Archive for April, 2008

Everyone knows each other

"Everyone knows each other", said someone on BBC Radio 4 this morning, speaking about some tight-knit community. And instantly I saw that this was the key to a definitive argument against the logic of the opponents of singular they. I wonder if I can make you see how awesomely beautiful the insight is.

The -s suffix on the present-tense verb knows tells us that the subject is morphosyntactically singular. That is, it counts as singular for purposes of subject-verb agreement. But each other, famously, requires a semantically plural subject. That is why They know each other is grammatical and *He knows each other is not. From this and nothing else it follows that semantic plurality and morphosyntactic singularity are compatible in English. No prescriptivist has suggested that there is something grammatically wrong with Everyone knows each other. But because of that, the logical objection to singular they just collapses. Everyone knows themselves has no grammatically relevant property that isn't already instantiated by Everyone knows each other.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

Getter better

Yesterday on ADS-L, Doug Harris noted a surprise (boldfaced below) in a piece by TVNewser columnist Gail Shister:

With "CBS Evening News" on life support, Katie Couric should walk away.


So says Emily Rooney, former executive producer of "ABC World News Tonight," among others.

"She should do it sooner than later. I'd do it now," says Rooney, media critic for Boston's WGBH. "What's she waiting for? Will it getter better after the election? After the inauguration? Of course not.

(I'll post on "sooner than later" on another occasion.)

Was this just an inadvertent slip, with the -er of the comparative better anticipated on the preceding verb get (perhaps facilitated by the rhyme of get and bet-)? Almost surely not; Harris got 21,300 raw webhits for {"getter better"}, and even granting that there are many duplicates and that some might be slips, there are still many examples remaining that look like people are saying and writing just what they intend to. It looks like a new idiom — new to me and possibly to the usage literature, and possibly recent.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (20)

Mayo in the ano

[Update 4/28/2008: Let me spoil the fun by pointing out that this post was supposed to be a joke. Apologies, for being excessively indirect again, to the half-a-dozen commenters who have earnestly informed me that English-language puzzles limit themselves to our standard 26 letters. I was just trying to underline, jocularly, Roger Shuy's jocular point that analogous limiting conventions in texting will probably not destroy … Oh, never mind.]

In a recent post, Roger Shuy warned us about the threat to civilization posed by the New York Times crossword puzzle:

Correct answers to the Times puzzles require no apostrophes to mark the important distinction between “its” from “it’s” or even to indicate possessive nouns. No correctly hyphenated words are permitted. And even though you know better, have you ever been able to use a comma, colon, semicolon, quotation mark, virgule, or question mark in a New York Times crossword puzzle? No, you haven’t! Not even periods after abbreviations. No spaces between words in phrases. No dashes in front of suffixes. How’s that for creeping whateverism?

As Roger observed, it's striking that those who urge action against the barbarian hordes of txters are unconcerned about the fifth column of crossworders in our midst. But Joe Gordon is sounding the tocsin. A long-time Language Log correspondent, Joe has sent me a series of notes on this subject, focusing especially on the New York Times crossword for Thursday, April 24, in which the clue to 28 across was "Mayo can be found in it", and the required answer is A-N-O. As Joe explains:

This is wrong … N is not the same letter as the one that appears in the word Year translated into Spanish. It is a different letter. I swear. Look it up.

Given the error, the clue reads, translated, "Mayo can be found in it", answer, "Anus".

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (17)

Smart mistakes

Students of speech errors have long observed that they provide insight into the way language is organized mentally; the inadvertent slips that people make show that they know (tacitly) enormous amounts of stuff about their language. So do mistakes of another sort, in which people produce what they intend to, but this diverges in some way from what they are expected to produce in some community or context: persistent misspellings (not typos) like loose for lose, for example (discussed here). Many of these mistakes are "smart mistakes", which show that those who produce them know a lot about the standard system; at the same time, they are "mistakes of ignorance", meaning ignorance of the complete standard system — but actually ignorance of just one or two relevant details.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (10)

Closer, my ex, of you

The most recent xkcd:

For me, at least, it should be "closer to", not "closer of". This isn't a necessary truth: "I can't get within 500 yards of you" would be perfectly fine; and in French, for example, the preposition used with "plus proche" is de, not à:

Tout ce qui est plus proche que 3 mètres ou plus éloigné que 5 mètres de vos yeux est flou.
C'est une saveur qui est plus proche du thym que de l'anis.

But in English, it seems to me, close and most of its synonyms — without or without -er and -est — should take to. Walt Whitman wrote "Come closer to me", not "Come closer of me". The old song is "Nearer, my God, to thee", not "Nearer, my God, of thee". There are more recent songs "Closer to you" and "Close to you"; as well as "Closer to me" and "Close to me". But the only pop resonance for "closer of you/me" seems to be a non-native-speaker's translation of "Un poco cerca de mi".

It's possible that Randall Munroe originally wrote, or at least thought, "I can't get within 500 yards of you", and then changed "within 500 yards" to "closer than 500 yards" without changing the preposition.

But it's also possible that this is one of the many points on which different speakers of English have different ideas.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (22)

320 kg or 4 people

Hesitant though I am to take on still more uses of or (most recently discussed here) — this could quickly become an endless chain of fascinating data — here's one that at first is puzzling, until you figure out what people are trying to do with it. It came from Benjamin Massot, a French linguist currently living in Germany, who noticed signs like the following in lifts (or, as we say in American English, elevators):

French: capacité: 320kg ou 4 personnes

German: Tragfähigkeit: 320kg oder 4 Personen

In English, 320 kg or 4 persons. Massot tried at first to figure out who (the lift company or the users of the elevator) would be declared responsible in case of an accident, for various combinations of weights, numbers of people, and interpretations of or, but eventually concluded (correctly, I think) that in this context a limit of "320 kg or 4 persons" just meant 320 kg.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (24)

pont max tr pot lol

You might have thought that the Roman empire was doomed by barbarian invasions, lead poisoning, the loss of masculine values, or climate change. But Jim Bisso at Epea Pteroenta has pointed out that at the very height of the empire's power, in the reign of Trajan, Roman culture had already been compromised by an insidious agent that you probably have never considered, though it's obvious in retrospect.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (14)

NYTimes addresses Russian readers

NYTimes addresses Russian readers

Something new, at least to me . Together with today's article in the New York
Times At Expense of All Others, Putin Picks a Church, there's a sidebar:

Russian Readers
Speak Out


A translation of this article is being discussed on a Russian-language blog run by The New York Times. English-speaking readers can respond to translated highlights of that conversation or share their thoughts on the article.

Join the conversation. »

I think that's neat.
Of course you'd have to be reading the NYT in English to start with, or be
alerted by a friend. But it's the first case I know of one of the major American
newspapers making an actively non-English-only presence. (But is it really
starting with Russian rather than, say, Spanish, or does this just reflect the
fact that I pay more attention to their news about Russia?)

Comments (4)

"Ghoti" before Shaw

One of the sturdiest linguistic canards is that George Bernard Shaw facetiously proposed spelling fish as ghoti, with gh pronounced as in laugh, o as in women, and ti as in nation. This respelling, the story goes, was intended by Shaw to highlight the absurdity of English orthography. But ghoti appears nowhere in Shaw's writings, according to devoted Shavians who have thoroughly scoured his works. The earliest attribution of ghoti to Shaw that I've found is from 1946, and the attributor is Mario Pei, not always the most reliable source when it comes to language-related information. By that point, ghoti had been circulating in the popular press for nearly a decade. Previously, the earliest known appearance of ghoti was from a 1937 newspaper article discovered by the redoubtable Fred Shapiro. That still allows for the slight possibility that Shaw was the originator, if unnamed. But now Matthew Gordon of the University of Missouri-Columbia has antedated ghoti — all the way back to 1874. And the 1874 article is quoting a source from 1855, a year before Shaw was born.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (34)

How to get a hunting license in Montana

I'm relatively sure that Language Log readers have been slavering to get a hunting or fishing license in Montana. So I'll tell you how, sort of. True, this state has been called a hunter's and fisherman's paradise but it an be a bit frustrating when you try to get a license. Locals tell me that this helps keep outsiders outside. But even people who live in Montana have to jump through some confusing linguistic hoops if they want to hunt or fish legally. This problem doesn't affect me personally because I'm a Montana anomaly. I don't hunt or fish at all but I'm amused by the steps people have to take to become legal hunters and fishermen. 

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

Crazy English again

There's an important article on Li Yang's Crazy English that has just come out in this week's New Yorker. I have been following the Li Yang story for over a decade. It is both fascinating and deeply troubling.

Three years ago, Amber Woodward, a student in my "Language, Script, and Society in China" course, wrote a long paper on Li Yang, and I published it as Sino-Platonic Papers no. 170 in February, 2006. This year she wrote her senior thesis on Li Yang's Crazy English, and I will also publish it in SPP. I hope to get both of these papers up on the web very soon. You will be able to find them at (Meanwhile, see "Crazy English", 11/21/2007, for some background.)

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (9)

Producers, linguistic and otherwise

A couple of weeks ago, Ben Zimmer told me that he was leaving Oxford University Press, where he was Editor for American Dictionaries, to become Executive Producer of the Visual Thesaurus online site. I was happy for Ben's career advancement, but I had another reaction that had nothing to do with him. When I talk with undergraduates about the jobs that studies in linguistics might prepare them for, "executive producer" has never been one of them. Before now.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (16)

Citation Plagiarism Once Again

Last year I wrote about citation plagiarism and why there is no such thing. I just discovered a comment on this by Miriam Burstein at The Little Professor which requires some discussion.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (34)