Archive for March, 2009

We have been clear that we will

Politicians who have to assert some proposition P often take advantage of the opportunity to flap their mouths a bit more by asserting not just that P but also that they have consistently maintained that P in the past. It functions as a kind of gratuitous self-affirmation regarding consistency over time, and a pre-emptive defense to any possible charge of flip-flopping. The habit has spawned what appears to me to be an entirely new construction. The spokesman for UK prime minister Gordon Brown said yesterday (in a defensive response to something the governor of the Bank of England had said about Britain being unable to afford another round of debt-fueled stimulus to the economy): "We have been clear that we will do whatever it takes to see us through the global downturn." It seems to me that this is almost entirely a feature of minister-speak, and to a lesser extent corporate-speak ("Certainly Microsoft is a well-respected and successful company and we have been clear that we are fully prepared to do a deal with them", said a Yahoo! release recently). Lots of people think (ever since Orwell's "Politics and the English language") they are highly sensitive to new developments of government and business jargon. Yet I don't believe that "We have been clear that P" has been discussed in language forums before (I could be wrong). Despite all the grumbling about newfangled clichés (often not so newfangled), when a new syntactic construction limited to organizational jargon comes along, apparently people don't spot it.

Comments (15)

Wordy, not classy, and lazy

A reader of the Baltimore Sun wrote recently to slam the paper for its headlines. As quoted by John McIntyre on his blog:

Your headlines repeatedly use forms of the verb "to be".

For example, a headline on the homepage of the website right now reads, "Two men are slain in shooting at city carryout".

As I'm sure your copy editors understand, this is a newspaper no-no because:

1) It slows down the reader;

2) It takes up precious headline space;

3) It's just plain not classy; and most importantly

4) It undermines the credibility of the reporter and, ultimately, the newspaper.

If your editors are having difficulty writing long-enough headlines, they find a solution that avoids the lazy decision of using a "to be" filler.

There's just so much here, not all of it touched on by McIntyre and the commenters on this posting.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

Passive voice: two out of three isn't good enough

David Alpert ("Excessive passive voice, linguistic detachment observed in Culpeper road fatality", 3/23/2009) complains about Martin Weil's lede in the Washington Post:

Four people ranging in age from 19 to 21 were killed early yesterday in Culpeper County, Va., when their car collided with a vehicle that was going the wrong way, Virginia State Police said.

Police said a Chevy Tahoe sport-utility vehicle was driving on the wrong side of a two-lane stretch of Route 3 when it struck the Toyota Corolla about 2:50 a.m.

Alpert's suggestion:

Just based on the facts in the Post article, we can say, "A 29 year old man was driving his Chevy Tahoe SUV on the wrong side of Route 3 early yesterday when he struck and killed four people in a Toyota Corolla." Why can't the printing press at the Washington Post say that?

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (33)

Had did

From a recent circuit court opinion on a case with defendants Ike Brown and the Noxubee County [Mississippi] Democratic Executive Committee:

… Mable Jamison, an independent notary, testified that Brown phoned her in an effort to dissuade her from collecting absentee ballots from voters that “his people,” such as Windham, intended to collect: “[h]e pretty much said that his people had did the initial leg work and I shouldn’t be picking up his ballots.”

(Hat tip to Victor Steinbok. An earlier version of this posting was posted on ADS-L.)

Two aspects to Jamison's had did: had plus PSP (past participle), possibly conveying simple past rather than past perfect; and did (rather than done) as PSP of the verb DO. The first of these is a well-known feature of AAVE, but the second hasn't been so much discussed, though it wasn't entirely new to me. The most common (non-standard) leveling of PSP and PST (past) forms for DO is in favor of done ("I done it yesterday") — OED2 lists it as colloquial, dialectal, and U.S. — but here the leveling is in the other direction, in favor of did, and it's not in the OED.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

"Proximate cause" in the legal news

The fine line separating what a jury should know and learn from what it should not know and learn became either finer or blurrier, depending on your perspective, in a recent New Jersey case (here) where a lawyer was empanelled on the jury. I don’t know how common it is for a lawyer to be selected for jury duty, but I’d guess it must be pretty rare. I know that as an expert witness I’ve never made it past the voir dire stage in the many times I’ve been summoned for jury duty. I’ve always been “struck” by the lawyers when they learn that I’ve been an expert witness in scores of trials. They don’t seem to want to let anyone who has professional experience analyzing evidence be a trier of the fact in their cases. And that may be the right way to do it, for all I know. In this case, however, the opposing lawyers actually picked another lawyer to be a juror.

The personal injury case was Barber (a customer) v. Shoprite (a grocery store chain), in which Joyce Barber slipped on the floor and was severely injured. During the usual voir dire of potential jurors, the opposing lawyers decided to include attorney and state senator Robert Martin as one of the six jurors to decide the case. At the end of the trial, this jury awarded the plaintiff $876,000 in damages resulting from her fall in a Shoprite store.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

A new preposition is born

People seem to imagine the prepositions, like other so-called "function words", belong to a fixed and fairly small list that is handed down to us unchanging over the centuries: at, by, for, from, in, into, of, off, on, to, under, with, within, without, a few others, and that's it for our lifetime. But it's not like that. Not only is the list of prepositions longer than people think (probably over 200 items in all), it is growing. New prepositions pop up from time to time, some borrowed from other languages and others derived from various sources within English. Brett Reynolds and Rodney Huddleston have discovered a new one. Brett heard somebody say (about a water contamination in Walkerton, Ontario): "How is the water, post Walkerton?" And he suspected this meant post had to be a preposition, so he mailed Huddleston about it. Huddleston had already collected an example of the same kind: Post the wash-out from the credit crunch, most assets globally were overpriced (The Weekend Australian, 26-27 April 2008, page 39). And then just today he got a piece of mail including the sentence Post the entitlement offer, the only remaining bank facility is with ABN AMRO Bank. That's three. Get used to it, folks: we have a new preposition amongst us. Post is already in most dictionaries as a prefix. Expect the dictionaries to add "prep" to the entry in… oh, about fifty years or so would be my guess (dictionaries don't exactly work like greased lightning when it comes down to new usages like this: the new words they add every year or two are mostly new nouns).

Comments (76)

The Language of the Lake

Following up on last year's discussion of the local slang of Nonantum, outside Boston, Max Heiman sent in a link to a feature article by Erica Noonan, posted last month on ("Speaking the language of "the Lake" in Newton's Nonantum", 2/26/2009).

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (8)

Grammar protects us

Searching for something else, I happened across this quotation about language, attributed to the German (and later American) philosopher Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy (1888-1973):

Grammar and logic free language from being at the mercy of the tone of voice. Grammar protects us against misunderstanding the sound of an uttered name; logic protects us against what we say having double meaning.

I stared at these remarks with some astonishment. Have you heard of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest managed by the Department of English at San José State University? The one where people try to construct an opening sentence for the worst conceivable novel? The quotation above is like the winner of a bad writing contest where the task is to construct an opening sentence for the worst conceivable book about language and meaning.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (87)

Compound semantics

Comments (12)


In the beginning, there were lolcats; now, there are Яolcats!

Translation provided: "Is most powerful laptop in all of Tbilisi, can it be?"
Comment: "(The cat, he is quoting famous Russian comedian)"

TIME Magazine's Claire Suddath commented on Яolcats last week, claiming that it is funny (she's right) but that lolcats are not (she's wrong). Suddaths's (tongue-in-cheek?) complaint about lolcats is most relevant here on Language Log:

Lolcats is stupid. There, I said it. People who attribute grammatically incorrect statements to unsuspecting housecats are the same people who speak to children in baby voices and pat pregnant women's bellies without asking permission. Besides, even if your cat could speak, and it happened to ask for a cheeseburger, why would it spell "cheez" with a "Z?" Why? It's one thing to pretend that your cat can talk, but it's another thing to pretend that it has a debilitating speech impediment.

If Suddath pronounces "cheese" in any way that sounds different from what "cheez" is meant to represent, then I hate to tell her, but she's the one with the speech impediment.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (39)

How fast do people talk in court?

This morning, let's take a break from the analysis of headlines, and look at some phonetics research. Recently, Jiahong Yuan and I have begun working with a woman who aims to revise and improve tests that are used to certify court reporters. (For some background about the techniques and devices that the court reporters must learn to use, see here or here.)  The (preliminary) results of our (pilot) experiment may be interesting to some of you; I think that they also point to a broader opportunity for linguistic research of other kinds.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (12)

Oh no, it's ngmoco:)

Apple previewed iPhone OS 3.0 earlier this week, and they conveniently posted a video of the event on their website. I was grateful to be able to watch the video, mostly because I wanted to hear how the folks at Apple pronounce the name of the iPhone-centric game designing firm ngmoco:).

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (28)

'Psycho' in No. 10?

Some sub-editor at the  Telegraph has recently held a sort of master class in prepositional phrase attachment. It starts with the headline: "Gordon Brown is frustrated by 'Psycho' in No 10". The sub-head then leads the reader down a parenthetical garden path with  virtuosic bravado (though purists may object to the use of missing punctuation):

While not exactly a film buff, Gordon Brown was touched when Barack Obama gave him a set of 25 classic American movies – including Psycho, starring Anthony Perkins on his recent visit to Washington.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (34)