Archive for August, 2015

Another victim of oversimplified rules

On page 4 of the Metro newspaper today (it's distributed free on all the Edinburgh buses, so whatever its faults, the price is right) I read this sentence:

A record number of companies has been formed by Edinburgh University in the past 12 months, taking the total created over the past five years to 184.

A grammar tragedy. It's a verb agreement error. The writer recalls being told sternly that the verb must agree with the head noun of the subject noun phrase, and number seems to be the head noun, so common sense has been thrown to the winds, and the verb has wrongly been put into the singular agreement form—which, of course, is what the simplistic how-to-write books seem to demand.

In this case the correct agreement form happens to be the one that comports with the meaning: the University of Edinburgh has not been forming a number over the past year; it is the companies that have been formed, a record number of them. The singular agreement makes no sense. Lesson: verb agreement is not as mechanical and syntactic as the oversimplified handbook versions would have you believe.

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"Offhand impressions and grumpy peeves"

Steven Pinker, "On my radar", The Guardian 8/23/2015:

4|Website: Language Log.

Do you notice grammar gaffes, wonder about the speech styles of celebrities, find yourself curious about the origin of new words and constructions? Language Log is the place to go for commentary by people who actually know their stuff – linguists and other language scientists – as opposed to the pundits and scribblers who think that their standing as writers entitles them to present their offhand impressions and grumpy peeves as proven fact.

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Steampunk phonetics, continued

In Alexander J. Ellis's 1873 article "On the Physical Constituents of Accent and Emphasis", he asserted that there are "four principal matters to be considered in a sound-curve, which will be here called length, pitch, force, and form". Yesterday I quoted his oddly labored explanation of length, by which he means what we would now generally call "duration". We can skip his equally-labored explanation of pitch — it's correct, as we'd expect from the man who introduced and named the cent as a unit of measure for pitch intervals, but otherwise its main point of interest is his adherence to  the rarely-used "philosophical pitch" standard, which has middle C at 256 Hz, and therefore C in all other octaves at frequencies of powers of two. What Ellis has to say about force, however,  is an interesting mixture of science and error.

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Trailing modifiers can be dangerous

Lamiat Sabin, "Man rattled by python found coiled up and hiding in his box of cornflakes", The Independent 3/9/2015.

A man claims to have had a real-life kitchen nightmare after he saw a long coiled-up snake poke its head out of his box of cereal.

Jarred Smith, 22, was making lunch on Tuesday when he spotted the two-metre diamond python hiding inside the open cornflakes package – according to the Daily Telegraph in Australia.

Yuxi Liu writes:

I thought it meant a man was so rattled by python that he coiled up in his box of cornflakes.
I hope this can provide some laughs on Language Log.

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Steampunk phonetics

From the Transactions of the Philological Society, 1873-74, "VIII. — On the Physical Constituents of Accent and Emphasis: By Alexander J. Ellis, Esq., President":

Phonautographic Sound-curves. Any disturbance in the air produces a series of alternate condensations and rarefactions, which, coming in contact with the drum of the ear, cause it to vibrate, in such a manner as to produce, after various internal modifications, the well-known sensation of sound. The most convenient way of analyzing this sensation is to analyze the motion of a single point in the drum of the ear. This is effected by an instrument called the phonautograph, consisting of a metal paraboloidal reflector (answering to the passage leading to the drum of the ear), truncated by a plane passing through its focus and perpendicular to its axis, over which opening is stretched a delicate membrane, ordinarily bladder (answering to the drum of the ear). At one point of this membrane is fixed a style (ordinarily a piece of quill), which rests against a cylinder, over which is rolled a piece of paper delicately coated with lampblack. A disturbance of the air inside the reflector causes the style to move backwards and forwards on the lampblacked surface, which it scrapes off. If the cylinder remain at rest, this produces a white straight line of moderate length. But if, as is usual, the cylinder be caused to revolve with a uniform motion, the style scratches out a white undulating line, which may be called a sound-curve, and which is the visible symbol of the invisible disturbance of the air.

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The Humble Petition of WHO and WHICH

In 1711, long before E.B. White over-interpreted the Fowler brothers and sent out mobs of zombified prescriptivists to hunt down whiches, Richard Steele gave us "The Humble Petition of WHO and WHICH", The Spectator 78:

' The humble Petition of WHO and WHICH,
' THAT your petitioners being in a forlorn and destitute condition, know not to whom we should apply ourselves for relief, because there is hardly any man alive who hath not injured us. Nay, we speak it with sorrow, even you yourself, whom we should suspect of such a practice the last of all mankind, can hardly acquit yourself of having given us some cause of complaint. We are descended of ancient families, and kept up our dignity and honour many years, till the jack-sprat THAT supplanted us. How often have we found ourselves slighted by the clergy in their pulpits, and the lawyers at the bar? Nay, how often have we heard, in one of the most polite and august assemblies in the universe, these words, "That THAT that noble lord urged ;" which if one of us had justice done, would have sounded nobler thus, "that WHICH that noble lord urged." Senates themselves, the guardians of British liberty, have degraded us, and preferred THAT to us; and yet no decree was ever given against us.  …

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Modern English Grammar

Richard Hershberger, who usually writes about baseball, has a recent post at Ordinary Times about "Modern English Grammar":

My post today is uncharacteristically devoid of baseball content. It is about grammar, one of my many unremunerative interests. Specifically it is about modern English grammar. I don’t mean by this (except incidentally) the grammar of modern English. Rather, I mean modern grammar of English. Also, modern grammars of English. 

It's great to see this evidence of interest in grammar (and grammars), and to see an argument for the relevant of 20th-century linguistics based on an insightful exploration of an interesting corner of English syntax. But it's less great that Mr. Hershberger fails to note that his crucial examples are actually a special case of a much more general pattern, and that the 53 comments go off in various interesting directions without noticing this. As usual in such cases, I blame the linguists, for allowing general education in grammatical analysis to fall into such a sorry state that smart people with an interest in such matters are generally not given the chance in school to learn more of the content and methods of the past sixty years or so of linguistic research.

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"… could have bore"

Brian Bender, "Former officials question Clinton's email defense", Politico 8/20/105:

While sympathetic to the messy nature of the classification system, fellow diplomats and specialists say Clinton could have bore responsibility to flag sensitive material.

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Non-programmer friendly

Brad DeLong linked to a paywalled Financial Times article by Lisa Pollack about problems with spreadsheet usage, and observed that

[C]onsiderations like these make me extremely hesitant when I think of asking my students in Econ 1 next spring to do problems sets in Excel. Shouldn’t I be asking them to do it in R via R Studio or R Commander instead? Audit trails are very valuable. Debuggability is very valuable. Excel ain’t got it…

The first comment, from "Captaindomestic":

I'm biased as a MathWorks employee, but you may want to look into MATLAB. It is really strong in the kinds of data analysis and plotting that econ students need to do. MATLAB has a pretty non-programmer friendly editor and model that helps new users.

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Devilishly difficult "dialect"

Are some languages innately more difficult than others?  In "Difficult languages" (1/2/10), Bill Poser addressed this question from various angles.  I've heard it said that Georgian is incredibly difficult because it possesses an "impossible" verbal system, has ergativity and other features that make for "interesting" learning, and so forth.  Yet, in comparison with some of the North Caucasian languages (whose relationship to K'art'velian [or South Caucasian], the language family to which Georgian belongs — along with Svan, Chan/Megrelian/Mingrelian/Laz, is perhaps more an areal phenomenon than a genetic relationship), it is relatively simple. The North Caucasian languages have an abundance of phonemes and an even more complex grammatical system.  John Colarusso has written an excellent grammar of Kabardinian, which gives a good idea of the complexity of this Northwest Caucasian language.

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What does "vocal fry" mean?

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, "LOL Vocal Fry Rules U R All Dumb", Jezebel 7/30/2015:

This week, in shit-hot stuff happening on the internet, once-great feminist pundit Naomi Wolf wrote a column about how vocal fry is Keeping Women Down, and then other women across the internet rebutted her, rightly positing that when your dads bitch about the way you talk it’s because they’re just trying to not listen to you talk, period, so fuck your dads. […]

Vocal fry, as interpreted via California’s finest Calabasians, is a weapon of the young, disaffected woman, not a way to connote that they don’t care about anything, per se—just that specifically, they do not care about you. It is the speaking equivalent of “you ain’t shit,” an affectation of the perpetually unbothered. It’s a protective force between the pejorative You—dads, Sales types, bosses, basically anyone who represents the establishment—and the collective Us, which is to say, a misunderstood generation that inherited a whole landscape of bullshit because y’all didn’t fix it when you had the goddamn chance. It’s a way of communicating to you “We have this handled,” and also “Get off my dick.” It’s a proscenium of absolute dismissal and it is one of the most beautiful mannerisms millennials possess.

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Random readings

Three random things from my to-blog list — no time this morning for more — maybe some commentary later:

Douglas Maurer, "Testing how well Google translate works for medical translation", iMedicalApps 8/12/2015
Matt Michel, "6 Reasons You Can't Trust Science Anymore", Cracked 8/13/2015
"Loaded Language", Boston Calling (BBC)


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German crime novels and high blood pressure

Don't jump to any conclusions based on the title.  This post is not about how reading German crime novels raises blood pressure.  Quite the contrary, it is about how reading German crime novels dramatically lowers blood pressure, at least for one of my friends.

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