Archive for March, 2012

Ask Language Log: So feminine?

Brett Reynolds writes:

Over on English Language & Usage, the following question appeared:

Many Japanese textbooks of English mention the "feminine 'so'": the use of "so" for "very" is more typical of a feminine speaker. I don't think this is true in the US (I learned English living in Southern California and have now lived in the US for 10 years), but is it at all true in the UK? In other parts of the world?

I don't have access to a male/female tagged corpus. Would you be interested in following this up?

I don't have time this morning for a very elaborate investigation, but a small (one cup of coffee) Breakfast Experiment™ suggests that the use of so as an intensifier is indeed (statistically, not categorically) sex-associated.

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If they give me more is OK

On a billboard advertising an investment firm is a photo of a young-middle-aged guy described by Caroline Sams (on Twitter, 6 Nov 2012) as a "smug George Clooney look-alike" she'd like to punch. The slogan below his handsome twinkly-eyed unpunched face says:

I ask my team for 100%. If they give me more is OK too.

Another Twitter user asked if that second sentence isn't missing some commas or some extra words or something. But I think not. I think we have an incipient new construction here. I think this is an if-phrase used as subject of a clause in a way that isn't quite the same as anything I've seen before (I could be wrong). The semantic interpretation of if they give me more here has to be something like "for them to give me more".

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Expelled for a tweeted syntactic observation

Indiana's News Center reports that a student, Austin Carroll, has been expelled from Garrett High School for posting this tweet on his own Twitter account:

Fuck is one of those fucking words you can fucking put anywhere in a fucking sentence and it still fucking makes sense.

The school says he posted from a school computer; he says he did it from home and it's none of their business.

What saddens me is that Austin was making a linguistic observation, and it's basically almost true. This may be a budding linguist, and he's been kicked out of his high school for a syntactic observation.

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Invest wisely, beat the grammar snobs

As I read the Daily Mail article referred to in my previous post, my eye drifted down into the comments, and I saw that a commenter in London signing himself as JustSomeBloke had said this:

Time and time again, it has been shown that the school's league tables are routinely fiddled in order to benefit this or that school. At the same time, our so-called education system — ruined by lefty, progressive teaching methods — can barely teach our children to write English properly. If your a younger reader, you probably didn't even notice the two deliberate mistakes in this comment.

Well, I am not a younger reader; I have 40 years of involvement in academic work on the English language. But I have to confess to you that it took a couple of readings before I spotted both errors. The second was immediately noticeable, but I had to go back and look again to identify the first, which I had casually read past.

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High school language exams in students' native languages

High school principals in the UK are discovering that immigrants can be a very useful resource for them. Schools are rated according to the number of passes their students obtain in the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). There are 619,000 immigrants from Poland now living in the country, and Polish is available as a GCSE examination subject.

Polish is now the 5th most popular language to take at GCSE level. And 95% of those taking it gain one of the top 3 of the 9 grades (a much higher percentage than for languages like French or Spanish). Moreover, 97% of those who take Polish score worse on the English Language exam. The inference to draw is clear, and very probably true: schools are pushing Polish native speakers to take the exam, because it pushes up the school's GCSE rating.

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Parrot phrasing

A beautiful eggcorn spotted in the wild: parrot phrasing for "paraphrasing". I love it. I think I'm going to adapt it for making reference to particularly ignorant paraphrase that displays a birdbrained level of literacy.

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No comment at The Daily Mail

The Daily Mail has this terse and unpunctuated notice below one of its stories today:

Sorry we are unable to accept comments for legal reasons.

Why this departure from the open comments policy that is the right of every online reader of anything in the 21st century?

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Non-restrictive 'that'

In the most recent Between Failures, an nice example of a non-restrictive relative clause (or a supplementary relative clause, as Geoff Pullum would prefer) introduced by that rather than which:

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The life cycle of physicists

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Second cup of coffee needed

Starbucks has opened its first retail outlet for healthy fruit and vegetable juices, in Bellevue, WA. And . . .

Oh dear. Perhaps the signwriter should have ordered a venti instead of a tall. Because that's not how you spell vegetables.

Language Log will try to avert its gaze while ordering.

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A non-mathematical theory of communication

According to Claude Shannon, "A Mathematical Theory of Communication", Bell System Technical Journal 1948:

The fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point. Frequently the messages have meaning; that is they refer  to or are correlated according to some system with certain physical or conceptual entities. These semantic  aspects of communication are irrelevant to the engineering problem. The significant aspect is that the actual  message is one selected from a set of possible messages.

Rather than abstracting away from the fact that communicated messages may have meaning, this recent xkcd strip explores the idea that the "message selected at another point" may have little or no impact on the message that is received:

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Serialism and anti-serialism

On my personal blog, an inventory of postings (most from Language Log) on the use vs. avoidance of the Oxford, or serial, comma, here.

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Rick Santorum and Puerto Rican language laws

In "Santorum on English as the primary language of Puerto Rico", 3/14/2012, I reprinted some of the coverage of Senator Rick Santorum's opinions about the role of English proficiency in Puerto Rico's eligibility for statehood. The lede of the Reuters story:

Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum told Puerto Ricans on Wednesday they would have to make English their primary language if they want to pursue U.S. statehood, a statement at odds with the U.S. Constitution.

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