May 24, 2013, 12:01 am
In 2011, I wrote a Lingua Franca article called “Article Article,” about how the word the had mysteriously disappeared from such names and expressions as
the prom, the CIA, the Potus, the Yukon, (Yale’s) the Old Campus, and (Amazon’s) the Kindle. I also mentioned a counter-trend,
that is, adding an unexpected definite article. This is often done for ironic effect, as in nicknames like The Donald or The Dude (in The Big Lebowski), the TV show The O.C., and Stephen Colbert’s frequent references to “The USA Today.” Absent irony, this the is dead-solid pretentious. Examples include the whiskey that insists on being called The Glenlivet [and] the tennis tournament that pretty much everybody in the world knows as Wimbledon but is officially The Championships.
Bringing the issue once again to mind is this week’s news that Lincoln University, in my home state of Pennsylvania, has…
May 13, 2013, 12:01 am
I promised last week that I would discuss three developments that turned almost-useless language-connected technological capabilities into something seriously useful. The one I want to introduce first was introduced by Google toward the end of the 1990s, and it changed our whole lives, largely eliminating the need for having full sentences parsed and translated into database query language.
The hunch that the founders of Google bet on was that simple keyword search could be made vastly more useful by taking the entire set of pages containing all of the list of search words and not just returning it as the result but rather ranking its members by influentiality and showing the most influential first. What a page contains is not the only relevant thing about it: As with any academic publication, who values it and refers to it is also important. And that is (at least to some extent)…
May 10, 2013, 12:01 am
Over the past two decades, the use of they as a singular generic pronoun has been defended often and eloquently by linguists in various venues, including here on Lingua Franca. Geoff Pullum has written about the topic twice in the past year and a half: “Dogma vs. Evidence,” and “We Do Not Seek to Rule.” Pullum and others have written about the use of they with a singular antecedent extensively on Language Log. The Lousy Linguist, in yet another defense of the construction, provides a useful list of Language Log posts on the topic, through 2008.
I myself have taken part in the effort to defend singular generic they on numerous occasions. I happily climb on my soapbox about this construction because (a) they is singular in common usage, so it doesn’t make sense to call it “ungrammatical” in the descriptive sense (it is completely meaningful to both speakers and…
May 9, 2013, 12:01 am
Try typing this, or any question with roughly the same meaning, into the Google search box:
|Which UK papers are not part of the Murdoch empire?
Your results (and you could get identical ones by typing the same words in the reverse order) will contain an estimated two million or more pages about Rupert Murdoch and the newspapers owned by his News Corporation. Exactly what you did not ask for.
Putting quotes round the search string freezes the word order, but makes things worse: It calls not for the answer (which would be a list including The Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror, etc.) but for pages where the exact wording of the question can be found, and there probably aren’t any (except this post).
Machine answering of such a question calls for not just a database of information about newspapers but also natural language processing (NLP). I’ve been…
May 3, 2013, 12:01 am
As we approach the annual rites, the degree of dudgeon rises again. Obama may say it; Barbara Walters may say it; our beloved children, on whom we have showered more than half our income annually over four years of university education, may crow it, but we as a nation of tut-tutters get the heebie-jeebies when we hear it: She graduated college. “I immediately went to the bathroom to be sick,” wrote one online commenter about hearing the term on a news broadcast. Another suggested that one can graduate college only by measuring it out as portions, as in the OED’s 1834 example, “Graduate that tangent, and place the crest of the traverse on a parallel plane ten feet above it.”
True, that august reference tool does not use the verb “to graduate” transitively except as the obverse of the usage to which the tut-tutters object. That is, Oxford can graduate you, and you can be…
April 30, 2013, 12:01 am
“Slang creates a lot of new nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs,” said Anne Curzan here on Lingua Franca recently; “it isn’t that often that slang creates a new conjunction.”
She puts her finger on exactly the right point there. For English to add a new word is not news. But the classes of words that modern linguists call lexical categories (“parts of speech” was the quaint 18th-century term for them) are like clubs of varying selectivity. They all admit new members from time to time, but while Noun is the least discriminating (very much the club that you wouldn’t want to belong to given that it would take just anybody), the most exclusive one, with the slowest growth, is probably the one traditionally called “conjunction”—the category of words like and, or, and but.
New nouns are added to English probably several times per day, while for conjunctions the rate would be better…
April 29, 2013, 12:01 am
A petting zoo is usually a cute, cuddly place. But the zoo of pet peeves about language isn’t cuddly at all. It’s filled with creatures captured in the wild of everyday use—misspellings, grammatical solecisms, clichés—and visitors come not to pet them but to voice outrage at their mere existence.
Look—there’s that awful hopefully! Here’s no problem, you guys! There’s my bad and conversate and graduate college! There’s a complete collection of Lake Superior State University’s annual catch of banished words—double down, job creators, bucket list, guru, yolo and the rest. And look who’s sitting right here in our presence, the big bad historical present!
The zoo of language pet peeves is run by the vast sect known as Prescriptivists. They bring their children to the zoo to teach them to recognize those awful usages and keep away from them. True, there are…
April 26, 2013, 12:01 am
A recent article on the BBC News Web site mentions a wearable self-defense accessory: a bra designed to deliver a 3800 kv electric shock to would-be rapists. It was brought to my attention by an e-mail correspondent whom I will call KR. He pointed out that the following text (which raises a very reasonable question) contains an interesting example of the syntactically singular use of the pronoun they:
The bra is fitted with a pressure sensor connected to an electric circuit. So how can the wearer be sure they won’t be on the receiving end of a hefty electric jolt?
The article is about combating the very unpleasant practice that in India is casually called “Eve-teasing”: sexual harassment and assault targeted on young women. It is presupposed that the users of the electric taser-cum-brassiere are going to be female. The article could thus easily have used the feminine: So how can the …
April 24, 2013, 12:01 am
In the undergraduate history of English course I am teaching this term, I request/require that the students teach me two new slang words every day before I begin class. I learn some great words this way (e.g., hangry “cranky or angry due to feeling hungry”; adorkable “adorable in a dorky way”). More importantly, the activity reinforces for students a key message of the course: that the history of English is happening all around us (and that slang is humans’ linguistic creativity at work, not linguistic corruption).
Two weeks ago, one student brought up the word slash as an example of new slang, and it quickly became clear to me that many students are using slash in ways unfamiliar to me. In the classes since then, I have come to the students with follow-up questions about the new use of slash. Finally, a student asked, “Why are you so interested in this?” I answered, “Slang…
April 23, 2013, 12:01 am
The historical present is used in some Los Angeles signage
Enough already with the historical present. The go-to tense for history lecturers and NPR guests has worn out its welcome and is starting to come off as a twitchy reflex, as annoying as starting sentences with So or ending them with right?
You probably know what I mean by historical present (HP), but in case you don’t, here are some recent examples:
• “Alonzo King is arrested for assault and they swab his cheek as part of the arrest process. It pops up in a database.” (The New York Times reporter Adam Liptak, talking on NPR’s On the Media about a recent Supreme Court case)
• “Four months after the opening gala, the company that built PH Towers sues Westgate for unpaid bills. David Siegel is forced to lay off thousands of employees.”…