Archive for October, 2009

A "semantic" difference

From a NYT story (Shaila Dewan, "Pollster's Censure Jolts News Organizations", October 3) on the polling company Strategic Vision, which has been reprimanded by a professional society of pollsters for failing to disclose "essential facts" about its methods:

As for the accusation that the company's claim to be based in Atlanta was misleading, Mr. Johnson [David E. Johnson, the founder and chief executive of Strategic Vision] acknowledged that the main Strategic Vision office was in Blairsville, Ga., 115 miles away, but said the difference was "semantic".

Yeah, yeah, blame it on the words. "Semantic" here means 'only semantic, not substantive' and locates the problem not in differences of matters of fact but in differences in the meanings of linguistic expressions. The claim is that some people use certain expressions (like based in Atlanta) one way, while other people use these expressions somewhat differently, so that any dispute about the state of things is "just / merely / only" a dispute about word meanings.

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Variation and second language transcription

I was trying to keep up with the news on Iran's "secret new nuclear enrichment facility" a couple of weeks ago, as I'm sure many of our readers were also doing. In reading one update in the NYT, I came upon this quotation:

[Vice President Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran's nuclear program, said in an interview with ISNA news agency on Sunday, said] that Iran had taken defensive measures against possible military threats against the facility into consideration. "We are always faced with threats," he said. "We don't think that those threats would necessarily take place but we have prepared ourselves for the worse."

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Fact-checking George F. Will, one more time

George F. Will, "An Olympic Ego Trip", WaPo, 10/6/2009:

In the Niagara of words spoken and written about the Obamas' trip to Copenhagen, too few have been devoted to the words they spoke there. Their separate speeches to the International Olympic Committee were so dreadful, and in such a characteristic way, that they might be symptomatic of something that has serious implications for American governance.

Both Obamas gave heartfelt speeches about . . . themselves. Although the working of the committee's mind is murky, it could reasonably have rejected Chicago's bid for the 2016 Games on aesthetic grounds — unless narcissism has suddenly become an Olympic sport.

In the 41 sentences of her remarks, Michelle Obama used some form of the personal pronouns "I" or "me" 44 times. Her husband was, comparatively, a shrinking violet, using those pronouns only 26 times in 48 sentences. Still, 70 times in 89 sentences conveyed the message that somehow their fascinating selves were what made, or should have made, Chicago's case compelling.

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Safire on Sunday

That's what I called my own piece on William Safire, which runs today on "Fresh Air" and is online here. I cover some of the same ground that Ben does in his pitch-perfect Times magazine piece, mentioning his generosity to his critics and his willingness to acknowledge his mistakes. A very different tenor from his weekday columns — I think his Sunday readers got the best of him. I also pay tribute to his disinclination to engage in the rhetorical high jinks of other popular grammarians:

He was no snob. You can't imagine him comparing a poet who confused between and among with someone picking his nose at a party, the way John Simon once did. And he wasn't susceptible to the grammatical vapors that affect writers like Lynne Truss — the people who like to describe lapses of grammar as setting their teeth on edge, making their skin crawl, or leaving them gasping for breath, as if they'd spent all their lives up till now closeted with Elizabeth and Darcy in the morning room at Pemberley. 

Above all, there was his ability to convey his pleasure in ruminating on language: "It wasn't just that he loved words — who doesn't? But he really, really liked them."

Other things on Safire worth looking at include Jan Freeman's piece in the Boston Globe (if I had read this before I wrote mine I probably wouldn't have bothered) and Todd Gitlin's in the New Republic, as well as a Newsweek reminiscence by Aaron Britt, who served as Safire's assistant for a while. (The New Republic also posted part of a 1987 review of one of Safire's language books by Louis Menand.) For a more unforgiving take, see David Bromwich's "Wars Made Out Of Words." Feel free to add links to other pieces in the comments.

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The United States as a subject

The widely-watched PBS documentary The Civil War included this commentary by Shelby Foote:

Before the war, it was said "the United States are." Grammatically, it was spoken that way and thought of as a collection of independent states. And after the war, it was always "the United States is," as we say today without being self-conscious at all. And that sums up what the war accomplished. It made us an "is."

Innumerable history lectures have featured similar rhetoric, but as a biologist friend of mine once said about a popular but flamboyantly inventive documentary in his area of specialization, "this is, well, poetically true". In real life, that is, it's false. The civil war may have "made us an 'is'", but it doesn't seem to have brought about any abrupt change in the grammar of "the United States".

I write "doesn't seem to" because no one seems ever to have checked, at least not very thoroughly. So after a few years of intending to get to it, I've done a bit of poking around. And I've discovered two things. First, we need a change in how historical text archives are managed. (At least, I do.) And second, number-agreement — on whatever time scale it happened — is not at all, in my opinion, the most interesting historical change in the grammatical treatment of "the United States".

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Further thoughts on the Language Maven

In this Sunday's "On Language" column in the New York Times Magazine (already available online here), I take a look back at the legacy of the column's founder, William Safire. As I write there, "Safire's acute awareness of the limits of his own expertise was often lost on fans and critics alike." Indeed, the "language maven" title that he liked to use was intended to be self-deprecating. (Some might say "self-depreciating," but let's not open that can of worms.)

Part of that self-awareness was a willingness to acknowledge his errors in judgment. In that spirit, I follow up the "On Language" tribute with my latest Word Routes column on the Visual Thesaurus, taking a look at one of Safire's early miscues: declaring, in 1979, that could care less was a "vogue phrase" on its way to extinction. Thirty years later, the verdict is: not so much. Fortunately, Safire didn't often confuse his language mavenry with futurology.

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Invented facts from the Vicar of St. Bene't's, part 2

The Reverend Angela Tilby ended her scandalously unresearched little "Thought for the Day" talk of 1 October 2009 (part of which I have already discussed in this recent post) by suggesting that during the British political party conference season (i.e., right about now) we should try taking a blue pencil and editing out all the adjectives from the political speeches so that we could "see what is really being said about people, places, things, deeds and actions". She holds to the ancient nonsense about how nouns tell us the people, places, and things while verbs give us the deeds and actions but adjectives give us nothing but qualifications and hot air and spin — they contribute no content. And she is clearly implying that she (cynically) expects political speeches to be full of adjectives. But as before, she hasn't done any checking at all, she has just spouted her conjectures straight into the microphone. So let's try a second breakfast experiment, shall we?

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BBC signals crash blossom threat

Josh Fruhlinger sends along today's entry in the "crash blossom" sweepstakes, a headline from the BBC News website:

SNP signals debate legal threat

Crash blossoms (as we've discussed here and here) are infelicitously worded headlines that cause confusion due to a garden-path effect. Here we begin with SNP, which British readers at least will recognize as the abbreviation for the Scottish National Party. Then comes signals, which can be a plural noun or a singular present verb; following a noun, most readers would expect it to work as a verb. The third word, debate, can be a singular noun or a plural verb, and if you've parsed the first two words as Noun + Verb, then you'll be inclined to take debate as the direct object of the verb. So far, so good. But then comes legal threat. What to do now?

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Invented facts from the Vicar of St. Bene't's, part 1

"Thought for the Day" is a four-minute reflective sermon delivered each morning on BBC Radio 4 at about ten to eight by some representative of one of the country's many religious faiths. On the first day of October the speaker was the Reverend Angela Tilby, Vicar of St Bene't's in Cambridge, England. (Bene't is an archaic shortened form of Benedict.) Developing a familiar theme from prescriptivist literature, she preached against adjectives. It was perhaps the most pathetic little piece of inspirational prattle I have ever heard from the BBC (read the whole misbegotten text here).

"Adjectives advertise," claims the Rev. Tilby, and "brighten up the prose of officialdom", but she was always "encouraged to be a bit suspicious" of them when she was a girl: "Rules of syntax kept them firmly in their place" (as if the rules of syntax left everything else to do what it wanted!). This was good, she seems to think, because "For all their flamboyance they don't really tell you much." Adjectives "float free of concrete reality" like balloons, and are guilty of "not delivering anything except, perhaps, hot air." Which aptly describes her babbling thus far. But now, inflated with overconfidence, she risks some factual statements. And steps from the insubstantial froth of metaphor into the stodgy bullshit of unchecked empirical claims about language use.

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God speed the plow

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A deeply flawed character

When phrases are coordinated, readers infer that the the juxtaposed elements are in some way parallel. Careless coordination produces unwanted inferences. Today's Daily Beast serves up an object lesson:

Stunned colleagues Friday described veteran CBS News producer Joe Halderman—who was arrested outside the network’s West 57th Street offices Thursday in the alleged scheme to blackmail David Letterman—as a rogue and a womanizer, a lover of literature, a “smart frat boy,” a swashbuckling journalist, and an occasional barroom brawler who distinguished himself in dangerous war zones and occasionally displayed a certain reckless streak.

Fucking literature lovers.

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Implicit restriction of temporal quantification

Today's Zits:

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Ask Language Log: recency check

Rick Rubenstein wrote:

Is the usage "I can't speak to the Iranian situation" as opposed to "I can't speak [about/regarding] the Iranian situation" relatively recent (or at least recently accelerating), as I perceive it to be? I feel as though I first noticed it about a decade ago, and found it very strange. I'm now almost accustomed to it.

There's no question that "speak to (a topic)" is quite a bit more recent than "speak of (a topic)", and somewhat more recent than "speak about (a topic)". But Rick is probably not old enough to have noticed the difference.

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