Sunday, June 26, 2011


Tag questions were the topic of a recent edition of "The word" in the Boston Globe, a column shared by Jan Freeman and Erin McKean, now of Wordnik. Writes McKean,
Some days it seems that the most common kind of understanding is misunderstanding: Every conversation — not to mention each e-mail, IM, or text message — is rife with opportunities for crossed circuits and hurt feelings. There’s no end of advice about how to avoid miscommunication: Keep things simple. Take your time. Be aware of cultural differences. But missing from all these communication-helper lists is a little linguistic tic that most people use every day: the tag question.

You know what tag questions are, don’t you? Tag questions are those little questioning upticks, usually found at the end of a sentence — like that don’t you? — that grease the conversational wheels.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Today, English, Jack hit one of those meaningless and yet somehow notable milestones: 100,000 unique visits. I often wonder who these people are and how many of them really intended to end up reading about English, but I hope we've interested, entertained, and instructed a few of them. We've been at it since July of 2006, about a month short of five years. This is post #475. And according to Alexa, there are about four million blogs that are more popular than this one.

Just in case you were wondering...

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

In spite of a lot of evidence

Some grammar books will tell you that a lot of is a determiner (e.g., The Grammar Book, p. 330). The problem is that these books haven't decided what they mean when they say something is a determiner. They haven't made a clear distinction between the category (e.g., noun, adjective, preposition, etc.), which I'll call determinative, and the function (subject, object, modifier, etc.), which I'll call specifier, and they tend to shift back and forth between them unwittingly.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Errors and noticing

Yesterday I spent a good deal of time trying to figure out the constraints around the type of relative construction in the following sentences:
  1. This is the town that I grew up in.
  2. That's the room that we're going to use.
  3. This is the town where I grew up.
  4. That's the room where we're going to have the party.
It may seem obvious at first, but it's very difficult to describe a rule that covers all situations. But that's not what I set out to write about today. The point is that in trying to figure it out, I was reading and rereading the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, struggling to get all the relevant information to gather together in one part of my brain and make sense together.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Ben Zimmer at the Boston Globe

At the Boston Globe, `The Word' is usually written by Jan Freeman, but she's recently been sharing duties with Erin McKeen, former dictionary editor. Now Ben Zimmer, late of the NYT Magazine's `On Language' column seems to have joined the team. He's got a nice piece in Sunday's paper (yes, I know it's not Sunday yet, but that's the date on the article) about dictionary definitions. Check it out.

Monday, June 13, 2011

NSA style guide

In case you're a style guide aficionado, you might want to know that BoingBoing has just released a PDF of the US National Security Agency's style guide which was acquired under a freedom of information request. It includes such models of clear style as:

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The last and the most important word

How are we to analyze the two instances of the in the title? On p. 395, the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language deals with the and the superlatives. It takes the in examples like this point is [the most important] as being a determinative functioning as a modifier. It differentiates this from examples like this is [the most important point], where it is a determinative functioning as a determiner (aka specifier) in the noun phrase. But what happens when you coordinate superlatives as in the title? Which the is the specifier?

Presumably, it would be the first one, since the specifier would precede any modifiers. But why does the second superlative require the modifier while the first doesn't?

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Being selling

A while ago - in fact, a few years ago - I saw this and wondered, 'Being selling? - hmm':

It occurred to me that this 'being' might be a typo for 'begins'. Still, I thought 'being selling' made sense to me (if not appropriate in the given context).

When I saw the headline "Touro College accused of being selling grades and degrees", I was more confident that this was an instance of nonfinite progressive BE. But then, when I follow the link to the original article, the interesting construction is nowhere to be found.

I don't know about you, but I happen to think that being doing something, as opposed to doing something, is a wonderful stretch of the English verbal system. Why don't people do this more often?

Over three decades ago, Halliday spoke of this as a gap to be filled (in 'On Being Teaching', which you can see cited here). My question is, is the gap being filled now? Or would I be accused of being filling the gap too forcefully?

Friday, June 03, 2011

Per + bare NP

I just noticed two things about the preposition per. It is usually followed by a bare singular noun phrase (i.e., one with no determiner aka specifier). This is odd because singular NPs almost always require a specifier unless the head noun is a proper noun. We say, take one pill per day, not *take one pill per a day or *per days.

But even more interesting is that sometimes it is followed by plural noun phrases, almost always specified by 100, 1,000, 100,00, etc. (e.g., The abortion rate had dropped from nearly 30 per 1,000 women of childbearing age, to less than 2.) And then when we speak this, we typically say per thousand women, instead of per one thousand women. So is thousand functioning as a specifier in thousand women?

By the way, you do find examples like a 0.75 ERA and an average of 15 strikeouts per seven innings, but these are rare.

Repeated discussions

Another activity post:

Many years ago, Paul Nation, one of the nicest people in language teaching, though now retired, introduced me to the idea of the repeated discussion, or what he calls the 4-3-2 speaking activity. You can see him describe it beginning at about 7:30 in this video:

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Words as a measure of hope

Here's the talk I gave today at TEDxHumber as scripted. (Of course I deviated in the actual talk, which I'll link to when it goes online).
[Update: the video is here]