Archive for April, 2009

Honoring the elements

Even is getting into the S&W 50th anniversary act (Sadie, "Stylistas", 4/16/2009):

The Elements of Style, Strunk and White's timeless usage and composition handbook, is 50 today. Please place a preposition after the relative pronoun in its honor.

I applaud this attempt to re-purpose words that have otherwise lost their meaning in popular culture, but frankly, the results are a stylistic disappointment.

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It's always dangerous to speculate that some phenomenon hasn't been described in the literature, as I did with the I-T-PST recently. Someone will come along with a bibliographic reference, usually to something you've read.

So it is in this case. Russell Lee-Goldman wrote this morning with this quote from Fillmore (1988:51):

Many grammatical constructions can be shown to have this same context-characterizing preperty. As a simple example, the syntactic idiom which has the introducers IT'S TIME, IT'S ABOUT TIME, and IT'S HIGH TIME, generally requires that the following indicative clause be past tense in form.

(The reference is to Charles Fillmore's "The mechanisms of "Construction Grammar"", Berkeley Linguistics Society 14.35-55.)

Lee-Goldman remarks that this is probably one of the many cases where Fillmore and his associates mention a phenomenon in passing, without picking up on it later. I should have thought of Chuck Fillmore.

[Added 19 April: Fillmore's mention was of I-T-PST, but Geoff's original report was about I-T-PRS, and I still don't have a reference in the scholarly literature for that one.]

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It's about time

Now it's time to clarify some of the details of what I'll call the I-T-PST construction (as in "It's time that I left"), introduced by Geoff Pullum here. In fact, there are three relevant constructions, differing in which inflectional form they have in the subordinate clause:

I-T-PST: It's time (that) he had some success.
I-T-PRS: It's time (that) he has some success.
I-T-BSE: It's time (that) he have some success.

(The labeling here anticipates some results of the discussion to follow.)

People differ as which of these constructions they have and, when they have several, whether the constructions differ semantically or pragmatically, and whether there are contexts in which one construction is preferred to another. There are probably subtle differences between the that and zero variants and between the contracted and uncontracted variants, and there's certainly more to be said about the modifier about, as in the title of this posting (there's also it's high time …). But here I'm going to talk about less subtle matters.

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Men tuh list

A new cop show called Mentalist has been one of the big hits of this season’s television fare. It features Simon Baker as a former fortune teller turned honest by renouncing his former fraudulent practice and now working with an unlikely bunch of California Bureau of Investigation officers to catch the bad guys. What caught my eye, however, was the title of the show, which is broken into what the writers believe to be the syllables of Mentalist:

/’men – tuh—list/    noun

Okay, the second syllable is actually /t / plus schwa, but I don’t have a keyboard with a schwa, so you understand what I mean by the /-uh/.

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Five ways of being new

Geoff Pullum posted a little while ago on it's time (that) + a PST clause ("It's time (that) we left"), which he noted as an English construction that was new to him. [Correction 4/19/09: Geoff was actually commenting on the similar construction with a PRS clause.] One commenter, Stephen Jones, labeled this as an instance of the Recency Illusion, on the grounds that such expressions had been around for some time. But Geoff wasn't claiming that the construction was new in the language, only that it was (as far as he could tell) new to him; he replied:

My phrase "brand new fact about English syntax that I had no inkling of when I woke up this morning" meant "brand new in my experience". The post is explicitly about the personal experience of discovering things one didn't know before, not about the very difficult business of dating the start of an incipient change.

I read him as also suggesting (though not actually saying) that it hadn't been previously recognized by scholars (if it had, it would probably have come to his notice; but of course even distinguished scholars of English grammar miss things on occasion).

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S&W on the radio

(Mark Liberman and I posted on this topic at nearly the same time. Consider this to be an amplification of Mark's posting.)

Yesterday was Strunk & White day — the actual 50th anniversary of the publication of The Elements Of Style — which National Public Radio celebrated twice. Morning Edition had "Strunk And White's Venerable Writing Guide Is 50", in which Renee Montagne interviewed Barbara Wallraff, and then in the afternoon Talk of the Nation had "A Half-Century Of 'Stupid Grammar Advice'", in which our very own Geoff Pullum fielded questions from host Neal Conan and from listeners who called or e-mailed in. You can listen to both programs here. And read some related material, like this remarkable item:

This telegram [of August 20, 1959] from California Book Co. (supplier to the Berkeley college bookstore) is an indicator of the book's early success. Placing an order for more copies, it ends with the words "Whole campus gone wild."

Plus photographs of Strunk and White.

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Pullum on Talk of the Nation

Geoff Pullum was on the NPR radio program Talk of the Nation yesterday, in a segment entitled "A Half-Century of Stupid Grammar Advice".

For those who want more, lists of past LL posts mentioning Strunk can be found here and here.

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Teens and texting (again)

Another Zits cartoon on this topic:

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Candidates must be a student

I recently learned about a praiseworthy initiative, the Google Lime Scholarship for Students with Disabilities, whose eligibility requirements are expressed (in part) as follows:

Candidates must be:

  • A student entering their junior or senior year of undergraduate study […]
  • […]
  • A person with a disability (defined as someone who has, or considers themselves to have, a long-term, or recurring, issue […]) […]

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Once more on less

Rhymes With Orange plays with less/fewer:

This is a familiar topic here on Language Log. Some previous postings:

ML, 11/15/06: If it was good enough for King Alfred the Great… (link)

AZ, 8/10/08: 10 English majors or less (link)

AZ, 8/31/08: More on less (link)

AZ, 9/4/08: Still more on less (link)

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How much would that be in fathoms per hogshead?

Yesterday, an editor at Fox News seems to have been cruising on automatic pilot when adding metric equivalents to an AP story on crash test results ("Small Cars Get Poor Marks in Collision Tests", 4/14/2009):

The tests involved head-on crashes between the fortwo and a 2009 Mercedes C Class, the Fit and a 2009 Honda Accord and the Yaris and the 2009 Toyota Camry. The tests were conducted at 40 miles per hour (17 kilometers per liter), representing a severe crash.

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Who's been in Australia?

Try making sense of this sentence, out of today's free Metro newspaper in the UK:

Having been in Australia for 17 years, a foreign national wishing to work in Australia must be of good character.

You must only be of good character after you have completed your 17 years of residence, but for the first 17 years you get a pass? Or does it mean even after you've been a foreigner in Australia for 17 years you still have to show you're of good character? Does this make any sense even in the crazy world of immigration law? Give up?

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Festival of Languages

Via the Language Typology mailing list:

From: Inna Kaysina <>
Date: Wed, Apr 15, 2009 at 11:26 AM
Subject: Festival of Languages

The IAAS (Institut für Allgemeine und Angewandte Sprachwissenschaft der Universität Bremen) in cooperation with different other institutions is organising a FESTIVAL OF LANGUAGES which will be happening from 17 September to 7 October 2009 at various sites in the entire city-state of Bremen (Germany).

The main objectives of the FESTIVAL are to familiarise the general public with the idea of the linguistic diversity of our world and to emphasise the central role language plays in all aspects of human life.

The programme of the FESTIVAL consists of two major components, namely an academic part with a series of national and international conferences and a part which includes over 100 popular events and addresses the general public.

For more information, please, visit our website

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