Archive for April, 2009

A Limitation on Names in the PRC

Anyone who looked at the front page of the New York Times today probably noticed the article by Sharon LaFraniere entitled "Your Name's Not on Our List?  Change It, Beijing Officials Say." Featured in the article is a young woman named Ma Cheng, whose surname Ma is written with the character for "horse" and whose given name Cheng is written with a very rare character composed of three horses lined up closely in a row:  馬馬馬 (the latter character is exceedingly difficult to write in a small square exactly the same size as the space allotted to one horse [and to all other characters, even if they have as many as 64 strokes]!).  The article states that this character pronounced Cheng is not to be found among the 32,252 characters in the Chinese government's computer systems, so Ms. Ma has been told peremptorily that she must change her name.

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Prejudices, egocentrism, impositions, and intransigence

In the world of linguistic peevery, there are several levels of hell. On the lowest reside expressions that incite some people to rage, the symptoms of which are frothing at the mouth, extreme physical revulsion, and an inclination towards violence (up to homicide) against the perpetrator. You hope that all of this is merely verbally hyperbolic, but it's nevertheless disturbing. (We've posted on Language Log a number of times about word rage.)

One circle up are the cringe expressions, which merely make some people shrink back, but not puke or attack with weaponry. (Again, we've posted a number of times on Language Log about cringe words.)

And then we have the circle of prejudices, expressions that some people merely disapprove of.

(Some of these dislikes are widely shared, disseminating from one person to another or through advice givers of one sort or another. Others are more idiosyncratic, apparently arising from individual experiences with the expressions in question, which gave rise to unpleasant associations — a topic I hope to blog about eventually. There are people, for example, who dislike frankly as a sentence adverbial.)

A little while back, Jan Freeman posted on her Boston Globe column "The Word" on prejudice against foreground as a verb.

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The teleology of whom

Over at Ask Metafilter, someone recently asked for an explanation of David Foster Wallace's characteristically frequent use of which N constructions, as in

Now I'm writing this sort of squatting with my bottom braced up against the hangar's west wall, which wall is white-painted cinder blocks, like a budget motel's wall, and also oddly clammy.

One of the MeFites began a response this way:

You know how "whom" exists to clarify that you aren't asking "who?", but telling?

The charitable thing is to take this absurd question as a joke, parodying the ambiguity-avoidance arguments for stylistic choices that Arnold Zwicky has often dissected. Unfortunately, it's not very funny. But it has the virtue of reminding me of a genuinely funny parody of whom-related usage advice, from James Thurber's Ladies' and Gentlemen's Guide to Modern English Usage. In case some of you haven't seen this small masterpiece, I reproduce it below.

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English Tattoos All the Rage in China

We are painfully aware of the fondness of NBA players for sporting Chinese tattoos that they don't understand. The misuse of Chinese characters in Western culture has long been diligently documented at Hanzi Smatter.

But it wasn't until I read an article in my local newspaper and Benjamin Zimmer called a similar article in the Telegraph to my attention that I realized a similar phenomenon has been occurring in China recently.

Incidentally, Hellenophiles will be delighted to see in the Telegraph article that at least one person has some elegant Greek lettering on his / her derriere.

According to the Telegraph, Zhang Aiping, a tattooist at Tattoo 108 in Shanghai, said: "Around 30 per cent to 40 per cent of our customers are choosing tattoos in English letters now. This has happened really suddenly, since the beginning of this year."

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Green things or get extincted

Two things from recent days: first, I posted on my blog about, among other things, the innovated verb bigger 'make bigger, enlarge', noting that zero-verbing of adjectives is not very frequent in English; and then, yesterday's New York Times Magazine was an issue about "The Green Mind", which reminded me of the now-ubiquitous use of green (roughly, 'environmentally responsible') as a verb meaning 'make green(er) [in this sense]': another zero-verbed adjective.

I was then reminded of a discussion a while back on the American Dialect Society mailing list on the innovated verb extinct 'make extinct, drive to extinction'.

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The reality could not be further from the truth

This morning, email from Yu Guo drew my attention to yet another example where the combination of a negation, a modal, and a scalar predicate leaves writers and readers in a state of confusion. In this case, however, the result is not a phrase that means the opposite of what its author intended, but rather an expression that seems to have no coherent literal meaning at all.

The phrase is "The reality could not be further from the truth", and this intrinsically nonsensical expression is used, surprisingly often, as if it meant something like "the reality is otherwise". We find examples even in published work by competent writers. Thus on p. 10 of Toby Miller, Television: Critical Concepts in Media and Cultural Studies, we read

In the best of all worlds for neoclassical theory, the government might act as an objective guarantor of contracts, and would intervene only when absolutely necessary to correct extreme imperfection in markets, or to provide the essential public goods like national defense. It seems that the reality could not be further from the truth.

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Sarah gobsmacked, nearly crashes the car

My appearance on NPR nearly caused a car crash. Sarah Ferrell wrote in the NPR comments area: "I was in the car and rushed in to comment–I am gobsmacked." I can just see that Volvo careening around the corners on the way back from the supermarket and screeching to a halt in the driveway, and Sarah leaping out of it screaming, running to the house and dashing up the stairs to the computer…

But a willingness to drive dangerously in one's lust to get home and write comments doesn't always go along with a willingness to think or write carefully. Her comment goes on:

Pullam's explanation of why "none" should NOT be followed by the singular "is," but rather "are" or "were" is ABSURD!! One of the basic tenets of English grammar is to achieve subject verb agreement--just because his favorite authors used "were" and "are," does NOT mean that WE should. I for ONE have no problemm with the concept that verbs should match their subjects!! English is a very complex, fluid language and I assert that this rule STILL STANDS. It has been the cutsom for some time now.

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Writing advice

All this discussion of Strunk and White (among other places, here and here) reminds me that in the Spring 2009 issue of The American Scholar, William Zinsser reflected on his book On Writing Well (first published in 1976, now in its 6th edition, with sales approaching 1.5 million copies, a figure dwarfed by S&W but still astonishing to Zinsser).

There's a direct connection to S&W and, for me, an indirect connection.

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Cobbinators and vallifractors

Craig Russell, one of the commenters on my post "What sounds like a clearing of the throat", asked a question that deserves an answer:

Even though the consonantal *sound* in the middle is singular, is it really a sin (or even a mistake) to use the word "consonant" to refer to certain letters of the alphabet?

Craig went on to suggest that by implying people should use the term "consonant" for a sound type rather than a letter type I was just being a prescriptive pedant of the type I normally condemn.

Well, the short answer to his question is yes, it's a real mistake. But I'll give a longer one.

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Shanghainese vs. Mandarin

The following poster is circulating among students from Shanghai, both inside and outside of China:

For a complete translation, go to the next page.

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More on syllables

Not surprisingly, my post on /men tuh list/ yesterday was not well received. I tossed it out, stirred the pot, and it bubbled up. Many readers, some angry, have written me to tell me how utterly wrong my syllabification was. I fully agree.  But that wasn’t what I wanted to communicate. I don’t really care how Mentalist syllabifies the name of that TV program. My point, obviously made too obscurely, or too subtly, or too ineptly, had nothing to do with the phonological property of a word. It had to do with children learning how to read. Language Log readers set me straight, but also they were unanimous in saying that the phonologically correct division of mentalist produces two words totally unrelated to the meaning of that word, men and list. I could be very wrong (not unusual for me), but when children find these two unrelated words in mentalist as they try to split the word into phonologically accurate syllables, the result seems counterproductive to the process of learning to read. As heretical as this may sound, I suspect that sometimes a correct analysis of something can actually hinder rather than help children learn new tasks.

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What sounds like a clearing of the throat

I'm reading (I don't know why) an article in The New Yorker about golf course renovation in the Outer Hebrides, and I come to this (April 20, 2009, p.38):

On South Uist, linksland is called machair, a Gaelic word. It's pronounced "mocker," more or less, but with the two central consonants represented by what sounds like a clearing of the throat.

That's one consonant in the middle there, of course — evidently a voiceless velar fricative. And I dream, Language Loggers, of a day when anyone who completed high school will be able to write "It's pronounced [ˈmaxər]," and all New Yorker readers will understand. A day when analytical knowledge about human languages is not still mired in the state it was in long before the American Civil War. Is learning the largely quite intuitive symbols of the International Phonetic Association's universal alphabet, and thus gaining an ability to represent pronunciations accurately for all the languages of the earth, so far beyond the intellectual reach of a teenager who already knows the Roman alphabet? Do we have to live forever with "what sounds like a clearing of the throat" and similar impressionistic descriptions? (It's a hopelessly wrong impression, incidentally: clearing the throat is a bronchial and laryngeal matter, not a light frication produced between the back of the tongue and the soft palate.)

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Elliptical sin

About a month ago, Brad DeLong took Ross Douthat to task for his unpleasant description of a failed undergraduate hook-up ("Fear of Reese Witherspoon Look-Alikes on the Pill", 3/16/2009). DeLong made his case mainly by quoting Douthat's own words, from p. 184 of his 2005 book Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class. The quoted passage was picked up and reproduced in more than a dozen other blog posts, for example in Wonkette ("Misogynist Neck-Beard Ross Douthat Shares his Sexy Stories", 3/18/2009).

It's hard to disagree with the rather negative tone of the comments on Mr. Douthat's attitude towards the young woman "who resembled a chunkier Reese Witherspoon", and who "bored and somewhat disgusted" him by "drunkenly masticating my neck and cheeks" and "pushing her tongue into my mouth". Perhaps the most temperate of these remarks was "it's clear he is no gentleman".

But I'm here to defend Douthat from the many commenters who also accused him of being an incompetent writer — e.g. Froborr at who suggested that "once again we note the curious association between being a horrible person and being a bad writer".

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