Sunday, May 24, 2009

The categorisation of 'otherwise'

It occurred to me over the weekend that otherwise has the same classification problems that so does.

No time to elaborate.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Early attestations of the FANBOY(S) acronym

My earliest and still most popular post on this blog was about the FANBOYS mnemonic for recalling the "coordinating conjunctions": for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. At the time, I wondered about the source of this notion. While not pinning down the source, Karl Hagan has found a 1951 publication mentioning FANBOY (without the S).
"The earliest source (so far) is Learning to Write by Reed Smith, Bill Paxton, William Paxton, and Basil G. Meserve, 3rd ed. Heath, 1951. Google only gives a snippet view, but that's enough: '[the] chief co-ordinating conjunctions are sometimes called the fanboy words.' (p. 398)."
And then the full acronym:
"The next work found in Google Books, and the first that actually gives FANBOYS as an acronym, is dated 1970:

Gertrude B. Corcoran, Language arts in the elementary school: a modern linguistic approach, Ronald Press Co. 1970, p. 140:
'Coordinating conjunctions can be remembered by thinking of the acronym FANBOYS'."

Sunday, May 17, 2009


As an instructor/entertainer (sorry, I simply hate to call myself a teacher), I usually have one or more courses where I explain/present (sorry, but I just don't like to refer to what I do as 'teach') English pronunciation.

One of the many things I discuss is the inevitable similarity between such pairs as 'mince/mints' and 'prince/prints'. You can differentiate one from the other, but they tend to sound very similar. In fact, some speakers (chiefly American speakers) find it difficult to distinguish them.

Just this morning I found a delightful clip to add to my presentation material:

If you happen to know anything like this (or indeed anything of linguistic interest), please let me know. Really, I am easily pleased.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The decline of the -ly adverb

A correspondent writes, "I've been amazed at the loss of the derivational suffix -ly that routinely marks adverbs." When I pointed out that many adverbs have both the inflected and flat versions (e.g., quick), he replied, "as far as I know, quickly has been the adverb form and quick the adjective form for some time now. Dictionaries often list quick as a colloquial adverb only and not a formal one."

The OED notes "Now usually considered less formal than quickly, and found chiefly in informal or colloquial contexts." The now at the beginning of that sentence is of interest. The entry has quotations for quick as an adverb from 1300 until the present day with everything in between, and with both formal and informal examples.

In other words, this is not a change, but a continuation, though perhaps we are currently on the ebb of an -ly-ful wave. The Corpus of Current American English shows a slight decline in -ly adverb frequency from 1990-2008 with 11,515 instances per million words in 1990-1994, 11, 291 in '95-'99, 11,146 in 200-2004, and 11,074 in 2005-2008 where, over the same period, all adverbs actually increased in frequency from 35,072 PMW to 35,373.

The Time Corpus shows the same overall increase in adverb use, but for -ly adverbs, it shows a gradual increase from the 1920s with a peak in the 1970s followed by a drop off, today's levels being about the same as they were a century ago.

Also, check out Jan Freeman's "The Word" column from Sept 17, 2006.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Missing pronouns and prepositions

Yesterday's Toronto Star has a review of Chuck Palahniuk's latest book, Pygmy. Mudhar claims, "one thing is missing from his latest narrative: pronouns like 'I' and most prepositions." Leaving aside the question of whether pronouns and prepositions constitute one thing or not, are they indeed missing?

Well, you can get the first 30 pages of the book here and see for yourself. The writing is obviously nonstandard.
"Fellow operatives already pass immigrant control, exit through secure doors and to embrace own other host family people. Operative Tibor, agent 23; operative Magda, agent 36; operative Ling, agent 19. All violate United States secure port of entry having success."
Quoted material, however, appears to be standard English, so we'll generously assume that Mudhar means that these elements are missing only outside of dialog.

Well, on the first page, we get me used three times and that's it for pronouns. Certainly less than usual for fiction, but not entirely missing. The only other pronoun I could dig up (outside of dialog) was one instance of them.

Prepositions are more common though. The first 30 pages inclde all of the top 10 prepositions (of, in, to, for, with, on, at, from, for, about) except about.

"Really, the genesis of Pygmy's language was to try to make an entire language out of a small number of largely inappropriate words. And the rules were no definite article `the,' no conjunctions and there had to be very specific redundancies, like `colour red,' `arm limb' and `baby puppy,'... There were just very specific logical rules." Palahniuk is quoted as saying.

I find only one instance of is, one of were, and two of am and no apostrophes at all. The article a is used twice and the five times. And there are lots of conjunctions; and, but, and or are all there. So, despite Palahniuk's claims of logical rules, really it just seems like a half-baked gimmick.

But then what's the point of going to all the trouble to construct an entire language around broken English anyhow? Nobody would actually be anal enough to check if you're being consistent about it, would they?

Monday, May 11, 2009

Deliberate practice & teaching TESL

I've recently been reading Practice in a Second Language. When Amazon recommended it to me, I was very interested, especially given some of the work that Robert DeKeyser has done around the issue of practice. But when I started reading it, I realised that the definition of practice around which the book is based is so milquetoast as to turn it into another bland review of general second language acquisition research.

That's why I was so excited when I came upon the concept of deliberate practice where I wasn't expecting it at all: in The Cambridge Guide to Second Language Teacher Education. Having just completed my first year teaching in our TESL program, I was looking for some ideas to help me understand and rethink how my experience there had been different from experiences teaching English.

The guide started out rather tediously with a lot of talk of politics, colonialism, and professionalism. "Our increased attention to the complexities of teacher learning," concludes the introduction, "is grounded in an epistemology of practice." For some reason, I have a personal aversion to the word epistemology, and find it difficult to take seriously texts that use it.

Anyhow, I had almost given up on it when I came across Nat Bartels's chapter, "Knowledge about language", which isn't really about knowledge about language at all, but rather about deliberate practice. (To be fair, Practice in a Second Language also starts out talking about deliberate practice, but then quickly backs away from it.)

So what is deliberate practice? It is repeated attempts at the same or similar tasks under the following conditions:
  1. high motivation to attend to the task and exert effort
  2. clear goals and purposes
  3. challenging but not overly difficult tasks
  4. authentic but controlled tasks
  5. immediate feedback
This sounds somewhat banal. It's a lot like drill on the surface. But extensive research by Anders Ericsson and others suggests that the difference between experts and merely experienced amateurs is that experts constantly engage in deliberate practice. It is rarely because of some inherent talent. Experts problematize aspects of what they do, in other words they take the acceptable and examine it for points of weakness. They form hypotheses or get instruction about better ways to perform, and then they try them out repeatedly, attending closely to success and failure.

For teacher learners, Bartels says, practicum is not a good place to engage in deliberate practice for a number of reasons:
  1. it's too complex, not allowing them to attend sufficiently to the target aspect
  2. it's too difuse, not allowing numerous repetitions of the target task
  3. feedback is often be delayed
On the other hand, simply talking or reading about how to do a task also fails to meet the conditions that will help learners become experts.

The TESL course that I taught was designed to move from talking about grammar to teaching grammar in peer teaching activities, and then to the practicum. Nowhere was there any opportunity for deliberate practice, but at least now I'm thinking about it.

(By the way, The Cambridge Guide to Second Language Teacher Education actually ended up being much more enlightening on the whole than I had expected. Along with the Bartels chapter, Chapter 18: The Novice Teacher Experience and Chapter 19: Teaching Expertise: Approaches, Perspectives, and Characterizations in particular were also very interesting, both for a novice teacher educator like me, and, I would expect, even to novice ESL teachers.)

Friday, May 08, 2009

Phonemics as the new thing in language testing

Alan Davies posting the following to the L-Test mailing list.

Robert Lado (1961) mentions three approaches to the role of pronunciation: ignoring it is an error; reaching for native pronunciation is wishful thinking; intelligibility is attractive but hard to define.

'Phonemics' he claims ' offers the way out of this problem ... testing pronunciation with a phonemic criterion of accuracy is the new thing' (: 140). He deals with both recognition and production of the sound segments in chapters 7 and 8 and in later chapters with stress and intonation. Because, he says, production presents more problems than testing recognition, his advice is to test production through what he calls partial production, which is wholly paper based. Yesterday's print is today's machine?

In the 1960s, recognition tests of pronunciation by means of phonemic contrasts were popular. I used two in the English Proficiency Test Battery (1965), the precursor of ELTS and IELTS. The first of these contained 65 triplets. Results indicated:
"phonemic discrimination bore little if any relation to the other components (grammar, reading and listening comprehension).... The practice of insisting on the inclusion of a phoneme test seemed rather like requiring a knowledge of astrology for students of meteorology. Hindsight has not dealt kindly with phonemic discrimination, nor indeed with phonetics more generally, displaced as it is from its central role in the linguistic sciences, a place now occupied by theories of social interaction and cognitive science."
(Davies 2008, Assessing Academic English: 21)

Wednesday, May 06, 2009


It appears that the word stuffy/stuffie is becoming the common way for children in southern Ontario and elsewhere to refer to stuffed toys.

Just thought you might want to know.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

The Cambridge Guide to English Usage

The Cambridge Guide to English Usage has been around since 2004, but it only just came to my attention recently. As the blurb says, it's the first totally new major English usage book published in the 21st century, and it's "based on the Cambridge International Corpus and the British National corpus, highlighting the points of contrast between American and British usage."

Jumping off from this trans-Atlantic difference, the website includes a diagnostic quiz, which says, "If you don't get the questions right, this is the book you need." But seven of ten "usage" differences are simply spelling variations.

The physical book itself is a lovely hardback with a glossy cover, high-quality paper, and a thoughtful use of type faces. It appears sturdy and would likely endure a good deal of use.

And the contents then? I don't plan to actually read the book cover to cover, so the following observations will be somewhat scattered:
  • On the positive side, Peters doesn't begin by assuming that you know what she's talking about. The entry for passive verbs, for example, is broken into three sections: 1 the grammar of the passive, 2 style in the passive, and 3 the passive in scientific writing, with part 1 being a reasonable explanation of what a passive verb is: "one in which the subject undergoes the process or action expressed in the verb."
  • If we jump over to see what a subject is, however, we run into the usual problems: "the person or thing which operates the verb." This definition simply cannot logically coexist with the definition of the passive given above. Fortunately, the book does go beyond that, though, to mention that the subject governs subject-verb agreement.
  • Skipping back to the entry for passive, we find that Peters repeats the general slander against this maligned voice. Passive clauses, "are not the stuff of lively narrative when you want to know who is doing what. Used too often as in some academic and official styles, they make for dreary reading." She at least admits that the passive has its place, but she gives no examples of these dreary passives. The only examples she does give seem contrived: "The employment of staff with less than six months service will be terminated" is said to be better than, "We, the senior management, will terminate the employment of staff with less than six months service."
  • On the same spread as passive is an entry for parvenu or parvenue. Apparently this is one of the 4,000 entries that Peters though was disputed enough to include. To be honest, I don't think I'd even met the word before. The COCA says it occurs about 5-15 times per 100 million words with the BNC being at the upper range of that. So, hardly a common word. But is this actually a smouldering question: parvenu or parvenue? Hmm... (Mind you, it's not like this kind of trivial point seems to be displacing weightier issues. Never did I think to look something up only to find it not addressed.)
  • I asked my wife what to look up, and she suggested conditionals. There is indeed a short entry on conditionals, though oddly enough it seems to focus on French and Italian, viz, "English verbs have no conditional forms, and instead the modal verb would is commonly used to translate conditionals from French and Italian," (should you have the opportunity to do so...). The entry goes on to say, "conditional statements in English are often attached to a conditional clause, prefaced by if, unless or provided that, which are a type of adverbial clause." I'm not sure whether this is a subject-verb agreement error (i.e., *a conditional clause are a type of adverbial) or a factual error (i.e., if, unless or provided that, which are a type of adverbial clause).
  • As I typed viz, above, I thought, "now here's a chance to put this book to use." I looked it up, and learned that the z is actually the printer's substitute for ezh (ʒ), an abbreviation for -et. Interesting, but what I really wanted to know was, should I italicize it?
  • The entry for logogram, logograph, logotype, and logo is pretty much all news to me, but ignores the meaning I do know: the type of writing system exemplified by Chinese characters (e.g., 手 is the logograph for hand). On the same page, we find loony or loonie, which correctly describes the situation here in Canada (loony = adj. crazy, loonie = n. one dollar coin.)
  • The entry for decimate is generally quite good with clear examples showing the reduce-by-10% sense, the reduce-to-10% sense, and the more common, but less mathematical, meaning, along various others.
  • Ravage or ravish is also well done. Of ravish, Peters writes, "the two kinds of meaning have their respective clichés in ravished virgins and ravished audiences, which are symptomatic of the fact that the word is usually either euphemistic or hyperbolic."
After spending a couple of hours with the book, I sadly find few entries particularly helpful. Despite the corpus-based approach, very few examples of use are typically given and though the author occasionally lets her voice shine through (as in ravish, above) these entertaining bits are not the norm. In contrast, Peters's opinions are obvious, and it's often unclear what, if any, corpus evidence has been brought to bear in forming them (as in passive, above). All in all, the hype about the book being corpus-based is accurate, but I find the actual implementation somewhat superficial. The most prominent application seems to be to the endless disputed spellings to which far too much of the book is given over: doughnut or donut; doyly, doyley, or doiley; drily or dryly; drivable or driveable; driveling or drivelling; dyarchy or diarchy; dullness or dulness, and on and on. If you really don't know which to use, you can check the COCA or the BNC for free and save yourself the cost of the book. For other issues, Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage displays much more scholarship and will only cost you half as much.