Archive for May, 2010


Martin Gardner has died at the age of 95.

His interest in language included unusual skill in manipulating the use-mention distinction, as in this spectacular example:

One that's less impressive, but a little easier to process:

Q: What 11-letter word do all Yale graduates spell incorrectly?

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Almost Lost in Translation

In our numerous posts on Chinglish here at Language Log, we have shown how unintentional errors of translation from Chinese result in ludicrous or impenetrable English.  In this post, I shall demonstrate how translations from English into Chinese can (and often do) intentionally differ from the original.

On March 15, 2010, Nicholas Wade published a long article entitled "A Host of Mummies, a Forest of Secrets" in the Science section of The New York Times.  Mr. Wade interviewed me extensively during the course of preparing the article, so I am intimately familiar with the issues he raised in it and am, in fact, quoted several times by him.

Shortly thereafter, one of China’s most widely read weeklies, Southern Metropolis Weekly (Nándū zhōukān 南都周刊), published a Chinese "translation" of the NYT article entitled "Invisible Cemetery" (Kànbùjiàn de mùdì 看不见的墓地).  It is now available online here.

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Oddly enough, McArdle did not err

David Russinoff suggests to me that I should think again about the following two sentences, which featured in this recent post of mine on an apparent writing error by Megan McArdle:

  1. Oddly enough, the New York Times health blog has an entry on performance reviews, which suggests that they're probably a bad idea.
  2. Oddly enough, the New York Times health blog has an entry on performance reviews that suggests that they're probably a bad idea.

Russinoff draws attention to the initial adjunct oddly enough, which I had been ignoring. He remarks:

You say that the second is correct and the first is not; I say you're wrong on both counts. Don't you see? It's the "oddly enough" that does you in. The intention of the first sentence is first to report that a health blog has an entry on performance reviews, a circumstance that the reporter thinks odd. The content of the entry is then included as additional information. It's true that the sentence is ambiguous, i.e., it can be interpreted as intended or otherwise (only bacause we can't agree that a relative pronoun should have an antecedent), but that doesn't make it ungrammatical. The second sentence is unambigous but incorrect insofar as it can't possibly be interpreted as intended, unless you really want to insist that it is not merely the appearance of an entry on this subject on a health blog that is considered odd, but rather the position taken in that entry.

And you know, oddly enough, having ruminated on the data again, I've decided he is right.

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A message from the Queen

Via David Mitchell's soap box, an excellent explanation, with inhabitable graphics, of why "could care less" seems illogical to those who haven't accepted it as an idiom:

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Facebook Absolutely Must Die

The official name of Facebook in China, as it appears on the Chinese version of its Website, is simply "Facebook."  It is unofficially, but commonly, referred to as Liǎnshū 臉書 (lit., "face book").

Lately, however, Fēisǐbùkě 非死不可 has become a popular way of transcribing the name "Facebook."

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The fire next time

The latest PhD comic:

As John McIntyre explains, "You've got to be carefully taught", citing Stan Carey's "Mind your peeves and cures".

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A recent xkcd, under the heading "The Tell-Tale Beat":

(As usual, click on the image for a larger version.)

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Hangzhou Mayor's Aphrodisiac Shop

Hangzhou seems to be blessed with an abundance of droll Chinglish signs, as we've seen recently on Language Log.

However, if you find yourself in Hangzhou and you keep your eyes open, you'll discover that there are also some unintentionally humorous Chinese signs, such as this one:

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Terwilliger bunts one

Earlier I posted a video of UK football commentator (and former Hull striker) Dean Windass recapping some play in a Premier League match between Everton and Portsmouth. It had been posted on Today's Big Thing under the headline "Soccer Reporter Invents New Kind of English," and I referred to Windass as "wildly disfluent." But a few of our British commenters said that beyond some comic stumbling over the name of presenter Jeff Stelling, Windass was speaking in a manner that would be perfectly comprehensible to a listener familiar with the Hull dialect of Yorkshire and with the relevant footballer lingo. Ian Preston provided a very helpful transcript, the highlight of which is the colorful expression, "He sends Jagielka for a pie" — glossed by Ian as "he jinks so as to send [Everton player Phil Jagielka] the wrong way."

I noted in the comments that "for me, 'He sends Jagielka for a pie' has all the magic and mystery that 'Terwilliger bunts one' had for Annie Dillard's mother." I was referring to a passage in Dillard's memoir An American Childhood, which is worth reproducing here as a reminder of the opacity of sports-talk to non-initiates on both sides of the pond.

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One comma too many

Jonathan Falk did a double-take, and quite rightly, when he saw this opening sentence in a recent article by Megan McArdle in the Business section of The Atlantic:

Oddly enough, the New York Times health blog has an item on performance reviews, which suggests that they're probably a bad idea.

Unh? They're saying that the mere fact of the New York Times health blog having an item on performance reviews makes performance reviews ipso facto a bad idea? Could they possibly think that?

Finally the penny dropped, and he realized he was supposed to take the relative clause as restrictive. Under the intended sense, what suggests performance reviews are a bad idea is not the fact of the New York Times health blog having published the item; it is the content of the item.

What has gone wrong with McArdle's writing here? Could the initial misunderstanding be some kind of vindication of the purported that/which rule so beloved of the Fowler brothers?

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At the cutting edge of broadcasting

A video from Today's Big Thing, under the headline, "Soccer Reporter Invents New Kind of English":

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Her violent abuse of prepositions

Robin Lane Fox is the gardening correspondent for the Financial Times, as well as a lecturer in Ancient History at Exeter College, Oxford. A few days ago, he reviewed an exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden, Emily Dickinson's Garden: The Poetry of Flowers. He liked the exhibition (calling it "unmissable" and "an essential destination for gardeners who are caught in downtown Manhattan as the weather starts to warm"), but he makes it clear that he doesn't like what he calls Emily Dickinson's "cryptic little poems, which have become exalted as triumphs of US female writing" ("Poetic Nature", FT 5/15/2010).

In fact he seems to dislike her Americanness as much as her femaleness, but it soon develops that he finds just about everything about her annoying, including the fact that her poems don't conform to the norms that he expects of his pupils' essays.

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Fanboys: the techie put-down and the bogus acro-mnemonic

In my latest Word Routes column on the Visual Thesaurus, I take a look at Harry McCracken's excellent historical analysis of the word fanboy, from something of an in-joke among underground cartoonists in the '70s to an all-purpose techie put-down in the '00s. I throw into the mix the acronymic mnemonic FANBOYS, standing for for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so, a list that is supposed to constitute a class of "coordinating conjunctions" that pattern alike. Geoff Pullum has already noted the bogosity of this list here, and my column relies on further dismantling of the FANBOYS myth by Brett Reynolds of English, Jack and Karl Hagen of Polysyllabic. My final question:

What I'm wondering is, could there have been any cross-pollination between the grammatical mnemonic and the fanboys of comics, science fiction, and the like? If teachers of English composition were keeping FANBOY(S) alive as an acronym in the '50s and '60s, perhaps that had an indirect effect on those underground cartoonists who started using it in the '70s. That's assuming they were paying attention during their language-arts classes and not just reading comic books!

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