Tuesday 30 June 2009

On studying history/History

A correspondent writes to report a school argument about whether a subject area should be capitalized or not. Is it: 'There'll be exams in History and Geography' or '... history and geography'? Opinion was split.

I'm not surprised. Capitalization is one of those areas very much subject to fashion and change. As Fowler once said, long ago, 'the use of capitals is largely governed by personal taste'. Some people overcapitalize; some undercapitalize.

It isn't usually a contentious issue when the reference is to a unique entity, such as an individual name. But generic notions always pose problems, and subject names fall into that category. Here, capitalization is primarily used either to draw special attention to a notion or to avoid ambiguity. An example of the latter would be: You'll find History on the third floor (ie the department) and You'll find history in the library (ie the subject). A capital is obligatory when talking about a specific notion, such as a course or exam paper, e.g. History 231.

But fashion always rules. For the past few years there's been a noticeable trend towards graphical simplicity - B.B.C. becoming BBC, and the like - and capitals have been affected. You'll find far more in newspapers of a few decades ago. And where there is an option, as in subject names, the trend has been to avoid caps. This is the advice of the main copy-editing style guides, and usage generally concurs, at present.

Saturday 27 June 2009

On be having

A correspondent writes with a nice child language story. While in a supermarket she heard an exasperated mother say to her child:

Will - you - be - have!

To which the child replied:

But I am being have.

With have pronounced /heiv/, of course.

I've got quite a few word-part substitutions in my collection of children's analytical errors. I reported several in my Listen to Your Child in the various 'The Things They Say' sections. 'Don't argue!' says the mother. 'I don't argme' says the child. Or this sequence, heard on a train approaching London.

Child: Are we there yet?
Father: No, we're still in the outskirts
Child (after a pause): Have we reached the inskirts yet?

Usually, children maintain grammatical identity in their substitutions. In the first of these examples, the perception that ue is you leads to the replacement by another pronoun. In the second, out is replaced by in. But I don't recall hearing one which switches grammatical status quite so radically, with a word-part becoming a copula verb. Presumably it's the abnormal stress which motivated it. Anyone come across other examples like this?

Tuesday 16 June 2009

On texting saving a life

Some interesting stories about the value of texting have begun to emerge, especially of its role in life-threatening situations. In my book Txtng, I mention the Virginia Tech shootings, and how text messages would have been far more helpful than emails in alerting people to the impending danger. I mentioned this on an NPR chat-show a little while ago, and got a call from a student who was on the campus that day, and who - while lying on the ground to avoid the bullets - texted to let his folks know he was safe.

But that story is capped by this one, sent to me by Liwei Jiao, who kindly advised me on texting in Chinese when I was writing my book. He told me about a hostage-taking incident at Wuhan University in central China about two weeks ago, and included a report (in English) from China’s state news agency, Xinhua, and a report (in Chinese) from the same agency. I thought it was well worth wider circulation, and with Liwei Jiao's permission, here it is, in slightly edited form:

University resumes order after hostage taking incident
www.chinaview.cn 2009-06-04 00:05:21

WUHAN, June 3 (Xinhua) -- A university in central China's Hubei Province lifted blockade and resumed normal operation Wednesday afternoon after a hostage taker was shot dead by police earlier in the day.

The school authority released a statement on its website about the incident and is trying to appease the hostage, surnamed Liu.

A man took a female staff member hostage at gun point in an office in the Wuhan University at 9 a.m.

Police negotiated with him for several hours but found he had no clear demands. He appeared very agitated and sometimes hallucinatory, said Xia Zhigang, vice director with the Public Security Bureau of Wuhan, the provincial capital.

In the rescue operation, an armed policeman Tan Jixiong was disguised as a canteen man bringing him a meal. He entered the room at about 2:50 p.m., but was shot in the head by the hijacker.

Police waiting outside the room immediately shot and killed the hijacker. The female staff, who works on Communist Party affairs, was unharmed.

Tan was seriously injured but remained in stable condition after the bullet was taken out of his head in a first aid treatment in hospital. He has to undergo a second operation on his chest.

The hijacker, Zhou Kai, 40, used to serve in the armed police force before he joined the university as a logistical worker.

He was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for illegally confining others in July 2008, with a three-year reprieve. He was still under police supervision. He was a drug user before, according to Xia.

Police are still investigating the case.

A translation of the Chinese item follows, with some editorial glosses added.

Xinhua News Agency, Wuhan, China. A special report: short messages from a hostage under gun muzzle

The hostage, Liu Sainan, communicated with the police through short messages, while under a gun muzzle. She sent out nine messages, 163 [Chinese] characters altogether.

The first message was sent out at 9:25 a.m., about twenty-five minutes after the incident happened. It reads ‘I am very worried about Xie Yun, [the hijacker is] quite rude to him’. [Xie is senior to Liu.]

Fifty minutes later, Xie Yun was released. Zhou Kai (the hijacker) hid himself in a corner of the office. He ordered Liu to sit in a chair in front of him and pointed the gun with his left hand against her back.

The crazy hijacker never imagined that, while having a gun trained on her, the vulnerable hostage had hidden her cell phone between her knees, adjusted it to vibrating [or silent] mode, and was sending out many messages secretly.

'[The hijacker’s] counter-reconnaissance ability is very strong, [he] can observe the third floor.'

'Director [Xie Yun], now he will not let me switch [with someone] and go, the stuff [gun] is against me on my back, I will be strong'

Liu Sainan constantly sent messages to report the situation on the spot, and the police sent her a message to remind her: 'Remember to delete text messages promptly'. Liu replied: 'Got it, I have already done that.'

10:40 a.m. '[He] will kill me if his conditions are not met by 7 [pm]'

'He is apt to be irritated by the movement on the third floor and the balcony, temporarily will not shoot [me], he said he would shoot me if [this issue] was not settled by 7 [p.m.], what state should I keep[?]' The police decided to send specially trained policemen to save her, so they sent a message to Liu: 'Be careful, someone will send food in a minute, please escape when you eat.' Liu replied: 'understood'.

Then Liu sent out two messages. It showed that she was preparing for the rescue. The messages were: 'When you send food, can you put something like anesthetic into it, but if it could not work immediately then do not try, he was armed policeman before, [His] counter-reconnaissance ability is very strong'. 'He has an illusion that I belong to the police'.

While Liu was carried out on a stretcher by paramedics, she sent out the last message of that day at 3:03 p.m. to the leader of the university: 'How was the wound of that special policeman'[?]

Xia Zhigang, the on-the-spot commander-in-chief, also vice director of the Public Security Bureau of Wuhan, said that 'Liu Sainan was very clever, brave and calm. She used her cellphone to report the situation inside. It was very helpful for us to grasp the hijacker’s behavior and mind. It was remarkable that she was able to hide this very well, not letting the hijacker find out throughout the incident.'

Jiao adds, by way of comment:

Evidently texting helped to save Liu Sainan’s life. Under such circumstances, texting is the only possible way to inform the police about the true behaviour and mental state of the hijacker. She had to be a skillful texter - familiar with such functions of texting as silent mode and message deletion. I also assume she used one hand to press buttons and send out messages. It needs a great deal of skill.

Liu was really brave. A comment on her name: Liu is her family name, and Sainan is her first name. The sai in her name means ‘to compete, to beat’, and the nan means ‘male’. It proved that she was more brave than most males, I think!

I also noticed she sent out a message 'I will be strong’. This part, especially the adjective ‘strong’ (jianqiang in Chinese) is very popular on the internet after the mega earthquake in Sichuan, China on 12 May 2008. There was a pig which survived the earthquake after 36 days, and people named the pig Zhu Jianqiang (literally ‘pig strong’). That pig is still popular today. Jianqiang has been frequent on the internet and in texting since.

And he concludes: 'Texting does not solely belong to youngsters. It can save lives.'