Archive for February, 2011

Increasing despair in Yarragon

This letter to the editor of the Australian newspaper The Age, from Brian Cole of Yarragon, a small town in Victoria, ran under the title "What the…":

WHILE I recognise the evolutionary nature of the English language, I listen with increasing despair to the inappropriate use of the word "what".

"What" has an interrogatory sense, that is, it is a word looking for an answer. I have learned to cope with sports commentators using expressions such as "they moved the ball better than what the other team did". But in the second paragraph of The Sunday Age's editorial: "and that their culture was the opposite of what Mr Costello suggested"? No interrogative anywhere to be seen.

There are many ways to improve this phrase. It would be acceptable to simply replace "what" with "that" but nicer usage to write "and that their culture was the opposite of that suggested by Mr Costello".

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No word for dyslexia in languages with good spelling systems

The opinion section of The Guardian is blessed with the name "Comment Is Free", and sometimes what they publish is worth every penny of that. Long-time Language Log readers will recall that we have often said here before that whenever someone says that the X people have no word for Y in their language you should put your hand on your wallet — to make sure it's still there. The people who witter on about who has a word for what hardly ever even know the languages they are talking about, and in the vast majority of cases (check out some of the cases on this list) their claim is false. At this page you can read an editorial about spelling reform saying that "phonetic languages like Italian and, apparently, Finnish not only have no problem with dyslexia, they don't even have a word for it." I find it almost unbelievable that people imagine they can continue to get away with printing flamingly obvious drivel about language in major newspapers. They always assume that since there are no linguistic scientists and no cross-linguistic dictionaries or encyclopedias, no one will check on them. The multiple genetically-linked effects of dyslexia don't go away if you alter the orthography. And to set the record straight: The Italian word for dyslexia is dislessia. Finnish has three words for it, two native and one borrowed: dysleksia is the borrowed one, and the others are lukivaikeus (literally "reading-difficulty"), lukihäiriö (literally "reading-writing-disturbance": lu is the first syllable of the stem meaning "read", ki is the first syllable of the stem meaning "write", and they have been collapsed to coin this word).

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The Tolkien estate over-reaches

The latest trademark atrocity is due to the Tolkien estate, whose lawyers have written to Zazzle demanding that it cease to advertise and sell buttons reading "While you were reading Tolkien, I was watching Evangelion", which, they claim, infringes on the trademark owned by the estate. They are almost certainly wrong. The rights granted trademark holders are very limited and have to do with identification of products and services. The Tolkien trademark means that you and I cannot market Tolkien branded items – it most emphatically does not mean that we cannot use the word "Tolkien" in other contexts, such as discussing J. R. Tolkien himself, his work, or Tolkien-branded items. Trademark is not intended to, and does not, give the holder a general power to control the use of words.

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The curious specificity of speechwriters

Clark Whelton  ("What Happens in Vagueness Stays in Vagueness: The decline and fall of American English, and stuff", The City Journal, Winter 2011) has an unusually precise idea about when American English went to the dogs:

[It] began in the 1980s, that distant decade when Edward I. Koch was mayor of New York and I was writing his speeches. The mayor’s speechwriting staff was small, and I welcomed the chance to hire an intern. Applications arrived from NYU, Columbia, Pace, and the senior colleges of the City University of New York. I interviewed four or five candidates and was happily surprised. The students were articulate and well informed on civic affairs. Their writing samples were excellent. The young woman whom I selected was easy to train and a pleasure to work with. Everything went so well that I hired interns at every opportunity.

Then came 1985.

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Howls of dismay

Many changes in store for the New York Times Magazine, including the elimination of the "On Language" column — announced in a graceful valedictory column by Ben Zimmer here.

Howls of dismay, from me and many others.

Many expressions of concern for Ben, who (after all) makes a living from work like this (while writing for free for Language Log and ADS-L and the like). No doubt he'll find other venues and continue to flourish. May it be so.

But, to my mind this is a great public loss. Thoughtful and well-informed writing about language will of course continue to be available in many places, especially on the net (contending everywhere with masses of graceless, ignorant material), but the New York Times has an especially prominent role in informing and enlightening the public, and Ben's voice on this platform will be very much missed.

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Flirtatious Evacuation

Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, and countless other social networking services and video / music sharing sites are blocked and banned in China (presumably because they would otherwise contaminate the minds of China's citizens and lead to social unrest, as has apparently happened in the Middle East).  But all such banned and blocked services and sites have their heavily policed and controlled Chinese knockoffs, so life goes on, after a fashion.

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Claire Cain Miller, "Google Tweaks Algorithm to Push Down Low-Quality Sites", NYT 2/25/2011:

Google said Thursday that it had made a major change to its algorithm in an effort to improve the rankings of high-quality Web sites in its search results — and to reduce the visibility of low-quality sites. While the company did not say so explicitly, the change appears to be directed in part at so-called content farms like eHow and Answerbag, which generate articles based on popular search queries so they will rise to the top of the rankings and attract clicks.

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Much less/Or even

Dick Margulis writes:

An NPR reporter this morning, talking about people in Libya: "…have never spoken to a Western reporter, much less seen one."

I hear this frequently (although I don't recall reading it). It is a reversal of what was intended: "have never seen a Western reporter, much less spoken to one."

This occurs with both "much less" and "let alone."

I wouldn't begin to know how to do a corpus search to detect the frequency with which people reverse the arguments of the expression in speech. It occurs to me, though, that the production error seems to be akin to the misnegation phenomenon that you've posted about more than once.

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A coincidental series of unavoidable setbacks

Yesterday the British government failed to get a chartered Boeing 757 out of Gatwick Airport to go to Libya to pick up stranded British citizens. Naturally the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, was asked how come with all the resources of the government working in concert this once proud nation still proved so disorganized it couldn't get a jet off the ground in ten hours during a first-class emergency when other nations were flying in and out of Tripoli all day. And the ever-unflappable and ever-fluent Mr. Hague made an announcement that appealed to me enormously: "We need to know," he said, "whether today was a coincidental series of unavoidable setbacks, or a systemic flaw."

What utterly delightful phrasing. I plan to borrow this and use it often. No more apologies for total screw-ups from me. I have a much better way to refer to them now.

[Comments on this post are closed because of a coincidental series of unavoidable setbacks.]

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…with just a hint of Naive Bayes in the nose

Coco Krumme, "Velvety Chocolate With a Silky Ruby Finish. Pair With Shellfish.", Slate 2/23/2011:

Using descriptions of 3,000 bottles, ranging from \$5 to \$200 in price from an online aggregator of reviews, I first derived a weight for every word, based on the frequency with which it appeared on cheap versus expensive bottles. I then looked at the combination of words used for each bottle, and calculated the probability that the wine would fall into a given price range. The result was, essentially, a Bayesian classifier for wine. In the same way that a spam filter considers the combination of words in an e-mail to predict the legitimacy of the message, the classifier estimates the price of a bottle using its descriptors.

The analysis revealed, first off, that "cheap" and "expensive" words are used differently. Cheap words are more likely to be recycled, while words correlated with expensive wines tend to be in the tail of the distribution. That is, reviewers are more likely to create new vocabulary for top-end wines. The classifier also showed that it's possible to guess the price range of a wine based on the words in the review.

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"Toot chuckle lil' kidnap Snooki"

Tominda Atkins, "Words we hate. Discuss.", 2/22/2011:

We all have them, and we can't explain why. Words that just sound like nails on a chalkboard to our unique little snowflake ears. Here are mine. What are yours?


There are probably more, but when I hear or read those words, I feel more than just a strong dislike; it's revulsion. The last one makes sense, I guess, but I have no explanation for the rest. These words actually make me physically uncomfortable, or angry, or both, and I can't help it. Just typing them up there was difficult for me. Why is that? I have no idea, but I hope you don't use them against me. If you do, I will put you in the same camp reserved for those who think it's a cute idea to tickle me.

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The BBC enlightens us on passives

"The BBC is a remarkable place", says Nigel Paine, the Head of People Development at the BBC, in his prefatory note to The BBC News Styleguide (2003); "Much of the accumulated knowledge and expertise locked in people’s heads stays that way: occasionally we share, and the result is a bit of a revelation." Paine is praising a little book which he says "represents some of John Allen's extraordinary wisdom surrounding the use of English in written and spoken communications." If you know style handbooks, it will not surprise you that Mr. Allen's extraordinary wisdom includes his views on the time-honored topic of the passive construction and why it is evil. And if you read Language Log (see this list of posts about the passive, and my recent attempt to lay out what the facts are in "The passive in English"), it will not surprise you to find that he is just as clueless about it as so many critics and usage pundits have been before him. He repeats tired old nonsense, he makes false claims about prominence and agency, and (as Language Log reader Jeremy Wheeler pointed out to me) he cannot tell actives from passives anyway.

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Spelling champion

Gadafi, GadaffiGaddafiGaddaffiGadhafi, GadhaffiGhadafi, Ghadaffi, Ghaddafi, GhaddaffiGhadhafi, Ghadhaffi, Kadafi, Kadaffi, Kaddafi,   KadhafiKhadafi, Khaddafi, Khaddaffi, Khadhafi, Khadhaffi, Qadafi, Qadaffi, Qaddafi, Qaddaffi, Qadhafi, Qadhaffi, Qadhdhafi, Qathafi, … I give up.

The last hold-out for the Elizabethan approach to spelling. One of the few reasons that he'll be missed.

Update — see R.L.G. at the Economist's Johnson Blog for an exegesis

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