Sunday, September 30, 2007

If they will only listen

Believe me, English really doesn't have a future tense. Some may think this is simply a labeling preference, but it goes beyond that. The belief that English has a future tense gets people all twisted up in ad hoc explanatory knots that vanish once you accept a future-tenseless English into your heart.

Take, for instance, this question, which recently showed up on the ETJ list.

I was asked if the sentence "if he's not going to change his mind
there is no use talking to him" was correct.
I said yes.
"But you can't use if with the future tense" came the reply
"quite right" said I.
"so why is this ok?"

In case you're asking where these two came up with this "rule", here are a couple of versions for you. The first one is from an TESL site called

Like all future forms, the Simple Future cannot be used in clauses beginning with time expressions such as: when, while, before, after, by the time, as soon as, if, unless, etc. Instead of Simple Future, Simple Present is used.

And here's another from Wikipedia (now changed):

Future tense forms are not used in the condition clause (protasis) in English: *If it will rain this afternoon, …

If you subscribe to the future-tense school of English grammar, it is completely natural to look for regularities in how such a tense would be realised. This is what we're seeing above. The people who are promulgating these "rules" are looking at a specific instance in which it seems to be true (e.g., *if it will rain this afternoon) and generalising from there.

But this disallows perfectly fine sentences such as "if you'll excuse me, I've got a bus to catch" or even "If you'll be using a wheelbarrow frequently, then make risers low". It also catches instances such as the one that initiated the question above.

On the other hand, it ignores other problems such as "it could rain tonight" becoming "if it could rain tonight...", or "that may be the right one" becoming "if that may be the right one", or even "he might have been there" as "if he might have been there".

A belief in the future tense does this because it leads people to look for regularities in some hodge podge notion of the future tense where there are none to be found rather than within the system of modal auxiliaries where they actually exist.

In fact, the problem only resides with certain modals (mainly 'will', 'may', 'might', and 'could') when they are used to express probability (i.e., epistemic uses). Thus, "it could rain tomorrow" doesn't work as *"if it could rain tomorrow", but "you could help me tomorrow, couldn't you" easily becomes "if you could help me tomorrow" because 'could' here is denoting ability (or willingness, i.e., it is deontic) rather than probability. Note that this also holds true for present and past time as well as future time.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Rethinking rethink

A student (college-level native speaker of English) writes, "It is time to rethink the path society is on." Something in my brain went sproing when I read this. Well, not really sproing, more like twing. Anyhow, when I went over it again, path just didn't feel quite right.

I ran it by my family who were enjoying the weekend while I wade through this pile of papers. My brother found it unremarkable, but my mother immediately rephrased it as "rethink where society is going". It then occurred to me that rethink seems to have a different set of complements from think. After some googling and corpus searches, I'm confident that this is so.

You'd never say, "*think your plans/policy/approach", but "rethink your plans/policy/approach" is fine. It seems that, for whatever reason, rethink now patterns with reconsider rather than think. I wonder when that happened or if it has been thus since it came into the language around 1700. I wish I had access to the OED from home. [Now that I'm back at work with access to the OED, I find that rethink has been transitive from its earliest recored use.]

Thursday, September 27, 2007

CBC blowin' in the Burmese wind

CBC started the week reporting on the marches in "Myanmar, formerly known as Burma". For the last two days, however, it's been "Burma, also known as Myanmar".

[Actually, a quick web search shows that it's a policy change.]

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Promises are not verbs

In today's Toronto Star, Andrew Chung writes,

"Promises are the currency of elections. With no platform to judge, on what other basis could voters make a decision when casting a ballot? Promises are also part of a category of verbs that experts call 'performative speech acts.' These utterances actually cause the speaker to perform a certain act."

I'm pleasantly surprised that the topic of performative speech acts (PSAs) should show up in The Star. They're rather curious self-fulfilling things. When you say, "I promise x", you have done so and need do no more. The act is carried out through the utterance. Promise isn't the only word that works this way. Other examples are declare, sentence, damn, pronounce, etc.

But notice that though this is a list of verbs, the verbs themselves do not, contrary to what Chung says, constitute speech acts. It is the utterance, usually in the form of a sentence, that is the PSA. Nor are promises verbs. But I do appreciate Chung's giving it the old college try.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

An ESL policy update from Annie Kidder

Today, Annie Kidder at People for Education posted a comment to a previous post. It's substantial enough that I'm reposting it here.

In early September, the province quietly posted its new English as a Second Language (ESL/ELD) policy on the Ministry of Education website. The province has been promising new funding and policy for ESL since the spring of 2006, and while the new policy addresses some of the concerns raised over the last three years by Ontario’s Auditor General and others, it is difficult to see how it will alleviate many of the ongoing issues in ESL programs.

  • Many school boards report using a substantial portion of their ESL funding to cover the costs of things like heat, light and building maintenance. The new policy does not protect ESL funds.

  • Students’ ESL support is reduced, or eliminated altogether, when the funding runs out, as opposed to when the student has sufficient English skills to function academically. The new policy says this should not happen, but does not commit to supplying funding for students who are not ready to be withdrawn from ESL programs.

  • There is no measurable English-proficiency standard that ESL students should attain before ESL services are discontinued. No standard was set.

  • The Ministry does not ensure that the ESL/ELD funding targets students most in need of assistance. The policy suggests that boards use the funds where it will be most effective – but there is no specific direction given.

  • Funding for ESL does not differentiate between students who arrive in Ontario as refugees and have little or no formal education in their first language, and students who have attended school in their home countries. The policy notes that there are different levels of need among ESL/ELD students, but does not provide for differentiated funding.

  • According to the Ministry of Education, students usually take from five to seven years to become fluent in English. But funding for ESL/ELD support runs out after four years. Funding has not been extended beyond the four years.

  • There are no minimum ESL/ELD training requirements for regular classroom teachers who have significant number of ESL students. The policy suggests it would be beneficial for new teachers to acquire ESL skills, but does not require it.

Over 600,000 foreign immigrants moved to Ontario between 2001 and 2006, most from non-English-speaking countries and many with school-age children. As a result, the proportion of ESL students in schools increased by 24%. Over the same period, the percentage of elementary schools with ESL teachers declined by 23%.

In schools with higher ESL populations (more than 10 ESL students) the percentage reporting ESL students but no ESL teacher has doubled since 2000.

The new policy does not require school boards to spend ESL money on ESL programs, it does not set standards for an acceptable level of English proficiency and it does not provide funding that recognizes the difference between refugee students needing substantial literacy support and ESL students who have strong literacy skills and only require support to learn the language.

To read the policy go to the Ministry of Education website.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Pirate speak in other languages

Since the good folks at Language Log reminded me that today is Talk-Like-A-Pirate Day, I asked my students if pirates have any particular linguistic tics in their languages.
  • A German student came up with a sentence terminal ay! (read /Ei/). There's also this glossary of German pirate words.
  • The Spanish speakers said Spanish pirates all have Castilian accents.
  • Korean, Japanese, Iranian, Iraqi, Arabic, and Turkish students couldn't identify any particular pirate dialect.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Rabbit numbers

One of the readings included in our Comm 200 packet for students to respond to is "Dot-com this!" by Stephanie Nolen from The Globe and Mail, Aug 28, 2000. pg. R.1. It includes the following:

"Eric McLuhan, author of Electric Language, adding that English, as the language with the greatest flexibility and largest vocabulary, was the only language prepared for this shift.

But McLuhan, who is the son of the legendary communications theorist Marshall McLuhan, says the 15 years of the computing era have had drastic effects on the building blocks of writing.

Attention spans have declined sharply, and with them, sentence length. Twenty years ago, the average sentence length in a novel was 20 words; today it is 12 to 14 words. In mass-market books such as Harlequin Romance novels, the average sentence is only seven or eight words.

The stuff about English having the greatest flexibility and largest vocabulary is not even worth commenting on, but it seems pretty clear that McLuhan is just making up the sentence lengths too. Just in case, I did a quick tally to see how accurate his claims are. I took the top 10 selling books from 1985 and 2005 (from here) and pulled up the words-per-sentence stats from (e.g., here). Where they weren't available, I took a book from the same author published around the same time. Here are the results.


The Mammoth Hunters by Jean M. Auel13.8

Texas (All We Did Was Fly to the Moon) by James A. Michener14.6

Lake Wobegon Days by Garrison Keillor16.8

If Tomorrow Comes by Sidney Sheldon10

Skeleton Crew by Stephen King12.5

Secrets by Danielle Steel12.7

Contact by Carl Sagan14.3

Lucky by Jackie Collins8.7

Family Album by Danielle Steel14

Jubal Sackett (Lando) by Louis L'Amour14.2



The Broker by John Grisham11.5

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown11

Mary, Mary (actually Cat and Mouse) by James Patterson9.6

At First Sight by Nicholas Sparks11.6

Predator by Patricia Cornwell11.1

True Believer by Nicholas Sparks12

Light from Heaven by Jan Karon9.9

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova19

The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd13.5

Eleven on Top (Lean Mean Thirteen) by Janet Evanovich9.1


In this small unscientific study, there is a tendency for sentences to be shorter in 2005 but the difference of 1.33 WPS is nothing like the 10 WPS McLuhan is claiming. And when the largest average for a single book from 1985 is 16.8 WPS, it seems highly unlikely that you're going to find an average of 20 WPS for all novels published in that year. Maybe what computers have made us better at is pulling numbers out of a hat as if they were rabbits. Then again, maybe better is the wrong word.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Hofstadter on Pinker

Over the weekend The LA Times published a review by Douglas Hofstadter of Steven Pinker's new book The Stuff of Thought (The Times has put this behind a pay wall. You can still read it here.) Hoffstadter writes, appropriately, with the caution and insight of a scientist, disagreeing graciously where he sees fit. "Pinker exploits his wonderfully keen faculty for linguistic observation to pry open the human head and discover its secrets. Sometimes this technique works terrifically, other times not so well."

Saturday, September 15, 2007

A new season of "And sometimes Y"

CBC's "And sometimes y" has started a new season with a new host. Unfortunately, I've missed both episodes so far and they seem to have stopped providing even the limited audio excerpts they used to.
[Update, Sept 2o: Perhaps I blogged too soon. There is now a realAudio stream available for episode 2. Still nothing for 1 though.]

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Mixed signals

Horizons BetaPro funds are running a marketing campaign featuring a dictionary-entry style design (the ads don't seem to be on their website). The entry is like this (disregarding layout):
b ta prfit
(verb): to capture double the daily market performance of an equity sector by investing in a...

The company is "Canada's sole provider" of this specific type of fund. So, if it's Canadian, why use the British pronunciation of beta? The Canadian Oxford gives only /bei t/. The ad appears to use the American Heritage Dictionary pronunciation key, another oddity (though my mom says this is the system she learned growing up in Manitoba). At least it does for the stressed vowels. The /a/ and the /i/ don't seem to fit in here.

And then there's the stress marks. Most British dictionaries mark stress at the beginning of the syllable and AHD marks it at the end. In this ad, though, it seems to be marked on the stressed vowel.

All in all they've made quite a hash of it. Fortunately for them, almost nobody will notice. And all those diacritics do add a certain cachet--the corporate version of the heavy metal umlaut.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Lingusitic hipness at ROB

For a conservative magazine, Report on Business is trying remarkably hard to be hip. The September cover reads:

The Urban Dictionary has an entry for hate-on that's almost three years old, but Google only return 12,000 hits. That may seem like a lot, but in comparison jape, today's WOTD from Merriam-Webster Online, a word I'd never seen before, gets more than 500,000 hits. Many of the "hate-on for" hits eschew the hyphen, suggesting either that the writers have a more minimalist punctuation style or that they missed the joke.

Meanwhile, the ROB headline writer, obviously in a merry mood, continues on inside with the headline, "Flaherty will get you nowhere".

Friday, September 07, 2007

Voicelessly & labiodentally so

With the Toronto International Film Festival in full swing, the Toronto media is tripping over itself to avoid using the title Young People Fucking. This morning, on CBC Radio 1, Toronto, Jesse Hersh called it Young People Copulating, to which Andy Barrie replied, "only more fffricative."

Thursday, September 06, 2007

AWL washed up?

I have a good deal invested in the Academic Word List (AWL). I have developed a lot of materials based on it and even spent many hours writing definitions and collecting example sentences for the AWL words (available on the Simple English Wiktionary). I have done so because I found the arguments for such a list compelling, because I believed the AWL was well designed, and because the results struck me as having good face validity. Many students have come back to me after beginning their post-secondary studies and said how valuable the AWL has been to them. (I woul also note that our program is small and we do not have the ability to stream students by major.)

But this past June, Ken Hyland and Poly Tse published an article in TESOL Quarterly called 'Is there an "academic vocabulary"?' Here's the abstract:

This article considers the notion of academic vocabulary: the assumption that students of English for academic purposes (EAP) should study a core of high frequency words because they are common in an English academic register. We examine the value of the term by using Cox-head's (2000) Academic Word List (AWL) to explore the distribution of its 570 word families in a corpus of 3.3 million words from a range of academic disciplines and genres. The findings suggest that although the AWL covers 10.6% of the corpus, individual lexical items on the list often occur and behave in different ways across disciplines in terms of range, frequency, collocation, and meaning. This result suggests that the AWL might not be as general as it was intended to be and, more importantly, questions the widely held assumption that students need a single core vocabulary for academic study. We argue that the different practices and discourses of disciplinary communities undermine the usefulness of such lists and recommend that teachers help students develop a more restricted, discipline-based lexical repertoire.


I wondered if the Hyland & Tse study's results had anything to do with the small corpus size. Their corpus is only 3.3 million words, somewhat smaller than Coxhead's 3.5 million-word corpus. Nowhere do they examine whether their results are statistically significant and I'm afraid that my stats are not up to the task either. But there's a much larger corpus that we can compare results against to see if the findings hold up: the British National Corpus using the VIEW interface.

At one point, Hyland & Tse write,

Table 6 shows the main meanings for selected words with different overall frequencies in the AWL together with their distributions. The first four are from our high frequency list, with occurrences above the overall mean, and show that even where uses are very frequent, preferred uses still vary widely, with social science students far more likely to meet consist as meaning "to stay the same" and science and engineering students very unlikely to come across volume meaning " a book or journal series" unless they are reading book reviews.

Where they talk about consist as meaning "to stay the same", they are referring to the word family and, I assume, to the words consistent and consistently. Here is the relevant data from Table 6.

WordsMeaningNat sciEngSoc sci

ConsistStay same34%25%55%

made up of66%75%45%
(As published, 'stay same' for Eng is 15, but all other numbers sum to 100%, so I assume it's a typo).

So, what happens when we look at the same numbers in the BNC?

WordsMeaningNat sciEngSoc sciPolit & law

ConsistStay same36%28%48%49%

made up of64%72%52%51%

The range drops from 30% to 20% but is still notable. I'll poke around a bit more and see what I turn up.