February 5, 2013, 12:01 am
The clearest instance I know of a discovery in English grammar that should have called for revision of certain traditional doctrines—though instead it was just ignored—is the radically improved understanding of prepositions offered by the great Otto Jespersen in The Philosophy of Grammar (1924), subsequently argued for in great detail by late-20th-century theoretical linguists like Edward Klima, Bruce Fraser, Joseph Emonds, and Ray Jackendoff.
The traditional definition of “preposition” says (and I quote the excellent Concise Oxford Dictionary): “a word governing (and usu. preceding) a noun or pronoun and expressing a relation to another word or element, as in: ‘the man on the platform’, ‘came after dinner’, ‘what did you do it for?’” This definition does have the virtue of being syntactic, rather than being mushily based on intuitive meaning as with traditional definitions of noun an…
January 29, 2013, 12:01 am
I recently learned (as a side effect of a dispute with David Robson, here, here, and here) about a paper I had overlooked back in 2010. “On ‘Eskimo Words for Snow’: The Life Cycle of a Linguistic Misconception,” by Piotr Cichocki and Marcin Kilarski (Historiographia Linguistica 37, 2010, Pages 341-377), presents a detailed review of 100 years of discussion of snow terminology in Eskimoan languages, and then launches an attack on a man named Pullum who sounds like a blot on the scholarly landscape.
Pullum’s “empirical dogmatism coupled with theoretical banality” and his “crude radicalism” have “hindered sophisticated discussion about the issues.” A once rich debate on language and thought has been “restricted to the trivial issue of the number of terms for snow in Eskimo.” His tone is “impressionistic and emotionally charged.” He even “introduces personal elements to the discussion by …
January 22, 2013, 12:01 am
Screenshot from the film “Catfish.”
Catfish: An online impostor posing as a romantic object. To deceive by posing in such a manner. See also the 2010 film of that name.
The continuing drama of the Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o and the woman who did or did not exist has provided one of the stranger distractions in contemporary campus life.
A quick recap: Manti Te’o did or did not believe that someone reportedly named Lennay Kekua was or was not his online girlfriend. Whether or not she existed, and if having existed she did or did not die, Te’o did or did not wish to misrepresent an event that had or had not taken place.
At least that much is clear.
If, as has been claimed, Mr Te’o was catfished, he was the object of a double deception in which a virtual presence posed first as the extension of…
January 14, 2013, 12:01 am
Cooks in the Kitchen by John Cherry
The study of English syntax has a history going back to the late 17th century. Some fine chefs have worked in the grammatical kitchen since then; but it is a thin and adulterated broth that gets served up today, spoiled by too many cooks.
The traditional presentation of the principles of English grammar—rooted in a confused kind of naïve metaphysics, as I noted in “Being a Noun”—was in need of a radical revision long before Darwin’s era. But while biology since 1859 has seen a conceptual revolution that all science journalists are well aware of, modern linguistic understanding of English grammar simply has not been reaching the general public. The traditional twaddle is still taught, in a more confused form, diluted and polluted by a thousand incompetent interpreters. (Closing down most…
January 10, 2013, 12:01 am
As is my wont, when I began reading Interpreting Imperatives by Magdalena Kaufmann (now at the University of Connecticut) I started with a part that many would probably skip: the preface. There are all sorts of things to be learned from a preface to a book in one’s own field. The author is the former Magdalena Schwager, who did her Ph.D. at Frankfurt and moved on to Göttingen, and is now married to Stefan Kaufmann of Northwestern. One of her mentors was Ede Zimmermann. And then suddenly I stopped in surprise when I saw what she said about the respected German linguist Arnim von Stechow, her first semantics teacher:
Arnim von Stechow … has never stopped to present me with thought provoking questions.
The uncaring swine; he couldn’t even be bothered to stop by her office to give her a few provocative questions? And then I realized that she intended to express gratitude.
January 4, 2013, 12:01 am
In her anti-automobile screed of a few years ago, Katie Alvord wrote, “Coming after railroads, cars acquired what Wolfgang Sachs calls ‘a restorative significance’ for the rich. The train, he writes, threatened the wealthy’s sense of place and power: ‘What the common people welcomed as a democratic advance, individuals of more privileged position greeted with a snort.’ Indeed, the Duke of Wellington expressed disapproval of railroads in 1855, saying, ‘They only encourage common people to move around needlessly.’”
Few things are better, as an antidote to some damp, drizzly January in my soul, than settling into an Amtrak coach seat in the company of my fellow undesirables. I like trains. But I like travel in all the varieties of its experience and its literature.
Some time ago I began teaching a creative-writing course with travel as the focus. The students read, too, of course….
January 2, 2013, 5:00 am
Last month I had the pleasure of taking part for the sixth or seventh time in the conversation on Extension 720, a nightly radio talk show on Chicago’s WGN-AM 720. It was on December 2, to be exact. The characteristic announcement on Facebook read:
Is “OK” okay? What about “ain’t”? These questions come up too often when we do our annual “Use and Abuse of the English Language” program. Tonight at 10 p.m. we are joined by Ellen Hunt, who regularly does the “use and abuse” gig and—wait for it—Allan Metcalf, author of “OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word,” and David Skinner, author of “The Story of Ain’t”: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published.”
The announcement reflects the distinctive…
December 20, 2012, 12:01 am
I only recently got around to reading an article by Peg Tyre in The Atlantic in October which described a very successful experiment in teaching writing at a high school on Staten Island (Lucy Ferriss discussed the controversy that followed it here on October 11). The story has an oddly conservative twist. Let me summarize a bit.
In subjects like English and history, New Dorp High School students were failing way too often on the essay parts of the Regents exams (a New York State graduation requirement). They could write a sentence or two but not a convincing and coherent paragraph.
Trying to figure out why, one teacher developed a quiz on coordinators (traditional grammar’s “coordinating conjunctions”): and, but, for, nor, or, so, and yet. The surprising result was that many students seemed unable to use them effectively.
This led to a consideration of words like although,…
November 19, 2012, 12:01 am
A recent Chronicle article headed “Language Matters,” by a midwestern professor using the pseudonym Elizabeth Duncan, addressed a situation where I am pretty sure that, contrary to her view, language doesn’t matter.
Her present mood (“disappointed, sullen, self-pitying”) results, she claims, from a failure of grammar. She had been invited to apply for an endowed chair but had not ultimately received the offer. The idea that language was to blame emerged while she was listening to Patricia Williams, critical legal studies scholar and columnist for The Nation, giving a lecture on contemporary political discourse in which “the lost art of the subjunctive” was mentioned. Williams talked about the “wishful immediate” that dominates our discourse about inequality: “We speak [...] of the ‘postfeminist’ or the ‘postracial’ as if each has arrived,” Williams said, meaning apparently nothing…
November 13, 2012, 12:01 am
How and why would an adjective meaning “correct” turn into an adverb meaning (1) “accurately” or (2) “completely” or (3) “immediately”? I recently spent an hour with my class on English grammar at Brown University trying to figure that out. It was an instructive reminder of how interesting undergraduate teaching can be when the students are smart.
The item we were looking at was right. Ignore the fact that it’s occasionally a verb (you can right wrongs) and sometimes a noun (you have certain inalienable rights); it is primarily encountered as an adjective, as in the right answer, but in right under our noses it’s an adverb modifying the preposition under, and there it can’t be replaced by “correct.”
As an adverb, right seems just about totally restricted to the role of modifying prepositions. Linguists have used it as a syntactic litmus test for prepositionhood, in fact. But not…