Archive for September, 2010

The peasants and their lords' jurisdiction(s)

David Walchak is a senior at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois. He has a proposal for a tiny change in spelling conventions that will enhance semantic clarity in certain situations. He writes:

I was trying to take notes for European History the other day and ran into a clarity issue that I had trouble resolving. I was trying to describe the legal situation of peasants in the middle ages. I wrote this sentence in my notes:

The peasants of the middle ages were under their lords' legal jurisdiction. That sentence is not quite clear. It is unclear how many lords each peasant had (one). So I rephrased: The peasants of the middle ages were under their lord's legal jurisdiction. This is more clearly wrong the previous attempt, it implies that there is only one lord for all the peasants. This conundrum led me to a grammar invention–the paired apostrophe. The paired apostrophe is used to imply singular possession of many people. Here is how rewrote the sentence: The peasants of the middle ages were under their lord's' legal jurisdiction. I think this works, though it basically functions as a replacement for the use of respective. Here's a final example: All the kids told stole their parent's' car. It could be rewritten, All the kids stole their respective parents' cars and be totally understandable. I guess I at least cause a net-gain in word economy.

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The department of redundancy department

Years ago, I once saw a sign on a psycholinguist's door saying ‘DEPARTMENT OF REDUNDANCY DEPARTMENT’, and I smiled at the joke. But today I happened to notice that the Jersey City corporate seal says ‘CITY OF JERSEY CITY’, and the city website is; I assume I am not meant to smile at that.

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Chiba City in fiction and fact

I've been telling friends that I'm in Tokyo for InterSpeech 2010, but that's wrong. In fact, I'm in Chiba City, which seems to be roughly to Tokyo what Jersey City is to New York. And I'm sorry to say that the weather changed this afternoon from sunny to overcast to rainy without ever going through the state described in the memorable opening sentence of Neuromancer, describing Chiba City:

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

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Rents instead of owns

Coby Lubliner wrote to ask:

This morning, on NPR's Morning Edition, Elizabeth Blair discussed Oliver Stone's "Wall Street" sequel and said (seemingly reading from a prepared text) that the new Gordon Gekko "rents instead of owns". What do you think of this phrasing, compared with (what I think of as) the standard "instead of owning" (or maybe "rather than owns")? Are there precedents for a finite verb as the object of a preposition?

Well, I ain't no syntactician, as Cow Cow Davenport didn't say, and my copy of CGEL is on the other side of the world, but I guess that I can discuss Elizabeth Blair's wording until a member of the Syntacticians Union shows up.

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Regrettably forced to cancel

The misnamed "split infinitive" construction, where a modifier is placed immediately before the verb of an infinitival complement, has never been ungrammatical at any stage in the history of English, and no confident writer of English prose has any problems with it at all. (As the grammarian George O. Curme pointed out in 1930, it's actually the minor writers and nervous nellies, the easily intimidated, who seem to worry about it.) Quite often, placing a modifier just after to and just before the verb is exactly the right thing to do with a modifier in an infinitival complement clause (see the discussion on this page). However, that is not the same thing as saying it is always the right thing to do. Sometimes it's an absolute disaster. My colleague Bob Ladd was preparing to fly back to Edinburgh (EDI) from Munich in Germany when his airline, easyJet, sent him the following email (bafflingly, they sent it after he was in the departure lounge):


We are really sorry to inform you that your easyJet flight, 6914 to EDI on 24/09/2010 has been cancelled. We understand that cancelling your flight will cause you inconvenience and we are very sorry when things don't run as scheduled.

We always aim to provide the best possible experience when flying with easyJet, however from time to time situations arise which are out of our control. On this occasion we've been forced to take the decision to regrettably cancel your flight.

You can see that this is by an inexperienced writer just from penultimate sentence, with its the dangling participle (who is flying?) and classic "comma-splice" run-on sentence and mispunctuated connective adjunct however. But the placement of the adverb regrettably is a much worse mistake. It is a horrible, disastrous writing choice, genuinely leading to syntactic ill-formedness. But why, exactly?

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Us Language Log writers

One of the secrets of Language Log is that because of its lack of any arrangement for revenue (aaaaggghh! how could we have forgotten something as vital as income?) its writers have to moonlight doing other jobs, just to make the rent or mortgage payments. We all have jobs that we do in the odd non-Language-Log moments of the day. Mark Liberman, in addition to being head honcho and contributing writer at Language Log, is a professor of phonetics, a computational linguists researcher, a cognitive scientist, a residential house master, the director of a consortium providing large text and speech corpora for industrial and academic use, and (since five or six jobs is hardly enough) dad to a teenager as well. He tends to blog just about every day, but right now he is en route to Japan for a conference, after which he will go on to Hong Kong to be an external examiner at a PhD defense.

I too (this is my home page) have a day job at a university, as the head of a large department of Linguistics and English Language at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland (for a long time I taught at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and thus had an American home base like the other Language Log staff, but I moved to Edinburgh in 2007).

You might be interested in the lives in some of the other Language Log personnel too.

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Saving energy and you money!

A new Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market opened up in my corner of Language Log Plaza this week, and as I walked through the aisles on the day of the grand opening, I noticed signs that read "look up for savings". This company is apparently committed to green building, so they have a bunch of skylights on the ceiling that let in the abundant natural light that we have here in San Diego. The signs pointing this out continue: "our skylights save energy and you money". Others will no doubt disagree, but that conjunction between the direct object energy and the benefactive + direct object combination you money strikes me as very unnatural. I can't think of a single constituency test that establishes something like you money as a constituent to be coordinated, but then again I've been wrong about this sort of thing before.

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Those people make no sense once so ever

"Once so ever" for whatsoever is a surprisingly common eggcorn that hasn't yet been catalogued in the Eggcorn Database. Some examples:

He has no experience once so ever.
Those people make no sense once so ever and I think I'll just stay over here at /film.
I tried to cut gluten out for several weeks that made no change once so ever.
So we all finally get on and to my amazement there is absolutely no instruction once so ever!
Love when Bush was president, he had no problems once so ever.
i doubt one person moderating is going to make any difference once so ever.
Sigourney Weaver is very good in this five minute opening scene that throws us directly into the fire without any set up once so ever.
Apparently, they agreed as I was hired rather quikly, "just as everyone else was with no experience in sales once so ever.

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The Belgian political (and linguistic) structure explained:

Do you want to know more about Belgium? from Jerome de Gerlache on Vimeo.

[Hat tip: Utsav Schurmans.]

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Meta-snowclones for gastro-geeks

The granddaddy of all snowclones has often been expressed here at Language Log Plaza as a formula with variables:

If Eskimos have N words for snow, X surely have Y words for Z.

So it's pleasing to see this iteration of the ur-snowclone, from Jeff Potter's new book, Cooking for Geeks (p. 258):

If Eskimos have N words for describing snow, the French and
Italians have
N+1 words for describing dishes involving egg yolks.

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Whorfian tourism

We've often seen how pop-Whorfian depictions of linguistic difference rely on the facile "no word for X" trope — see our long list of examples here. Frequently the trope imagines a vast cultural gap between Western modernity and various exotic Others. The latest entry comes via Ron Stack, who points us to this television commercial from the Aruba Tourism Authority (reported by MediaPost). In the commercial, Ian Wright, the British host of the adventure tourism show "Globe Trekker," learns from an Aruban fisherman that the local creole language, Papiamento, has no word for "work-related stress."

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Not precise the vomit but with aspect similar

I'm not sure whether this is a joke or a genuine example of problematic machine translation, but either way, it's funny.

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Comparative reconstruction and… bisexuality??

The department that it is my privilege to lead runs a colloquium series that begins this year on Thursday 30 September with a myth-busting talk by our own Professor John Joseph, about what he calls "the least understood book in the entire history of linguistics". I'll be there, and on the edge of my seat. Because I've never seen anyone try to link Indo-European comparative phonological reconstruction to bisexuality before.

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