Archive for October, 2009

The gas of vehement assertion

In the latest New Yorker (October 12), Tad Friend takes us into the chilling wonderworld of entertainment-business reporting, in a Letter from California, "Call Me: Why Hollywood fears Nikki Finke" (Finke runs the website Deadline Hollywood Daily). Apparently real life in the entertainment business in Hollywood goes beyond the parodies in movies and television shows.

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Language and food

Some of my Language Log colleagues are too modest for their own good, neglecting to mention here relevant things they've published or blogged on in other places.

A little while ago, I learned that Dan Jurafsky has a cool Language of Food blog (here), an outgrowth of a Stanford Introductory Seminar he's taught a few times. I found out about his blog only because, knowing his interest in the topic, I sent him a link to a recent posting on my own blog about nouns denoting food or drink being usable, metonymically, to refer to events ("After pizza, we watched a movie"), and he told me about his LoF blog.

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A half-sentence?

Scott Timberg, "Maurice Sendak rewrote the rules with 'Wild Things' " (Los Angeles Times, October 11):

In "Wild Things," a single sentence can take pages to unfold, its meaning changing slightly with each image. And this book with numerous wordless pages ends with a half-sentence and no accompanying image. Sendak works similarly to the directors of the French New Wave, who used jump cuts and other techniques to dislocate their editing. (link)

Apparently this half-sentence has a dislocating effect. But what is this dislocating half-sentence? This, (1):

and it was still hot.

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That said

Back in June of 2002, one of William Safire's On Language columns began this way:

'The South Carolina primary between Mr. Bush and Mr. McCain in 2000," wrote Eleanor Randolph, the New York Times editorialist, referring to Representative Lindsey Graham's current campaign for the Senate, "left Republicans in his state bitter and divided. That said, both President Bush and Senator McCain have already campaigned for his election to the Senate."

In olden times, those two sentences would have been written as one, with the first clause subordinated: "Although the South Carolina primary . . . left Republicans . . . divided, both Bush and McCain . . . campaigned for his election. . . . " Or they could have remained as two sentences, with the second beginning however instead of with the voguism that said.

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How many ethnic groups?

Counting languages isn't an easy task; in particular, it's hard to say whether two varieties are related languages or dialects of a single language. Making these decisions on linguistic grounds is difficult enough, but political, cultural, and social considerations often intervene, to compound the difficulty. The latest Ethnologue (16th ed., 2009) advertises itself as "an encyclopedic reference work cataloging all of the world's 6,909 known living languages", but the introduction lays out the problems in identifying and counting languages and acknowledges that the methods used in reaching this very exact number are not the only possible ones and that these methods involve judgment calls at several points.

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The genitive of lifeless things

I've heard many interesting papers here at AACL 2009. Here's one of them: Bridget Jankowski, from the University of Toronto, "Grammatical and register variation and change: A multi-corpora perspective on the English genitive".  She was kind enough to send me a copy of her slides, from which I've taken (most of) the graphs below.

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Time and the river

The latest xkcd is a brilliant way to introduce the topic of child language acquisition and cognitive development:

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University of Alberta's motto: "whatever"

The University of Alberta, hosting the AACL 2009 conference where I'm spending a couple of days, has recently moved up in the Times Higher Education World University Ranking, from 133rd in 2006, 97th in 2007, and 74th 2008, to 59th in 2009.  (I believe that it comes out 4th in Canada, after McGill, Toronto, and UBC.) It's hard to make that kind of move — the responsible faculty and administrators should be congratulated.

And when I saw it for the first time yesterday, I thought that the motto on the University's seal expressed just the right attitude: quaecumque vera, or after translation from the Latin, "whatever". Well, I suppose literally it means "whatever [things are] true", but the "true" part is redundant, right? I mean, when you say "OK, whatever", isn't what you mean "OK, whatever is true, I'm fine with it"?

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Hoc est enim corpus linguistics

I'm at the AACL 2009 meeting in Edmonton — that's the meeting of the American Association for Corpus Linguistics, which is neither American nor an Association, as John Newman explained to me.  I'll report later on some of what I see and hear.

So far, the most notable thing has been the outside temperature of 20 F or so, experienced on a morning walk around campus — the conference itself hasn't started yet — but the program looks interesting.

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"Annoying word" poll results: Whatever!

Proving once again that peevology is the most popular form of metalinguistic discourse in the U.S., the media yesterday was all over a poll from the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, purporting to reveal the words and phrases that Americans find most annoying. As was widely reported, whatever won with 47%, followed by you know (25%), it is what it is (11%), anyway (7%), and at the end of the day (2%). As was not so widely reported, those were the only options that respondents to the poll were given, so it's not like half of Americans are really tearing their hair out about whatever.

For more on the poll and its media reception, see my latest Word Routes column on the Visual Thesaurus. And check out recent Language Log posts on whatever (here) and at the end of the day (here, here, and here).

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Exploring the cliche-by-president matrix

A couple of days ago, in "Fact-checking George F. Will, one more time", I noted that Will complained about the

…  egregious cliches sprinkled around by the tin-eared employees in the White House speechwriting shop. The president told the Olympic committee that: "At this defining moment," a moment "when the fate of each nation is inextricably linked to the fate of all nations" in "this ever-shrinking world," he aspires to "forge new partnerships with the nations and the peoples of the world."

While admitting that "I don't have a program ready to hand for measuring cliche-density, much less cliche egregiosity ", I nevertheless offered the opinion that "in speeches prepared for ceremonial occasions like this one, the cliche density of presidential rhetoric has been fairly constant for decades if not centuries".

I still don't have a metric for cliche-density, but we can learn something by exploring the site for certain fixed phrases.

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A dangler in The Economist

My view on the classic prescriptive bugaboo known as dangling modifiers or dangling participles (henceforth, danglers) is, I think, a bit unusual. I don't regard danglers as grammatical mistakes; that is, I think the syntax of English does not block them. Yet I do think they constitute mistakes, in a broader sense, so in a way I am with the prescriptivists on this one. A dangler is an error in a domain that I have compared (for want of a better way to put it) to courtesy or manners. I regard danglers as minor offenses against communicational etiquette, but not against grammar. The argument against danglers being grammar errors is simple: they are too common in even careful published writing, and come too fluently to the keyboards of even excellent writers, and are accepted without remark by too many educated readers. If you ask what evidence there is that, for example, verbs come before objects in English, the answer is that it is overwhelmingly clear from just about all of everybody's usage just about all the time, and from the blank "What's gone wrong with you?" reactions if you try putting the object before the verb. The evidence on danglers goes entirely the other way. Here, for example, is an example in the carefully edited prose of The Economist (October 3rd, 2009, p. 79):

A report to the British House of Commons this year highlighted the case of an elderly British citizen called Derek Bond, who was arrested, at gunpoint, in February 2003 while on holiday in South Africa. After being held for three weeks, it turned out that the American extradition request was based on a fraudster who had stolen Mr Bond's identity.

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When did the Supreme Court make us an 'is'?

In my recent post "The United States as a subject", I discussed the often-repeated story that the American Civil War turned "the United States are" into "the United States is", and observed that "no one seems ever to have checked, at least not very thoroughly". It's a good thing that I said "seems", since Minor Myers has gently pointed me to his article "Supreme Court Usage and the Making of an 'Is'", 11 Green Bag 2d 457, August 2008, in which he checks this very point, very carefully, in opinions of the United States Supreme Court from 1790 to 1919.

And the answer? In the case of U.S. Supreme Court opinions, we apparently became an 'is' somewhat gradually, between 1840 and 1910. And the effect of the Civil War (or at least its immediate aftermath) was apparently to retard the change, not to accelerate it.

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