Tuesday 28 April 2009

On giving 100 percent

This week my phone has been overworked because apparently Alan Sugar fires people who say they are giving a job '110 percent'. He's evidently got the impression that the English language only allows people to get up to 100, in terms of percentages.

I was surprised to hear that, coming from a businessman, who is presumably used to seeing shares going up by 200 percent, and such like. There's nothing mathematically wrong with going over 100. But of course what he's getting at (and failing to recognize) is a recent change in usage. It's a kind of semantic inflation, which (it occurs to me) is a bit like the discussion on this blog a while back about '1000 apologies'.

In its figurative usage, 100 percent always meant a notional maximum: one gave up to 100 percent of one's effort, and could give no more. Now the meaning has altered: 100 percent has come to mean 'the norm, the usual level'. 110 percent thus means, '10 percent more than what ordinary people do, or what has been someone's norm hitherto'. 200 percent means 'twice as much'. And so on. I'd expect Alan Sugar to be pleased that someone has expressed the desire to make that extra effort, not to dismiss it.

I've heard 500 percent, 1000 percent, and other values in recent times. Clearly the numbers are not important: it's the rhetoric that counts. And people seem to need the rhetoric. If a football team makes a greater effort than normal, managers routinely compliment them by raising the percentages. Of course, if such phrases become frequent, they turn into cliches, and lose their meaning. But that is precisely what Alan Sugar should have probed. Was his candidate thinking of what he was saying? If I'd been Sugar, I wouldn't have automatically dismissed the 10 percent as a 'waste', I'd have asked the candidate how exactly he would have improved on his previous performance by that amount, and judged him on the quality of his response.

Saturday 25 April 2009

On the rich's

A correspondent writes from Denmark to point out this usage seen in The Economist at the beginning of April:

But what makes the rich's behaviour so galling for many critics is that their two greatest crimes were committed in broad daylight...

He observes: according to A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (7.23), 'Adjectives as noun-phrase heads, unlike nouns, do not inflect for number or for the genitive case...' And he wonders what is going on.

A change does seem to be taking place among some of these 'de-adjectival class nouns'. A quick Google search brought to light several other examples of the rich's, such as:

At last, a budget where the super-rich's bluff is called.
Close study debunks myth of the rich's tax burdens

And many more examples of other items, such as:

Private education? The poor's best chance.
This would drastically reduce the wealthy's taxes while forcing them to take up more of the slack

Why is it happening? Well, from one point of view, there's nothing new here. Historically, adjectival nouns have taken a genitive for centuries. Plymouth's first workhouse was known as the 'Hospital of the Poor's Portion', which dated from around 1630. And the OED has examples from around 1400 going right through into the 20th century. Both singular poor's and plural poors' are found. The switch to a solely non-genitive usage seems to have emerged in the 18th century. That's when we find poor tax alongside poor's tax, poor money alongside poor's money, and so on. Scotland seemed to keep the 's forms longer. The OED now says that the 's is 'archaic and rare'. It has no examples of the rich's, but that will need to change. The Middle English Dictionary, for example, has an instance from 1425.

Looking at the examples, I can see some reasons motivating the change. There's a succinctness (and possibly greater clarity) in The poor's best chance compared with The best chance of the poor. And this is likely to be reinforced whenever the item turns up within an of-postmodification, as in:

Close study debunks myth of the rich's tax burdens.

The alternative, with its sequence of of's, is not likely to appeal, especially in headlines, where space is at a premium:

Close study debunks myth of the tax burdens of the rich.

The genitive usage may well have originated as a journalistically-motivated change, but it's wider than that now. Certainly worth keeping an eye on.

Wednesday 22 April 2009

On the biggest load of rubbish...

The phone hasn't stopped ringing this week. An American organization is claiming that the English language is just about to get its millionth word. They've even suggested a day when this will happen. It's the biggest load of rubbish I've heard in years. But it's attracted a huge amount of publicity.

All it means is that the algorithm they've been using to track English words has finally reached a million. But the English language passed a millon words years ago. Way back in the 1980s, the OED had well over half a million words in its collection. Webster had around half a million. And if you made a comparison of the two (as I did when I was writing The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language) you could see straight away that the coverage was by no means the same. I estimated then that there was about a third difference in coverage between the two dictionaries, due largely to the OED's historical remit - so from these two projects alone there was evidence of some three-quarters of a million words in English.

I then did some comparisons with technical dictionaries, such as dictionaries of botany and linguistics. Most of the really specialized terms in those books weren't in either the OED or Webster. I reached a million very quickly, and it was obvious that this was a task without end. Something like 80 per cent of the vocabulary of English is scientific and technical. There are over a million insects in the world, for example, and English presumably has words for most of them - even if several are Latin loan words. At the same time I also looked at Gale's Dictionary of Abbreviations. There were over half a million of those.

And we haven't even started talking about the spoken language yet. Dictionaries traditionally base themselves on the written language. That's where they get their citations from. But we all know that there are thousands of words in everyday speech which never get recorded in dictionaries - slang, argot, colloquialisms of all kinds (such as the hundreds of words for saying you're drunk). If the American firm is relying on a trawl of internet sources for its database, it's missing out on all of that. And, of course, it's ignoring all the developing 'new Englishes' that exist in largely spoken form around the world. Dictionaries of South African, Jamaican, and other regional Englishes routinely contain 10, 15, 20 thousand or more items. And each editor acknowledges that there are many more 'out there'.

Even if it were possible to ascertain coverage, there's the methodological question of what counts as a word. This is an old chestnut for linguists, but computer firms still ignore it. Flowerpot is one word, but so is flower-pot and flower pot. Will this be counted as one word or two? No computer programme can yet identify all compounds efficiently - let alone idioms such as kick the bucket - and there are tens of thousands of these. Nor can they cope with the problem of distinguishing between words and names. David Crystal isn't a word in the English language in the usual sense; but White House is, in its sense of 'US government'.

The distinction between 'words' and 'lexemes' is critical when you're studying vocabulary. If we count Shakespeare's words, in the grammatical sense, we get around 30,000. If we count Shakespeare's lexemes, we get less than 20,000. A million words is not the issue; a million lexemes is. But I don't know of any computer algorithm which can identify lexemes efficiently. Even linguists with much more powerful brains than computers have got have trouble with the concept sometimes.

A few years ago, world population passed 6 billion. One paper even claimed to have found the 6 billionth child. It was an intriguing idea, which probably sold a few papers, but we all knew it was nonsense. Claiming to find the millionth word is the same - an intriguing idea, and extra PR for the US firm. But it's still nonsense.

Saturday 18 April 2009

On welcoming in

A correspondent writes to ask whether it is possible to say 'Welcome in England' as well as 'Welcome to England'.

It certainly isn't standard British or US English, nor have I heard it in regional dialects, but I've certainly heard it used in several of the countries I've visited. The first time I noticed it, about 20 years ago, it took me aback, and I simply put it down to interference from the first language. But I recall once being in Egypt, where several Egyptians at the airport, in taxis, and so on, greeted me warmly with a 'Welcome in Egypt'. Then I met the local British Council director, an English native speaker, who also greeted me with a 'Welcome in Egypt'. So did several other expats. The usage was evidently more than just interference, but an indication of a locally evolving dialect. It reminded me, in its use of an alternative preposition, of the way in which US English has evolved such usages as 'it's a quarter of four' where British English would say 'it's a quarter to four'.

I've no idea just how widespread 'Welcome in' is, around the world, and would be interested to hear from readers of this blog if it's a usage they have in their own countries. I have a feeling it might just become a feature of lingua franca English, one day.

Thursday 16 April 2009

On postpositions

A correspondent writes to ask if English has postpositions - by which she means prepositions which follow the noun. As so often in linguistics, the answer is 'it all depends on how you analyse things'.

English plainly doesn't have postpositions in the strict sense, i.e. an item which governs a noun phrase and obligatorily occurs after the noun phrase. In English we say 'in the house' and never 'the house in'. In a postpositional language, people would say 'the house in' and not 'in the house'. Turkish, Finnish, Hindi, Korean, Hungarian, and many other languages have postpositions like this.

English does very occasionally allow a preposition to follow the noun phrase. My correspondent mentions notwithstanding, as in:

these considerations notwithstanding

which is stylistically a more legalistic phrasing of

notwithstanding these considerations.

But, as these examples suggest, the contrast is a stylistic one. It isn't obligatory for notwithstanding to follow the noun phrase.

Another example is the whole night through vs through the whole night. Again, both versions are possible, and the contrast is stylistic in character. Adjectives, incidentally, can also be postposed for stylistic reasons, as in the old ruined house stood on the hillside vs the house, old, ruined, stood on the hillside.

Some people have suggested that constructions such as who with (vs with who(m)) are examples of postposition - but I think it makes more sense to analyse these as elliptical sentences (i.e. a shortened version of such sentences as Who did you go with?)

Ago is also sometimes called a postposition, because it's obligatory for it to follow the noun phrase. We have to say three weeks ago, not ago three weeks. But ago is usually classified as an adverb, not a preposition. One can see the gradient from preposition to adverb when considering such examples as five years before, three years later, and far away.

Sunday 5 April 2009

On also, too

Two correspondents write recently with the same concern. One says: 'Yesterday I came across a sentence in a local newspaper: Have you ever tried Chinese food yet?', and he asks: is it right to have both ever and yet in the same sentence? The other asks whether one can have also and too in the same sentence, citing this example (about Shakespeare): And he is also pretty high up in the league of affixers too.

Well, seeing as the second sentence is from a paper of mine, I guess my answer has to be yes! So let me explain why.

There is a literary critical tradition in English that all repeated meaning is a bad thing. Tautology is a deadly sin, according to stylists. Fowler, for example, came down strongly against people who 'fail to notice that they are wasting words by expressing twice over in a sentence some part of it that is indeed essential but needs only one expression.'

The issue, of course, is whether the repetition is an identical expression of meaning or not. The prescriptive temperament tended to condemn anything that was even slightly repetitive, ignoring the nuances of emphasis and aspect that subtle speaking and writing can convey, and failing to appreciate the way adverbs in different parts of a sentence have different modifying roles.

What's happening in the 'Chinese food' example? First, by repeating the notion, the speaker is adding extra emphasis to the time reference. Secondly, he is adding a nuance, as 'ever' looks backwards in time while 'yet' looks forwards. And thirdly, there are different pragmatic issues involved. If someone asked:

Have you ever tried Chinese food?

the question is very general. It is asking you to think back into your past and remember an occasion when you tried Chinese food. It is a new topic of conversation, presupposing no prior discourse history. By contrast, if someone asked:

Have you tried Chinese food yet?

the question is more likely to be alluding to a previous discourse. We've had this conversation before, and now I'm raising the subject again.

A lot depends on the intonation, of course. If the stress falls on the verb, the speaker could be construed as querying a state of mind.

A I don't like Chinese food.
B Have you ever tried Chinese food?
A Well no, actually...

As for the 'Shakespeare' example, my two adverbs have very different directions of modification. This can be seen if we view the sentence in context.

Shakespeare is the doyen of functional shifters. And he is also pretty high up in the league of affixers too.

The role of the also is to relate pretty high up to the doyen. The role of the too is to relate league of affixers to functional shifters. I want to make two emphatic comparisons here, not one.

In both cases, the message is clear. We need to see a supposed tautology in its discourse context, and not just within a single sentence. Only when that context has been eliminated might we justifiably condemn a usage as tautologous also as well.