March 30, 2012, 12:01 am
If you go online to The New Yorker’s Cartoon Bank and enter the keyword “woof,” you’ll be taken to a page with a cartoon by Charles Barsotti showing a bird, a pig, a fish, a cat, and a duck all seated at a round table looking at a dog. The bird, the pig, the fish, the cat, and the duck all say “Woof.”
To which the dog replies, “Everybody gets a raise.”
In other words, to get along with the boss, you have to speak the boss’s language.
And that’s why the English language does not have an Academy for Preservation of the Purity of Our Language, as others do. We lost our purity beyond recovery nearly a thousand years ago, when for several centuries the rulers of England spoke French. (Norman French, to be sure, not the dialect of Paris, but French all the same.)
Our native English might have been a chirp or an oink or a quack, but those who wanted to get along …
March 29, 2012, 12:01 am
March 18: I am sitting in the Charlotte airport, which seems to be my home away from home these days, and I’ve just had a tiny moment that left me, as the French say, bouleversée. Traversing the moving walkways and mottled industrial carpet from Concourse C to Concourse B, I noted how the temperature of the air increased as I turned from the high-ceilinged atrium onto the more crowded concourse, and it occurred to me that most of the heat was being generated by the hundreds of warm-blooded creatures who were hurrying from one gate to the next. How remarkable, I thought, that each one of us in this impersonal space is a sentient creature; and the next thought hurtling my way was that our sentience was manifest primarily in language. My dog, for instance, is sentient. And my dog’s experience of this space would differ from mine in many, many ways—but mostly because of language.
March 28, 2012, 12:01 am
In a Chronicle article last week Tom Bartlett spoke of “a deeply factionalized group of scholars who can’t agree on what they’re arguing about and who tend to dismiss their opponents as morons or frauds or both.” Words like “brutal,” “spiteful,” “ridiculous,” and “childish” kept coming up. Not quite the image we linguists were looking for!
He was investigating an unusual case, nastier than any I have previously seen in linguistics: a peculiarly fractious and bitter fight originally about properties of Pirahã, spoken by an Amazonian hunter-gatherer tribe. The acrimonious dispute has dissolved away, leaving only the acrimony behind. Let me try to summarize the facts of the strange situation.
1. Daniel Everett wrote a dissertation on Pirahã more than 25 years ago, and developed it into a 200-page descriptive chapter for the Handbook of Amazonian Languages, Volume 1, edited by…
March 27, 2012, 12:01 am
"Of Flames and Shadows," by Markus Röncke
Difficult writers and difficult people tend to share some characteristics; you might already know whether you are one or not. If you feel that being difficult is something you do well and rather enjoy, then carry on. Otherwise, here is a bit of self-examination and amateur therapy.
First, let me point out that difficult writers are often good writers. Reasonably protective of their prose, they unreasonably see editing as an assault.
They are defensive. They read the editing with “No” at the ready. Unwilling to consider why a particular change might be helpful, and unable to read objectively to find the problem in the original, they assume that they know best, and that the editor is meddling.
They are uncommunicative and dictatorial. Instead of engaging…
March 26, 2012, 12:01 am
I’ve always been partial (in a slightly ghoulish way) to the the notion of the vehicular blind spot. This is the idea that, while driving, you cannot see some areas of the road through your rear-view or side mirrors or through looking due left or due right, and thus you have to turn around to see if it’s OK to change lanes, a risky move at high speeds.
This speaks to me because I feel that there are all sorts of blind spots in life: important things that are, almost by definition, very hard to know. When it comes to teaching writing, a key issue for me was suggested by, of all people, Donald Rumsfeld, in a well-known quotation from 2002:
… There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.
March 23, 2012, 12:01 am
Icons by http://dryicons.com
There was online chatter recently when the Modern Language Association posted its style for citing a tweet. This didn’t surprise me. What surprised me was the amount of backlash from commenters who are still shocked at the idea of Twitter as a legitimate source of information for scholars; who cling to the idea that Twitter data consists only of what millions of users ate for breakfast; who not only choose to remain stubbornly ignorant of the technology, but are willing to boast of it in public.
Let me ask them this: Do you sneer at a writer who quotes profit statistics from the annual report of a foundation or corporation? Or who quotes a political speech and cites a newspaper? How is it fundamentally different if the original information is posted in a tweet…
March 22, 2012, 12:01 am
Like many who charge their foes with a double standard, Rush Limbaugh fell into a logical trap
I love it when it’s said that folks on different ends of the political spectrum should “talk out” their differences. This sounds good in theory but is fatally flawed in practice. Number one, as I have learned from Daniel Kahneman’s excellent book Thinking, Fast and Slow, humans are really, really bad at grasping causation, trends, and statistical reality; at any sort of prediction; and at the other operations that form the basis of most political discourse. Number two, a sort of bogosity multiplier effect comes into play when you are advocating for a position or candidate you are already committed to, all the more so when you are arguing against someone who’s on the other side. It almost goes without saying that…
March 21, 2012, 12:01 am
Something odd has happened to Webster’s New World Dictionary, the dictionary of choice for journalists. It’s still there, like the grin on the Cheshire cat, but its body—the editor and editorial office—seems to have vanished.
The dictionary is still listed by its adopted publisher, John Wiley & Sons. From Wiley, or from Amazon or your friendly local bookseller, you can still get a copy of Webster’s New World College Dictionary, fourth edition, in print or on CD-ROM. There’s even an iPhone and iPad app that came out in version 3.1 last September. Despite all that, there’s no evidence that anyone has worked to keep the dictionary up to date in the past couple of years.
As recently as 2009, Webster’s New World seemed in good health. From the dictionary’s office, in Cleveland, at the end of that year, the editor, Mike Agnes, announced that the word of that year should…
March 20, 2012, 12:01 am
The Bard is rolling in his grave—with laughter, we hope, but a sad, ironic sort of laughter. Project Rose, the effort by for-profit colleges to rebrand their institutions by changing “call center” to “enrollment-assistance center” and “write some business” to “accept applications” turns Shakespeare’s aphorism on its head. The intrinsic nature of a thing, he was suggesting in Romeo & Juliet, is unchanged by its label. For-profit colleges are betting that their target constituency is more like the Capulets and Montagues—regardless of your moral fiber, if you’ve got the right name and speak the right language, they’ll accept you as a member of the clan.
Or—worse—the Project Rose people may be assuming that clan membership comprises nothing more than the right terms. Claim that you’re a rose often enough and poof! You’re a rose. Long ago, I edited a…
March 19, 2012, 12:01 am
The Aspen Handbook for Legal Writers by Deborah E. Bouchoux supplies the following “Tip for correcting dangling modifiers”:
“Most sentences that include dangling modifiers are written in the passive voice. Changing to active voice corrects the dangling modifier because an actor or subject is identified in the phrase that begins the sentence.
“When a boy, my father changed careers (passive voice).
When I was a boy, my father changed careers (active voice, actor identified in modifying phrase).”
This misidentification staggered me, even after several years of collecting published cases of people alleging passive voice in other people’s writing without knowing what passives are.
When a boy is a verbless clause consisting of a temporal word and a predicative noun phrase. It is analogous to the underlined parts of While a Senator, he was involved in a scandal, or Twice …