Archive for June, 2008

Noun noun noun noun noun verb

The most spectacular compound noun I've seen this week was in the UK free newspaper Metro, which I pick up on the bus in Edinburgh. I never read the celebrity gossip pages, of course. But I did happen to notice this headline on page 25 yesterday:

Amy husband bribery plot landlord cleared

That's a non-finite passive clause consisting of a subject, in the form of five nouns in a complex nominal construction, and one verb in the past participle form. Is the clause grammatical? One hundred percent, I think. Is it admirable style? Well, for a newspaper given away free on the 29 bus, maybe it's churlish to quibble about syntactic clunkiness. Non-clunkiness is not the central issue. The second most important desideratum for a headline is that it should make you look and perhaps read the story on the South Bridge before you get off at St Patrick Square; and the most important of all is that it should fit the column width. For this one they had 20 cm. Not enough room to add an apostrophe and an s so that Amy could be made into a genitive determiner. Referring to Fielder-Civil as Amy's husband would have been much closer to normal style, but they ran out of horizontal space given the prior choice of point size.

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Gay or straight, it's decided at birth

That's the head that the New Scientist chose for the print version (in the 21 June issue) of its story (by Andy Coghlan) on the Savic/Lindström studies that Mark Liberman reported on here on Language Log (with a link to the New Scientist's 16 June on-line version, which had a different head: "Gay brains structured like those of the opposite sex"). Mark noted that different publications headed their stories in different ways: as the discovery of a similarity between gay people and straight people of the opposite sex; as a discovery about homosexuals; or (mostly) as the discovery of a similarity between homosexual men and heterosexual women. Now the New Scientist has promoted the "decided at birth" or "born that way" interpretation of the experiments from the story's lead paragraph to its head.

And it featured the story in an editorial

It's a queer life

We need to ditch the idea that homosexuality is unnatural

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A lawsuit, or an article in JAMA?

(Click for larger version)

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Language Log readers may appreciate the following classic example of writing in technical terms from the perspective of the technician or engineer rather than from a standpoint that would seem useful to the customer or reader. I was engaged in reserving a rental car on the web, and got the date syntax wrong. Instead of having one of those little click-on-the-calendar widgets, the site required entry of the date of the reservation in a blank box using a strict syntax that it did not explain until the reservation failed and an error message was displayed. By strict syntax I mean (i) slash must be used as separator (continuous numbers will not work), (ii) day must be before month (American month-day-year syntax will not work), and (iii) the date must be four digits (two-digit year indications won't work). I'm not worried about having to know the date syntax of the culture I'm in; I can deal with that. And although the 4-digit year is a bit crazy (since time travel is impossible, the first two digits will be 2 and 0 for all reservations for the next 92 years, so they are not carrying much information), that piece of programming stupidness is not my concern here. The classic bit was the error message that popped up in red:

Please select a valid pick up date (DD/MM/YYYY) greater than today.

Have you ever said "I could do lunch any day next week greater than Tuesday"? Or "It would be helpful if you could deliver it greater than the 27th"? Or "I'm younger than my wife because my birthday is eight days greater than hers"? Of course you haven't.

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Beyond Barking

Adrian Morgan pointed out to me a Usenet comment in which someone says of some course of action that it "can hardly be a sane policy for anyone who is not evincing signs of heading distinctly dagenham". In this context dagenham is apparently to be taken as a synonym for "insane", by a rather devious etymological route. Dagenham is a town in Essex, England. On the District Line of the London Underground, Dagenham is three stops beyond the town of Barking (after Barking are Upney, Becontree, Dagenham Heathway, and Dagenham East). To be barking mad is to be crazy; and being dagenham is therefore being three steps beyond barking. The allegation of being beyond barking was leveled at Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, according to this page at And this list of British idioms says a parallel use is made of the place name Becontree (two stops beyond Barking on the District Line).

So much for the etymology. Now for the syntax. Is it actually grammatical to say someone is "heading dagenham" (whether distinctly or not), under that interpretation of what dagenham means? I would agree with Adrian that it is not quite grammatical. Not too far out there beyond the boundary of the normal, but definitely somewhere out there. But why?

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Once you look for temporary potential ambiguity, you'll find it everywhere

The Microsoft Manual of Style tells us not to use once as a subordinator because it could lead to ambiguity. Specifically, from the 1995 edition:

To avoid ambiguity, do not use as a synonym for after.

After you save the document, you can quit the program.

Once you save the document, you can quit the program.

(That's the entire entry.) Ambiguity? Stop a moment and try to concoct an English sentence where subordinator once could be taken to be something else. It can be done — see below — but it's not easy, and I doubt that examples like the ones below were what the MMoS folks had in mind.

Instead, I think they were concerned about the fact that once has three primary uses and that readers (especially readers who are not native speakers of English) might not understand which one was intended until partway into the sentence: TEMPORARY POTENTIAL AMBIGUITY (TPA). (I'll take up the concern for non-native speakers in a later posting.)

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"These can be aptly compared with the challenges, problems, and insights of particle physics"

I'm in Paris for Acoustics 2008, and Edouard Geoffrois invited me to come a little early to attend the 10th annual Séminaire DGA/DET "Traitement de la parole, du langage et des documents multimédias" ("Processing of speech, language and multimedia"), held at the École Nationale Supérieure de Techniques Avancées (ENSTA). In this case, "attend" turned out to mean "give two talks at", and one of my assigned topics was "Human Language Technologies in the United States" (and yes, after a brief excuse in French, I'm ashamed to say that I gave the talk in English…)

For this survey, I decided to start with some historical background, and so I went back to the famous ALPAC report. This was a report to the National Academy of Sciences by the Automated Language Processing Advisory Committee, entitled "Language and Machines: Computers in Translation and Linguistics", and released in 1966.

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Are we snowcloning yet?

Zippy produces an elaborate instance of the snowclone Are We X Yet? (see here for our last mention of the snowclone, in Zippy's "Are we playing "Risk" in an underground bunker beneath th' White House yet??"), and Griffy replies with a variant of the proverb "If the shoe fits, wear it" (which the New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy says was originally "If the cap fits, …", possibly referring to a fool's cap).

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The last Bushism?

Count me among those who will not be at all sad to see the last of the Bushisms industry.  In the end, it's a bit like making wheelchair jokes about FDR, except that all of us commit infelicities of verbal expression from time to time. I guess that W gets tangled up a bit more often than most politicians do, although I think that even this much is not entirely certain.

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Twenty selected Coalface errors

Those who have read about the great Queensland grammar scandal about the "Coalface" teachers' guide and the ensuing coverup and counterattack may have wondered just what the crucial errors of grammatical analysis were, because the press coverage mentioned only a scant half-dozen. I thought Language Log readers might like to see fuller details in browsable form (Huddleston's full presentation in PDF format is available here). Below I give a terse listing of twenty sample errors in Lenore Ferguson's first two articles in the "Grammar at the Coalface" series (the listing is not exhaustive).

How important these are depends on how seriously you take grammar as a subject. It's true that linguistics is not like earthquake engineering — if someone misclassifies a word or botches a definition, nobody dies; but on the other hand getting factual claims right is part of the job description for scholars and teachers. From the point of view of the public controversy, however, the relevant question is just how many of these blunders could conceivably be dismissed in the way Lenore Ferguson and Gary Collins have tried to dismiss them: as (1) minor errors of typing or formatting, or (2) mere "matters of opinion", or (3) simple terminological differences, or (4) substantive differences between one theory and another. There is not a single one. Which means the blustering ETAQ responses are entirely dishonest. Where anything to do with "functional grammar" is relevant at all, Ferguson has generally either contradicted its tenets or contradicted herself. Here is the select list of 20 particularly clear errors:

  1. Won't in The small boy won't eat his lunch called an adverb. (It's an auxiliary verb.)
  2. Capable of in The small boy is capable of eating his lunch called an adverb. (Not a grammatical unit; it's an adjective followed by a preposition.)

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They couldn't even talk…

Over at Supreme Dicta there is an amusing, if disturbing, report by a grader for the Advanced Placement exam in US Government of some of the more comical statements made in response to an essay question about the 15th Amendment. Some of them are just ignorant, such as the statement that: "Strom Thurman [sic] was the first black man in Congress"¹ or weirdly imaginative, such as the report that:

MLK [Martin Luther King -WJP] marched down the streets of a small Alabama town singing songs. When he arrived at a voting booth, a woman was asked to guess how many jelly beans were in a jar. When she guessed wrong the police arrested her.

but there was one that I found truly incomprehensible:

Many blacks were illiterate, or couldn't even talk, so voting was out of the question.

They couldn't even talk?

¹Senator Strom Thurmond was white and a virulent racist.

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Lament for the copy editors

In an Editorial Observer column in the New York Times (16 June), Lawrence Downes goes to a museum in search of good feelings:

I went to the Newseum, a shiny new building in Washington that news companies and foundations have erected as a shrine to their industry. Since it's my industry, too, I thought a museum, where sacred relics and texts have been placed safely in the equivalent of a big glass jar, might make me hopeful about the future.

He starts by looking for the section on copy editing — "Copy editors are my favorite people in the news business", he says — but finds nothing. Indeed,

A call later confirmed that the museum has essentially nothing about how newspapers are made today, and thus nothing about the lowly yet exalted copy editor.

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Bearing arms in LION

In connection with Bill Poser's post "What did it mean to 'bear arms' in 1791?", I searched the Literature Online database for instances of the phrase "bear arms" whose authors were alive between 1650 and 1791, adding the options of variant spellings (e.g. "beare arms") and variant forms (e.g. "bearing arms") . I got 36 entries in Poetry, 38 in Drama, and none in Prose. My opinion, after a quick read of the 74 hits, is that all of them occur in a military context and are used in a military sense.

Usually this is straightforward, as in Robert Anderson's "Fair Sally" (1798): "When Honour bade her sons bear arms, And boldly meet their country's foe …" Sometimes the implication of military or militia service is implicit, e.g. Wordsworth, in a footnote to "Song at the Feast of Brougham Castle": "for the Earl was no child, as some writers would have him, but able to bear arms, being sixteen or seventeen years of age".

This sample is small, and weighted towards poetic language, so that I don't think it really contributes a great deal to the argument, except perhaps in a statistical sense. However, there were a number of examples whose content I thought was interesting, quite apart from any bearing they might have on D.C. v. Heller. I'll give one in this post, and perhaps some others later on.

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