Friday, January 26, 2007

The differences

Over on the ETJ list, we had the following question:
A JTE asked me if I could explain the differences/similarities between:
(be over & end)
(call for & need)
(start & leave) as in:The best thing is to (start / leave) at once.
Rather odd question, I thought, but I'll give it a shot.

As for call for vs. need, perhaps the difference can best be explained by contrasting them in
"The forecast ________ more rain." The similarity is that they are both completely ungrammatical in that context, so you need the third person 's', producing

1st person: "The forecast need more rain."
2nd person: "Hang on! That's not grammatically correct."
3rd person: "Shhhhh! That's not PC anymore."

Moving on to be over and end, though very similar, one can detect a slight change in nuance, which is brought out nicely by putting them in the following context:

"the dog bit me on my rear _____"

In the final pair, there isn't enough context to really tell start and leave apart, but if we add one sentence to the beginning, it becomes much more obvious, to wit,

"I think I'm going to fart."
"The best thing is to start / leave at once."

When science slams into the uninformed newspaper

The headline on this International Herald Tribune story about people misconstruing the research agenda of Charles Roselli is really a cheap shot.

When science slams into the uninformed blogger

Oh, the bloggers are uninformed. But if you read the article, you find that, "the news media storm reached its zenith last month, when The Sunday Times in London published an article under the headline 'Science Told: Hands Off Gay Sheep.'" Who's uninformed?

Truth be told, "the controversy spilled into the blog world, with attacks on Roselli." But look at the reactions when the problems were pointed out to the newspaper.

The authors of the Sunday Times article, Chris Gourlay and Isabel Oakeshott, referred questions to a managing editor, who they said was traveling and could not be reached.

The blogosphere, in contrast reacted like this:

Roselli and Newman were able to persuade some prominent bloggers, including Andrew Sullivan, the openly gay journalist who writes a column for, to correct postings that had uncritically quoted the Sunday Times article.

They also found an ally in the blog world: a scientist who writes under the pseudonym Emptypockets and has taken up Roselli's cause. That blogger, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he said a public stand could hurt his career, said he had been cheered by the number of bloggers who dropped their opposition when presented with the facts. "As soon as you tell them this isn't real, they take it back quickly," he said.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

No verbs in phrases

I was consulting the Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics for a clear definition of phrase. It refered me to clause, where I found the following definition: "A phrase is a group of words which form a grammatical unit." Fine, so far. "A phrase does not contain a finite verb." Oops!

I assume what the authors (Jack Richards, John Platt & Heidi Platt) are trying to do here is distinguish phrase from clause and to specify just what kind of grammatical unit we are talking about. But this limitation puts us in serious trouble, as the last part of the definition should make clear. "Phrases are usually classsified according to their central word or HEAD. e.g., NOUN PHRASE1, VERB PHRASE, etc." (By the way, the note on noun phrase seems to be unresolved, as far as I can tell.)

So, verb phrases are types of phrases, but only when they do not include a finite verbs. But if we look up verb phrase, we find that it is a "part of a sentence that includes the main verb." Just be be absolutely sure we're not missing something, let's have a look at the example in which, we are told, everything except Tom is the verb phrase.

Tom gave a watch to his daughter.

Clearly, gave is a finite verb.

And we never did get to find out what kind of grammatical unit phrases are, did we? Sigh.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Simple English Wiktionary

The Simple English Wiktionary is coming along quite nicely. We're at 1427 entries now. Though that doesn't seem like many, we only had just shy of 400 when I joined last April. My goal is to get a good basic vocabulary in there, about 2000-3000 words plus the Academic Word List. If anybody's interested in contributing, contact me ( b r e t t . r e y n o l d s @ h u m b e r . c a) or just head on over and have at it.

If you're interested in using the data to study vocabulary, there's an open-source program called jVLT that can import the data from the SEWikt for study and testing. I don't think the importing program has been uploaded yet, but I can send you the data if you're interested. Again, let me know.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

More Russell Smith

Not only does Russell Smith not know when he's wrong; he doesn't even seem to know when he's right. In his latest column ("Two small words, one large headache", Jan 4, 2007), he writes,
"The downside to this pontificating job is that when one makes a grammatical mistake, it makes one look particularly silly. And readers are likely to point it out with a pleasure verging on glee. (As well they should.) So, yes, it was inelegant of me to begin last week's column with the sentence, 'Readers write to me about perceived errors which I don't always see as errors myself.' Although many language authorities increasingly accept "which" in this role, strictly speaking the 'which' should be a 'that.'"
And when one accepts the criticism that a perfectly grammatical usage is a mistake, one looks even sillier.

The facts: (mostly from Merriam Webster's Usage Dictionary)
That was used to introduce relative clauses (both restrictive and non-) in early middle English, while which began to be used as a relative pronoun only in the 1300s. Later, it gained currency and within 300 years there was little to distinguish the two. Thereafter, that fell completely out of use in this context for a period, only to later return in its full role. This was followed by a gradual fall out of fashion in nonrestrictive relative clauses until it became quite rare in that usage by the early 20th century. Currently, that is not used this way.

It was about then, perhaps slightly earlier, that usage writers, including the Fowler brothers, suggested that, because that was specializing for restrictive relatives, perhaps, which should be reserved for nonrestrictive relatives. Note, this was merely a fancy. There is no historical precedent and there is an overwhelming host of examples from the best writers of the time in contravention of this idea, a fact readily admitted to by Fowler. Even the usage writers who later mistook this suggestion as a rule ignore it, often within pages of asserting it.

Thus, it is neither true that "strictly speaking" that is correct, nor that which is increasingly accepted in this role. In fact, if anything, more and more people, influenced by Microsoft Word's grammar checker, have come to believe that which is incorrect.

Some interesting divergences from the above follow:

That cannot be used when you wish to relativise the object of a preposition in either restrictive or non-restrictive cases unless you "strand" the preposition (which is perfectly grammatical).

The problems of which I’m aware are of a more qualitative type.
*The problems of that I’m aware are of a more qualitative type.
The problems, of which I’m aware, are of a more qualitative type.
*The problems, of that I’m aware, are of a more qualitative type.

And, from Fowler (1908), we get the following:

All that I can do is useless.
*All which I can do is useless.

That which has gone before should be clear.
*That that has gone before should be clear.

Smith also writes,
"and you see the easiest way to tell when you need one and not the other? It's the commas. 'Which' will always be preceded by a comma. . (sic) So there you go: Forget about restrictive and non-restrictive. If your second clause needs commas around it, then introduce it with which. If not, keep it as that. This is going to be the most useful rule you'll ever learn from me."
I certainly hope not. As we've seen, the rule is not true. And even if it were true, it is not useful. How is one to know whether commas should be added? Take for example, the change to FIFA's Laws of the Game, where some well-meaning person, likely at the suggestion of MS Word, has changed a perfectly acceptable sentence to one that is inane, to wit: " A tackle, which endangers the safety of an opponent, must be sanctioned as serious foul play." (Source)

Most overused words

It seems that to get your fifteen minutes of fame in the newspaper, all you have to do is disparage a few words or expressions. So here goes:

2007's most overused word:

T h*

What a stinker of an article. We've been using it for almost 800 years, and frankly I'm sick of it. And it's not just that people throw it willy-nilly in front of almost every noun. They're actually doing more of it. I mean, back in Old English, you had a whole host of articles to appease your every whim:

Masc. Fem. Neut. Plural
Nom. se seo þæt þa
Acc. þone þa þæt þa
Gen. þæs þære þæs þara
Dat. þæm þære þæm þæm
Inst. þy, þon -- þy, þon --

There's choice for you. Not just one monotonous definite article over and over, but a range of delightfully subtle variation. Unlike today's so-called "modern" English! Oh, no! Lazy, lazy, lazy--that's what we've become. Everything is determined by this blandest of words, usually pronounced without even a real vowel, just lowly schwa, hardly more than a tired grunt.

Indeed, it's time to pluto it. No more T-word! Its bandwagon is timeworn and overburdened. Jump, I say. There are over 50 other determiners in English and it's time to give them their head unencumbered by this hackneyed lexeme.

(This post is T-word free)

Grammar Scammers

After the mess that Russell Smith makes of his language column in the Globe, it's nice to see that Jan Freeman is willing to actually do some research. Hats off to her!

Inter (a time in between)

The Toronto Star is calling on readers to propose a new word for the current unseasonable season. I propose inter (with the stress on the first syllable). It is appropriately ambiguous in terms of climatic expectations, yet suitably meaningful in its timing: a time between fall and spring. Extending the sense of an existing prefix to include a noun is less of a jump than making up a completely new word (e.g., oobleck). Inter also has the homographic verb, which suggests that winter is dead.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

An open letter to Russell Smith

Re: You can fax it, just don't write mein The Globe and Mail Dec 28, 2006 pg. R.3

The column in question has some minor correct statements, which you may wish to alter to maintain a coherent style.

You wrote, "if prose deviates in certain crucial ways from standard written English, a style agreed on almost unanimously by various guide-writing authorities, then it becomes confused and unclear."

Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, would seem to disagree with your assertion of conformity. "A characteristic of writing on usage has been, right from the beginning, disagreement among the writers." If nothing else, there are the two main camps: the prescriptivists, who make about as much sense as this column of yours, and the linguists. And the gulf between them is sizable.

You next complained about "issues of logic, such as mixed up verb tenses."

Verb tenses belong to the field of grammar, not logic. Moreover, English only has two: past and present. And they are rarely mixed up by native speakers. Perhaps the problem is that you have mixed up verb tense with verb form. There is, for example, no passive tense, but a passive voice. There's also aspect and mood, and a number of other considerations when deciding on the correct verb form. Tense is but one; please, try not to confound them in the future, lest your writing continue to be confused, unclear, and ambiguous.

Regarding the "useful distinction" between "write me/write to me". The distinction is already there, both in speech, with intonation, and print, with punctuation or italics. Why require a second distinction when it is obvious to everyone that "a letter" is simply elided? Don't you deride redundancy?

As to your claim that graduate doesn't take a direct object, maybe it doesn't in your idiolect (which, by the way, doesn't usually have anything to do with writing like an idiot), but most dictionaries include a transitive sense. In fact, the intransitive usage was new and much derided in the 19th century, though it is now the more common form. The original was "He was graduated from university." Of course, the "graduated university" construction is new and hasn't made inroads into edited prose, but it makes no less sense than the intransitive form. Oh, and didn't you start the column by downplaying the importance of regional differences and being delighted by change? Is it so hard to keep these things in mind for a few hundred words?

Then, there's this utterly astounding bit of nonsense: "Remember that the past participle of 'go' is 'gone' (not 'went,' which is the perfect)." Went is the perfect what? Aspect? As in "I have went?" Perhaps you mean that it is the past, as in past tense. But we've already established that you mix these things up, so I suppose this is just rubbing salt in your wounds.

And you get paid for this?

May I suggest that, in the future, you consult a scholarly work on the subject at hand before embarrassing yourself and your paper with such trash. The previously mentioned Dictionary of English Usage should be your first stop. You should also consult the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, by Huddleston & Pullum. And while you're waiting for those to arrive, hie yourself over to Language Log and spend some time browsing the archives. It may help you to see the error of your ways.

Past participles, strong and weak

My post on waked vs. waken continues to be one of the most popular (not that readership is exactly huge.) Interestingly, it's not just wake that has wreaked/wrought confusion. A few years ago I realised that in spite of the tidy lists of irregular verbs (i.e., ones with strong form conjugations as opposed to the weak -ed form) that I was passing out to my students, there is a good deal of uncertainty about quite a few verbs. Thankfully, most of them are a bit too rare to deal with in class.

For example, let's look at cleave. First of all, we have two quite opposite meanings: 1) split and 2) stick together. Our past tense (preterite) form is cleaved or clove or cleft. And we also have three possible past participle forms: cleaved, cloven, and cleft. "So which is correct?" you may ask. All of them, but usually for different people.

Here's another: if you were out walking in the summer, you might note the smell of a freshly mown lawn and not give the grammar a second thought. But how comfortable would you be saying, "I've just mown the grass"? For me, it would be mowed. And if you walk briskly away thereafter, have you stridden away? Really?

Here are a few that you can try out at home. You might find that putting them in different sentences will give you different results.