Archive for October, 2008

Every little (bit?) helps

The Tesco supermarket company defines its values by a slogan that, as my American undergraduate student Denise Wood pointed out to me yesterday, simply doesn't seem (to her or to me) grammatical:

Every little helps

Denise showed it to me on the back of a till receipt, and at first I misread it as "Every little bit helps". (Recall the song title Every Little Bit Hurts.) Then I saw that the head noun bit wasn't there.

British students seem inclined to accept this phrase — possibly because they've been seeing it on bags and till slips for years (Tesco is still a mostly UK company). But there seems to be an isogloss here (a boundary between dialects determined by the use of some particular word or phrase), with me and Denise on one side and possibly (we don't know yet) most British speakers on the other. What does seem clear is that this is not a productive or extensible pattern. You just can't get away with other noun phrases formed, like every little, from a determinative and an adjective. You really can't say *Every big is desirable, or *Each generous gets us closer to the goal. The phrase every little, considered as a noun phrase, has to be some kind of special sui generis construction. It's not just a regular normal deployment of determinative and adjective.

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Menand on linguistic morality

Louis Menand ("Thumbspeak", The New Yorker, 10/20/2008) aims a gibe at my profession:

[P]rofessional linguists, almost universally, do not believe that any naturally occurring changes in the language can be bad.

As a representative of the species, I can testify that this is false. Rather, we believe that moral and aesthetic judgments about language should be based on facts, not on ignorant and solipsistic gut reactions.

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Kentucky court persists in error

Three weeks ago I wrote about the state of Kentucky's attempt to seize the domain names of internet gambling sites using a statute that authorizes the seizure of "gambling devices', pointing out that the belief that domain names are gambling devices is bizarre. The court has now held an adversarial hearing on the matter and has issued a decision confirming its ex parte order. Most of the opinion is devoted to other issues, such as the question of whether domain names are property and whether the Kentucky court has jurisdiction, but the question of whether domain names are "gambling devices" as defined in the statute is briefly addressed at pp. 22-25.

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"Why can't us?"

People here in Philadelphia are excited about the fact that our baseball team, the Phillies, will be in the World Series for the first time since 1993. And one outlet for the high spirits is a really interesting slogan.

It all started last Thursday, with a caller from Delaware on the XM Radio show Baseball This Morning, who seems to have intended to borrow a slogan from the Red Sox, but added his own morphosyntactic twist (as documented on The 700 Level blog):

Boston did it. The White Sox did it. Why can't us? Why can't us!

The rest, as they say, is history, including a line of T-shirts and other merchandise, a Facebook page,  numerous blog posts ("Overexcited Phils Fan Creates Grammatically Challenged Rally Cry", 10/16/2008; "Why Can't Us Movement is Spreading", 10/17/2008; etc.), and more.

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Linguification and the myth of progress

I know that many of you will be wondering whether Language Log has been keeping up with the spread of linguification. We have, of course. Teams of interns are combing the periodicals and amassing huge quantities of data that we do not really know what to do with (the data may all be eventually turned over to Melvyn Quince in the Surveys department). But just to assure you that we are keeping up with developments, let me show you the beginning of an article that recently appeared in an important UK magazine (and I should note that the article was actually written by a senior lecturer in creative writing — whom I will not embarrass by naming):

Among the dirty words in arts and humanities departments these days, "progress" is one of the dirtiest. No one would dream of using it without irony or the qualifying phrase "myth of" as a prefix.

To check this, our in-house textual scientists did a Google search on progress and myth of progress limited to UK academic sites (, and these were the results:

progress 2,790,000
myth of progress   103

Any questions about that?

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Obambulate — and bidentate, palinal, and ??

Several readers have pointed me to Anu Garg's  A.Word.A.Day entry for yesterday, obambulate:

verb tr.: To walk about.

From Latin ob- (towards, against) + ambulare (to walk). Ultimately from the Indo-European root ambhi- (around) that is also the source of ambulance, alley, preamble, and bivouac. The first print citation of the word is from 1614.

"We have often seen noble statesmen obambulating (as Dr. Johnson would say) the silent engraving-room, obviously rehearsing their orations."
The Year's Art; J.S. Virtue & Co.; 1917.

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The Derivational Fallacy

Etymology is not destiny, as we keep pointing out here. Thinking that it is is subscribing to the Etymological Fallacy (see here, among many other places). But even synchronically, you can't always trust what you see: derived lexical items are often specialized semantically (as are noun-noun compounds and also combinations of non-predicating adjective plus noun). This is especially true of technical terms; as I am fond of saying: labels are not definitions.

Which brings us to financial derivatives. Derivative here is derived from derive, right? So we can tell what it means in this expression from its morphological composition, right? Well, no. But people want that to be true.

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"Verbage" — not what it seems

I agree with Mark that James Wood's condescending comments about Palin's use of verbage are pure de-haut-en-bushwa. On the other hand, let's not delude ourselves about this item. Palin's verbage is not simply a term for "language" or "wording" that has been happily circulating in vernacular speech since it was first attested 200 years ago, in defiance of the assaults of prescriptivists. Verbage is not colloquial English — I mean, people don't go around saying, "Hey, Sparky — watch your goddamn verbage!" It arises as an approximation of a fancy-pants word that people have seen in print: it's a lot more plausible to assume that people would misread verbiage as verbage than that they would mishear it that way, particularly since this is a re-analysis favored by analogy. The fact is that in both its form and its meaning, verbiage is a weirder word than most people — including the editors of the OED — realize.

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In the Oct. 13 New Yorker, James Wood commented at length on Sarah Palin's pronunciation of verbiage in her interview with Sean Hannity ("Verbage: The Republican War on Words"), closing with this paragraph:

Hearing her being interviewed by Sean Hannity, on Fox News, almost made one wish for a Republican victory in November, so that her bizarre locutions might be available a bit longer to delve into. At times, even Hannity looked taken aback; his eyes, slightly too close to each other, like the headlamps on an Army jeep, went blank, as if registering the abyss we are teetering above. Or perhaps he just couldn’t follow. The most revealing moment happened earlier, when she was asked about Obama’s attack on McCain’s claim that the fundamentals of the economy are sound. “Well,” Palin said, “it was an unfair attack on the verbage that Senator McCain chose to use, because the fundamentals, as he was having to explain afterwards, he means our workforce, he means the ingenuity of the American people. And of course that is strong, and that is the foundation of our economy. So that was an unfair attack there, again, based on verbage that John McCain used.” This is certainly doing rather than mere talking, and what is being done is the coinage of “verbage.” It would be hard to find a better example of the Republican disdain for words than that remarkable term, so close to garbage, so far from language.

As a parody of a highbrow sneer, this is brilliant work.

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Zippy paranoia

Another in our series of occasional postings on Noam Chomsky in cartoonland.

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When you stride away, what is it that you've done?

At some time in the middle 1970s, Deirdre Wilson and I noticed that we had never seen the past participle of the verb stride anywhere. In fact we didn't even know what it was. When you stride off, what is it that you've done? How would it be described? Have you strided? Have you strode? Have you stroded? Have you stridden? Have you strodden? We realized that we hadn't a clue. None of them sounded familiar or even mildly acceptable to us as native speakers. And this odd gap had some potential for theoretical significance. Let me explain why. And then I'll tell you how the world's most distinguished English grammarian stumbled across a real-life sentence that seemed to clear up the mystery. And I'll fill in a bit of subsequently discovered history as well. But first, before you read on, write down what you think is the correct form for the past participle of stride in English as spoken by you.

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Giveth and taketh

Peter Ringeisen writes to ask "why it is that educated people use ungrammatical obsolete verb endings?" — a question inspired by this passage in Thomas L. Friedman's New York Times op-ed column today:

Globalization giveth — it was this democratization of finance that helped to power the global growth that lifted so many in India, China and Brazil out of poverty in recent decades. Globalization now taketh away — it was this democratization of finance that enabled the U.S. to infect the rest of the world with its toxic mortgages. And now, we have to hope, that globalization will saveth.

Three things to comment on here. The use of obsolete verb endings in the first place. Then the extension of them to contexts where they're historically incorrect, as in will saveth (and by Friedman, an accomplished writer). Finally, the snowclone (actually, snowclone family) GivethTaketh ("X giveth and X taketh away"), which we haven't looked at here on Language Log and doesn't seem to be anywhere in the Snowclone Database.

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Cartoon teenage communication

Two more takes on teenage communication. First, a Bizarro playing on the widespread idea that teenagers' texting is packed with non-standard spelling and punctuation. Then a Zits on communicative multitasking. (Click on an image to get a larger version.)

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