Fortune Contestant Over Dropped ‘G’", Gawker 12/21/2012:

A failure to enunciate to Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak's liking cost a contestant a bundle of money earlier this week along with the rest of the game.

Renee Durette, a Navy Intel Specialist from Merritt Island, Florida, thought she had the puzzle in the bag.

In fact, she did: Durette correctly answered "seven swans a-swimming" with seven missing letters. Except that, in her twang, swimming became "swimmin'," a pronunciation Sajak found unacceptable.

Durette subsequently lost her turn as well as $3,850, and the puzzle was turned over to the next contestant, Amy Vincenti, who promptly solved it.

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Nothing uncontroversial

John Podheretz, tweeting about Wayne LaPierre's proposal to put armed guards in every American school:

When he wrote "… there was nothing uncontroversial about …", he clearly meant "… there was nothing controversial about …"

Where did the extra un- come from? A blend of "uncontroversial" and "nothing controversial"? A bit of emphatic overnegation? Both?

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Josh Marshall: grammar success

Josh Marshall, at TPM where he is editor, quotes President Barack Obama saying of last year's debt-ceiling negotiation shenanigans: "We're not going to play the same game that we saw happen in 2011," and notes an interesting change of sentence plan:

You can’t see it in the transcript. But he momentarily caught himself after ‘game’ and then shifted gear — just a moment of hesitation. The logical way to complete that sentence was ‘We’re not going to play the same game we played in 2011.’ But he caught himself and shifted the sentence into a sort of conceptual passive voice. It’s active but with himself as the onlooker.

As Jeffrey Stafford pointed out to me by email, this really deserves some credit. Josh can tell the difference between a passive clause and an active one!

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The One Way Adult Interzone

On the MBTA train ticket I bought the other day, entitling me to travel seven zones on the commuter rail system, it says boldly: One Way Adult Interzone.

Does that sound exactly like a name for a pornography website, or is it just me? "Welcome to the One-Way Adult Interzone (must be 18 or older to enter)…" Perhaps it's just me. Never mind.

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The New Yorker finds the U.S. Constitution ungrammatical

Jeffrey Toobin, "So you think you know the second amendment?", The New Yorker 12/18/2012:

The text of the amendment is divided into two clauses and is, as a whole, ungrammatical: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

Coming from The New Yorker's house legal analyst, this is shocking.

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Spelling mistakes in English and miswritten characters in Chinese

In the comments to "Character amnesia revisited", Joanne Salton remarked that "It doesn't have a tremendous effect on the ability to communicate because the odd mistake doesn't matter all that much."  I started to dash off a brief reply, but my answer soon grew to such inordinate length that it seemed to merit separate posting under the above title.

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