Saturday 28 April 2007

On Christian vs christian

A correspondent has come across a book written by an American Christian priest who has used a small 'c' for Christian. Finding this 'odd, if not slightly disrespectful', she asks: 'Is there a rule for writing Christian or is it personal choice?'

The dictionaries are generally scrupulous about matters of capitalization, making such distinctions as 'cap'(italized), 'sometimes cap', 'usually cap', and so on. I've just looked at half a dozen: the OED, Longman, Chambers, and Collins all give it with a capital, and make no qualification. There is a hint of variation in US dictionaries: Random House gives it only with a capital, but Webster (which lists all its headwords in lower-case) says 'usu cap'.

None of these dictionaries distinguishes between the adjective and noun use: to my intuition, I would find a christian person more acceptable than a christian. With some people, intuitions are probably being affected by the Internet, where a general trend towards lower-case usage is noticeable.

But the norm is clear: Christian. And as publisher copy-editors tend to follow dictionary practice, what is surprising is to find a lower-case version allowed through in a book. This suggests that the author is making some sort of point. If so, I would expect to see it reflected in other, related usages, such as bible for Bible, or protestant for Protestant. However, my correspondent says that the author writes Episcopal priest, with a capital. So it does rather look as if some point is being made, consciously or unconsciously. There are many possible interpretations. For example, I can imagine a Dawkinsian writer lower-casing certain religious names to make a cheap point; I can imagine a denominational writer lower-casing all names bar one to make a point about identity; and I can imagine a mystical writer lower-casing names to make a point about humility.

It would make an interesting stylistic exercise to work out what was going on in this case. Or, of course, one could just ask the author.

Friday 27 April 2007

On me, me, me

An American correspondent, working in sales, notes that 'salespersons think too much of themselves and use I far more than they use you (the person to whom they are selling', and asks if I have any comment as to why it is so overwhelming? (I take it that 'I' here includes 'me', 'mine', 'my', and 'myself', and 'you' likewise, 'your', 'yours', and 'yourself'.)

I think this is a question more for psychologists than linguists, actually. But it's a commonplace of discourse analysis that a conversation doesn't work so well if one of the participants keeps talking about himself/herself; and hardly works at all if both do. The point has often been discussed in relation to such issues as gender roles - I seem to remember it coming up in Deborah Tannen's writing, for instance.

Certainly, I outranks you in all the frequency charts. I've just looked in the British National Corpus and find that I is the 11th most frequent word, whereas you is the 14th. But this hides an important distinction: in speech I is 2nd and you is 3rd, whereas in writing I is 17th and you is 21st. The contrast is greater in US English, it would appear: in the Brown University corpus, I is 20th and you is 33rd. Does this reinforce the stereotype of the British being more self-effacing, I wonder?

It's difficult to compare corpora, as they are based on very different samples and genres. And genre is critical. In the Brown corpus, for example, Romantic Fiction was the top genre for the use of I, followed by Belles Lettres and Biographies. Romantic Fiction was top for you, too (I guess because everyone keeps saying I love you), but second was Skills and Hobbies (the 'you' of instruction, I suppose).

I reckon I would be especially common in blogging, and you much less so. I remember the other day consciously avoiding a use of you in an initial post. But - having just looked back at a couple of my blogs - I see I do use you quite a bit to mean 'one', and just occasionally address 'you-all out there' as you. When the blog gets a comment, then you probably becomes more frequent. There's a thesis waiting to be written here!

The crude stats don't tell us anything about the functions of the pronouns, though. In the sales situation, I imagine there are important differences between the I of exposition ('let me tell you my experience of this product') and the I of egotism ('let me tell you about me'). You also has several functions - apart from its conventional second-person use, it can mean 'one' ('you see it often...') or even replace an I (someone who says 'It makes you sick when you see something like that' usually means 'It makes me sick when I see something like that'). If a salesman has personal experience of how a product works ('I have one of these at home...'), then it would be relevant to tell me about it. And too much use of you might be intrusive. A pronoun balance, I suspect, is what's needed.

On Living On's staged reading

The rehearsed reading of Living On took place last Monday in front of a large crowd at SOAS in London, and was warmly received. It was followed by a discussion with the director and cast, but as time was short I said I'd put up a fresh posting to allow anyone who was there the chance to provide some feedback. Personally, I was delighted with the way the evening went. Director Robert Wolstenholme had assembled a fine cast. Joseph Marcell (remember the butler from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air?) played Shalema, and brought a hugely moving presence to the role. Emma Swinn, Ben Crystal, and Scott Ainslie were really convincing in the roles of Miranda, Derek, and Jason, respectively. And four other actors - Karl Kelly, Simon Manyonda, Rhoda Ofori-Attah, Nick Oshikanlu - took on the various Tamasa people roles with great energy and enthusiasm. As they had only one day of rehearsals before the show, I was hugely impressed by the way they managed to get their tongues round the Tamasa language - an artificial language, which I had tried to create as naturistically as possible - and which they made sound as if it had always been on the planet. There was some further discussion after the play about its future, and some thought that we might aim for a fully staged production some time next year.

Tuesday 17 April 2007

On repeating oneself. On repeating oneself.

An unusual question from a correspondent: 'Do I ever repeat myself?' He was referring to an earlier post ('On writing how many books?') and wondering whether repetition presented me with a problem. It's an interesting question.

In a sense, I'm always repeating myself. That's what all lecturers do, as they present their courses, year after year. But of course, the lectures are never exactly the same. The subject changes. New facts emerge. And you think of better ways of saying the same thing. Even if your lecture is totally scripted, it's never quite the same. I asked actor son Ben once how he coped with the same thing, night after night, in a play run. 'It's never the same', he said. There's not much difference between lecturing and acting, from a performance point of view.

But the question is not so much about speaking as about writing, where repetition usually gets a bad press. Do I repeat myself there?

I think you have to make a distinction between research writing and popular writing. With the former, it is the nature of the beast not to repeat. There are new findings, new methodologies, new interpretations, always. And it would be a pretty poor journal editor who failed to spot that the content of an article was a repeat of something that had been published already, either by the same author or by others. Indeed, when I used to edit journals, that was one of the commonest causes of rejection - that a proposed article didn't actually say anything new.

But when you write for general audiences, you repeat all the time. The important word to note is 'audiences'. If you look in my website list of my publications, you'll sometimes see that an article written for one readership is then adapted for another, because the interests or level of the new audience differs. That's been a basic principle in the study of written language since the 70s: writers should always bear the needs of their audience in mind. An article written for students will differ from one written for teachers, and both will differ from one written for the general public, and differ again if it is to be presented as a broadcast talk, and differ still more depending on the channel. When I did a lot of Radio 4 broadcasting in the 1980s, a regular comment made by my producer, Alan Wilding, about my scripts would be: 'This is Radio 4, not Radio 3, David'. He usually meant my sentences were too long!

Often, a magazine or journal asks for permission to republish an article without change, or to cut it slightly. When I wrote an article on endangered languages a few years ago, it was picked up by half-a-dozen different publications and adapted in several different directions. But the article wasn't rewritten from scratch each time. What would be the point of that? I had given the first version my best shot. I couldn't think of a better way to say what I wanted to say. And if an editor felt that the piece was going to be of interest to a readership, then who am I to say otherwise? Anyway, if you have something that you think is worth saying - and there is nothing more worth saying, to my mind, than to draw attention to the issue of language death - you don't mind how many times you say it. You want the point to be recognized, and the more opportunities you find to make it, the better.

Having said that, when I do read over a piece for republication, I usually find myself changing it in some way. It might need updating. I might have fallen out of love with an earlier phrasing. I might think of a better analogy. There is an excellent English word for what one does: tweaking.

Does the notion of tweaking carry over into books? Yes. You will often see a reprint of a book with a phrase such as 'reprinted with corrections' on the publication data page at the front. It usually means no more than the correction of typos, ambiguous phrasings, cross references that don't work, and the like. It might be the correction of factual errors. There might be a minor updatings. It doesn't mean the wholsesale reworking of a text, or the addition or deletion of significant chunks which would affect the pagination. If that level of revision is required, we are talking about a new edition.

But there's another sense in which repetition is relevant for books. I have written several introductions to language or linguistics, and each one is an attempt to do the task better. The analogy here is with painting. I know an artist who spends his life trying to capture the quality of a landscape he likes to paint. In his studio you see the same scene, over and over, and yet it is never the same. I don't know - he doesn't know - whether he will ever be satisfied. I feel the same when I'm writing about language and linguistics. If that is what is meant by 'repetition', then it's an intriguing, positive thing.

Other factors affect the situation. Publishing fashions change; readership interests change; the subject itself changes; the angle changes; the author changes. I sometimes find myself reworking earlier material to satisfy new circumstances. Here's an example. The kind of publishing that Penguins were doing in the 1970s led me to write a straight textual introduction: Linguistics. The kind of publishing which Cambridge were doing in the 1980s led to a book at the opposite extreme - with full colour illustrations, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. But then the wheel turned full circle. When Penguin approached me in 2003 to write an introduction to language, the idea the commissioning editor had in his mind was 'the Cambridge encyclopedia without the pictures'. That would have been deadly boring, and the only way I could think of to make the project worthwhile was to think up a wholly new slant - which is why the book came to be called How Language Works. The emphasis on 'how' gave the new project some life, but I have to admit that I did not enjoy this kind of reworking of material, and I think it shows in the writing. I shan't do it again.

Otherwise, no, I don't like repeating myself. I don't.

Wednesday 4 April 2007

On a problematic(al) issue

A correspondent from abroad writes to express his puzzlement over the difference between such linguistic terms as alphabetic and alphabetical, analytic and analytical, diacritic and diacritical. He asks if these are synonyms, and if so, is there a way of deciding which to use?

The issue goes well beyond the terminology of linguistics: examples from other domains include mystic(al), poetic(al), ironic(al), philosophic(al), rhythmic(al), astronomic(al)... Usually there's no difference in meaning, but there may be a stylistic or regional preference, and only an up-to-date dictionary or usage guide (such as Pam Peters' Cambridge Guide to English Usage: see the entry at -ic/-ical) will help. Where the two forms are synonymous, people generally opt for the shorter alternative; but the extra -al syllable can sometimes produce a more euphonious utterance, avoiding a clash of consonants or promoting a better rhythm (compare geographic contours vs geographical contours).

In a few cases, the meanings have diverged: electric and electrical now have different ranges of usage, as do comic and comical and some others. The -al ending usually suggests a broader meaning - more things are 'comical' than are 'comic'. Occasionally, the meanings are very different - notably economic and economical, historic and historical, politic and political. Usage essays in dictionaries and usage guides often focus on the differences.

In a specialist domain, the only thing one can do is identify and follow majority usage. In linguistics these days it is phonetic, phonological, grammatical, and semantic (but you will find the alternatives in older usage). It is sometimes possible to tell the difference between a specialist and a non-specialist by the ending: those who talk about syntactical structures or semantical problems or linguistical issues are hardly likely to be specialists in linguistics.

Tuesday 3 April 2007

On hyphenating, or not

A correspondent asks whether hyphenated or non-hyphenated forms are the norm in such linguistic terms as phrase marker, form class, word class, and so on. How to find out which is the norm?

There is no absolute rule. Some publishing-house style-guides recommend hyphens and some don't. This isn't just a matter of technical terminology, of course. We find both flower pot and flower-pot (and flowerpot). Generally, the tendency over time is for English compound words to begin spaced, then to be hyphenated, and then maybe to be written solid (no space or hyphen). The more familiar the term becomes, the more likely it is to be perceived as a unit, and hyphenated. So we are much more likely to see terms hyphenated which have been around a long time, such as word-class and phrase-marker. But a lot depends on the extent to which the expression is perceived to be a semantic unity, as opposed to two separate notions. Word root, for example, is less likely to be hyphenated.

Usage is strongly influenced by legibility. There is a big difference between these two cases: 'X is a word class' and 'X is a word class analysis'. In the second case, there is uncertainty as to whether the writer means 'word-class analysis' or 'word class-analysis' , so a hyphen resolves the matter. Look at the sentence I used above: if I had written ' Some publishing house style guides', it would have been much more difficult to read. So one factor is whether the compound is being used attributively (before a noun) or not. Many style guides insist on a hyphen in attributive position.

How to find out which is the norm? The best way is to look in an up-to-date (that's important) dictionary. Alternatively, an online check in a search-engine will give you a quick impression about frequency.

On shortening terms

A correspondent interested in linguistics terminology asks: 'What is the difference between the terms in such pairs as acute and acute accent, compound and compound word, benefactive and benefactive case, past and past tense, and so on? Are these variants near-synonyms or synonyms? When should one use two-word terms and one-word terms? Is there any regularity?'

The abbreviation of a compound word or name to its first element is very common in English, to achieve economy of expression, but it's only likely to happen if there is no danger of ambiguity. It's therefore especially common in technical expressions, where the meanings are typically very specific. Benefactive has only one meaning, so in most contexts there is nothing lost when case is omitted. But a related factor is whether the second element contrasts at all. As the notion of benefactive developed, it began to appear in a wider range of contexts, with such expressions as benefactive role and benefactive implicature being used. The more options there are, the more it could be important to use the full form of the expression to avoid ambiguity.

Whether someone chooses the expanded or reduced form is partly also a stylistic matter. I often use an expanded form on first use and then switch to a reduced form, to avoid repetition, but other factors can intervene, such as rhythmical elegance and awareness of a possible lack of clarity. For example, 'The past tense of walk is walked' is slightly clearer than 'The past of walk is walked. Why? Because past has so many meanings, there is in the latter example a fraction of uncertainty as to what is meant. It quickly resolves in this example, of course, because the context immediately makes it clear. But the risk of ambiguity is always there: 'The past often presents a problem to learners'. In these cases, we have to work harder to determine what is meant.

Abbreviation makes the writer/speaker's job easier, but it makes the reader/listener's job more difficult.

Monday 2 April 2007

On counting English grammar

A US correspondent writes to ask how I arrived at the figure of 3500, when I talk (in various places) of 'how much grammar' there is in English.

I never intended this estimate to be taken too seriously, I must say. It was an attempt to give some sort of answer to the question, which I've often been asked by those learning English as a foreign language, 'How many grammatical rules are there in English?' It is possible to give an answer about the number of sounds in English and the number of words (see the estimates discussed in the lexicon section of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, or in Words, Words, Words), so why not grammar?

In a way, there is no answer, because it depends on how you analyse grammar. Someone who uses a generative model, for instance, will end up with a very different total from someone who uses a different approach. Some theoretical linguists would say that the question is meaningless, or pointless. But that answer never satisfies the general enquirer. And there is a real sense in which the question does have meaning, as anyone knows who has slogged their way through the sections of a grammar book in learning a foreign language.

What I did was base my count on the biggest reference grammar I know - A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, by Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech & Svartvik. It's a 'reference grammar' - that is, an attempt to describe all the features of grammar in English, in much the same way as an unabridged dictionary is a 'reference lexicon'. It didn't deal with all varieties of English - not all regional and occupational varieties, for instance - but as the amount of grammatical variation between varieties is relatively small, this shouldn't matter too much.

I know this grammar very well, because I was responsible for its index. It took a long time to prepare, because in fact there were two indexes - a preliminary one, compiled to help the four authors to standardize their terminology - and the final one, around 100 pages in length, which is printed at the back of the book. (An account of the indexing is provided in an article for The Indexer in 1986, available at, in the section on Indexing.)

All I did was go through that index and count up the number of entries that were making a general point - that is, excluding entries that were just lexical items. The total would be much greater if every irregular noun, verb, adjective, etc were separately counted. I ignored the number of section references to a point, so my count does not distinguish between long entries as well as tiny ones. Sometimes it wasn't clear whether an index reference to a section was making a separate grammatical observation or was an amplification of an earlier one. So the result is necessarily an approximation. Around 3500 'grammatical points'.

Is it useful? I once asked a group of people how many points of grammar there were in English, and answers ranged from 500 to 10,000. So yes, I think an exercise like this one has some value in sharpening our intuitions on the matter. But the figure shouldn't be taken too literally.

Sunday 1 April 2007

On ordering vs not ordering

A nursing correspondent from Australia writes to ask for a linguistic comment about what he calls 'a medico-legal conundrum'. Evidently nurses are sometimes faced with what are called 'Orders' in patients' notes, one of which is NFR, Not For Resuscitation. He suggests that this is ambiguous, and that 'a more correct use of English if it is to be understood as 'an Order' ought to be, Do Not Resuscitate'. As part of an initiative to get the change implemented, he asks for 'a directive in this use of English'.

I suppose the first thing to say is that linguists don't give directives - at least, I don't. Their role is humbler. I can explore what the nature of the problem is, in the present case, and draw attention to the consequences of taking one path rather than another; but the question of how to proceed is a matter for the professionals in question, and especially so in a sensitive and tricky area such as medico-legal practice. When I was working in clinical linguistics, I would never 'tell' a speech therapist what to do. A linguistic analysis might clearly point to therapy in a particular direction, but it would be up to the therapist to decide how and when and where to implement the recommendations.

In linguistic terms, what we are dealing with in the case of NFR/DNR is an issue in what is called 'speech acts'. It is a routine feature of a language that an instruction to act can be stated directly or indirectly. I can say to someone 'Open the window' or 'It's very hot in here' or 'Isn't it stuffy in here?', with the same intention in my mind each time. The first is a clear-cut direct command to act, and it uses a grammatical construction (the imperative) which is designed to do just that. The others (there are many variants) have evolved to avoid the 'commanding' tone of the imperative, which is always there, even if 'softened' by such words as 'please'. Many people find these 'indirect speech acts', using statements and questions, a more comfortable way of suggesting that someone does something. In conversation, tone of voice, facial expression, and gesture can also help to alter the force of an utterance - but these features are of course not available in written instructions.

Indirect speech acts are by their nature ambiguous. Statements typically assert states of affairs, and do not command. Questions typically ask for information, and do not command. It is therefore always possible for someone who uses an indirect speech act to find the utterance misinterpreted. I remember seeing this happen in a classroom once. The teacher said to a seven-year-old: 'Mary, there's a piece of chalk on the floor by your desk.' And Mary looked at it and said 'Yes I can see it, Miss.' Mary hadn't learned about indirect speech acts, it seems. But the teacher immediately taught her, by switching to a direct command. 'Pick it up then, please, Mary'.

Adults have learned about indirect speech acts, but whether their force is acted upon depends on all kinds of factors. In the window-opening scenario, if I am the listener, I might cooperate straight away, and open the window. Or I might choose not to cooperate. Why? All sorts of reasons. I might not want the window opened. I might not like the speaker. I might not be in a position to do so. There might be consequences which I can see but the speaker cannot (eg I know that it will be noisy). Or I might just be being perverse.

Note that none of these factors are linguistic in character. They are to do with the nature of the world to which the language relates. So any resolution of the NFR/DNR issue requires an analysis of the factors which lie behind the alternatives. Why would anyone not want to issue a clear command, in such circumstances? Given the ethical dilemma presented here, is it to do with questions of ultimate responsibility? DNR is a command, which the person commanded has no alternative but to respect (to fail to do so would be 'disobeying orders'). NFR is a statement, which allows both an action and no action as legitimate responses. Deciding which course of action to follow involves, to a degree, reading the mind of the writer. If readers share the mind-set of the writer, then they will not find the instruction ambiguous, and they will treat it as a command to be obeyed. If they do not, they have a linguistic loophole which would allow them an alternative response, should they be so minded.

Analogies can help. If I saw a notice attached to a vehicle which says 'Do not drive over rough ground', the intention of the owner is clear. But if it says 'Not for driving on rough ground', the intention is less clear. An implication in the latter case is that it isn't impossible to drive the vehicle over rough ground - and I might think the owner was simply telling me 'I wouldn't do this, if I were you'. I might therefore feel justified in ignoring him, on the grounds that if he had definitely wanted to stop me he would have said so clearly. And if I did do it, and the vehicle broke, and he complained by saying 'I told you not to drive the vehicle over rough ground' my defence could be 'Actually, no you didn't!' Whether this is a legitimate defence, in a particular situation, is for lawyers, not linguists, to determine, for it all revolves around the question of whether the intention behind the notice is so clear that anyone disregarding it could be construed as being wilfully perverse.

The DNR text is unambiguous; the NFR one less so. I think my correspondent is right when he suggests that this is a policy matter which requires clarification 'to protect professionals in health care'. Ambiguity by its nature is always a potential danger. But resolving the ambiguity here is a matter for the medical profession to decide, not linguistics.