Monday 24 August 2009

On many

A correspondent writes to ask about the use of the unpremodified quantifier many in affirmative sentences. He says: 'When I venture to use many affirmatively, the result sounds awfully unnatural: I’ve seen many fish while I was snorkelling, I’ve seen many hybrid cars in Wellington. Other examples that puzzle me include: I’ve interviewed many people (which I think sounds natural) vs I’ve eaten many biscuits (which is an example that Geoffrey Pullum singles out as particularly objectionable).' And he adds: 'Does many actually refer to a different number from a lot of?'

I think we're dealing with a stylistic issue here. Many has long had an association with formality, as also, incidentally, has few and much. It's always difficult to pinpoint the origins of a stylistic preference, but I think this one is due to biblical influence, especially via the King James Bible, where we find many examples:

many are the afflictions of the righteous
a father of many nations
a coat of many colours
many are called but few are chosen

It also appears a lot in proverbs, such as Many hands make light work. And it became a feature of high-blown rhetorical style: Many would agree with me....

The stylistic contrast is easy to demonstrate. Take the sentence I used just now. Replacing many produces an immediate informal tone:

...where we find many examples.
...where we find a lot of examples.
...where we find lots of examples.

Conversely, when many is used, the collocations ought to satisfy the demands of that stylistic level, otherwise they will seem anomalous. This, I suspect, is why Geoff Pullum doesn't like many biscuits, and why many hybrid cars and many fish in the context of snorkelling sound odd. These notions are perhaps a mite too downmarket for an upmarket quantifier, as would be many hiccups, many flutters (on the races), and so on, where one of the lot constructions would be the usual quantifier. As always, we should try to find convincing contrasts:

Many people were waiting to enter the building.
?Many guys were waiting to enter the building.

But the situation is fluid, because there is a far more flexible use of many in negative constructions and when modified (how many etc). So I'd expect there to be quite a bit of opinion difference about this, and probably quite a bit of regional difference too.

Thursday 20 August 2009

On the world in which we live in

A correspondent, in the form of BBC Three Counties Radio, phones to ask one of the strangest questions I've had for some time. What do I make of a Paul McCartney line from the song 'Live and Let Die'? Apparently there's some discussion going on at the moment about whether the line is the world in which we live in or the world in which we're livin'. When asked recently, Paul himself couldn't recall which it was, though he thought the first of these versions 'wronger but cuter'. What did I think?

No question, as far as I'm concerned. It's the world in which we live in. Apart from the fact that this is the version in the published sheet music, I wouldn't expect a Scouser to reduce an -ing ending to -in. On the contrary, -ing is often said with the -g sounded as well, in that part of the world. While it's always possible to 'drop the g' in rapid colloquial speech, as it is in any accent, this is unlikely in the more forceful articulation of a song whose beat is relatively slow. I don't recall other Beatles songs with -ing endings - such as 'All My Loving' - reducing the final consonant.

Why did the issue arise at all? Presumably because some people couldn't tolerate the thought that such an ungrammatical construction was being used. Certainly it's ungrammatical; but it's not unnatural. That kind of prepositional doubling is common enough in speech when people start to use one construction and switch into another, especially when the construction involved (as here) is a usage shibboleth. Should one end a sentence with a preposition? Here we see that hoary issue in the choice between the world in which we live and the world we live in. People who have been sensitized to the issue are likely to begin with the first and then, when they reach the end of the sentence, realize that they need a preposition to make the sentence sound natural. Another example I heard recently is: I don't know to which hotel I'm going to. We've talked about anacoluthon before, in this blog, and here's another instance.

In the case of the song, the rhythm of the piece asks for unstressed syllables at both ends - imagine how it would sound if the line ended on live, with an elongated vowel - and that is what we get. Wronger and cuter it certainly is. When music calls, grammar bends.

Thursday 13 August 2009

On Baby

A correspondent writes to say he's noticed a trend to drop articles from common words or phrases. In reading baby books he's noticed that 'they refer to the baby as simply baby, as if they assume you will name your child Baby. They never use a baby, the baby, or your baby'. He considers this a 'misuse... exasperating'. And he sees the same trend also in coffee and danish and in TV ads for cars - Get $2,000 back on Camry. 'Am I overreacting?' he asks.

Yes, in a word. 'Never say never' has to be the watchword in linguistics. I just pulled down off my shelves two of the most famous baby books of all time. The opening paragraph of Dr Spock's book has a and the before baby five times. Penelope Leach's book is actually called Your Baby and Child, and uses articles throughout. Plainly my correspondent has noticed a distinctive style that some authors use, but by no means all.

Where has it come from? English doesn't use articles before proper nouns, so the dropping of an article can be a sign of a change in the grammatical status of the noun, as my correspondent senses. The motivation is easy to see. One talks of Mummy and Daddy, so why not Baby, to complete the triad? The media will have had its influence in popularizing the usage. Bringing up Baby was a very popular film (Hepburn, Grant), and the phrase has named a TV series, as well as several books and websites. I don't know whether the usage was around a century ago, and if anyone has an example I'd love to know of it.

The extension to cars was a natural metaphorical development: Baby Bentley, Rolls, Ford, Austin..., so it was not long before the abbreviated form came into use too, with people saying 'How's baby?', and suchlike, referring to the car. Bringing up baby has been used several times as the headline of car articles.. And other products have been babified too, such as hoovers, cookers, and tables. It seems to be a perfectly standard naming option now.

The exasperation probably comes when the noun is used generically, as in some baby books. Any generic person label can be given this treatment. Tell Teacher. Let Nurse do it. There's a 'baby talk' feel about some of these expressions which can seem patronizing or demeaning to adults. I recall a drill-sergeant in a comedy film once saying sarcastically to an unhappy recruit 'Tell Sergeant all about it, then'. I imagine my correspondent has sentences in mind like this:"Why don't you let Baby have his first toothbrush in a bright colour?' I don't like that style much either. It feels like the author talking down to me. There, there, David. It'll be all right.

The other examples are different. It's normal to omit the article in headlines, headings, and suchlike. Certainly it's common in ads. Usually, in car ads, the noun is specified with a model name: 'cash back on Toyota RAV4'. I don't routinely see things like 'cash back on Toyota', singular, so the Camry example is odd, to my mind. The same abbeviated style accounts for 'coffee and Danish', again very common in restaurant signs. In this case, there is a motivation for speech, as customers will readily ask for what they read. I'll have coffee and Danish, please. It's not the same trend that we see in Baby.

Wednesday 12 August 2009

On living Latin

A correspondent writes to ask if Latin is a dead language or not. She goes on: 'Obviously there are no native Latin speakers born any more, but on the other hand there are a number of people who can speak it, or at least understand it...'

The distinction between life and death can be a bit fuzzy, when applied to language. The essential difference is that living languages change, dead ones don't. Just because I study a dead language and get to understand it, or even speak it aloud, does not make it come alive, in that sense. It would come alive only when speakers use it in interaction and adapt it to meet their current needs. Several dead languages (in the sense that their last native speaker died some time ago) have been resurrected in that way, as with Kaurna in Australia. Sometimes there is a tradition linking the present with the past, as with Cornish. But the crucial thing, to say that a language is alive, is to find it changing and growing - new vocabulary, in particular, to express present-day notions, and new variant forms (accents, dialects), to express different identities. Latin is alive in that sense. The 'most alive' languages have native speakers and transmit from parent to child between generations. Latin is plainly not alive in that sense.

Latin is an interesting case, therefore. Many people study it as a dead language, as a way in to an ancient literature and history. On the other hand, it still has live status as a language of real interaction in the Roman Catholic church. The Lexicon Recentis Latinitatis came out a few years ago - over 700 pages of modern vocabulary. I have ingenious translations of Winnie the Pooh, Peanuts, and other texts, so plainly many people are actively concerned with revitalization. How much use is actually being made of the language is unclear, but it certainly suggests there's life in the old language yet.

Anyone interested in the history of Latin as a language should read Nicholas Ostler excellent Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin.

On hedging

A correspondent writes to ask about a phrase he has commonly heard in weather forecasts: in the way of, as in not much in the way of cloud tonight, and more in the way of rain tomorrow. He wonders what its grammatical status is, and what it adds to not much cloud and more rain.

This is one of the class of what are usually called 'hedges' - expressions which provide approximations or which reduce the force of an utterance in some way. A large number of expressions fall into this category, such as more or less or something in the order of - and in the way of. Hedges provide a way of having your cake and eating it. I'm expecting more or less a dozen means that you are correct if a dozen people turn up and also correct if 11 or 13 turn up. Exactly how much fuzziness a hedge allows is never clear. If 10 people turn up, is this also 'more or less a dozen'? Or 9? Or 8?

Grammatically, in the way of is a complex preposition, like by way of, in accordance with, and many more. Functionally, in the present example, it is a way of enabling forecasters (as the phrase is) to hedge their bets. Anyone who tries to predict the future knows what a dangerous game they're playing. Everyone is waiting to get them. So hedges are popular because they permit a greater chance of accuracy. If I say There'll be sun tomorrow I'm suggesting you will see the sun in the sky all day long. If I say There'll be more in the way of sun tomorrow I'm saying that there will be some sunshine, but not always, and maybe even there'll be no clear sun at all (perhaps because some cloud gets in the way). In the way of Noun implies a continuum of Nounness from maximum to minimum.

Presumably my correspondent writes about this because he has noticed the phrase being overused by individual forecasters. Any hedge being overused will attract criticism, and ultimately be considered a cliche. But it's by no means restricted to forecasters. People who provide traffic reports use them all the time. They never say No problems on the roads in our area this morning but No major problems on the roads in our area this morning. Nor is it restricted to the media. Listen to any scientist talking figures, and watch out for the more intellectual hedges. Some 10 per cent of the population..., plus or minus.... And everyone else does it too, sometimes filling their utterances with hedges. For all I know, not to put too fine a point on it, this sort of behaviour is very likely going to be used by more or less everyone, I imagine.