I received this email message this morning:
Dear Student Systems User
There are currently problems with the main database server, affecting NESI, EUCLID, WISARD, STUDMI, etc.
IS are investigating, but we have no timescale for a resolution. Sorry for any inconvenience
Student, Admissions & Curricula Systems
You might like to reflect awhile on the linguistic lessons you can learn from this. Then read on…
Of course, one thing I learned is that this is going to be a terrible day for anyone relying on databases of information for or about students. Admissions, courses, registration, timetabling, everything. I don't know why university database systems are so flaky, ill-designed, and prone to disaster, but they are. But this is Language Log, not Database Systems Log. I said linguistic lessons. And I think the major linguistic points are these.
- The claim that some have made about regular plurals not being permitted in syntactic nominal compounds (about how allegedly mice eater is grammatical but rats eater is not) are just not tenable. Student Systems user is a counterexample, and so is Student, Admissions & Curricula Systems (or more simply admissions system, which is what EUCLID is supposed to be when it's up and running).
- Computer support guys these days are saving bytes on punctuation: nothing after the salutation line (Dear Student Systems User); nothing after the pre-signoff sentence; nothing after the signoff (Regards).
- We have no timescale for a resolution is a nice example of the jargony official talk that people switch to for institutional announcements (an individual was apprehended rather than someone was picked up, and so on). Why could they not say we don't know when it will be fixed ? Because they are an office writing to the university at large and they need to feel that they have behaved officially. Not, in my view, the appalling ethical catastrophe that George Orwell made of it in his vastly overrated, flailing essay "Politics and the English language", but definitely a known feature of English produced under the constraint of being in a bureaucratic role.
- And somewhat more interestingly, the British English plural verb agreement with subjects denoting collectivities is clearly alive and well. IS in the second sentence of the message text is the university's Information Services division, but Information Services is not exactly a plural NP here. It's a singular NP with plural morphological form, like cornflakes as in Cornflakes is my favorite breakfast. It should be clear semantically that the verb are does not agree syntactically with services: after all, it is not the services that are investigating (they are abstract objects). It is the collectivity consisting of the people working in IS that can be said to be investigating. The noun phrase IS denotes the collectivity as a whole. So the sentence has the same structure as IBM are investigating. Most Americans would write that as IBM is investigating. This contrast in preferences is a minor syntactic dialect difference between UK and US English: British speakers tend to prefer plural agreement with subjects denoting companies, sports teams, departments, committees, governments, and so on, at least when they are being referred to in a way that highlights their collective nature. Metaphysics intruding on morphology.