Archive for May, 2008

Sentence punctuation to indicate slowed speech rate

Here's an experiment in creative use of the Comments feature. I want Language Log readers to help me try and find the earliest print occurrence of something that is just about impossible to search for. Here is our question: When was the first use in print of the device of punctuating the words or phrases in a sentence as separate sentences to show dramatically reduced speech rate? I. mean. Like. This. You can see a good example in the third panel of this PartiallyClips strip by Rob Balder. (Notice how hard it would be to find that using Google.) When did the use of this device start? I know it has been mentioned on Language Log, a year or so back, but I can't find the post and remember little about it except that finding the earliest occurrence was not mentioned.

Here's how we work: I start things off by giving a citation I just found from ten years ago. On page 28 of Robert Harris's novel Archangel (Hutchinson, London, 1998, hardback edition), a character who was tortured for a long time to get information out of him says with pride, "Not a word, boy. You listening? They did not get. One. Single. Word." That's the usage I'm talking about. So it's at least ten years old. Now, if you can find an occurrence that is earlier than that, and earlier than all the ones above yours in the list of comments below (if there are any yet), kindly supply the details. If this works right, we should get a list of successively older occurrences, each older than 1998 and older than all the ones preceding it. There should be no random chat about other interesting things about punctuation, or speculations about how they do this in Japanese, or reports about someone's pet parrot being able to read the newspaper, or any other irrelevant stuff. Just steadily older and older citations of uses of this typographical device. Got it? This will make the comments feature a really useful research tool, as opposed to being a sort of electronic toilet stall wall with free magic markers. That's. What. I. Want.

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A non-apology of the first kind

The news is full of headlines about Senator Clinton's "apology" for her tone-deaf comment about the RFK assassination: "Clinton apologizes for citing RFK killing"; "Clinton apologizes for gaffe"; "Clinton apologizes for Kennedy comment"; "Clinton Sorry for Remark about RFK Assassination"; "Clinton sorry for Kennedy remark"; and hundreds of others.

But from a linguistic point of view, these headlines are wrong. Here's the evidence:

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Clarity, choice, and evidence

I was surprised to find Jay Livingston, an intelligent and sensible person, subscribing to the prejudice that words like which and this, when understood as referring to some situation or proposition alluded to in the preceding discourse, should be shunned as "non-reference pronouns".

On the contrary, it seems clear that (what Arnold Zwicky calls) "summative" expressions normally do have referents, that summative reference helps makes discourse coherent, and that summative use of which and this is generally no harder to understand than the alternative ways of accomplishing the same goal.

In my post this morning, I gave a few examples of well-regarded writers using summative which. I started with Shakespeare, and most of the other examples were from poetry as well; but some people (like Jay's high-school English teacher, Miss Elliott) discount such examples as poetic license, so I thought I'd add some evidence from expository writing.

But first, let's consider the argument that such evidence is intended to support.

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Do you mind if …

You're asked:

(1) Do you mind if I ask you a question?

How do you respond? There's a complexity here, no matter what your opinions about question-asking are. The problem is that (1) has the form of a yes-no question (about what the addressee's sensibilities are) but also conveys a request (for the addressee to allow the questioner to perform an action). An affirmative response to the yes-no question is a negative response to the request, and vice versa. Oh dear. (Actually, there's more.)

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Parrots and children: still silly season at the BBC

Stupid pet communication stories are back. (Did they ever go away?) Yesterday the BBC published a story (thanks to Sam Tucker for the reference) about a stray red-tailed African grey parrot that told police how to find its owner. It was in Chiba prefecture near Tokyo in Japan. After repeating its name and address at the local veterinary clinic (where police had turned it in after capturing it), the bird greeted people for a while, then sang some popular children's songs, and then supplied its name and address. From what it said, police tracked down its owner, and took the parrot home.

The story is probably true in outline. No one disputes that parrots can be trained to do a pretty good acoustic reproduction of a human utterance. And they will do just as well on an address as on a line from a children's song or a few verses from the Kor'an; the content doesn't matter — for them, there is no content. But a paragraph at the end of the story reveals that the BBC still brings out its most gullible writers (or perhaps its most cynical and dishonest writers) as soon as anything to do with the cognitive or linguistic sciences comes on the scene. The last para says this:

The African Grey parrot is considered one of the most intelligent birds and is said by experts to have the cognitive ability of a six-year-old.

They mean a human of age six. There are people writing purportedly serious stories for the British Broadcasting Corporation who think that a grey parrot has the cognitive ability of a normal six year old human child. Have these people never met a normal six-year-old human child?

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Poor pitiful which

I'm used to the which-hunters' ill-informed prejudice against the traditional role of which in integrated relative clauses (discussed here, here, here, here, here, and in many other LL posts over the years). But I now learn that some extremists have targeted which even in its grammatical ghetto of supplementary relative clauses, ("Why are some summatives labeled 'vague'?", 5/21/2008; "More theory trumping practice", 5/22/2008.)

The endangered examples of supplementary which are those that have a "summative" function, "understood as referring to some situation or proposition alluded to in the preceding discourse". A simple example: "Neptune opposes Apollo, which implies that things moist and dry are in continual discord."

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More theory trumping practice

In my last posting, I noted that reference work after reference work condemns summative uses of pronouns (He snores, which bothers me. He snores, and that bothers me.) on theoretical grounds: a pronoun must have a noun or pronoun as an antecedent (this is a theoretical assumption), but these summative pronouns lack such antecedents – they refer to a situation or proposition alluded to in the preceding discourse context – and so they are unacceptably vague and should be avoided, though summative non-pronominal NPs (He snores, a fact that bothers me. He snores, and that fact bothers me.) are judged to be acceptable in the same contexts.

Examining the practice of good writers would show that they don’t avoid summative pronouns in general (though of course in many contexts alternative constructions would be preferable). But the advice above has theory trumping practice. Then in looking through the sections of Laurie Rozakis’s Complete Idiot’s Guide to Grammar and Style (2nd ed.) that deal with pronouns, I came across an old acquaintance, the Possessive Antecedent Proscription (the PAP), and, by golly, Rozakis (p. 94) advocates it, and gives an entirely theoretical justification for it.

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A Cupertino of the mind

Yesterday, Stefan Valdimarsson wrote to tell me about an interesting error in one of my recent posts. It was a typing error, but not one of the common slips of the finger that have been catalogued, counted and modeled over the decades, from D.D. Lessenberry's 1928 "Analysis of Errors" (published by Corona Typewriters, and reprinted in Dvorak et al., Typewriting Behavior, 1936) to the "Glossary of Terms Including a Classification of Typing Errors" by D. Gentner et al., in W.E. Cooper's Cognitive Apects of Skilled Typewriting, 1983.

This wasn't a keystroke substitution error, nor a transposition of two sequentially adjacent keystrokes, nor an interchange of keystrokes that are not serially adjacent, nor a migration of keystrokes to a position earlier or later than the canonical order, nor a keystroke omission, nor a keystroke insertion, nor an abstract doubling error (like "aad" for "add") or alternation error (like "threr" for "there"). Such errors are a fascinating subject, as you can learn by reading David Rumelhart and Donald Norman's seminal paper "Simulating a skilled typist: A study of skilled cognitive-motor performance", Cognitive Science 6(1) 1-36, 1982.

But this wasn't really a keystroke error at all.

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Just send us your gene

The most interesting spam email that I've gotten recently:

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Just send us your gene.

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You will receive:

· At least 3 mg of purified soluble protein
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· QC materials (protocols, SDS-PAGE images, sequencing reports, etc.)

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How you can help evaluate speech synthesis systems

The University of Edinburgh is co-ordinating the Blizzard Challenge, the only regular speech synthesis evaluation campaign in the world. And you can help. The systems are evaluated by having people listen to them in operation and reporting on what they hear. The listening test has now started, and if you have a computer with sound capability, and maybe a nice pair of headphones, you can be one of the expert evaluators. It's a chance to hear synthesis samples from over 20 leading academic and commercial research groups (and some lesser-known ones). Hundreds of listeners are needed for this test, so the organizers are turning to Language Log. Do think about taking part.

There are in fact have two parallel tests running this year: one on English, accessible if you click here, and if you have the necessary language skills, one on Mandarin Chinese, accessible if you click here. You can do both, if you speak both languages. Each one should take under an hour and can be done in several sessions if you prefer (the system will remember where you got to and pick up from there next time). If you know other people who might be interested in evaluating the speech quality of machines that talk, please encourage your students to take part.

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Why are some summatives labeled "vague"?

I've long reflected on the accusation that certain types of expressions are (unacceptably) "vague". There is, of course, a certain amount of troublesome vagueness and unclarity out there — what WERE they trying to say? — but some of the standard targets of this charge are, it seems to me, entirely innocent.

But there's a story about why they get targeted. Well, several stories, different for different cases.

Here's one story. The crux is unexamined grammatical dogma that's been transformed into folk linguistics (and bad advice).

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Admin update

I've recently done a bit of site-administration hacking — more details are below, but the bottom line is that URLs like now do the right thing. Despite this progress, a few problems remain. There's one problem in particular where suggestions from readers with expertise in website administration would be appreciated.

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Presidential pronoun watch

Early last week, Hillary Clinton had a bit of pronoun trouble, as Daffy Duck would say. The AP reported:

"All the kitchen table issues that everybody talks to me about are ones that the next president can actually do something about," Clinton said Sunday night, "if he actually cares about it."

The word hung in the air only for a moment.

"More likely, if she cares about it," she added.

Tonight after her overwhelming victory in the Kentucky primary, Clinton made sure she didn't repeat her mistake. She told supporters:

And that's why I'm going to keep making our case until we have a nominee, whoever she may be.

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