Tuesday 23 December 2008

On discovering Shakespeare

A correspondent to this week's Spectator has just read a book which he thinks demonstrates the true identity of the works of Shakespeare, based on a decoding of the dedication to the sonnets: 'to the onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets mr w h all happinesse'. Brenda James, in The Truth Will Out (2005) shows that it is an anagram of 'the wise thorp hid thy poet, Henry Nevell writer'. Thorpe was the publisher. Henry Neville was a contemporary.

It's amazing what you can do with anagrams. To take another one, Robert Nield's Breaking the Shakespeare Codes: the Sensational Discovery of the Bard's True Identity (2007) shows you can twist the letters around to make it read: 'Bringe help to William Hastings the unseene poet of these sonnets'.

There's always a bit of cheating going on in these exercises. The Brenda James solution requires you to take a vowel (the 'u' in 'insuing') as a consonant (the 'v' of 'Neville'). The Nield solution requires that you miss out one of the letters (the 'r' of 'mr').

If you keep all the letters in, and maintain their values, you can find all sorts of things. 'George W Bush' is in there, for a start. I have spent months of research (well, five minutes, actually) to make the following sensational discovery about who the real author of the Sonnets was, and what he thought about all those who would later be unable to believe that a glover from Stratford could be a genius.

onlie he wiliam shagsper is the sonnet begetter
flee nonstop hunts

'Shagsper' is one of the attested spellings of the name, at the time.

By the way, the dedication also contains the words 'best wishes in the happie festiue season'. Which seems an appropriate way to end this pre-Christmas post.

Sunday 7 December 2008

On the, again

A correspondent writes to say he is puzzled by the corrections he intuitively made to a sentence from a French-speaking colleague, who wrote:

All aforementioned features appear in the same location and with the
comparable amplitudes.

He rewrote this as follows:

All the aforementioned features appear in the same locations and with
comparable amplitudes.

Is there a simple rule he can tell his colleague to follow?

It's a difficult area of grammar - with complications arising from differences between British and American usage (such as go to hospital vs go to the hospital). Large books have been written on the English article system. Certainly, there's a lot of interference from languages which follow different rules - and French is one which often uses articles where English would not (as in les informations, and suchlike).

The following sequence of examples show the basic options. Uncountable abstract nouns with generic meaning have no article: I'm studying philosophy. We do not say: I'm studying the philosophy. This applies even with premodification (Greek philosophy). If an article is used, it immediately turns the generic meaning into a specific one: I like the Greek philosophy has to mean 'the specific way of thinking found among Greeks'.

Note that when used with postmodification, the is fine, because the of-phrase in effect acts as a way of identifying a subclass, and thus changes the noun into something specific: I'm studying the philosophy of Aristotle. This only works with postmodification: premodifying genitives disallow the: we can't say I'm studying the Aristotle's philosophy.

The same point applies to plural nouns when we want to express a generic meaning. We say I'm studying trees not I'm studying the trees (that's ok if you mean the specific trees you're looking at, of course). And with postmodification the situation is as above: I'm studying the trees of Australia.

But with plurals there is a stylistic alternative: many people have no problem with I'm studying trees of Australia. This is because they're thinking of the noun phrase as a kind of professional ellipsis - like the heading you might find for a course:

Friday 10 a.m. Trees of Australia.

Friday 10 a.m. The Trees of Australia is also possible, of course.

A similar stylistic point applies to the other correction made by my correspondent: All aforementioned features became All the aforementioned features. What's happening here?

The choice is again one of generic vs specific. If the meaning is generic, the article is not used: All guests are welcome at this hotel. As soon as an article is used, a specific meaning emerges: All the guests have been accounted for. But, once again, stylistic alternatives exist. In a more elliptical style, the specific meaning obtains even without the: All guests have been accounted for.

The reason the is privileged in All the aforementioned features should now be clear. It is because the phrase is undeniably specific: features is already specific in meaning, but aforementioned makes it even more so. In addition, the is motivated by the fact that the features have evidently received some prior mention in the text (the so-called 'anaphoric' function of the definite article).

That leaves just the stylistic point. There's nothing ungrammatical about All aforementioned features appear in the same location, but I can't see any reason for introducing an elliptical style here. The word the is always a candidate for omission when a telegrammatic style is required, but then we expect all instances to go: All speakers please leave handouts on chairs. It would be stylistically incongruous to have:

All speakers please leave the handouts on chairs
All speakers please leave handouts on the chairs
All the speakers please leave the handouts on chairs

and so on. Omitting it before aforementioned but retaining it before same location is stylistically uncomfortable.

So, stylistic and semantic factors reinforce each other here, making my correspondent's addition of the an appropriate one.

Wednesday 3 December 2008

On a meeting meeting

A correspondent writes to say he has encountered this sentence: there'll be a pre-council meeting for the monthly assembly this Wednesday at 9:00 a.m and wonders what pre-council means. He can't find it in dictionaries.

It is an odd usage, indeed. But it's common enough. Here's an example I just found on the Web:

The City Council of the City of Irondale, Alabama met in Pre-Council Session at the City Hall at 6:00 p.m. on the 2nd day of September, 2008. The Council reviewed each item on the Agenda and decided that the following item should be added to the Agenda: Item #3 Consider Resolution No. 2008R58 to define boundaries for Downtown Redevelopment Authority area. The City Council then met in Regular Session at the City Hall of said City on the 2nd day of September, 2008, at 7:00 p.m., the regular time and place for holding such meetings.

So clearly it means 'a council meeting which takes place before the main council meeting'. It seems to be shorthand for pre-council meeting meeting. People don't like that kind of repetition. Compare PIN number, which I don't suppose would ever be said personal identification number number.

So we'll never hear or read a pre-council meeting meeting? Wrong. I just looked in Google and found three instances. The first uses hyphens to get round the awkwardness.

Apr. 10--So what will it be -- roller-skate, ice skate or cheapskate? And in what order? Columbus Council will ponder the possibilities Tuesday in an 8 a.m. pre-council-meeting meeting in a little conference room on the north side of its plaza-level chambers in the Government Center.

But the contributor to a forum discussion in Nebraska is evidently worried by it:

Thanks to all that made it to the pre-council meeting meeting (huh?) last weekend to help get organized, as well as those that made it to the city council meeting last night.

And in another American blog we get:

monday - pre council meeting meeting. hmmm, i need an explanation for that man.

So, just one example without a comment. Doesn't look as if it's going to catch on.

Monday 1 December 2008

On Kitchen Table Lingo

A correspondent has just sent me this link to a YouTube creation:

Kitchen Table Lingo

It's a nice piece of footage to go with a new book, Kitchen Table Lingo, which has just been published to publicize the English Project - a scheme to have a permanent English language exhibition at a new centre in Winchester, which I very much hope will get off the ground in a few years. You can find more details of it, and of the project in general, at its website:

The English Project.

The book has collected a fascinating group of the private and personal word-creations that are found in every household and in every social group, but which never get into the dictionary. Nobody knows how many such words there are. Everyone has been a word-coiner at some time or other - if not around the kitchen table, then in the garden, bedroom, office, or pub. The words in this book are the tip of an unexplored linguistic iceberg.

I might as well repeat here the 'afterword' I contributed to the book, pointing out that linguists have long studied these neologisms as part of research into children's acquisition of language. Anyone with young kids knows how fascinating their playful word coinages can be. The rest of the family then pick up these cute forms, and they become part of a domestic tradition. As you'd expect, linguists have devised a technical term for these dialects of the home: they call them familects.

But it isn't just children who invent such words. As this book shows, coinages can come from anyone, of any age and background. Indeed, no species is exempt, as Tigger (of Winnie the Pooh fame) illustrates with his penchant for such blends as prezactly ('precisely + exactly'). Lewis Carroll was a great inventor of neologisms, especially in 'Jabberwocky'. It is even possible to make a showbiz living out of them, as Stanley Unwin did: remember his 'Goldiloppers and the Three Bearloders'?

Some newspapers and radio programmes have competitions for invented words. The Washington Post has a famous one, and I remember one on the Terry Wogan show years ago. When I was presenting English Now for Radio 4 in the 1980s, I held a competition in which listeners sent in their favourite examples of home-grown words. The producer and I expected the usual postbag of a couple of hundred cards. That week we got over a thousand. It confirmed my belief that everyone has a linguistic story to tell.

The words in this book may be new, but the processes of word-formation that they use are not. Forms such as bimbensioner ('a superannuated bimbo') illustrate a standard way of making new words - by blending existing words. Some (such as bimble, 'travel idly without purpose') tap into the ancient phonetic properties of the language. Most inventions will stay private, personal, and unknown. Very occasionally, one or two will prove popular and end up as a permanent addition to the language - but, of course, only if people hear about them. That could be one of the surprising consequences of reading this book.

Monday 24 November 2008

On Just a Minute

An English-language teacher from Spain writes to ask whether I think the BBC Radio 4 game 'Just a Minute' is a good activity for EFL learners. Is the pressure involved to play well of benefit to students? His gut feeling is yes.

For those who don't know, the game requires a player from one team to speak for a minute on a given topic without any repetition, deviation, or hesitation. If they repeat a word, go off-topic, or hesitate, then they are challenged by a member of the other team.

It is of course impossible to speak for such a length of time without repeating some words. I seem to recall a player being cheekily interrupted for re-using the word the! But even if one plays the game by challenging only content (as opposed to grammatical) words, it is still virtually impossible to satisfy the criteria. This is because there is a tension between the notions of repetition and deviation. If one stays on topic, then the vocabulary is likely to stay within the same semantic field, thus making repetition more likely. Conversely, to use different vocabulary immediately allows challengers to say you are going off-topic. It's the impossible nature of the task that makes it fun, of course.

The notion of hesitation is also hugely subjective. It isn't possible to talk for a minute without pausing for breath. So how long should a pause be before people start judging it as a hesitation? If someone makes a hesitation noise, such as erm ('filled hesitation' or 'voiced hesitation', as some researchers have put it), then there isn't a doubt. But 'silent hesitation' is a problem. The grammatical location of the pause is a factor: inserting a pause between clauses, or between the elements of clause structure, is not as noticeable as inserting one between the elements of a phrase (such as between the and a following noun). The latter are more likely to be judged as hesitations.

I can't talk for a minute without some instances of repetition, deviation, or hesitation, and I don't know anyone who can. Nor do I know anyone who could successfully monitor a minute of monologue to catch all the instances when these things happen. I know that some players of the game get through the minute unchallenged, but that is more a comment on the attention focus of the listeners than on the innovative fluency of the speakers. And of course the whole point is to introduce a challenge that is itself in some way anomalous or funny - as emerges when the MC asks the challenger to explain himself, and the explanation produces a roar of laughter. It would be a disaster if this game were to be played by linguists. The accuracy levels would be greater, but there'd be a distinct absence of laughs.

Is there a point in playing this game with an ELT group? I strongly believe that playing with language is a beneficial teaching strategy, as long as the difficulty of the game suits the language level the learner has reached, and argue thus in my Language Play, as does Guy Cook more expertly in his book Language Play, Language Learning. So as long as players of 'Just a Minute' realize that they are being asked to do something which no native-speaker can do, and treat the game with the amount of disrespect that it deserves, I don't see a problem. It would be interesting to hear from others who may have tried it out.

Sunday 23 November 2008

On read rage

A correspondent writes to ask for the background to an item he heard on a radio station recently about the language of instruction manuals. He evidently tuned in half way through and heard me going on about it, but wasn't clear why.

It was in relation to a survey carried out for a UK firm called The TechGuys, who make their living by helping people who have trouble understanding the instruction leaflet or manual that comes with newly purchased equipment. The survey showed that, nationally, 67% of people say they don't get the full use out of their technical devices because the manual is too difficult to understand. Over a third, 34%, avoid the manual altogether, preferring trial and error instead. A remarkable 20% admit to throwing the manual across the room. And an even more remarkable 8% have taken their frustration out on the piece of equipment they were trying to set up. This is 'read rage', indeed.

Manuals for mobile phones evidently top the list, closely followed by those for cameras, washing machines, TVs, PCs, and DVD players. But it isn't just the high-tech devices, as anyone knows who has bought a piece of self-assembly furniture.

Why are the manuals so hard to understand? A mixture of nonlinguistic and linguistic reasons. Under the nonlinguistic heading we find the trend for manufacturers to create a single manual for all international markets: there is a massive booklet, but we find that only a couple of pages are in English. Similarly, there is a trend to use one manual for many different models, which makes it difficult to find the information relating to the particular model we have bought. And some manuals are these days available only online, which can be a separate problem - especially if the item you've bought is a PC which you need to get online in the first place!

Related to this is the density of the presented text. Presumably to keep these manuals as compact as possible, type-size is often small, and the information is packed together on the page. Labels in diagrams are often so tiny that they are very difficult to read. Online versions can be just as bad, with dense paragraphs and poor page navigation.

The linguistic reasons fall into two types. First there is the fact that many products are now manufactured abroad, often in the far east, where the level of English can be poor. Many firms evidently do not bother to get their translations checked by a competent English speaker (not necessarily a native speaker - competence is the criterion). I am used to seeing jocular collections of 'fractured English' as books and websites, where the grammar is wrong but the meaning is usually obvious. Instruction manuals illustrate a rather more serious side to the phenomenon, where the poor language makes it difficult or impossible to understand what is meant.

Second, there is the actual choice of words and constructions. Many manufacturers assume that the user will know all the technical terms about their product, and do not bother to explain them. Some quite clearly have not had the product to hand when writing the manual, as the name of a feature in the manual does not correspond to the name of the feature on the machine.

Sentences can be long and complex. And the discourse structure is often badly thought through. Once I tried to put a kit together. Instruction 1 said: 'Glue A to B'. I did. Instruction 2 said 'Before you glue A to B, do X.' It proved impossible, now that A and B were joined.

It's the semantic inexplicitness which apparently people find especially annoying. Presumably it is just laziness on the part of the manual writers which led to one laptop manual saying: 'The appearance of your computer may be different from those illustrated in this manuel due to variations in specifications. It may also vary in some countries or areas'. And what does this instruction mean? 'Note: CD-R, DC-RW Discs recorded with writing device can only be used when they are correctly treated'. Is the device to be used only with CDs that have been handled with care? Or is it something to do with the way the CD is 'burned'? Or something else?

Some instructions are simply semantically puzzling. What were the writers getting at when their hairdryer manual said 'Do not blow-dry when sleeping'? Or culturally puzzling. I think the most fascinating example of inappropriate instructionese unearthed by The TechGuys was this heading, found in the manual from the Russian manufacturers of a fridge-freezer on sale in the UK: 'How to kill the animal and prepare the meat before storing in the freezer'. Perhaps somebody should have told them that Surbiton is not Siberia.

Sunday 9 November 2008

On Obama's victory style

A correspondent - from the Sunday Times, no less - writes to ask what I thought of the Barack Obama speech, stylistically. A selection of my off-the-cuff remarks is printed in today's ST. Here are some on-the-cuff reflections.

Speaking as a stylistician - as opposed to a human being (if you'll allow me the distinction), as excited as anyone about this event - it blew me away. As the speech started, I turned to my wife and said, 'He'll never do it!' What was I noticing? It was the opening if-clause, a 41-word cliff-hanger with three who-clause embeddings. Starting a major speech with a subordinate clause? And one of such length and syntactic complexity? I thought he would be lucky if he was able to round it off neatly after the first comma. Try it for yourself: get a sense of the strain on your memory by starting a sentence with a 19-word if-clause, and see what it feels like. But he didn't stop at 19 words. The first who-clause is followed by a second. Then a third. It was real daring. It's difficult for listeners to hold all that in mind. But it worked. And then the short 4-word punch-clause. And deserved applause.

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

How did it work? How can you get people to process 41 words easily? By following some basic rules of rhetoric. One is to structure your utterance, where possible, into groups of three.

who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible,
who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time,
who still questions the power of our democracy

The other is to make sure that none of these chunks exceed what is easy to process in working memory. Psycholinguists once worked out a 'magic rule of seven, plus or minus two' - that most people find seven 'bits' of information the most they can handle at a time. Get someone to repeat after you a sequence of random digits:

8, 6
9, 5, 7
4, 2, 7, 5
9, 3, 6, 8, 2
8, 4, 6, 9, 2, 7
2, 5, 3, 8, 6, 9, 4

People start sensing a difficulty when the sequence reaches five. Some can't get beyond this. Most of us get into trouble if we try to remember more than seven, though some people can handle up to nine without a problem. (The psycholinguistic issues aren't as simple as this, but the basic idea is illuminating.)

Here are those three who-clauses with the main information-carrying words in bold and tallied:

who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, 7
who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, 6
who still questions the power of our democracy

As the sentence progresses, note how the demands on our memory get shorter. In fact the demands are even less than the numbers suggest because of the structural parallelism: who still doubts... still wonders... still questions.... With still set up as part of the pattern, we do not need to devote any processing energy to it, and can concentrate on the following verb.

The rhetorical 'rule of three' is an important feature of the speech. It's something that all famous speech-makers use. Churchill was brilliant at it. But all public speakers know that they can get a round of applause if they use a triptych with structural parallelism:

I was with you yesterday
I am with you today
And I shall be with you tomorrow!

You have to put it across right, of course, with an appropriate prosodic climax. Obama is brilliant at that too.

What you mustn't do is overdo it. For Obama to follow this first paragraph immediately with another triptych wouldn't work. A different stylistic technique is needed to provide variety and maintain pace. He switches to a 'pairs' structure - and pairs within pairs. The 'lines' vs 'people' contrast is itself a pair - but it contains paired noun phrases:

lines that stretched around schools and churches...
people who waited three hours and four hours...

Note how, strictly speaking, the pairing is unnecessary. He could have said simply:

lines that stretched around buildings...
people who waited hours...

but the pairing is more effective. A triptych is unwise here, for the underlying meaning is banale, and to keep it going would be to produce a sense of padding:

people who waited three hours and four hours and five hours...

He rounds the paragraph off with another pairing:

they believed
that this time must be different,
that their voices could be that difference.

And then he produces what, to my mind, is stylistically the most daring piece in the whole text: a list entirely consisting of pairs. From a content point of view, lists are dangerous, as they prompt people to notice who might have been left out. But that evening, I don't think anyone was counting. Yet it's worth noting that he respects the 'rule of seven' - there are just seven groups mentioned (or six, if you put the ethnic groups together):

young and old
rich and poor
Democrat and Republican
black, white,
Hispanic, Asian, Native American
gay, straight
disabled and not disabled

Why omit the ands in the middle group? Precisely because the omission of and reduces the force of the contrast and allows the suggestion that the list can be extended. Unlike 'young and old' and the others, the list of ethnic groups is open-ended. Maybe the same open-endedness applies also to 'gay, straight' - I'm not sure.

This first section of the speech ends with more pairs within pairs:

we have never been just a collection of individuals or a collection of red states and blue states
We are, and always will be, the United States of America.

Having devoted so much rhetorical energy to pairs, it's not surprising to see him round off this first section with more triples:

cynical and fearful and doubtful...
on this date, in this election, at this defining moment...

And we should also notice that the whole of this first section is structured as a triptych. Each of the paragraphs after the first begins in the same way:

It's the answer told...
It's the answer spoken...
It's the answer that led...

And the paragraph lengths are almost the same: 52 words, 53 words, 48 words. So we have threes within balanced threes. Elegant.

When you go in for rhetorical structures, you have to know when to use them and when not to use them. Obama's second section is a series of acknowledgments and thanks. This is a more personal sequence, and this kind of sincerity needs to be expressed in a more loosely structured language. No climactic rhetoric wanted here. Sentences are shorter, the vocabulary is more private and down-to-earth, and the only hint of elaborate structuring is a single triptych in honour of his wife:

the rock of our family, the love of my life, the nation's next first lady

The rhetorical contrast with the rousing first section is striking.

One of the things actors know is that, in a long speech, they have to leave themselves somewhere else to go. This is something I've learned from actor son Ben. If you put all your energy into the opening lines of a soliloquy, you'll find it trailing away into nothing before the end. Rather, start low and steadily build up. Or, divide the speech up into sections and introduce peaks and troughs. Or, divide it into sections and treat each section in a different way. Obama's speech goes for this last option. It has several sections, each very different in content, and it is the switch of content which motivates a switch of style and renews the audience's motivation to listen. Each section ends with a short audience-rousing statement:

An opening section:
We are, and always will be, the United States of America.

A 'thanks' section:
It belongs to you.

An 'origins' section ('I was never the likeliest candidate for this office...')
This is your victory.

A 'scale of the problem' section ('And I know you didn't do this just to win an election...')
I promise you, we as a people will get there.

A 'challenges' section ('There will be setbacks and false starts...')
And I will be your president too.

A 'story' section ('This election had many firsts...')
Yes we can.

Note what happens after the rhetorical 'lull' in the 'thanks' section. He returns to the rule of three, pounding steadily away:

It began in the backyards of Des Moines and the living rooms of Chicago and the front porches of Charleston.
...to give $5 and $10 and $20 to the cause.
...Americans who volunteered and organized and proved...
...a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
...two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century.
...how they'll make the mortgage or pay their doctors' bills or save enough for their child's college education.
...new energy to harness, new jobs to be created, new schools to build...
...block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.
...a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice ... a new spirit of patriotism.
...partisanship and pettiness and immaturity...
...self-reliance and individual liberty and national unity.
To those who would tear the world down... To those who seek peace and security... And to all those who have wondered...

When he reached the end of his 'challenges' section, I thought the speech was about to end. It used two time-honoured ending motifs. First there is a sequence of four rather than three:

the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.

And then an appeal to the future:

What we've already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

He could have stopped there. But then there was an electrifying change, as he moved from the general ('America can change') to the particular ('Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old').

It was a risky strategy. The end of the speech was not far off. He had just produced several hundred words of highly crafted rhetoric, with many vivid and climactic images - 'from parliaments and palaces', 'America's beacon still burns as bright', 'the true genius of America'. The audience is being brought to the boil. To tell a quiet, intimate story now could have produced an anticlimax. But it didn't. Why?

Because the speech-writers had a trick up their sleeve. The Cooper story starts quietly:

She was born just a generation past slavery...

but within a few words she is part of a new rhetorical build-up, first with a pair:

...a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky...

and then a stunning triptych, with each element containing a pair:

I think about all that she's seen throughout her century in America -
the heartache and the hope;
the struggle and the progress;
the times we were told that we can't, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes we can.

There's the trick that gets the speech out of any possible trouble. The audience has already shouted 'Yes we can', three times, at an earlier point. It has become a catch-phrase, used throughout the campaign. The real climax of the speech is going to build on that.

But an audience has to be taught what to do, by way of reaction. People won't intervene en masse in the middle of a story. They have to be invited. And Obama uses the rule of three to teach them.

...with that American creed. Yes we can. [no noticeable response]
... and reach for the ballot. Yes we can. [no noticeable response]
... a new sense of common purpose. Yes we can. [audience: Yes we can.]

From then on, he's home and dry. Every 'Yes we can' trigger is going to get a response. The triptych rhetoric continues to flow:

She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma...
A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected...
to put our people back to work... to restore prosperity... to reclaim the American dream...

And there, with 'dream', he ends as he began. 'Dream' is a powerful word in American political rhetoric, thanks to Martin Luther King. King is not mentioned in the speech, but he is there in spirit, from the beginning to the end. Obama's opening words link dreams to questions. His closing words link dreams to answers. The speech is a Martin Luther King sandwich, and it went down very very well indeed.

I still don't know how he did it. Was he reading from some teleprompter somehow? Was it memorized? Was it partly prompted and memorized? But however he did it, it will rank as one of the great political speeches of our time. It won't rank with the very best, without editing, because the 'thank-you' section particularizes and personalizes too much. The thanks to campaign managers and the like has no permanent resonance. But there are sections here which are as fine as anything I've ever heard in a speech. And if the role of style is to get one's content across as effectively as possible, then Obama and his speech-makers have proved themselves to be stylists second to none.

Friday 7 November 2008

On twoth

This is twoth in the sense of 'second', rhyming with tooth; not the combination of twee and Goth, rhyming with moth.

A correspondent writes to say she heard someone say 'a thirty-twoth of an inch' rather than the expected 'thirty-second', and wonders whether I know this usage, as it's the first time she's encountered it.

As a playful alternative to second it's been around a while, though the OED has no file on it. I can recall playing with this word as a child, and saying such things as twenty-oneth and twenty-twoth. Certainly, the force of analogy from the usual -th ending has had an impact on the irregular first, second, and third, so we do find oneth and threeth as well.

There's plenty of playfulness online. I've just done a quick search and found chapter the twoth, the twoth of July, part the twoth, and many more, as well as quite a wide range of jocular expressions relying upon it. One person bought a second toothbrush and called it a twothbrush. US columnist Larry Levy has a piece on two-player games headed The twoth, the whole twoth, and nothing but the twoth.

The word has a minimalist entry in Wiktionary, so plainly it is widely recognized. It's labelled 'nonstandard', and that's correct. But is there any evidence of a usage in standard English? Yes, in mathematics and computing, where such forms as nth and zeroth are also found. We find such expressions as 'the twoth-complement number'. I don't think this use of twoth is especially frequent, but it exists.

Saturday 18 October 2008

On instruments

A correspondent writes to ask: 'What is the difference between The window was broken with a brick and The window was broken by a brick.

Well, not much, from the window's point of view, or the house-owner's. And semantically, in this example, most people would hardly notice a difference. But they are grammatically different. What's happening is that two usually distinct constructions are overlapping because they are following a passive verb.

Grammars typically use such terminology as 'means' or 'instrument' for the first, and 'agent' for the second. Note that they answer different questions. The instrumental sentence focuses on the means used:

'What was the window broken with? or 'How was the window broken'. Answer can be: With a brick, or - so as not to repeat the with - A brick.

The agent sentence focuses on who or what performed the action:

'Who broke the window? or, in this case, 'What broke the window?' Answer cannot be With a brick. It has to be A brick - or, of course A brick broke the window.

With and without are the primary markers of instrumentality. But an instrumental meaning is often expressed by a by-phrase, and that's where the overlap with an agentive meaning comes in. You can check for instrumentality by seeing if you can substitute by means of, using, or some such phrase.

They communicated by signs.
They communicated by means of signs.
They communicated using signs.
They communicated with signs.

Note that you can't do this the other way round: an agentive meaning can't be expressed by a with phrase.

They were driven to town by a bus.
They were driven to town by a farmer.
*They were driven to town with a bus.
*They were driven to town with a farmer.

The only interpretation you could have for the latter is: 'along with a bus/farmer'.

There's a useful discussion of these constructions in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, pp. 673ff.

On correspondents

A correspondent writes to ask 'Who are these correspondents who always introduce your posts?'

Well, like this one, I have no idea, usually. The cult of anonymity is so strong on the Internet that you can't tell from the e-name, and rarely do people explain who they are. Occasionally they do. Their email might begin 'I am a teacher of English in such-a-place'. But usually I am in the dark. Does it matter? Not really. It would help sometimes to know what the mother-tongue is of correspondents, or where they live, as sometimes their linguistic background is relevant to the linguistic point they raise. And sometimes knowing the level of expertise behind a question would help me understand where a correspondent is, as they say, 'coming from'.

But blog answers are not like email answers. In fact, as we all know, they are called 'posts' - analogous to 'posters' - intended for a general readership. So I cut out all personal details in my responses and try to generalize the point at issue. If people want to personalize their comments to a post, that's fine - as long as they remain polite. No flaming is allowed on this site!

My correspondent asks where people are from. That I can establish, by going to Google Analytics. This tells me that somewhere between 150 and 200 people come to this blog every day, and that (to take the last month as an example) they/you are from 94 countries. The average number of pages visited is 1.51 and the average time spent on the site is 1 min.21 secs. Top four countries of origin are UK, USA, Germany, and Australia.

My correspondent also asks whether I answer all questions that come in. No, life is too short. I can only respond when I'm at home, and that isn't as often as I would like, hence the occasional gaps in posting. Also, some people send in questions which are simply too long to be answered - they are mini-essays. I admire the work that has gone into them, but to answer them would be tantamount to writing a journal article, and that's not what blogs are for. In some cases, I have a sneaking suspicion that the question is from a school or college assignation, where the questioners are hoping to get the work done for them. There's nothing wrong with quoting from this blog, of course, but the quote should always be attributed. And finally, some people have unrealistic expectations: they want an answer yesterday, and get angry if I (or sometimes my office, when I'm away) send an acknowledgement explaining that it just isn't possible right now. They don't get an answer at all!

Sunday 12 October 2008

On ending inconclusive(ly)

A correspondent writes to ask about the sentence The meeting ended inconclusive, which he says he has seen in newspaper report headlines. He also points to Christoph Loreck's book Endymion and the Labyrinthian Path to Eminence in Art, which contains the sentence The foreword ends inconclusive. But 'should this be inconclusively?', he asks.

Standard English usage after end is adverbial, so it would normally be inconclusively. I've seen the adjective used in news reports too - a Google search suggests that these are mainly from South Asian publications, so it might be a feature of Indian English. Replacing an adverb by an adjective is also a common interference pattern from some other languages. A German-speaking character in the film The Third Man advises Holly Martins to 'go careful' in Vienna. Perhaps this is the source of Loreck's preference, for he is German. And the vacillation turns up in some English dialects as well, for all kinds of reasons, and these will gradually influence informal standard English. For instance, ease of articulation motivates they lived happy ever after instead of the standard they lived happily ever after.

Why has the adjectival usage arisen at all? One possibility is ellipsis: the speaker is thinking of the sentence as short for something like 'The meeting ended with everyone inconclusive'. But I think it more likely that the verb is being influenced by the very similar verb end up, which readily takes an adjective: We ended up happy. The similarity in meaning can be seen from such examples as The day started sad and ended sad and I didn't know whether to be happy because the series ended happy or to be sad because the series ended. It's all very interesting, albeit somewhat inconclusive.

Tuesday 7 October 2008

On using

A school correspondent writes to point to a change in usage. In my Discover Grammar (p. 37) I list some sentences where someone has used transitive and intransitive verbs wrongly. One of the examples is I'm using now. My correspondent's students point out that this is perfectly OK, these days, in the context of drug taking. And she asks: 'if the object is implied but ellipted, as in this case, is the verb actually still transitive?'

Transitivity is a shifting thing, indeed. That's why, in this book and elsewhere, I always talk about transitive and intransitive 'uses' of verbs. A verb has a potential to be either, and it never surprises me to see a previously transitive verb being used in an intransitive way, or vice versa. In fact, intransitive uses of use can be found from the Middle Ages, and the drug-using meaning is first recorded as long ago as 1953. The OED gives an example from William S Burroughs' novel, Junkie: 'it is practically impossible to stop using'.

I wouldn't call I'm using an ellipted transitive, because the meaning is different from a transitive use. It means 'taking drugs'. I'm using something has one of the various meanings of use, such as 'employ', 'make use of', and so on. This is typical of verbs which have both uses. Compare the contrast between the other examples on page 37 of Discover Grammar, such as The neighbours have moved their car and The neighbours have moved.

Another point to note is that ellipsis isn't a useful notion here because it's not clear what is actually being left out. Ellipsis, in the grammatical approach I follow, is explicitly identifiable from the context. For example, if I say I like apples and someone comments So do I, it's reasonable to talk about ellipsis because the 'full' form of the sentence is plainly So do I like apples. But when someone says I'm using, in isolation, just like that, it's impossible to say exactly what's been omitted.

Saturday 27 September 2008

On ordering adverbials

A correspondent cites these sentences from a grammar book:

I'll meet you _____.
(a) on Sunday at 8 o'clock at Heathrow Airport
(b) at Heathrow Airport at 8 o'clock on Sunday
(c) at Heathrow Airport on Sunday at 8 o'clock

Apparently his key says that only (b) is acceptable. He asks if the others are ungrammatical.

Not in the slightest! Though that isn't to say that they would all be equally frequent. Grammar books point out positional preferences governing adverbials of place, time, manner, and so on. But all options will be heard - including the other three possibilities.

(d) at 8 o'clock on Sunday at Heathrow Airport
(e) at 8 o'clock at Heathrow Airport on Sunday
(f) on Sunday at Heathrow Airport at 8 o'clock

Which will be used, on any particular occasion, depends on many factors. Here are a few:

- the preceding context: e.g. if the preceding question had been 'Where shall we meet - and when?' that would privilege reply (b) or (c), whereas 'When shall we meet - and where?' would privilege (a) or (d).

- rhythm: the strong stresses on 'Heathrow Airport' disturb the underlying stress-timed rhythm less if they are in final position.

- weight: longer elements tend to occur later in the sentence, which motivates the use of 'Heathrow Airport' in final position.

- emphasis expressed by tonicity, usually on the last content word: this could push any of the three elements into final position, depending on which meaning is most in mind - time, day, or place.

- tone-unit divisions, which would allow a distribution of emphasis onto more than one element, if the speaker wanted to draw attention to two of the elements, or all three ('Now listen carefully: At 8 o'clock / On Sunday / At Heathrow Airport'), in which case any sequence is equally possible.

- semantic bonding between the verb and the following adverbial: the locative element in the meaning of meet is stronger than the temporal, and would pull 'Heathrow Aiport' towards the verb.

- other stylistic factors: for example, whether there is structural parallelism between this sentence and others in the surrounding discourse, or whether a rhetorical contrast of some kind is being made.

These factors pull our intuition in different directions, of course. We must expect considerable usage variation here.

Friday 26 September 2008

On contacting

A correspondent writes to ask whether I've heard the usage to contact someone with someone. He had come across it on the Jajah website, as follows:
'I use JAJAH to contact my clients with overseas developers' - a comment made by someone from California.

No, I've not come across this, as an equivalent to 'put in contact with'. It feels like a usage which could easily grow, though, as it's a natural semantic extension and it has succinctness on its side (one word instead of three). But it will certainly arouse controversy. Indeed, contact aroused the disapproval of usage pundits from the moment it was first used as a transitive verb, in its sense of 'be in communication with', in the USA in the 1920s. So this new usage will certainly attract the critics, if it catches on. Has anyone else seen or heard it?

Friday 29 August 2008

On a top ten of endangered languages

The Guardian does some interesting 'top tens', but none more so than the one which has just appeared.
Peter Austin, who directs the endangered languages documentation project at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, has just compiled a personal selection. An impossible task, in some ways, given that he had to select from some 3000 candidates. But it makes fascinating reading.

Wednesday 27 August 2008

On nominalisations

A correspont writes to say he is having trouble with nominalisations. He cites a style guide which advises its readers to shun them, turn them into verbs, and find an appropriate subject for the sentence. He comments: 'In my view, however, this is easier said than done. And to make matters worse, there seems to be instances where nominalisations are useful, particularly in academic writing.'

Nominalisation is the result of forming a noun from a word belonging to another word-class, e.g. writing from write. It's been a feature of English from its very beginning, in Anglo-Saxon times, so any general rule about 'shunning' nominalizations has to be absurd. What the style guides are usually getting at is the overuse of two processes: (a) long words formed with a suffix such as -ation - as in nominalisation, indeed, from nominalise; and (b) sentences where a noun phrase derives from a finite clause, as in the rejection of the proposal, instead of X rejected the proposal.

Nominalisations allow us the option of being more abstract and impersonal, which is why they are useful in academic writing. Note the problem in (b) above: we have to choose a subject for the clause, and it isn't obvious which subject to go for. Who actually rejected the proposal? And, in any case, is it relevant to know who rejected it? The important point is that it was rejected. The nominalisation allows this focus on the result without distraction.

The antipathy to abstract words is a feature of 20th-century style pundits. George Orwell inveighed against them (despite using them all over the place). So did Ernest Gowers. In a section (in Plain Words) called 'the lure of the abstract word' he comments that avoiding nominalisations 'is more important than any other single thing if you would convert a flabby style into a crisp one'. And certainly, the overuse of such forms can be turgid, as his examples show: 'The actualisation of the emotivation of the forces...', 'a mutuality of capability...', and so on.

But overuse is not the same as use. And no-one can avoid using nominalisations. A few lines before the above, Gowers himself writes about 'an excessive reliance on the noun at the expense of the verb', and there are dozens of nominalisations in his pages. The crucial word is 'excessive'. Excessive use of anything is always stylistically dangerous.

Style guides always simplify, often to the point of pastiche, and that is what has happened here. An originally sensible point - the need to avoid unnecessary abstraction, which often hides unclear thinking - has been generalised into an outright ban. I can't give a guide about when to use or not use nominalisations in a blog (as my correspondent also asks) - that would be a huge task. But I can draw attention to the gradience that exists between nouns and verbs - or, more precisely, between deverbal nouns via verbal nouns to participles - where it's fascinating to see the range of nuances of expression which English provides. It is one of the hidden gems in the big Quirk grammar (§17.54), and it goes like this, with glosses given underneath each sentence:

(1) some paintings of Brown's
(a) 'some paintings that Brown owns'
(b) 'some paintings painted by Brown'
(2) Brown's paintings of his daughter
(a) 'paintings depicting his daughter and painted by him'
(b) 'paintings depicting his daughter and painted by someone else but owned by him'
(3) The painting of Brown is as skilful as that of Gainsborough
(a) 'Brown's mode of painting'
(b) 'Brown's action of painting'
(4) Brown's deft painting of his daughter is a delight to watch
'It is a delight to watch while Brown deftly paints his daughter'
(5) Brown's deftly painting his daughter is a delight to watch
= 3a or 4
(6) I dislike Brown's painting his daughter
'I dislike the fact that Brown does it'
'I dislike the way that Brown does it'
(7) I dislike Brown painting his daughter (when she ought to be at school)
= 6a
(8) I watched Brown painting his daughter
'I watched Brown as he painted his daughter'
'I watched the process of Brown painting his daughter'
(9) Brown deftly painting his daughter is a delight to watch
= 3b or 4
(10) Painting his daughter, Brown noticed that his hand was shaking
'While he was painting his daughter...'
(11) Brown painting his daughter that day, I decided to go for a walk
'Since Brown was painting ...'
(12) The man paintng the girl is Brown
'The man who is painting...'
(13) The silently painting man is Brown
'The man who is silently painting'
(14) Brown is painting his daughter

Style guides should be explaining to people what English allows us to say and write, and pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of different usages in different contexts. Blanket bans are a nonsense.

On avoiding Oz

A correspondent writes to ask whether the conjunctions because, since, as, and for are interchangeable - as in She was late for class because/since/as/for her alarm clock was broken. And he adds: 'The reason I ask is that I would like to be able to use any one of them to connect clauses rather than being limited to because, which might create wizard-of-oz prose.' (He's recalling the words in the song - 'because, because, because...'.)

They can all be used, indeed, but there are frequency, stylistic, and contextual differences. Because ('cos) is by far the commonest. In one corpus study, the percentage ratio between the four conjunctions was: 77 (because), 12 (for), 5 (as) and 6 (since). For is used in more formal style, and is very rare in speech. As and since are much more common in writing, but are often avoided because of the occasional ambiguity with their temporal meaning.

As they were near the window, they heard noises
Since they left, there have been many arguments.

Corpus studies also show positional variation. All clauses are more commonly found in final position (i.e. after the main clause) - because clauses overwhelmingly so, especially in speech. As clauses tend to be more evenly balanced between initial and final position.

Note also that, if stylistic variation is the aim, English provides several other alternatives for expressing reason, such as:

With the bad weather coming, I've decided to close the store. (= Because the bad weather is coming...)
What with the bad weather coming...
Seeing (that) the bad weather is coming...

And there are more complex (and often more formal) constructions such as:

Inasmuch as the bad weather is coming...
By virtue of the bad weather...
In view of the bad weather...
On account of the bad weather...
Owing to the bad weather...
Due to the bad weather...

Plenty of choice, then, for the aspiring stylist.

Tuesday 26 August 2008

On Team GB

A correspondent wonders about the 'unusual' grammar of the phrase Team GB, as used for the Olympics team. It reminds him of a North London pub in the 1970s called Pub Lotus (where it seems all the chairs were replica bucket seats from Lotus sports cars) and Canadian usages such as Health Canada. He adds: 'Here in the UK we seem to be in a transitional stage, with English Heritage coexisting with Sport England. It's not unlike the pattern seen in stock phrases taken from Norman French, e.g. court martial, battle royal - the difference being that in the modern pattern nouns, rather than adjectives, are used in apposition.'

But that difference is important, making the construction very different from the case of postposed adjectives. How unusual is it, in fact? If we construe it appositionally as 'the team which is, more specifically, GB', then the construction is not very different from the many cases of restrictive apposition which have been in English for a long time:

Mount Everest (= the mountain that is Everest)
Lake Windemere (= the lake that is Windermere)
River Thames (= the river that is Thames)
County Cork (= the county that is Cork)
Queen Elizabeth (= the Queen who is Elizabeth)
Dr Brown (= the doctor who is Brown)
architect Jim Smith (= the architect who is Jim Smith)
the number six (= the number that is six)
the year 2009 (= the year that is 2009)
my brother Fred (= my brother who is Fred)
Platform 3 (= the platform that is 3)
and so on.

But Team GB does have a certain rhetorical punch, which comes, I think, not only from the reversed word order but also from the omission of any determiner: compare the GB Team. This makes it like Operation Desert Storm, Hurricane Katrina, Eggs Benedict, and so on, as well as such dramatic names as Mission Impossible. Constructions such as Health Canada are interesting because of their use of an uncountable noun as the first element. And part of the effect of Team GB may derive from the fact that its first element is a collective noun. A few other collectives work in the same way, e.g. Club Med, Department 2, Generation X

Is the usage likely to extend beyond the present top-level institutional senses? Will we get Team England, Team Chelsea, and so on? It would be good to collect a few more examples of the current fashionable trend.

Saturday 9 August 2008

On being linguistically defeated

Someone (presumably a daily blogger) with a sharp eye has noticed the absence of posts on this site during most of July, and wondered why. I've talked about this before (see an earlier post on bloglessness). This is a reactive blog, and July seems not to be a good month for raising questions about language - presumably the beach beckons. Also, when I'm travelling, blogging goes into abeyance.

But I have another reason, this time, which actually brought to light a point of (to me) fresh linguistic interest. A 3-week visit from Mateo, an energetic 3-year-old grandson, destroyed any chance of doing anything by way of serious writing or thinking, but it didn't give me a linguistic holiday, because this young man is trilingual. His mother is English, father Venezuelan, and they live in the Netherlands, where he attends a daily creche. So he is learning all three languages at once. I have, incidentally, as a result discovered the depressing side of child multilingualism: this is the fact that the child assumes you know the same languages as he does! Now Spanish I can handle, but the amount of Dutch I know would fill a thimble. And it is mildly embarrassing for a linguist (of all people) to be at such a loss when this scrap informs you, in 3-yr-old fluent Dutch, about the state of the world, and you have to beg him to translate. Which he does! While looking at you in a pitying way.

This has been my first close encounter with child trilingualism. Trilingual children are by no means unusual, of course. Some people estimate that maybe a third of the kids in the world grow up trilingually. And certainly it's the normal human condition to be bilingual. But it's one thing reading about trilingualism in books and articles, and quite another to hear it around you in daily practice. As a result, I heard something I'd not noticed before.

Three is an age where monolingual children first display serious 'normal non-fluency' (as the speech pathology world calls it). This is a phenomenon which sometimes causes parents anxiety, because with its pauses and repeated attempts at words it sounds like stammering, but in fact it's nothing like stammering at all. In particular, it lacks the tension one associates with that condition. What the child is doing is processing more complex language (notably, coordinate and subordinate clauses), and needing extra time to do it. So we hear such narratives as 'Daddy went in the garden and he - and he - and he - and he did kick the big ball'. There might be a dozen or more repetitions before the child sorts out what is needed to make a successful coordinate clause.

I've talked about all this before, in several clinical linguistic books and articles, but one thing I'd never thought of was the way normal non-fluency would be a sign of code-switching at this age. Mateo is at the stage now where he is realizing he speaks different languages. He has learnt the names 'English', 'Spanish', and 'Dutch', and is using them appropriately. Evidence? When watching Handy Manny on Play Disney - a repairman who switches between Spanish and English - Mateo shouts out 'Spanish' whenever he hears some Spanish words. And on the way back from the beach one day, as we passed a boy with a big bike, he looked at it, then at me, and said 'bicycle'. I didn't know he knew that word, so I must have appeared to be taken aback, because he then said - as if I hadn't understood - 'bicicleta' (the vocative 'prat' was in his intonation). He then added, for my benefit, 'Spanish'. 'I don't suppose you know it in Dutch as well?', I said, in a sceptical tone. He made a noise which sounded like a rude dismissal, so I queried it, and he said 'bike'. His mother told me later that he had probably said fiets, and that bike was common as a loan word in everyday Dutch. All this in a kid who's been on this earth for only just over a thousand days.

For single-word sentences, there was no non-fluency. But when attempting longer sentences, there was. A typical situation was where he would start a sentence in English, then half-way through realize that the word he needed was only available to him in Dutch. Previously he would have simply said the Dutch word without pause, in a mixing phenomenon well recognized in child bilingualism. But now, aware that this was a different language, his developing pragmatic sense of appropriateness made him pause - but (as is typical of normal non-fluency) he kept on jerkily talking. Occasionally he found the English word himself, but often he fell back on the Dutch one, or simply looked at me appealingly for help - which I was usually able to provide, as the context made it clear which word he was looking for.

Normal non-fluency doesn't last for very long - usually, less than six months. So you have to be in the right place at the right time to experience it - which is presumably why it has had so little study in the language acquisition literature. What I don't know is whether, in a multilingual context, it takes longer to resolve. We'll see.

Friday 8 August 2008

On commas, again

A correspondent writes to ask if there is a rule for the use of commas before end-placed optional adverbials.

The 'optional' is important. If an adverbial is obligatorily required to complete the sense of the verb, then there can't be a comma. An adverbial is obligatory after put, for instance, so it has to be:

I put the book on the table.

and never

I put the book, on the table.

Similarly, if there is a clear semantic contrast involved, the comma is needed to make a distinction:

He walked naturally. = He walked in a natural manner.
He walked, naturally. = Of course he walked.

With optional adverbials, it would be unusual to see commas before single adverbs, adverb phrases, and short adverb clauses:

I stopped reading the book immediately.
I stopped reading the book at three o'clock.
I stopped reading the book when the clock struck three.

Inserting a comma in such cases would be to add a dramatic reading which would have to be justified by the context, such as - in this example - conveying an 'afterthought' impression:

I stopped reading the book, immediately.
= I stopped reading the book - immediately.

With clauses, because they are semantically and grammatically more self-contained, there is a greater likelihood of a comma intervening. However, this is only likely to happen if the adjacent clauses are relatively lengthy (motivating a pause and thus a comma) or if there is no close semantic link between adverbial and verb. The following pair of sentences illustrate the first issue:

Most people took up new jobs after the war was over.
Thousands of people of all ranks and ages took up new jobs in a wide range of professions, after the peace negotiations had been brought to a satisfactory conclusion.

The comma is not obligatory, but inserting one certainly helps the reading process, whether internally or reading aloud, and it is thus widely encountered in such contexts.

In that pair of sentences, there is no strong semantic link between the verb phrase took up and the adverbial. By contrast, the earlier sentence I stopped reading the book when the clock struck three does have a strong link. The temporal meanings of stopped and when form a strong semantic bond and make a comma unlikely.

The main places where there is comma uncertainty arise when there is a clash between these two criteria. A lengthy construction would motivate a comma, whereas a strong semantic link would not. This sentence illustrates:

I stopped reading the book about how to carry out an analysis of commas in a wide range of languages(,) when I realized that it wasn't going to reach any satisfactory conclusion.

Style guides vary in their advice, in such cases. Most newspapers underpunctuate.

Writers with a strong sense of auditory style are much more likely to use commas, to point the way they want their sentences to be heard. I believe this is a major feature of my own style. Indeed, it can be seen just now (in my to point clause) and a few sentences ago (where my whereas clause was separated by a comma). Grammatically the commas are unnecessary, in these cases, but they represent the way I want the sentences to be internally heard. The issue becomes a matter of aesthetics, now, and so not everyone will like it. Indeed, a few weeks ago I got a ferocious email from someone complaining about the overuse of commas in my By Hook or By Crook. He found four in one short sentence, he said. Me, overuse commas, in a short sentence? Never, never, never, never, never.

Thursday 7 August 2008

On "can be able to"

I usually begin my posts with the phrase 'A correspondent writes...'. This time it has to be 'A Correspondent writes...' For the query comes via Her Majesty the Queen.

No, it is not the case (I imagine) that Her Majesty reads this blog. What happened was this. A Japanese professor, anxious to check on a question of English grammar in the King James version of the Bible, thought that the best way of deciding the matter was to write directly to the Queen. (I think that's wonderful, that someone should think to do such a thing.) Her Majesty's correspondence officer, observing that 'this is not a matter on which The Queen would comment', forwarded the letter to the English-Speaking Union (the Duke of Edinburgh is its patron), and they in turn passed it on to me. So I guess this is the next best thing to having a royal appointment! Maybe there will be a post of Grammar Laureate one day.

It's an interesting issue. The correspondent had noted an unusual modal auxiliary use in Exodus 10.5, where it is said that locusts will cover the face of the earth so that 'one cannot be able to see the earth'. He suggests - very plausibly, to my mind - that this has to mean, 'it is not possible that one is able to see'. And he comments that the expression is 'unnatural'.

It certainly wasn't unnatural in the 16th century. There are several examples of can/cannot co-occurring with be able to. A couple occur in Shakespeare. In The Winter's Tale (5.2.25), the Second Gentleman observes: 'Such a deal of wonder is broken out within this hour that ballad-makers cannot be able to express it.' And in Antony and Cleopatra (1.4.78), Lepidus says:

Tomorrow, Caesar,
I shall be furnished to inform you rightly
Both what by sea and land I can be able
To front this present time.

It seems that can was being treated just like may, shall. and others, all of which can precede be able to - I may be able to go, They should be able to go, and so on.

As the modal system developed, the association of can with be able to fell away, for two reasons. There was an overlap of meaning between the ability sense of can and that of be able to, which made can be able to seem tautologous. And be able to came to fill the gap of expressing ability whenever a nonfinite construction required it: one says to be able to talk, not to can talk. The two expressions thus complemented each other, and this made it less likely that they would co-occur.

But the usage didn't die away completely, especially in negative expressions. I have heard can't be able to in some regional dialects. Nor did it entirely disappear from Standard English. If you do a Google search for cannot be able to there are 3000 or so examples. Now, admittedly many of these are likely to come from people for whom English is a second or foreign language, and where learning levels are unclear, but there are several cases where the text has been written by native speakers in Standard English. Here is an example, from Articles Base:

'E-mail notifications should be provided to inform users when they are required to perform a task or need to be aware of an event. This should be able to be deactivated but at the same time there must always be some alternative form of notification that cannot be able to be deactivated.'

It would be interesting to hear if the usage is known by readers of this blog.

Monday 4 August 2008

On txtng reactions

Following up my last post: I've been impressed by the media coverage given to Txtng: the Gr8 Db8 over the past three weeks. The interest seems to have reached across the usual publishing divide. One day a full-page review appeared in The Daily Mail; the next day in The Times. This week there were reviews in the New Statesman, New Scientist, and Newsweek and - I kid you not - one column inch in Take A Break. Is this the first time the word linguistics has appeared in that publication? I imagine so!

But it's going to be difficult to dispel the urban myths about texting. Here’s an example of the problem. Txtng came out on 5th July. On the 6th there was a report in Scotland on Sunday headed ‘Professor spreads the word on joy of text’. That sounds good, and the report did summarize quite well the six main points.

- Text messages aren’t full of abbreviations - typically less than ten percent of the words use them.
- These abbreviations aren’t a new language - they’ve been around for decades.
- They aren’t just used by kids - adults of all ages and institutions are the leading texters these days.
- Pupils don’t routinely put them into their school-work or examinations.
- It isn’t a cause of bad spelling: you have to know how to spell before you can text.
- Texting actually improves your literacy, as it gives you more practice in reading and writing.

At the end, the reporter asked for a reaction from the Headteachers’ Association of Scotland. This is what the spokesman said: ‘Because of the rate in which text-speak is taking hold I shudder to think what letters will look like in 10 years’ time.’

The spokesman obviously hadn’t paid any attention at all to the report. The reaction I would hope to see is something along the lines of: ‘It’s reassuring to hear that things aren’t as bad as we thought they were’. Or even: ‘Well let’s explore ways in which we can utilize the potential of texting for improving literacy in our schools’. But no.

I struggle to find an analogy. It’s a bit like someone saying: ‘an aeroplane landed on a motorway a few years ago, and everyone worried about it happening again. It’s a real problem now, and it’s going to be even worse in 10 years’ time.’

To which the answer is: it isn’t a problem, actually. You’re imagining it. Look at the facts before you comment. It’s a risk, certainly, and we need to be alert. But there are no grounds for panicking.

A few years ago, it would have been difficult to say this about texting, because there were no facts. Things have changed now. The research is building up. My book went to press just a few months ago, and already since then I’ve come across further research findings which reaffirm its conclusions. For example, a recent article (in New Scientist for 15 May 2008) reported a study by Sali Tagliamonte and Derek Denis of the University of Toronto which confirmed that abbreviations are far less frequent in electronically mediated communication than people suppose. For every one instance of u, there are nine of you, they found. That’s exactly what I would expect.

It’ll take quite a while to get rid of the myths about texting. The trouble is that they are well established on the Internet. That hoax essay from 2003, in which a pupil was supposed to have bemused her teacher by writing an essay entirely in textisms, is still doing the rounds. Someone sent me a copy just the other day as ‘evidence’ of the terrible state we’re in. If it was a regular happening, or (more to the point) if teachers were letting this happen, we might have cause to worry. But it isn’t. They aren’t. And we shouldn’t.

Tuesday 8 July 2008

On txtng

The publication of Txtng: the Gr8 Db8 last Saturday, extracted in the Guardian, has brought a flurry of correspondence. Of greatest interest have been an encounter with the unusual ways in which people have been using text-messaging - and indeed going well beyond it.

I'd not come across the SMS Guerilla Projector before - a device which lets people project text messages in public spaces onto walls or people, for instance. Then there are the performance art applications, illustrated by TXTual Healing. But probably the most remarkable phenomenon, from a linguistic point of view, is LOLcats, LOLdogs, and related sites. This started by showing cute pictures of the animals and captioning them in nonstandard English. It goes well beyond the limited conventions of text-messaging, and is now developing into a genre of its own. Most of the Old Testament seems to have been translated into it, it seems, as this LOLcat Bible site shows. The opening lines of Genesis 1 will give you the flavour.

Oh hai. In teh beginnin Ceiling Cat maded teh skiez An da Urfs, but he did not eated dem.
Da Urfs no had shapez An haded dark face, An Ceiling Cat rode invisible bike over teh waterz.

It only started in July 2007, and a year later about 60 per cent of the Bible is done. They're even trying to standardize it - see How to speak lolcat. It's an interesting mixture of baby-talk, animal-speak, and netspeak, along with some conventional nonstandard spelllings.

It's amazing what's out there, when you go looking!

Saturday 5 July 2008

On receiving a poem

One of the correspondents to this blog has sent in a poem, as a comment on the post 'On complaining about the tide coming in' (last December). Rather than bury it there, I reproduce it here. Thanks, Kate.

For the man who complains about people using words in senses which the dictionary has yet to record:

by Kate Gladstone

(tune: "The Irish Rover")

People say the English tongue
Is coming quite unsprung,
When words get new meanings, lose the ones they had.
Check the Oxford Dictionary,
And you'll find this isn't scary,
Degenerate, or new, or even bad.

In the days of Chaucer, once
You called your friend a DUNCE,
And meant he was a high-class intellectual:
But if you called somebody NICE,
What you meant, to be precise,
Was to label him as dim and ineffectual.

CHORUS: They lament what we've done
To the old mother tongue,
Howling "crime" and claiming multitudes misuse it ...
If they'd practice what they preach,
They'd speak eight-hundred-year-old speech ...
If they won't, they shouldn't say that we abuse it.

If you call word-changes bad,
And you say they make you SAD --
This, eight hundred years ago, meant down-to-earth ...
If all usage must be old,
Then STARVE is "die of cold,"
And AMUSED is "stunned," instead of "touched by mirth".

NAUGHTY now means nothing much --
An infant's prank or such --
But long ago in Chaucer's day medieval,
Or even Shakespeare's time,
It meant "hostile", "prone to crime",
"Worthless" (morally, or otherwise), and "evil."


If you call a girl a HUSSY,
And she gets all mean and fussy,
Say you haven't cast aspersions on her life,
Tell her that your speech is pure,
And she therefore should be sure
That you meant -- like men of old -- she's a "housewife."

Find an English-usage smarty
And invite him to a party.
Offer POISON. He will think you've lost your mind.
You should whine and act offended
That your friendship now is ended,
Like the former meaning: "drink of any kind."


He'll call your behavior AWFUL.
As a compliment it's lawful
To accept this, for as such it has no flaw --
If words mustn't ever change
To new meanings, it's not strange
That he kindly found his host "inspiring awe."

If they call me SILLY, I'll
Just bow my head and smile --
For this once meant "holy," also "full of joy" --
So this word you surely may
Use of anyone today
Whose devotion to old meanings might annoy.


I hope you liked this song,
And you didn't find it long --
Call it PRETTY and I'll know just how you feel:
If changed meanings are obscene,
"Crafty's" all that word may mean,
And the meaning of "attractive" can't be real!

Friday 4 July 2008

On being superior

A correspondent writes to ask about superior, having heard someone say Federer is so superior to the rest of the field and then He is very superior. Are these acceptable? He adds: 'It seems to me that it has something to do with whether superior is a comparative form or not. I asked myself whether one could say, He's so better than the rest of the field and concluded that one could not. So I took it that so can't modify a comparative. Then I asked myself whether one could say He's very better than the rest of the field and found that this definitely sounded wrong. So I concluded that very can't modify a comparative either. But then I couldn't work out whether superior was a comparative or not, and so I could not tell whether so superior or very superior were OK. It seems to me that one can definitely say He's far superior to the rest of the field (compare: he's far better...) and also: He's so far superior. But then one can't have far with a non-comparative (compare: He's far good). But what about so on its own modifying superior? Does that work (as it would for a non-comparative: He's so good) ? Or does one need far (or much) between the so and the superior: He's so far superior?'

I quote this at length because it is an excellent example of how to explore a usage issue. My correspondent is developing a real sense of the complexity of this area of grammar. And it is complex. We are, to begin with, dealing with a group of Latin derived comparatives which don't work exactly like others in English - senior, junior, superior, inferior, prior, major, minor, anterior, posterior.... They have been called 'implicit' or 'absolute' comparatives (though the latter term is not advisable, as it conflicts with the general use of 'absolute' to mean the basic form of an adjective). Their main distinguishing feature is that they don't work like normal comparatives in being followable by than. we can say X is bigger than Y but not X is superior than Y. They are, then, comparative in meaning, but not in syntax. (Some verbs are comparative in meaning too, incidentally, such as exceed and diminish.)

Premodification of comparatives is also quite tricky. They are usually preceded by amplifiers, such as (so) much: X is much more difficult than Y. Others include somewhat, far, rather, a good deal, a damn sight. Intensifiers which work with the absolute form of the adjective won't work for the comparative: we can say X is very good but not X is much good. And conversely: we can't say X is very bigger; it has to be very much bigger.

If superior is not a true comparative, then, it won't work in exactly the same way as other comparatives with respect to the kind of modification it accepts. Because it's midway between absolute and comparative, we find both patterns in use, depending on how people think of it: I've heard both X is very superior and X is very much superior. Hence, you will find Federer is so superior... alongside so much superior.

I would thus expect to hear all kinds of mixes in the way these words are used with postmodifying constructions. Like my correspondent, I've heard such sentences as X is so superior to the rest of the field and X is very superior to the rest of the field. And there are signs of a construction with than emerging. It's not one which is grammatical in my idiolect, but you'll find on Google such constructions as the proposal is far superior than the current system and suchlike. I wouldn't be surprised to see this becoming standard one day.

But all of this is in the melting pot, now that the use of so has altered. Today we hear it being used with nouns and noun phrases, with strong stress - That is so 1960s, That is so Marks & Spencers. People who do that are not going to think twice about He's so better than the rest of the field. The usage isn't especially recent - the OED has intensifying uses of so going back to 1913, mainly American - but it certainly has taken on a new lease of life in the UK in the last decade or so. Because the Latinate adjectives also have nominal function (e.g. X is a junior), we can therefore expect such usages as That is so junior. And this development will make people feel much more comfortable with examples like the Federer one.

Tuesday 10 June 2008

On (in)complete predications

A correspondent writes to ask about the difference between 'complete' and 'incomplete' predication, which she and her colleagues have found confusing.

I'm not surprised. It's not a pair of terms I come across much these days. Terms based on 'completeness' are more associated with Victorian grammars, and they rather fell into disrepute when structural linguistics developed. But the underlying concept is still an important part of any modern grammar, even though analyses vary somewhat.

A verb which can stand alone as a predicate (i.e. without any complementation) would be a 'complete' predicate, in these terms. It's gone, I complained, and so on.

An 'incomplete' predicate would be a verb which requires some sort of complementation for the sentence to be grammatical. In the terms I like to use, this would be an object (a transitive verb, e.g. I saw a dog), an adverbial (e.g. They kept out of trouble) or a complement (in a narrow sense, e.g. I am ready).

Notice that the class a verb belongs to depends on its meaning: I kept a cat is different from I kept out of trouble. Similarly, we need to distinguish between I'm eating and I'm eating a cake. In other words, we're talking here about different uses of verbs - a more helpful way of thinking, to my mind, than to set up an absolute contrast, such as is implied by 'complete' vs 'incomplete'.

A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (§§16.20ff) has an excellent listing of verbs in different complementation functions.

On @ signs

A correspondent writes to ask what is the 'official' name for the @ sign, if there is one.

Well, I guess it all depends on what one means by 'official'. What is official in one context may not be so in another - and that is the case with this sign. Traditionally, it was officially referred to as 'commercial at', because of its origins in commercial accounting; and that is the way it's described in the Unicode system and in the Telecoms standardization system (what used to be called CCITT). On the other hand, the majority usage today is in computing contexts, so that term seems a bit antiquated.

Modern terms whch have been proposed include 'asperand' and 'ampersat', but neither has more than a few thousand hits on Google. 'Amphora' is another suggestion, derived from the medieval symbol used as a measure of quantity (an amphora was a kind of jar).

Personally, I think the best technical term in English for the at sign is 'at sign'.

Note that other languages have opted for different solutions, usually based on the shape of the symbol, such as Dutch apenstaartje ('little monkey-tail'), Hungarian kukac ('worm, maggot'), and so on. There are several lists available on the Web (if you type in 'at sign' into a search engine).

Sunday 8 June 2008

On /r/s and ofs

A correspondent - presumably from the UK - writes to say she is 'fascinated by the American habit (inability?) to say mirror, terror, etc as we do in two discrete syllables. mir-r, ter-r, is what we hear.' Why do they do it?, she asks. She offers four explanations:
'1. A desire to be stylish or a reluctance to be too correct/too English?
2. Their frequent desire to speed speech up, as in giving a year as Two thousand eight instead of Two thousand and eight?
3. A form of shyness, like saying duiper instead of nappy?
4. Or maybe a Deep South accent becoming unable to embrace it?'

She also asks if we know when such usage began, adding (in a totally different connection): 'the first occurrence I have come across of, for example, would of instead of would have is in Gone with the Wind.'

The answer to the first point is much, much simpler. Most accents of US English are rhotic - that is, they pronounce the /r/ after a vowel. The phonetic character of the /r/ is retroflex, i.e. the tip of the tongue is curled back towards the palate. In words like mirror we find two retroflexed /r/s occurring in quick succession. It is therefore the most natural thing in the world to run the two /r/s together. The alternative, to drop the tip of the tongue for the vowel and then to raise it again, would slow the pronunciation down so artificially that it would sound weird. In fact, nobody ever does this. A 'long /r/' is the result. No need to delve into the imagined American psyche here.

The fallacy in the explanations given by my correspondent is clear when one realizes that this isn't exclusively an American thing. Any rhotic accent will display the same effect. You can hear the same sort of 'long /r/' in West Country UK accents, for instance, or in Northern Ireland, and many other regions. Where did the American /r/ come from in the first place? Think of the people on the Mayflower, and where many of them came from.

As for the spelling would of and other such usages... this isn't a recent American thing either. The earliest instance I have come across of have appearing as of is in one of Keats's letters (5 Sept 1819). And the elliptical pronunciation has probably been around as long as the auxiliary verbs have existed in English. there are several 'ves in Shakespeare, for instance.

Friday 6 June 2008

On good times and bad

A correspondent learning English as a foreign language writes to say he is uncertain about whether he can say for four times (vs four times) and for several times (vs several times) in English. He has found the former in Othello and the latter in Frankenstein, he says.

The Othello example is a red herring. It is: 'I have looked upon the world for four times seven years' - so this is the use of times meaning 'multiplied by'. The preposition governs the noun years, and the usage is fine (although the phrase as a whole is stylistically unusual).

The Frankenstein one is found in Chapter 12 of Mary Shelley's book, and this is more interesting. It is: 'for several times they placed food before the old man when they reserved none for themselves'. That's certainly odd. The OED has 364 instances of the phrase several times in its entire database, and none of them have a preceding for.

Numerals provide occasional examples. The OED has 600 instances of three times, and there are two preceded by for - a British one in 1830 and a US one in 1919. So it may have been more common in earlier times - but two instances out of 600 isn't very convincing evidence for a norm. Today, as earlier, the standard usage for times meaning 'occasions / instances' is as follows:

I've been to France several/three times.
I knocked on the door several/four times.

Why do the for instances arise at all? I think it's the influence of the construction used for specific time periods, which readily allows an optional for:

I stayed there (for) several/four days.
I waited (for) several/three hours.

That's probably why there's some EFL uncertainty.

Tuesday 3 June 2008

On Caxton as linguist

A correspondent writes to ask, in relation to the emergence of standardization in English, whether the choices made by William Caxton in his publications were linguistically motivated.

I've actually dealt with this question at some length in my The Stories of English (Chapter 11), so I won't repeat myself here. My view, in brief, is that the spellings in Caxton's books were so varied that it isn't possible to ascribe to him any sort of conscious standardization policy. I agree with Norman Blake, in his excellent study (Caxton and his World), who concludes that Caxton was 'an opportunist in linguistic matters'. I see Caxton as a jobbing printer, who wanted to get books out as quickly and efficiently as possible. My impression is that he was a man of the moment, devising ways of solving the immediate printing task presented by a manuscript, and not especially concerned to check that the linguistic solution for book X was the same as the one he had already adopted for book Y. Even within one book, there are many variations. In the famous 'egg' story (from Eneydos we find 'asked' spelled within a few lines of each other as axed and axyd, 'wife' as wyf and wyfe, and many more such instances of variation. His books did introduce several features which would eventually help to shape Standard English. The 'egg' story shows that he was aware of the need to make choices. But there's precious little sign of a linguistic policy in his work.

On early splitting

A correspondent writes to ask about split infinitives. He has read The Fight for English, where I say that the construction has been in the language for centuries, but I don't give any examples. He is suspicious. Are there really any before the 19th century, he asks?

Oh, yes, plenty. They've been traced back to the 13th century, at first usually with a single negative word or pronoun as the splitting element, but then with adverbs. The early 15th-century cleric Reginald Pecock frequently used them. Here is an example from his The Repressor of Overmuch Blaming of the Clergy (chapter 5):

Goddis forbode y schulde be so lewde for to so seie
[God forbid I should be so foolish as to say so]

There are examples in Wyclife, Tyndale, More, Donne, Goldsmith, Burns... From Thomas More (1557) we find 'and then to not byleve them'; from Thomas Stapleton (1565), 'to flatly gainsaye'.

The practice became less common in the Early Modern English period - I don't know why. I can't recall any instances in Shakespeare, for instance. It builds up again in the 18th and 19th century - which is presumably why late 19th-century prescriptive grammarians started to condemn it - notwithstanding instances such as 'in order to fully appreciate' from Lord Macaulay (in 1843), among others.

Monday 2 June 2008

On tolerating

A correspondent writes: 'What, if any, is the difference between tolerance and toleration? As far as I know, tolerance is the commoner word. Are they synonymous?'

Tolerance is certainly the commoner word - try a Google search and you'll see it's about forty times as common. But that's not the issue. There are certainly meaning differences. Tolerance is the broader concept. It is used in a variety of settings, some quite specialized, especially in engineering (where people talk of tolerances, meaning a permitted deviation from a specified norm), biology (where it means the ability of an organism to withstand a particular environmental condition), and in medicine (where people talk of a tolerance for a certain drug, say). In its most general sense, it expresses a sympathetic willingness to accept views or behaviour other than one's own.

You also find tolerance quite often used as part of a compound expression, as in tolerance dose, tolerance level, and tolerance limit. A 2007 proposed addition to the OED notes tolerance zone - a designated area in which prostitution is tolerated by the local authority. That's a 20th-century usage.

Toleration is usually used when someone wants to talk about a specific instance of tolerance - a particular act of allowing something. In history, there are some famous cases of this kind, as reflected in such government names as Act of Toleration and Toleration Bill. It also has a much stronger suggestion of limits, and sometimes even a sense of reluctance. Tolerance has more positive connotations (a desire to accept) than toleration, which can mean 'we have to put up with this'. Compare the phrase religious tolerance with religious toleration. The country which practises the former is more likely to be enthusiastically supporting religious diversity than the latter.

During the history of these two words, there have certainly been occasions when their meanings have overlapped. But they seem to be pretty distinct today. Note that both have the same opposite: intolerance. There is no intoleration.

Saturday 24 May 2008

On not editing encyclopedias any more

A correspondent writes with a suggestion for inclusion in the next edition of the Penguin Encyclopedia - and as messages of this kind are a fairly regular occurrence, this post provides an opportunity to tell interested parties of the main event this week, which means that there will be no more general encyclopedias under my editorship.

I have been editing general reference works for Penguin since 2002 - mainly The Penguin Encyclopedia and its Concise edition, as well as the Penguin Factfinder and its variants, such as The Penguin Book of Facts, and a set of small 'pocket' books on a range of topics. Earlier this year, Penguin decided not to do any further editions of these books. Why? Mainly because sales of published general encyclopedias have been falling away, thanks to the arrival of Wikipedia and other such sites. That is where most people go when they want information now, it seems - notwithstanding the fact that the information is regularly misleading, biased, or just plain wrong, as is inevitable when entries are compiled in a wiki-like way. Penguin isn't the only encylopedia publisher to withdraw. I read the other day of a French encyclopedia which has stopped publication for the same reason.

My editorial team in Holyhead continued to develop the reference database, nonetheless. Over the years we have been supplying reference data to a number of other publishers and online sources, such as biography.com, and the maintenance of the database continued to be a priority. A reference database is only valuable if it is up-to-date. We used to have a boast that if you died in the morning (and were famous enough) you would be in our database by the evening. The same coverage is needed for hundreds of areas of everyday life, from sports results to Oscars, from political leadership changes (in all countries) to the latest work by leading film stars and novelists. It kept my little team very busy, as you can imagine.

But you will have noticed the tense form, 'kept'. This week, the organization which owns the reference database, adpepper media, decided that its continued maintenance was no longer viable. My team was made redundant, and the database was immediately shelved. I therefore need to record that my intellectual responsibility for that database ceased as of this week. It's a great shame - for we are talking about a database which was compiled over a 22-year-period by hundreds of specialists, belonging to institutions as wide-ranging as NASA and the Natural History Museum - but in business terms it is perfectly understandable. If it doesn't make money, it's history.

Again for the record, let me summarize that history. The project began in 1986, when I was asked to compile the new Cambridge Encyclopedia for Cambridge University Press. Over the next decade, a series of reference books appeared from that publisher (the full details can be found in the books section of my website). In 1995, CUP changed its policy and sold the database to a Dutch IT firm, AND, who were more interested in developing the underlying taxonomy (which allowed us to mine the database for types of information) in relation to Internet search-engine activity (this was pre-Google, remember). The Cambridge encyclopedias continued to be published until 2000, but then AND went into liquidation, and all activity stopped, both on the reference side and on the IT side. Soon after, anxious not to waste the huge amount of work that had been done, and to safeguard the jobs of the Holyhead team (in an area which had been hard hit by recession), I and a colleague set up our own company, Crystal Reference Systems, to develop both the reference and the IT dimensions. We began to produce a new family of encyclopedias for Penguin, and to develop the IT side in a number of fresh directions - chiefly in relation to search engines, e-commerce, internet security, and automatic document classification. I will tell the story of that struggle on another occasion, but the upshot was that in 2006 the business was sold to adpepper media, who then shaped the IT side to focus on providing accurate and relevant placement of ads on web pages - what I call 'semantic targetting'. It is that side of the business which the new owners wish to concentrate on now, and the demise of the reference side of the business has been a consequence.

I hope to have the opportunity to tell the encyclopedia story at greater length in due course, and to acknowledge thereby the role played by the many specialists, editors, and readers who contributed to the projects over more than two decades. For the moment, this announcement must suffice to alert those reference-buffs who are aware of my involvement in general encyclopedia publishing that, as of 12 May 2008, that involvement is ended.