Thursday 31 December 2009

On tens, teens, or whatever

This week has seen a dozen requests from radio stations and the press for comment about the same thing: what are we going to call the new decade? There was a similar fuss a decade ago, I recall, when the noughts (noughties, etc) were being debated. An Australian initative a few weeks ago asked for popular suggestions. The winner was one-ders - a piece of word play involving wonders and the ones which will be part of every year. Other suggestions were decnos, tentions, tweens, tennies, and twenteens.

I don't think human linguistic nature has changed much in the past century, so my guess is that what will happen today is the same as happened then. During the middle years of the century, people talked a lot about 'the tens, twenties, and thirties'. Tens was the predominant usage. However, there was also quite a lot of reference to the teens - the OED has citations dating from the 1930s. So the choice, it seems to me, will be between those two. If I had to choose, I would bet on tens, because these days teens has the dominant sense of teenagers, and people may well avoid using it for that reason. But it's not wise to bet, where language change is concerned.

Of course, this is all to do with informal usage. At a formal level, the issue is clearer. We have the choice of two thousand and ten (in British English - two thousand ten in American English) and twenty ten. Again, based on past centuries, speech is more likely to go for the shorter version. It's rare to hear 'in nineteen hundred and ten'. And I've never heard Tchaikovsky's overture called 'eighteen hundred and twelve'.

Wednesday 9 December 2009

On couple (of)

A correspondent writes to ask about the premodifying use of couple without a following of. She has found a usage comment in her Canadian Oxford Dictionary which says that this usage 'is highly informal and should be avoided in writing', whereas her Merriam-Webster states that the usage 'has been called non-standard, but it is not'. "Why has the usage developed?', she asks.

Couple of goes back to the 14th century, whereas the of-less construction seems to be relatively recent. The OED first recorded usage is 1925, and tags the expression as 'US colloquial': 'a couple months in Italy', 'a couple hundred'. The American origin is enough to explain British caution, and thus the difference in attitude of the two dictionaries.

But where did the usage come from? I opt for a phonological explanation. The reduction of of resulted in coupla, usually written that way (as also cuppa tea and suchlike) . That has a first recorded usage of 1908. It would have been a short step to elide the vowel completely. Reinforcement may then have come from the later usage couple more, where of is disallowed, as in: 'Wait a couple more minutes' (cf also 'Wait a couple minutes more'). That began to appear in the 1930s.

The Merriam-Webster comment suggests that the usage has become increasingly accepted in the US, but not everyone agrees. It's made very little headway in the UK, so far.

Thursday 3 December 2009

On being a tragic

A correspondent writes to ask about the noun use of tragic, as in a Beatles tragic or an opera tragic, where it means 'someone who is intensely interested or absorbed in a topic'. She had used it unconsciously in a message to a US colleague, who didn't understand it, and she wonders how widespread it is.

My correspondent is from Australia, where it's quite a common usage - for example, all the instances of opera tragic I've found on Google come from Australia. A site called cricket-blog is headed 'a blog where an Australian cricket tragic talks Ashes' and goes on to say that this is the place 'where cricket tragics rant'. I've never come across the usage, singular or plural, outside that variety. I'm not surprised her American contact didn't get it. A British contact wouldn't have either. I've no idea if it has any usage outside Australia, and perhaps readers of this blog would let me know if they've encountered it elsewhere.

How it developed this meaning is a bit of a puzzle. Presumably it's like the reverse semantic shift we find in such words as wicked to mean 'great'. But when and how this shift took place with tragic isn't established. There are no references to the usage in the OED. All the noun uses of tragic there are related to the traditional meaning: the earliest use, in the late 16th century, meant 'a tragic actor'; then it was used for 'a tragic author'; later, it came to mean 'a tragic work of some kind' or 'a tragic event'. We find such usages as That was a miserable tragic and all the tragics you can think of. But all these earlier (and now obsolete) usages maintain the traditional sense of tragic.

Friday 27 November 2009

On hip-hop Shakespeare

A correspondent (son Ben in this case) has sent me a link to an amazing BBC Blast programme, being broadcast today, which I just have to share. It tells the story of how hip-hop artist Akala worked with a group of young people off the street to present Shakespeare's Othello in his genre. Ben did a workshop with them, and uses the hip-hop parallel in his book Shakespeare on Toast, where he uses an Akala quote at one point.

It's an unexpectedly moving experience, to hear the familiar lines used and reinterpreted in this way, supplemented by the hip-hop rhythms and rhymes. Throughout there's a respect for the original text that is impressive, and the encounter with the play was evidently a Pauline experience for some of the group. One affirms he's going to read more Shakespeare. Another, on a visit to the John Rylands Library in Manchester, to see a real First Folio, talks about feeling humbled at the sight. From being scared about the language they end up mastering it. All evidently fall in love with the poetry of the lines, and perform it well. The extracts from the final performance are enthralling.

Having a blog allows me to congratulate Akala and the whole group in a public way which would not otherwise be possible. Any teacher who's having trouble getting the message across to a class of reluctant teenagers that Shakespeare is relevant, accessible, and generally fantastic will find this programme immensely helpful. I just hope that the BBC will make it widely available in due course.

One of the best bits for me - and something which will surprise a lot of people - were the sequences where lines in Shakespeare and hip-hop lyrics were mixed up, and people were asked to tell which was which. Most got the answers wrong. And I must admit I had trouble myself once or twice.

The show will be online for several days, so if you've got a spare hour, watch it. If you've ever doubted the proposition that Shakespeare can be made interesting to young people today, this will change your view. Here's the link:

Othello Retold.

Wednesday 25 November 2009

On for/in ages

A correspondent writes to ask why (2) is odd, for him, when (4) is OK:

(1) That's the worst book I've read in ages.
(2) ?That's the worst book I've read for ages.

(3) I haven't read a good book in ages.
(4) I haven't read a good book for ages.

'Is it something to do with the verb being negative?', he asks.

There are several factors here. First, intuitions may vary between British and American English, as the in construction is especially used in the latter. That aside, there is definitely an effect of negation, as these sentences show:

(5) I haven't read a book in ages.
(6) *I have read a book in ages.

There is also a difference in meaning:

(7) I've been reading that book for ages.
(8) I haven't been reading that book for ages.

In (7), the action is included in the time span - 'it has taken me a long time to read the book, and it's still going on'; in (8) it isn't. (8) is equivalent to 'It's been ages since I was last reading that book'.

So, to return to (2), here we have an action (the reading of the worst book) which is evidently over, so we need a sentence like (8): 'I haven't read such a bad book for ages'. However, the positive sentence suggests an inclusive meaning with ongoing duration (cf 7), which is anomalous - hence my correspondent's disquiet.

Monday 23 November 2009

On Twitter prompts

A correspondent from Valleywag wrote last week to ask if I saw anything interesting in the Twitter decision to change its prompt - from 'What are you doing?' to 'What's happening?'.

I do think this is interesting. My impression is that Twitter has become steadily more discursive over the past few months, with people maintaining threads and introducing a great deal more interaction, rather than posting isolated tweets. As a result the focus has shifted from the individual to the group, and a more open question is required to capture this emphasis. 'What-doing' looks inward. 'What-happening' looks outward. It's a natural development, it seems to me.

I love one of the reactions to the Valleywag post. Someone suggests that a much simpler prompt will emerge one day: 'Sup?'

Sunday 22 November 2009

On or so

A correspondent writes to ask if he is allowed to say I've spent the past hour or so in the hall to mean 'less than an hour'. He thinks he uses or so to mean 'roughly', and this allows a meaning of less as well as more. His friend disagrees. What do I think?

The OED definition suggests it could be either: 'or about that amount or number; or thereabout' (so, sense 33b); but the examples tell a different story. The first recorded usages are from Shakespeare, as follows:

If I could go to hell for an eternal moment or so (The Merry Wives of Windsor, 2.1.50)
Some two thousand strong, or so (Twelfth Night 3.2.59)

The first couldn't conceivably mean 'less than a moment': or so here means 'one or a bit more'. The second is an estimate by Sir Toby Belch of how much money he has had from Sir Andrew Aguecheek. If the money was counted up and found to be only £1990, nobody would accuse Belch of being a liar. It is a vague estimate only. Here, or so means 'more or less'.

This suggests a working principle: the force of the phrase depends on the quantity involved. With small numbers (and especially when the number is just one) the sense is driven upwards. I could not possibly use an hour or so to mean less than an hour. This upwards direction I think is always present, but its force diminishes as the numbers increase. So, I could say 1500 or so people read her blog, suggesting that it is more, but allowing (if challenged) that the figure could be less.

There may also be an effect from the noun that is being quantified. Time-scales are determinate, so an hour or so allows little flexibility. But I think there was an audience of 20 or so at the theatre allows the possibility that there were 19 (or so) because audiences are unpredictable.

I'd be interested to know if anyone has a different intuition about this.

On between each

A correspondent asks for my views about such sentences as There will be an intermission between each act. Is it acceptable?

Well, not according to Fowler, for example, who adopted a very strict line about the usage of between: 'it must not be followed by a single expression in which a distributive such as each or every is supposed to represent a plural'. Similarly, between was not supposed to be used for more than two entities (among being recommended instead).

All this despite the fact that, from the very earliest recorded uses of between, we find it used in situations where more than two entities are involved. As the OED puts it, in a useful note (between V.19):

It is still the only word available to express the relation of a thing to many surrounding things severally and individually, among expressing a relation to them collectively and vaguely: we should not say ‘the space lying among the three points,’ or ‘a treaty among three powers,’ or ‘the choice lies among the three candidates in the select list,’ or ‘to insert a needle among the closed petals of a flower.’

However, over the past 250 years or so, prescriptive grammarians have privileged the etymology of the word (tween - 'two'), though often failing to live up to their own prescriptions. Dr Johnson was especially influential, when he wrote in his Dictionary:

Between is properly used of two, and among of more ...

However, he adds:

... but perhaps this accuracy is not always preserved.

And indeed it isn't. Boswell records Johnson himself as saying:

I ... hope, that, between publick business, improving studies, and domestick pleasures, neither melancholy nor caprice will find any place for entrance.

Between each has a similar history. Prescriptive grammarians would insist on my correspondent's sentence being rewritten as something like There will be an intermission after each act - ignoring the problem that there is no intermission after the last act. Fowler would have suggested a change to ...between each act and the rest, which is momentarily confusing. There really is no easy alternative - which is presumably why the between each usage is frequently found in literature over the centuries. Here's an early example from The Passionate Pilgrim, a text from Shakespeare's time:

Between each kiss her oaths of true love swearing...

Gowers (in his Plain Words) called the fuss over between each 'pedantry', and advises us to 'ignore' those who insist on restricting between to its etymological meaning. I agree.

Wednesday 18 November 2009

On being welcome

A correspondent writes to ask about the modern usage of you're welcome as a politeness formula used in response to an expression of thanks. Is it an Americanism?

Certainly the usage is very frequent today, in some parts of the world. It seems to have become the expression of choice in service environments (such as responding to customers in a restaurant), and it has been seized (I suspect with some relief) as an easy response by service personnel who have English as a second language. It isn't the only option: expressions such as no worries (eg in Australia) and no problem are also heard. But it isn't modern, in the sense of 'recent', nor is it especially American. The OED has a first recorded usage of 1907, but it didn't take me long to find an earlier instance. Here's a British example from the mid-1850s - Dickens' Little Dorrit, Chapter 2:

'I thank you,' said the other, 'very heartily for your confidence.'
'Don't mention it,' returned Mr Meagles, 'I am sure you are quite

Where does the usage come from? It's a natural development of the earlier greeting when someone says 'You are welcome' to a visitor. This has been in English for hundreds of years. Here's an example from Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew (4.2.72):

Pedant: God save you, sir.
Tranio: And you sir. You are welcome.

It's a very short step from here to the usage in question.

When did the change take place? Difficult to say. There would have been a transitional period in which people would have reacted uncertainly to the usage. I've been looking for examples, and think I may have found one. What do you make of this, from Thackeray's The Wolves and the Lamb, Act 1, written at the same time as Little Dorrit?

MRS. PRIOR. Oh, how thoughtful it was of your ladyship to ask me to stay to tea!
LADY K. With your daughter and the children? Indeed, my good Mrs. Prior, you are very welcome!
MRS. PRIOR. Ah! but isn't it a cause of thankfulness to be MADE welcome?

Is Lady K's response to Mrs Prior a politness formula, or a literal welcoming? My feeling is that it is the former, and this prompts Mrs Prior to focus on the latter.

There's nothing unusual about that kind of reaction. We hear it still, when people encounter a usage change and draw attention to it by focusing on the earlier meaning. Here's an example I heard the other day at an airport, where B was saying goodbye to A, who was about to take a plane:

A: See you later.
B: Not unless the plane has a puncture.

A was using the phrase, very common among young people today, to mean 'see you the next time I see you'. But for older people, it has to mean 'later the same day' - hence the comment.

So, my feeling is that you're welcome as a politeness response was arriving in the mid-19th century. If anyone comes across an earlier example, do share it.

Saturday 14 November 2009

On singing accents

A correspondent writes to say he's noted that regional accents disappear in songs, or at least become less detectable, and wonders if there's an explanation.

This is true, as a general observation, and there two reasons for it. The first is phonetic. Several of the main identifying features of a regional accent tend to disappear when singing - the intonation (obviously, as a melody replaces it), the speech rhythm, and vowel length (for many syllables are elongated). Vowel quality is also often affected, especially in classical singing, where vowels are articulated with greater openness than in everyday speech.

All of this can affect the artistry. I found a quote from Billy Bragg saying that a London accent forces a singer to approach melody differently. ‘You can’t sing something like 'Tracks Of Your Tears' in a London accent. The cadences are all wrong. It’s also difficult to sing harmonies in a London accent. And you can’t sustain syllables for long'. It's not possible to generalize from this, because accents have very different norms - different rhythms and rates of articulation, for example - but it's interesting that some singers have reflected on the issues.

The other reason for accent levelling in songs is social. Some singers want to drop their regional accent, because they want to sing like the fashionable mainstream. This has been especially noticeable in popular music since the early days of rock 'n' roll. Singers everywhere imitated Bill Haley and Elvis, and many still do. A mid-Atlantic hybrid quickly emerged, which levelled natural regional features. From his singing, who would ever guess where Cliff Richard comes from? Or Sting, Rod Stewart, Tom Jones, or Elton John?

However, it's perfectly possible for singers to retain an individual accent, if they want to, and many do. In fact, they've been doing it for years. If we listen to recordings of music-hall days, we'll hear broad Cockney, Lancashire, Scots, Irish, and others. You could hardly get more Cockney, for example, than in such songs as 'Any Old Iron' or 'Boiled Beef and Carrots'.

And now there are signs of modern pop music returning to its dialect roots. The Mersey sound was an early development. A Liverpudlian accent regularly stands out in the Beatles - such as (in 'Penny Lane') customer with a rounded first vowel and words like there and wear (in 'Only a Northern Song') with a central vowel (rhyming with her). I recall Paul McCartney saying (but I can't remember where) that the Beatles did experiment with singing in an American accent early on, but decided against it because it sounded ridiculous. Other early departures in the UK from an American-sounding norm (or, at least, a mid-Atlantic-sounding norm) were Tommy Steele and Joe Brown.

More recently we have the London accents of Ian Dury, Chas & Dave, and Lily Allen, and the rather more gentrified tones of Anthony Newley. Mike Skinner's accent is so noticeable (with its glottal stops, replacement of th by f, and other Cockney features) that it has been called Mockney. The accents of the Celtic areas of the British Isles are often heard. Listen for example to 'Daddy's Gone' from Glasvegas and you'll hear several local Scottish features, such as a rounded [y] in you, an [e] vowel in sitting, and plenty of glottal stops. Glottal stops are one of the things to listen out for, actually: you'll hear them in groups from different parts of the UK, such as Futurehead and The Rakes. Listen out too for the /r/ after a vowel in Irish accents, as heard in, say, Mary Coughlan (from the south) and Snow Patrol (from the North). And of course in rapping we regularly get a distinctive accent, because of the syllable-timed rhythm. But my impression is that, rapping aside, in hardly any case do singers use a consistent regional accent throughout the whole song. Mixed accents seem to be the norm.

Monday 12 October 2009

On 'It's Only a Theory'

A correspondent writes to ask, having seen a newspaper listing for the new BBC4 TV series 'It's only a theory', whether I am the 'David Crystal' listed in this week's episode (being broadcast at 10 pm on the 13th October). I had to think for a moment, as the programme was recorded months ago; but yes, it is me, and I have a certificate to prove it.

It's an interesting idea. They got various academics to present and justify their 'theory' to a team of three (led by Andy Hamilton) in front of a TV audience. At the end, each member of the team decided whether the academic had made his/her case. I defended the proposition that 'texting is good for the English language', and managed to persuade two of the three that this was so. (I would have persuaded all three, but Andy felt I was being too enthusiastic about it!) They ceremoniously stamped a certificate with the word 'Approved'. And they gave me a souvenir, in the form of a pseudo-Scrabble game with all the vowels left out.

It was good fun, and, on the day I was there for the recording, I very much enjoyed watching the others who had to defend their propositions - one was Stanley Wells, arguing that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. It's a strange rhetorical exercise, having to reduce sometimes quite complex points to the bare minimum, and in a way that will get an audience on your side. Bit like debating, really. They recorded about 20 minutes worth of material per person, and I imagine will use less than ten, in the transmission, so it'll be interesting to see one's already pared-down arguments pared down even further. Maybe they'll just leave out my vowels.

Friday 9 October 2009

On a new m-novel

A correspondent writes from South Africa's Shuttleworth Foundation to tell me about the world's first m-novel written in English and isiXhosa (an indigenous South African language). It's a teen mystery story set in Cape Town about four graffiti writing friends. You can read it (still evolving) at Kontax on your PC or a WAP-enabled phone.

The Foundation believes that m-novels have the potential to be big in Africa and wants to explore this space through a project they're calling m4Lit. It's planning to conduct research with 50 teens in Cape Town to understand their experience of the m-novel within a broader literacy context. Post-project papers are planned too. The comments from users so far are really interesting.

I'd come across m-novels and short stories in Japan, China, India, and a few other places, when I was writing Txtng: the Gr8 Db8, but I'd not encountered it in Africa, and certainly not involving a language like Xhosa. Given the remarkable growth of mobile phones in Africa, where they foster communication in areas which don't have good computer connections, I wouldn't be surprised if the genre catches on. It could be a useful additional strategy for involving young people in community languages that are endangered.

Wednesday 7 October 2009

On English Language Day

The English Project - the Winchester-based group that is planning the first permanent English-language exhibition space, with a target opening in three or four years time - have come up with a lovely piece of PR: English Language Day. It's 13 October. They hope to make it an annual event.

They chose this date because it was on 13 October 1362 that the Chancellor of England for the first time opened Parliament with a speech in English. In that same Parliament, a Statute of Pleading was approved that permitted members in debate to use the English language. It had become again an official language of law and law-making.

Because of this connection with law-making, the theme this year is the language of law. The English Project’s contribution to the Day will be three events hosted by London law firm Taylor Wessing, for schools, for university law students, and for the public. They're also carrying out a survey of legal language. For more information, visit their website: English Project.

I think language days are important, as they keep the subject in front of people's minds. It's a pity that so few people are aware of the two we already have: 26 September, European Day of Languages, and 21 February, World Mother-Tongue Day. If I were in charge, I would give every language its special day. Maybe English Language Day will start a trend.

Wednesday 30 September 2009

On Chambers

I've just heard of a sad development in British publishing. It was announced a few days ago that the firm of Chambers Harrap in Edinburgh is threatened with closure by their parent company Hachette UK. Apparently this decision has been motivated by falling sales of print reference works.

I have a strong sense of deja vu. Readers of this blog with long memories will recall that I bemoaned the closing of my own encyclopedia editorial office in early 2008. Penguin had stopped publishing encyclopedias for the same reason. It's the emergence of free online sources of information that were the reason then, and I imagine the same factor accounts for the decision about Chambers now.

It's so short-sighted, though. The one thing the online sources cannot do is provide the quality control that comes from years of experience in reference editing. In the case of Chambers, we're talking about products, such as The Chambers Dictionary, which have benefitted from an editorial tradition that goes back over a century. I knew the Chambers team well in the late 1980s and 90s, as they were responsible for the production of the work that was eventually called The Cambridge Encyclopedia, and published by CUP. Cambridge and Chambers were in a joint venture project at the time. When the two parties separated, I sat on the Chambers board for a while, advising on their new projects, and doing some writing and editing in a series called Making Sense of... The professionalism and expertise of the Chambers editors was second to none. I'm horrified at the thought that this might now be lost, and hope that, even at this late stage, some rethinking might take place.

It will only be a matter of time before people realize that online reference sources created by anyone who cares to contribute cannot match the judicious selection and checking of material, and the attentive concern for presentation and style, that we find in the quality reference literature. While enterprises such as wikipedia are fine for browsing, I would personally never use a piece of information found there without checking its accuracy. For the worlds I know, the errors are legion. For the world I know best - me - I'm tired of correcting the errors that are introduced by unknown forces in the 'David Crystal' entry.

Wiki is trying to sort things out by introducing a tier of editorial management, but, as far as I can see, without giving anyone the training that is essential in order for this to be done properly. It's an expensive business, ensuring that quality standards are maintained. But it's money well-spent, because humanity needs accurate, consistent, and intelligible inter-generational transmission of information. It's profoundly disturbing to think that the very people who are in the best position to guarantee our intellectual future are being made redundant. And it's especially ironic, in the case of Chambers, when we think that Edinburgh has been made the first UNESCO City of Literature.

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.

Thursday 30 July 2009

On prosiopesis

A correspondent writes to ask for an explanation of prosiopesis and whether this can be used in relation to writing.

The term was introduced by Otto Jesperson in his Philosophy of Grammar. Here's his definition: 'the speaker begins to articulate, or thinks he begins to articulate, but produces no audible sound (either for want of expiration, or because he does not put his vocal chords in the right position) till one or two syllables after the beginning of what he intended to say'. He gives the example of 'Morning' for 'Good morning'. Another example would be 'Kyu' for 'Thank you'.

This is plainly a phonetic definition, and it could only apply to writing in cases where the same type of communicative pressure applies. I suppose one could adapt the definition as follows: 'the writer begins to type, or thinks he begins to type, but produces no graphic form (either for want of energy, or because he does not put his fimgers in the right position) till one or two syllables after the beginning of what he intended to type'.

I do this often, when typing on screen, but you don't see the results in print because typing allows revision in a way that speech does not. However, in styles of writing which simulate spontaneous speech, I think we can see the same sort of process in operation. Looking back over some instant messaging logs, for example, I can see several examples. My daughter sent me one the other day which began 'Morning'. And any genre of spontaneous written electronic communication (chat, social networking, twitter, etc) is likely to display such things.

The notion becomes more obviously applicable to writing if we replace Jesperson's phonetic definition by one in terms of syntactic or semantic processing. When someone says 'Coming out tonight?' or 'Looks like rain', these days people talk more in syntactic terms, such as 'elision', 'pro-drop', and suchlike.

Monday 27 July 2009

On aren't I

A correspondent writes to ask how aren't I? became acceptable usage. 'For first person questions it is easy enough to say, for instance, "I am right, am I not?" So why would it have developed as alternate usage?'

The history is a bit obscure, but it seems to be this. The verb forms of English have long existed in two styles - formal and informal. Alongside I am going we have informal I'm going. Alongside, formal are you not (earlier are not you) we have aren't you. And so on.

The first person followed this pattern. We find both am I not and amn't I - the latter usage still the colloquial norm today in Irish English and some Scots. But there's a pronunciation problem - the sequence of /m/ and /n/ is awkward, and it was a natural development to simplify the consonant cluster. The final /t/ made it more likely that the simplification would go to /ant/ rather than /amt/, and this is what we find in 18th century texts, where it appears as an't. The OED has an earliest citation for 1799, but I'm sure much earlier instances will turn up in due course.

The pronunciation of the /a/ vowel probably varied in length - sometimes short, sometimes long ('ahnt'). That would have made it sound exactly the same as the other forms in the paradigm (aren't you / we / they) - bearing in mind that the /r/ after the vowel would not have been sounded in the newly emerging Received Pronunciation around 1800. So, if the first person sounded like the other persons, it would have been very natural for people to start spelling the word in the same way as the others. It's an example of orthographic analogy. Aren't I became the standard form in British English, and an't I (very popular in the 1800s) gradually fell out of use. It's widely used in US English too, but some Americans dislike it, finding it genteel.

As soon as aren't I became the norm, it lost its colloquial status. So, if people could say and write aren't I in formal situations, what could they say in informal situations? The stage was set for the emergence of a further alternative: ain't, which originally didn't have the nonstandard resonance that it has today, being widely used as a colloquialism among upper-class as well as lower-class speakers. It was probably the frequent use of this form in the literary representation of lower-class speech (especially in Dickens) that eventually turned educated people against it. Fowler tried to resuscitate it, in his 1926 Dictionary of Modern English Usage, describing ain't as 'a natural contraction... supplying a real want', but his view had no influence.

Saturday 11 July 2009

On being typical(ly)

A correspondent writes from Germany to say that he is often corrected for saying typical German (for typisch Deutsch). He has been advised to say a typical German or typically German, but he feels that his version is all right. What do I think?

The use of the article isn't relevant here, as that depends on whether the noun is countable or not.

That's a typical English tree
That's a typically English tree.

That's typical English weather.
That's typically English weather.

These examples display a very slight difference in meaning: typical means simply 'characteristic of', whereas the adverbial force of typically highlights the way of behaving. (The difference is more marked with some other pairs, such as basic/basically, happy/happily.)

There's no usage issue here. An issue arises only when English (or other such nouns) is made the head of the noun phrase. Normally we wouldn't find two adjectives in predicative position without modification. If we start with That's tasty home-made cake, we wouldn't normally say (in a single intonation contour) That's tasty home-made, but something like That's tasty and home-made.

But this has happened with the type of example which motivated this post, where we find both:

That's typically English.
That's typical English.

Typical has taken on an adverbial role, and this is what makes some people uncomfortable. They like adjectives to stay adjectives, so they object when people say It's looking good, Drive slow, and suchlike. It's part of the prescriptive tradition in English.

But the fact is that both constructions are common. The present-day usage has probably been reinforced by frequency. Constructions such as typical English/German are actually three times as common as those with typically, as a quick Google search will confirm.

So we now have a pair of sentences which mean the same thing. And when this happens, a stylistic difference is bound to emerge. Typical is more informal than typically. I can imagine a curator in an art gallery stopping in front of a picture and saying That's typically Dutch - less likely, That's typical Dutch. But I wouldn't be at all surprised to hear the latter from a group of people chatting about the picture.

We can get a stronger sense of the informality if we change the example. That's typically Rembrandt is the sort of thing one would say about a picture. That's typical Rembrandt might be heard after someone told a story about his naughty behaviour. So I think my German correspondent needs to look to the context before deciding whether to say or write typical German or not.

Tuesday 7 July 2009

On a child's view of English

A colleague writes from Switzerland with a nice child language story. Her German-speaking 6-year-old daughter picked up English very quickly on a visit to New Zealand, and has been keeping it up since. At one point her husband pretended he needed help with his English, so the little girl read a story to him, and he asked her questions about spelling and suchlike, which she tried her best to answer (e.g. why now and know sound so differently, despite being similar in spelling). In the end, she said Weisst Du, Papa, Englisch ist so schön klanglich. ('You know, dad, English is nice and soundly.') The adverb is a nonce formation in both languages.

This story made me think: I don't have many examples to hand of the reactions of young children to the languages they're in the process of learning. Descriptive statements like this one are especially rare. It would be nice to have a few more. Anyone recall any?

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 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.'

Friday 15 May 2009

On 'quarter of'

A correspondent writes to ask if the US English time expression quarter of, as in quarter of four, is an ellipsis of something like 'It lacks/wants a quarter of four'.

I don't think it's necessary to suggest an implied verb. The preposition of has several locative uses, and it's a natural semantic extension to move from space to time. The original meaning of the preposition was 'away from' (a sense today now usually found with off), as seen in such obsolete usages as not far of the town and still found in relation to compass points (eg north of London) and specified distances (eg within a mile of).

In fact the OED (see of 4c) locates the clock sense along with other senses 'expressing position which is (or is treated as) the result of departure, and is defined with reference to the starting point', The time quarter of four, from this perspective, means 'a quarter away from four'.

The British use is quarter to, and is quite old. The OED (see to, 6b) has citations from around 1000 illustrating a wide range of usage, such as half hour to five and two hours to day (i.e. 'until daybreak'). The usage with of is less easy to track, because it has also had a dialect use in Scotland and Northern Ireland which probably antedates the US use, though citations are lacking. The earliest OED citation for the American use is 1817.

Saturday 9 May 2009

On a memoir, or is it?

A correspondent writes to say he is a tad confused about my latest book Just a Phrase I'm Going Through: My Life in Language, which came out this week. He has seen it referred to as an 'autobiography' and as a 'memoir', and wonders which it is.

The two labels are certainly difficult to distinguish these days. Traditionally, a memoir is a subgenre of autobiography, in that it is much less chronological and comprehensive. It is a narrative about a part of a life, usually focusing on the writer's involvement in external events (as when a general writes a memoir of a military campaign). Its main purpose is to describe the events and to 'take a view' of them. So memoirs deal more with public matters than private ones. Typically, the writers tell us a lot about other people, and little about themselves. If it is self-directed, then it is about their career rather than their private life, though that distinction breaks down when the writer is a celebrity, and certainly some memoirs are highly personal and subjective - as in the case of Gore Vidal's Palimpsest. This he describes as a memoir, and suggests the difference with autobiography to be as follows: 'A memoir is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked'.

Personally I find that distinction much too sharp. An alternative is William Zinsser's comment, in his Inventing the Truth: the Art and Craft of Memoir: 'Unlike autobiography, which moves in a dutiful line from birth to fame, memoir narrows the lens, focusing on a time in the writer’s life that was unusually vivid, such as childhood or adolescence, or that was framed by war or travel or public service or some other special circumstance.' 'Narrowing the lens' is a more relevant criterion, to my mind.

Just a Phrase, on these accounts, is neither one thing nor t'other. It is somewhere in between. It is a memoir, in that it has certainly 'narrowed the lens'. This is the story only of my life 'in language'. You will not find in here an account of my politics, or whether I like broccoli, or all the other bits and pieces that make up a life, except insofar as these arise in relation to my work as a linguist. On the other hand, it is definitely chronological, from - as Shakespeare put it in his 'seven ages of man' - infant to pantaloon. And it is full of the dates and double-checking that Vidal wants to see.

The public and the private life interact in all kinds of unpredictable ways - in my case, strikingly so, as it is only through linguistics that I ever found my father. Such interactions blur the traditional genre distinction and demand a new label. So I opt for 'autobiographical memoir'.

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.

Sunday 29 March 2009

On not being last

A correspondent writes to ask: 'If there is a queue of 5 people, which person is second from last? person 3 or 4?'

If there's an uncertainty here, it must be because of a conflict between logic and language. I suppose logically it could be either, depending on how you 'see' the queue - whether the fifth person is included in the sequence or excluded from it. But linguistically, the weight of usage surely makes it person 4. Usual usage has such sequences as (in a race):

He came last
He came second last = second from the end
He came third last = third from the end

and so on. Note that we can't say:

He came first last.

The same point applies to second from last. There is no first from last, which we'd have to allow if person 3 was the interpretation.

On the other hand, there are two usages: second from last and second last. Is there a difference in meaning between these two?

We went to the beach on our second-last day.
We went to the beach on our second-from-last day.

The stress is on the second-last syllable.
The stress is on the second-from-last syllable.

For me, these are the same. The OED illustrates the first usage but not the second. Is there anyone out there who makes a distinction?

Monday 2 March 2009

On apologies

A correspondent writes to ask one of those annoying questions which I feel I should know the answer to, but then realize I don't, without a bit of research! Why do we say my apologies, in the plural?

The word apology has been around a long time. Shakespeare uses it half-a-dozen times, always with its sense of 'formal justification or explanation', and always in the singular. If Shakespearean characters want to apologise, in the modern sense of 'regret', they say such things as I cry you mercy. The OED has no examples of plural usage until quite modern times.

This suggests to me a pragmatic explanation, focussing on the 'century of manners'. The 18th century strikes me as being the time when people might have felt one apology wasn't enough, so they really went in for pluralizing it. The sense of 'regret' was strong by then, as can be seen several times in Boswell's Life of Johnson - 'Johnson walked away to dinner there, leaving me by myself without any apology; I wondered at this want of that facility of manners'. But there are no plurals in the Life.

An early instance of the plural use is in Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726): 'at last he plainly invited me, though with some apologies, to be surgeon of the ship'. By the time Jane Austen was writing, at the end of the century, it was common, as this example from Pride and Prejudice illustrates: 'Her ladyship, with great condescension, arose to receive them; and as Mrs. Collins had settled it with her husband that the office of introduction should be hers, it was performed in a proper manner, without any of those apologies and thanks which he would have thought necessary'. By the time Dickens was writing, fifty years later, it was found with ironic uses too. Bleak House, for instance, shows both the regular use and the ironic one. 'With all apologies for intruding...', says Mr Bucket. And we are told that Mr Weevle 'who is a handy good-for-nothing kind of young fellow, borrows a needle and thread of Miss Flite and a hammer of his landlord and goes to work devising apologies for window-curtains, and knocking up apologies for shelves'.

So, I'm putting my money on the 18th century as the time when this usage became fashionable. I'd be interested to hear of anything earlier.

We keep upping the ante today, of course. A hundred apologies. A thousand apologies - the most popular usage, which has appeared as the title of a TV show, a music album, and more. Even a million apologies. And (especially since the economic crisis) a billion or trillion apologies.

Tuesday 10 February 2009

On anacolutha

A correspondent writes to draw attention to this sentence:

The table was covered with objects, although once he removed the books, he was able to drag it to the centre of the room.

He asks: can a subordinating conjunction be used to connect the complex sentence beginning with once to the preceding simple sentence or can only a coordinating conjunction join compound-complex sentences? He suggests this alternative:

The table was covered with objects, but once he removed the books, he was able to drag it to the centre of the room.

The use of 'although', in cases like this, is certainly common in spontaneous speech. What we have is technically described as an anacoluthon, defined (eg by the OED) as 'a construction lacking grammatical sequence'. Such sentences work semantically, but at the expense of syntax, because they usually omit a required element. What's missing here is something like

The table was covered with objects, but this wasn't a problem because, once he removed the books, he was able to drag it to the centre of the room.

Anacolutha are able to occur because they rely on our semantic or contextual awareness to allow us to make short cuts in grammar. They're very frequent in spontaneous speech. There's no problem understanding such sentences, of course. There's no ambiguity. But they're frowned upon in formal writing, where (in the above example) the coordinate conjunction would be recommended. Many of the strictures in Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage are against anacolutha of this kind.

No traditional grammar handles them - and even linguistic grammars pay scant attention to them. The realization that the grammar of speech is very different from the grammar of writing has become a big thing, over the past 50 years, but anacolutha remain one of the neglected areas of grammatical investigation. This is a shame, as they're so common in speech. I've just spent a mind-numbing few days listening over and over to a series of lectures I recorded last year, in order to write a commentary on them for a book/DVD package which Routledge are publishing in May this year, called The Future of Language. Because these were spontaneous performances, without written notes or an Obaman autocue, they contain several anacolutha. I draw attention to them in the commentary. Interestingly, the firm contracted to add the sub-titles regularized many of them, so that they conformed to written English norms. I had to change them back. WYS (in the sub-titles) IWYG.

Saturday 31 January 2009

On not writing a book

There is a book reviewed in today's Guardian called Shakespeare on Toast, and if you look carefully you will see the paper says it is by me. Read on: 'a matey attempt to make Shakespeare relevant... Crystal, who is also an actor, paints in a lot of useful context... Crystal ends up admirably succeeding in his ambition to provide a toolbox for getting to grips with Shakespeare's plays'.

What a nice review. But people who know me must be a bit puzzled by this point. Matey? Actor? That doesn't sound quite right. And indeed, alas, no. The Guardian, once again, has lived up to its Grauniad reputation. The book was written by son Ben. You can see more about it at his website Shakespeare on Toast .

I know life is one long battle to stay ahead of your kids, but this is taking things a bit far. Ah well, maybe Ben will get his revenge one day. I expect the Guardian will assign my autobiography to him, in due course.

Sunday 25 January 2009

On holding a speech

An English teacher from Germany writes to ask: 'Do you hold a speech or give a speech'. He adds: 'I could have sworn it was give, but people claim to have seen hold a speech in newspapers'.

Indeed you will - and on the internet too, as you'll quickly discover if you type hold a/the speech into a search engine. What's interesting about these cases is that an adverbial of place or time seems to be obligatory. It's usually a place adverbial:

Obama will hold acceptance speech at football stadium with more seats.
Students hold free speech rally at Danish consulate.
Canadians Hold Free Speech Rally in Toronto.
Merkel opposed the Obama campaign's initial plan to hold the speech at the Brandenburg Gate.
the decision to hold the speech at Invesco was made two months ago.

Sometimes it's a time adverbial:

Sayyed Nasrallah to Hold Speech on Resistance Day.

And sometimes it's both:

Professor David Ray Griffin will hold a speech on 8 September 2006 in the Tropeninstituut in Amsterdam.

By contrast, give a speech is the norm when the focus is non-specific or where the adverbial gives further information about the topic.

Mike gave an excellent speech.
She gave a speech on the environment.

And of course, we can add adverbials of place or time to this:

Mike gave an excellent speech on the environment on Friday last at the Planetarium.

So the generalization seems to be something like this: give a speech is the more general usage; but hold a speech can be used where the focus is explicitly on the event rather than on the subject-matter. Without this focus, I find the usage dubious:

Mike held an excellent speech.

I think I could only use this if I meant 'the arrangements Mike made for the speech were excellent' - analogous to 'Mike held a meeting to talk about the environment' , 'I held a party and nobody came' (The Bee Gees), and so on. I'd be interested to know if others share this feeling.

Sunday 18 January 2009

On a disappearing dialect

Philip Holland has sent me a copy of his book Words of the White Peak. The subtitle explains: 'the disappearing dialect of a Derbyshire village'. I've talked about the importance of documenting dialects in this blog before, so I'm happy to bring it to the attention of readers.

The village is Earl Sterndale, just south of Buxton, in the Peak District. He was a dairy and sheep farmer for some 40 years, but the book describes him as many other things besides - hotelier, pianist, poet, and now lexicographer. The present collection came out of a three-year course in creative writing as a mature student at the Devonshire campus of Derby University in Buxton. It's never too late to become a lexicographer!

Dialect studies always start small and then grow fast. In the end Philip interviewed over 150 people to get all the words and phrases which form his dictionary. But, as he says in his introduction, it's more than a dictionary: it's also a memoir of his life and work on his farm. Many of the words are local farming words, such as beldering, for the bellowing of a bull, or blareting, for the bleating of a sheep. But there are also several general words, such as crozzled 'dried-out, burnt up, withered', and discourse phrases, such as choose 'ow (i.e. 'how'), added to a sentence to reinforce inevitability - 'the outcome would be the same whatever you did'.

You have to be careful, when you're reading a dialect book about a particular area. The words it contains simply illustrate what is used in that area. It doesn't mean that they're all unique to that area. Several of the words used in Earl Sterndale are found in other dialects of the British Isles, such as cack-handed 'clumsy', chuntering 'mumbling disagreeably', and nous, 'common sense'.

Dialects always overlap in this way. What we see in Earl Sterndale is a unique constellation of usages, some local to the area and some part of a wider dialect community. Every village would probably have its own voiceprint. The pity is that so few have been studied. Philip Holland's book shows what can be done.

You can find the book through Derbyshire bookshope, including shops on the Charsworth Estate and the Farming Life Centre in Blackwell, near Buxton, price £8.95. Also via the publisher, Anecdotes Publishing (

Wednesday 14 January 2009

On if and was/were

A correspondent writes from Poland about the use of was/were in conditional sentences. He was taught to say If I were, etc., and was advised that If I was, etc. was substandard. But he's noticed that grammars today seem to be saying the opposite. Some grammars say that was forms are normal and were forms are formal. Some say that the two forms are interchangeable. 'Are we in a sort of transitional period?', he asks. Maybe, he adds, were is used only in stock phrases, such as If I were you.

Yes, we have to get that one out of the way, for a start. There are a couple of expressions where the were is idiomatic - as it were is the clearest case, as it allows no substitution of was. Similarly, when the conditional is inverted, was isn't possible: I would like to go, were I not working. If I were you is slightly less fixed, as it's possible to say if I was you as an informal variant. This has become increasingly common in standard English over recent years, and it's the norm in many regional dialects. It isn't that if I were you is formal, though, in standard English; it's stylistically neutral.

This differs from the situation in the 3rd person singular, where the was form seems to be the neutral one these days, with were becoming more formal. But it's a grey area. I heard a discussion the other day which went something like this:

A If Jane was right for the part, I'd cast her.
B But that's the point. Is she right?
A Well if she were, I'd cast her, that's all I'm saying...

The stress fell heavily on were. If it weren't for the extra emphasis, one might say that here the two words were interchangeable. I suspect that A could just as easily have said If Jane were right.... On the other hand, I doubt whether A would have said, with emphasis, Well, if she was .... Phonological highlighting of the contrast seems to make a difference.

I'm not sure about this being a transitional period, though maybe the pace of change is hotting up. Usage issues of this kind were being discussed in Fowler, nearly a century ago. And indeed, you can trace uncertainty between was and were back several hundred years. What I think has happened is that the attitude of grammarians has changed. Formally they would give credence only to the formal options. Today they recognize that everyday usage includes both. A full discussion would need to recognize both a formal/informal contrast and a speech/writing contrast. Personally I (think I) use was as my norm in speech, reserving were for more formal contexts. In writing, I (think I) use were as my norm. I have to say 'think' as I don't use either all that often!

There's an excellent discussion of the various possibilities in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, pp. 86-8.

Tuesday 13 January 2009

On insults, or not

After the Christmas and New Year lull, word queries are back with a vengeance. But I wasn't expecting my first correspondent of the year to be a journalist from the Sun newspaper. Nor was I expecting my brief response to figure in those pages along with a picture. (And no, it wasn't on page 3, in case you were wondering.)

It was about Prince Harry and the eavesdropped use of Paki. What did I think of it all?

I suggested that a linguist would give a somewhat more measured reaction than the hysteria we've seen in the press. With potentially sensitive words, everything depends on the phonology and the pragmatics - in other words, how they're said and what the intentions are. A word said in a friendly tone is worlds away from the same word said in a belligerent one.

Establishing the intentions behind the usage is crucial. If everyone in the group uses the nickname, including the recipient of it, and everyone is comfortable with it, then anyone who peers in from outside and criticizes it must have their own agenda. Usually that agenda is pretty obvious (eg anti-monarchy), but the criticism is likely to be unpersuasive if it ignores linguistic realities. And certainly, judging by the opinions I've read in the various newspaper forums, most people haven't been persuaded.

I bet everyone has a story to tell like mine. When I moved to Liverpool from Wales back in the 50s, the kids immediately called me Taffy. I got so used to it that I would often introduce myself to new school acquaintances in this way. It was a rapport thing between us. Everyone had a nickname. And I was especially chuffed when the teachers used it to me. But not when a kid younger than me did. That was being cheeky.

Everything in language depends on the circumstances. Words are the messengers of intentions, and we should never shoot the messenger. Equally, we should always be alert to the possible impact our words might have on our listeners, and choose them well. Especially if we suspect there could be a newspaper reporter listening round the corner.

I thought that would be it. But no, today the Sun calls again. Apparently Prince Charles is in the firing line now for calling an Asian polo-playing friend 'Sooty'. It doesn't seem to matter that the friend has said that it was 'a term of affection with no offence meant or felt'. I find it a bit disturbing, I must say, when anyone with an axe to grind now seems entitled to tell us what we must have meant.

We know from the theoreticians of pragmatics that there's a useful distinction to be drawn between intended and actual perlocutionary effects, but this is usually discussed with reference to the effect of an utterance on the person(s) we are talking to. I'm not sure how the theory handles newspaper eavesdroppers, let alone the reactions of the readers of their reports. If there are people who, for whatever reason, hate a particular word, then this might influence our readiness to use the word in public situations, but should we allow them to have any influence on the way we talk in private? I've seen the argument this week that we should, on the grounds that to use a term like Paki even in private shows that the user has an undesirable mindset. This strikes me as being overly simplistic, but I'd be interested to hear some views.