Archive for March, 2009

In a good way

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The dynamics of lexical competition in spoken word recognition

Today's Cathy addresses the topic of ambiguity resolution in speech:

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Financial language alert

Daniel Gross has a nice article in Slate called “Bubblespeak,” describing the way economists and politicians extend themselves, as Orwell put it, “to make lies sound truthful." Leading the list is “legacy loans,” “legacy securities,” and “legacy costs,” referring to those badly collateralized loans, mortgages, and problems of auto companies that we are hearing so much about in reports of the recent Federal Bank Rescue Plan. Linguist George Lakoff says “legacy” typically means something positive, while positive these financial instruments are not. Other current expressions, such as “troubled assets” (see the Troubled Asset Relief Program), “securitization” (redistribution of bad loans), and “sub-prime” (non-prime loans) come under similar fire.

Ah, semantics.

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S&W at 50

Strunk and White's Elements of Style, first published in 1959, has now been reissued in a leather-bound, gold-embossed 50th anniversary edition (with testimonials from famous literary figures and an afterword by Charles Osgood of CBS). An AP article by William Kates about the event has been printed in dozens of places; here I'll quote from the version in The Ithaca Journal (hat tip to Marilyn Martin). (Strunk taught at Cornell and White went to college there, so it's no surprise that the Journal has a story. There are stories by other writers in the Cornell Chronicle and the Cornell Daily Sun.)

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In today's Get Fuzzy, Bucky's exploration of English compound-noun semantics continues:

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No concept of X in Y

We last saw a Zippy with this trope in it ("we have no concept of war or private property") back in January. Here it comes again:

(For an inventory of other Language Log postings on "no word for X" and related figures, look here.)

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Was Strunk imitating Quintilian?

Bill Walderman asked

Is it possible that the "rule" requiring the placement of "however" as the second element of a sentence (or at least not the first element) … originated as an attempt to impose Latin and Greek syntax or word order on English? In Latin, there are a number of particles such as "autem" that can't be placed at the beginning of a clause and usually appear as the second element. And Ancient Greek is extremely exuberant in particles that must be placed as the second element of a clause and can't stand as the first element.

This is an interesting suggestion, which hadn't occurred to me before. On reflection, it seems quite plausible that the odd grammatical myth forbidding initial however was originally a transfer from the treatment of autem and some other words in Latin, beaten into Will Strunk in his youth.

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Private meanings

Bizarro takes on a species of semantic error:

From my 1980 booklet Mistakes (p. 14):

Corresponding to the semantic errors above are PRIVATE MEANINGS … I have one friend who thought for a long time that Indo- meant 'southern, lower' (from its occurrence in Indochina) and another who believed that ritzy meant 'in poor taste' (as a result of her parents' deprecating tone in using the word).

My two examples illustrate two routes to private meanings: a misapprehension about the meanings contributed by parts of a word (Indochina); and a misapprehension of a word's meaning based on its use in context (ritzy). Just yesterday I posted on my blog about another instance of the first sort: spendthrift used, in a Cathy cartoon, for 'penurious person', no doubt because of a connection of the element thrift to the adjective thrifty.

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Ask Language Log: "field goal"

Annie Wagner asks:

I have a timely question. Which came first–the phrase "field goal" as used in basketball or as used in football? My usual sources are not being helpful.

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However: retraction of a defense of Strunk

Back in 2005, Mark Liberman and I (here and here and here) both took a look at certain issues relating to placement of clause adjuncts, and we touched on William Strunk's prejudice against sentence-initial however as an adjunct, as set forth in The Elements of Style. I suggested in "Fossilized prejudices about however" that Strunk had some basis for his prejudices, since novels of the time really did seem to prefer however in second position. This was a modest defense of Strunk, whose horrid little book I regard as almost entirely mistaken in the grammatical advice it purveys. Michael Stillwell has now discovered that my defense evidence was flagrantly mistaken.

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The German Language 1, Sally 0

Once upon a time, specifically back in 1962, I spoke German fluently enough to fool all native speakers some of the time and some native speakers all of the time into thinking I was a native speaker of German. That was then. This is now, and now I couldn't convince a two-year-old German toddler that I'm not just another weird, inarticulate, incompetent foreigner. I haven't been back to Germany often since the year I spent here in Freiburg way back when, and in all this time I've been busily losing the brain cells that contained my knowledge of the language. Now I'm at the end of a month spent at a research institute at the university, and because all my linguist acquaintances speak English so well, I haven't had much luck in reactivating any latent German skills — it'd be cruel to make people puzzle over my inept German when we could instead be chattering away productively in English.

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I have saw

A little while back, it was had did, and other uses of did, rather than done, as the PSP (past participle) of the verb DO. Non-standard PSP did is a (partial) regularization of the system of verb forms in English; all regular verbs, and a great many irregular ones as well, have identical PST (past) and PSP: jump ~ jumpedjumped, buy ~ bought ~ bought. PSP did improves the fully irregular pattern do ~ did ~ done to the somewhat more regular do ~ did ~ did. As I pointed out in the earlier posting, the most common non-standard partial regularization for DO is using done for the PST: do ~ done ~ done (similarly, see ~ seen ~ seen).

What I didn't say in that posting — because I've mentioned it several times in the past — is that the regularization to PSP did is in fact in the usual direction of verb regularization, which gives non-standard I have took / went / rode / wrote etc. John Cowan has now reminded me of this, and also reminds me that H. L. Mencken, in The American Language, refers to this regularization as a feature of "The Common Speech" — widespread, non-regional, non-standard American English. It now seems that the geographical and social distribution is more complex than that, that PSP did has some association with Southern varieties and with AAVE (as several correspondents have suggested to me). And that I have saw is out there too.

Looking into these things brought me to Richard Meade Bache's Vulgarisms and Other Errors of Speech (which I've seen on-line in the 2nd edition (1869)), with its note on I have saw.

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Unchurning science churnalism

Ben Goldacre at, in his miniblog, links to a blog post at Doctors from the Future, "Times misreports maggot therapy research", with the comment:

I want a site that links media coverage and blogs to the academic article / automated plus crowdsourced, wld change everything.

Me too.

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