Archive for August, 2012

The science and politics of reading instruction

Just out: Mark Seidenberg, "Politics (of Reading) Makes Strange Bedfellows", Perspectives on Language and Literacy, Summer 2012. The article's opening explains the background:

In 2011, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker created the Read to Lead Task Force to develop strategies for improving literacy. Like many states, Wisconsin has a literacy problem: 62% of the eighth grade students scoring at the Basic or Below Basic levels on the 2011 NAEP; large discrepancies between scores on the NAEP and on the state’s homegrown reading assessment; and a failing public school system in the state’s largest city, Milwaukee. The task force was diverse, including Democratic and Republican state legislators, the head of the Department of Public Instruction, classroom teachers, representatives of several advocacy groups, and the governor himself. I was invited to speak at the last of their six meetings. I had serious misgivings about participating. Under the governor’s controversial leadership, collective bargaining rights for teachers and other public service employees were eliminated and massive cuts to public education enacted. As a scientist who has studied reading for many years and followed educational issues closely I decided to use my 10 minutes to speak frankly. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of my remarks.

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The "off the cuff" mystery

The other day, someone asked me about the origins of the phrase "off the cuff". I've always assumed that it had something to do with the old practice of writing informal notes on men's detachable (and disposable) cuffs. And the OED's entry agrees, glossing it as

off the cuff (as if from notes made on the shirt-cuff) orig. U.S., extempore, on the spur of the moment, unrehearsed

But as far as I know, the practice of wearing detachable (and sometimes disposable) cuffs ended by the time of the first world war or even before, while the OED's earliest citation for this idiom is from 1938:

1938 New York Panorama (Federal Writers' Project, N.Y.) vi. 157   Double talk is created by mixing plausible-sounding gibberish into ordinary conversation, the speaker keeping a straight face or dead pan and enumerating casually or off the cuff.
1941 Time (Air Exp. Ed.) 4 Aug. 1/1   Talking off the cuff to a group of civilian-defense volunteers he made them a little homily.
1944 Penguin New Writing XX. 130   In that scene, shot off the cuff in a shockingly bad light, there leapt out of the screen..something of the real human guts and dignity.
1948 Economist 3 July 17/2   Mr. Truman's off-the-cuff comment.

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Words in Mandarin: twin kle twin kle lit tle star

Randy Alexander sent me the following photograph and asked how long it would take for me to identify the text in the background:

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Historical culturomics of pronoun frequencies

Jean M. Twenge, W. Keith Campbell and Brittany Gentile, "Male and Female Pronoun Use in U.S. Books Reflects Women’s Status, 1900–2008", Sex Roles published online 8/7/2012. The abstract:

The status of women in the United States varied considerably during the 20th century, with increases 1900–1945, decreases 1946–1967, and considerable increases after 1968. We examined whether changes in written language, especially the ratio of male to female pronouns, reflected these trends in status in the full text of nearly 1.2 million U.S. books 1900–2008 from the Google Books database. Male pronouns included he, him, his, himself and female pronouns included she, her, hers, and herself. Between 1900 and 1945, 3.5 male pronouns appeared for every female pronoun, increasing to 4.5 male pronouns during the postwar era of the 1950s and early 1960s. After 1968, the ratio dropped precipitously, reaching 2 male pronouns per female pronoun by the 2000s. From 1968 to 2008, the use of male pronouns decreased as female pronouns increased. The gender pronoun ratio was significantly correlated with indicators of U.S. women’s status such as educational attainment, labor force participation, and age at first marriage as well as women’s assertiveness, a personality trait linked to status. Books used relatively more female pronouns when women’s status was high and fewer when it was low. The results suggest that cultural products such as books mirror U.S. women’s status and changing trends in gender equality over the generations.

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Grammarian's café

At London's Gatwick Airport, I had a very good cup of coffee in a café called Apostrophe. I was thinking that if there is a more perfect name for a place where a traveling grammarian can stop off for an americano, I don't know what it would be. But then I remembered why that is not true.

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Where we're at

The entry for where . . . at in Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage notes that

The use of at following where was first noted in 1859 by Bartlett, who observed in his Dictionary of Americanisms that it was "often used superfluously in the South and West, as in the question 'Where is he at?'" Such usage first drew the attention of critics at about the turn of the century, and they have routinely prescribed against it since. Although fairly common in speech, this construction rarely occurred in writing until the 1960s, when the idiomatic phrases where it's at and where one is at came into widespread use by jazz and rock musicians, hippies, and others […]

These phrases continue to be used today, although they have some of the passé quality of old slang. They are most likely to occur when the language and attitudes of the 1960s and early 1970s are being deliverately evoked or mimicked. Other than in these phrases, at almost never occurs after where in writing from standard sources.

But in this case, I believe that the facts are against both Mr. Garner and the editors of MWDEU.

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Did Harry Reid lie? Politifact says so.

Harry Reid has made a lot people mad, justifiably in my opinion, by saying that a Bain Capital investor told him that Romney didn't pay income tax for ten years. Reid has repeated his claim of being told this, and also said that he doesn't know whether or not to believe it.  To be sure, this is below-the-belt innuendo.  Politifact, however, has given Reid's claim its "pants on fire" rating. In Time Entertainment, James Poniewozik argues that in so doing Politfact is damaging its own reputation for probity, because "pants on fire" in the context of truth and falsity can only serve to evoke "Liar, liar, pants on fire!"  And Politifact has no way in the world of knowing whether or not Reid was lying in reporting that someone had told him something potentially damaging to Mitt Romney.  Furthermore, although in its full article Politifact reports accurately that Reid claims only to have been told the damaging story, in its list of pants-on-fire headlines, Politifact writes, next to a captioned thumbnail of Reid, "Mitt Romney did not pay taxes for 10 years," nine words in a box that accommodates an entry of twenty-five words in the box above with space to spare. Politifact seems to have forgotten to preface this with "said he has been told." Let's say this unfortunate inaccuracy was just an oversight on the part of Politifact and return to the issue of whether "pants on fire" was justified.

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The return of the "next president" flub

Introducing Paul Ryan as his running mate this morning, Mitt Romney made a gaffe that was remarkably similar to one that Barack Obama made four years ago when he introduced Joe Biden as his running mate.

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Approximate quotations

I need to apologize for causing some confusion. My recent posts on journalistic quotation practices ("Jonah Lehrer, Bob Dylan, and journalistic unquotations", 8/3/2012; "More unquotations from the New Yorker", 8/4/2012) dealt with two issues at once: journalistic carelessness and journalistic deceit. And some readers seem to have concluded that I meant to treat all carelessness as a form of deceit.

Journalists are indeed routinely careless about quotations, and that tolerance for carelessness makes it harder to regulate deceit, since accusations of journalistic deceit often come in the form of accusations about fabricating quotations. But most cases of "approximate quotations" are innocent enough, except for their role in perpetuating this culture of carelessness.

I should add that quotations can also be misleading or false without being maliciously deceitful, when the writer misunderstands things or wants to simplify a complex issue. This is especially common in writing about science and engineering, where it's difficult to separate deceit from carelessness, confusion, or the simple desire to tell a good story.

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Un Cupertino mignon

From reader JD in Montreal:

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Neo-Babylonian brick

My brother-in-law, Dan Heitkamp, bought the following object at an estate sale in Seattle:

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Gonna, gone, onna, a — on?

From Elmore Leonard, Raylan: A Novel (2012), a representation of the English immediate future marker as "on":

Rita closed the door after him and locked it, hurried over to Mister, got her face down close to his and heard him breathe. She knew it. You don’t kill this dog with one shot. Rita said to him, “Honey, don’t move. I’m on get you to the hospital.”

Rita is a young African-American woman living in Kentucky, so it would make sense for this to be a differently-spelled version of the I'ma form discussed in Shana Poplack and Sali Tagliamonte, "The grammaticization of going to in (African American) English", Language Variation and Change, 11 (2000), 315-342:

[T]he phonological reduction of [going to] is said to be “highly characteristic” of AAVE (Labov et al., 1968:250). Some authors have associated these variant forms with different meanings. Joan Fickett (personal communication, cited by Labov et al., 1968:25) suggested that the reduced form I’ma denotes immediate future, in contrast to I’m gonna, which would be more remote.

For more on other pronunciations and spellings of reduced forms of I'm going to, see "I'ma" , 7/3/2005; "I'monna", 7/3/2005; "'On' time", 8/4/2005; "I'm a?", 9/19/2009; "I'ma stay with the youngsters", 5/14/2010; "Ima", 1/11/2012; "Prime time for 'Imma'", 4/26/2010.

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Negotiating with hallucinations

Tanya Marie Luhrmann, "Beyond the Brain", Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2012, writing about a new approach to treating schizophrenia:

In Europe, the Hearing Voices network teaches people who hear distressing voices to negotiate with them. They are taught to treat the voices as if they were people–to talk with them, and make deals with them, as if the voices had the ability to act and decide on their own. This runs completely counter to the simple biomedical model of psychiatric illness, which presumes that voices are meaningless symptoms, ephemeral sequelae of lesions in the brain. Standard psychiatric practice has been to discount the voices, or to ignore them, on the grounds that doing so reminds patients that they are not real and that their commands should not be followed. One might think of the standard approach as calling a spade a spade. When voices are imagined as agents, however, they are imagined as having the ability to choose to stop talking. Members of the Hearing Voices movement report that this is what they do. In 2009, at a gathering in the Dutch city of Maastricht, person after person diagnosed with schizophrenia stood up to tell the story of learning to talk with the voices–and how the voices had then agreed to stop.

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