Archive for December, 2012

The New Yorker finds the U.S. Constitution ungrammatical

Jeffrey Toobin, "So you think you know the second amendment?", The New Yorker 12/18/2012:

The text of the amendment is divided into two clauses and is, as a whole, ungrammatical: "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."

Coming from The New Yorker's house legal analyst, this is shocking.

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Spelling mistakes in English and miswritten characters in Chinese

In the comments to "Character amnesia revisited", Joanne Salton remarked that "It doesn't have a tremendous effect on the ability to communicate because the odd mistake doesn't matter all that much."  I started to dash off a brief reply, but my answer soon grew to such inordinate length that it seemed to merit separate posting under the above title.

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Is there an epidemic of plural abstract nouns?

Anthony Gardner, "Absurd Persons Plural", The Economist 12/12/2012:

Earlier this month I went to a lecture by the American novelist Richard Ford. Called "Why novels are smart", it was brilliant and thought-provoking. But my thoughts were also provoked by the British academic who introduced him, commending—among other things—his "prose styles".

Now, Richard Ford is without doubt a great stylist; but he only has one style. He has honed it over many years, and having brought it pretty much to perfection, he very sensibly sticks to it. So why this mysterious use of the plural?

The same question might have occurred to those listening that morning to BBC Radio 4's "Start the Week". In the course of a discussion about Germany, one panelist referred to the country's "pasts". I suppose you could argue that, since the country was divided for 40 years into East and West, it has two pasts—but that strikes me as sophistry. The sorry truth is that we are facing a new linguistic fad: the use of the plural where the singular has always been used before, and indeed would make much more sense.

Specifically, we're talking about abstract nouns. I first noticed the shift a few months ago when another speaker on Radio 4 came out with "geographies". For a while I thought it might be confined to academia; then I realised that it was creeping into the high-faluting vocabulary beloved of arts organisations. One spoke proudly of its "artistic outputs" and what the public wanted "in terms of outcomes".

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Ask Language Log: "sleep in"

Someone who heard me interviewed on the radio wrote to ask:

Do you know the derivation of "sleeping in"? I know it means sleeping late, but why do people say "sleeping in" instead of "sleeping late"?

Short answer: "sleep in", in the meaning of "sleep late(r than normal)", seems to have developed as an idiom within the past 100 years, apparently borrowed from Scots.  It's common in English for verbs in combination with intransitive prepositions — sometimes called "phrasal verbs" — to develop idiosyncratic uses and meanings, related in some metaphorical or analogical way to the meanings of the verbs and prepositions involved, but not entirely predictable from them.

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More journalists with reading disabilities

Or maybe this is about press-release writers who don't express themselves clearly. According to "Chemical in Tap Water Linked to Food Allergies", Drugwatch 12/7/2012 (emphasis added, here and throughout):

A new study in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology links high levels of dichlorophenols–chemicals used for chlorinating tap water–to a higher risk of food allergies. According to the study, people with higher levels of these chemicals in their urine have a greater risk of developing food allergies.

Out of the 2,211 people with high levels of dichlorophenols who participated in the study, 411 had food allergies and 1,016 had an environmental allergy, according to researchers.

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The Annual Review of Linguistics

Last week, the Annual Reviews' Board of Directors approved a plan to launch an Annual Review of Linguistics, with Barbara Partee and me as co-editors. According to the Annual Reviews' overview page,

Since 1932, Annual Reviews has offered comprehensive, timely collections of critical reviews written by leading scientists. Annual Reviews volumes are published each year for 41 focused disciplines within the Biomedical, Life, Physical, and Social Sciences including Economics.

Since three other new journals had been approved at an earlier meeting, Linguistics will be one of 45 fields covered by Annual Reviews.

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No word for "privacy" in Russian?

Reader and fan Will Thompson wrote to Mark Liberman, who passed his letter on to me, about a recent article by Ellen Barry in The New York Times, discussing a book by the Russian political analyst Nikolai V. Zlobin in which he explains weird/different American cultural norms to Russians.

Will notes that towards the end, the reviewer states:

He [Zlobin] devotes many pages to privacy, a word that does not exist in the Russian language[.]

And Will is suspicious of that claim.

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Gun phrases

In response to yesterday's tragedy, Nate Silver takes an interesting look at changes over recent years in the frequency of certain gun-related phrases in the news ("In Public 'Conversation' on Guns, a Rhetorical Shift", NYT 12/14/2012):

Friday's mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., has already touched off a heated political debate. Opponents of stricter regulation on gun ownership have accused their adversaries of politicizing a tragedy. Advocates of more sweeping gun control measures have argued that the Connecticut shootings are a demonstration that laxer gun laws can have dire consequences. Let me sidestep the debate to pose a different question: How often are Americans talking about public policy toward guns? And what language are they using to frame their arguments?

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Genetic effects on syntax, usage and punctuation

In yesterday's Doonesbury, Earl and Duke discuss possible angles for a PR campaign in favor of Texas secession:


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Hydrated and delicious

A food writer recently tried to find an effective euphemism for moist, in order to avoid the associated word-aversion problems (Hate Moist? You're Not Alone", Huffington Post 12/10/2012):

At HuffPost Taste, the word moist comes up a lot in our work and, we have to admit, it nauseates us. It's an occupational hazard we can't seem to avoid. We inevitably come across the word as positive descriptors for cakes and cookies every day. Sometimes, we even have to write it (like right now, which makes us feel a little dirty). […]

Because we can no longer use a word to describe a perfectly cooked cupcake that can also be interpreted to mean clammy and water-logged, we've come up with 5 great alternatives.

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Character amnesia revisited

A couple of years ago I wrote a post about the phenomenon of Chinese speakers forgetting how to write characters because of their reliance on Pinyin (i.e., romanization) inputting schemes.  Even those who were once literate in characters notice a distinct regression in their ability to write characters by hand.  For school children who are in the process of learning to write characters, the addiction to electronic devices (computers, cell phones, etc.) that write the characters for them when Pinyin is entered in many cases means that they never do become proficient in writing the characters without the help of their gizmos.

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Portuguese is disappearing, one vowel at a time

Here in Macau, a few people still speak Portuguese. (And even fewer speak Macanese Patuá, which mixes Portuguese with Cantonese, Malay, Sinhalese, and a few other linguistic ingredients.) But according to Isabel Trancoso, who is attending the same conference here that I am, the local variety of Portuguese lacks the extreme reductions that are transforming the Iberian version.

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Nondisunnegativity

Jonah Goldberg, "Whither the Toaster?", NRO 9/10/2012:

It's not like there isn't a market for such things. I'd wager more Americans own toasters than iPhones. It's not like heating bread is a realm of human technological knowledge that cannot be further advanced (if such a realm exists). More plainly, it is not as if there aren't technologies at hand today that wouldn't improve the toasting experience if thoughtfully incorporated into a new generation of toasting devices. [emphasis added]

Reader AW, who sent this one in, suspects that "if you dissect it, it ends up NOT saying what Jonah wants to say".

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