Archive for July, 2010

Most examples

My note this morning on "Most" stirred up some discussion:

Geoff Nunberg: I think 'most' licenses a default generalization, relative to a bunch of pragmatic factors, …
MattF: I think 'most' has a normative or qualitative sense in addition to a quantitative sense.
John Cowan: For me too, "most" has a defeasible implicature of "much more than a majority".

Those rear ends are pretty well covered — "default", "in addition to", "defeasible" — but Nicholas Waller got numerical:

I would be with John Irving – 51% of a population isn't "most" but around 60-75% would be. (90% or more would be "almost all"; well, until it hit "all" at 100%; and 75-90% would be "a very large majority")

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From this week's Studio 360, in an interesting interview with John Irving, this interesting evidence about the meaning of most:

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Kurt Andersen:    I- I read somewhere that you said that now m- most of your audience, you believe, reads you not in English. They are not only overseas but people not in the United Kingdom or Australia. It's- it's people reading in-
John Irving: I wouldn't say- I wouldn't say "most" but I'd say "more than half". Sure, more than half, definitely. I mean I- I sell more books in Germany than I do in the U.S. Uh I s- sell almost as many uh books in- in the Netherlands as I do in the- in the U.S.

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Ghost fishing lobster

An especially poetical crash blossom, which conjures up a possible surrealist horror movie: "Ghost fishing lobster traps target of study", CBC News, 7/30/2010.

(I mean, of course, the movie about the lobster fishing for ghosts, not the one about the ghost fishing for lobster.)

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Universal Grammar haters

It's bizarre. Suddenly every piece of linguistic research is spun as a challenge to "universal grammar".  The most recent example involves Ewa Dabrowka's interesting work on the linguistic correlates of large educational differences — Quentin Cooper did a segment on BBC 4, a couple of days ago, about how this challenges the whole idea of  an innate human propensity to learn and use language. (Dr. Dabrowska appears to be somewhat complicit in this spin, but that's another story.)

It's hard for me to explain how silly I think this argument is. It's like showing that there are hematologic effects of athletic training, and arguing that this calls into question the whole idea that blood physiology is an evolved system.

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Lou Gehrig's crash blossom

Arijit Guha sent along this remarkable crash blossom from the CNN website (spotted by his wife Heather):

Lou Gehrig's victim: Kill me for my organs
The lead paragraph explains:

Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) — A Georgia man suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease says he wants to die by having his organs harvested rather than wait for his degenerative nerve ailment to kill him.

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Irreversibly loved

Yesterday, on our way to school, my four-year-old commented, "When you love somebody, it can't be unloved. That's 'irreversible change'." I'm not sure which I appreciate more, the sweet sentiment (don't we all wish this were 100% true?), the generalization of a concept he learned on Sid the Science Kid, or the example of unloved in this unconventional usage.

Why do I find this so compelling? On reflection, perhaps it's because instead of the adjectival un- prefix (unhappy, unclear), which is about states, what we have here seems from context to be the verbal un-, which is about reversing actions (unlock, untie). Love as an action, something that effects a change of state, not just a state.

Or maybe I'm just in a sappy mood. :-)

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Scientific reasoning across the multiverse

With a hat tip to Bruce Webster, more cartoons for the weekend, this time from Jonathan Rosenberg's Scenes from a Multiverse:

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And in Spanish, we dance …

Dance translations for the culturally inexperienced:

Is this a loose translation?

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The Toronto Star is a serial distorter

A couple of days ago, the Toronto Star completely screwed up its explanation of the IELTS English proficiency test, by presenting as "an example of Part 1 of the writing test" some badly-designed material from a training booklet not even published by the test designers, asking questions of a kind that are apparently never found on the test.

Arnold Zwicky reminds me that the same newspaper did essentially the same thing a little more than two years ago, as Arnold documented in "Do you speak Canadian?", 6/4/2008.

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More evidence that peeving is popular

There's a weblog associated with Jerry Coyne's book Why Evolution is True. A couple of days ago, Jerry (or whoever writes on the blog under the name "whyevolutionistrue") posted a couple of familiar eggcorns, described as "two solecisms [that] have recently appeared on this site", and invited readers to "Feel free to contribute those mistakes that most irk you, making sure that—for our mutual edification—you give the correct usage as well."

The result, so far, is an outpouring of 251 comments. This is towards the upper end of the distribution for that weblog — the previous half-dozen posts posts are "Gnu atheism" (31 comments), "New York Times to readers: of course you have free will" (174 comments), "Frogmouths!" (14 comments), 'The free will experiment" (94 comments), "Vacation reading from Nature" (31 comments), "Interview with Hitchens" (12 comments), "Space pix" (13 comments) — confirming again that people love to share and discuss their linguistic crotchets and irks.

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One of the puzzles of the whole "Plastic Bertrand" drama for Americans is that we don't like plastic. In a famous scene from The Graduate (1967), "plastics" is a one-word symbol for the emptiness of mainstream success:

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IELTS: The test that sets the standard?

Here's a case that  I'm hoping will turn out to be an epic example of journalistic misunderstanding.  Because the alternative is that the International English Language Testing System is a really, really bad way to measure English language proficiency.  And that would be a shame, because IELTS, a product of University of Cambridge ESOL Examinations and the British Council, is pretty much the standard English proficiency test outside the U.S.

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Language tests for immigrants in Canada

According to Nicholas Keung, "All immigrants face mandatory language test", The Star, 7/20/2010:

Born and raised in New York, Dodi Robbins graduated from Harvard University and has been practising law for 13 years.

Her first language is English. Yet like all other skilled immigrants applying to settle in Canada, the American corporate lawyer must now take a language test to prove her English is good enough to settle here.

“I was outraged, insulted and floored,” said Robbins, who obtained her law degree at Benjamin N. Cardozo Law School in New York. A mother of two, she has been working in Toronto on a work permit for four years as compliance and regulations counsel for an international financial services company.

“I almost fell off the chair. I’ve been practising law here for years and I have to prove my proficiency in English?”

Last month Ottawa made its language proficiency test mandatory for all skilled immigrant applicants, including native English and French speakers. The so-called “ministerial instructions” stipulate officials are not to process applications without language test results, starting June 26.

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