Wednesday, May 30, 2007

An ask to grind

Although my recent post might have used a needling tone in noting George W Bush's frequent glottal stops I do not intend to make a claim about phonology/phonetics as indicators of intelligence. That's the bailiwick of the language muckrakers. Those people who throw phrases like that's my biggest pet peeve or Oh! I hate it when people say that! into every conversation.

I'll admit it. I was once one of those. I would rail away on the usual subjects. different than, final prepositions, split infinitives, even flapping of intervocalic -t-. And sometimes that little red-penned devil perches on my shoulder and tries to goad me into a rant.

But halfway into the first chapter of any syntax or phonology or historical linguistics textbook and the peeves start dropping like flies. Nothing is so detrimental to the spirit of prescriptivism as learning how arbitrarily the loathed forms are picked for loathing. Not only is almost every word and much of the syntax of PdE the product of changes from former grammatical forms, there is a discrepancy in the attention given to different "mis"pronunciations. Consider some of the familiar foils. (I'll represent the alternations orthographically)


These are the subject of such lame late night TV type jokes as Of course Bush didn't find any weapons. How could he find any nuclear bombs if he can't even pronounce the word! I'm not quoting anyone with that quip but I can guarantee that some comic hack out there thought it was gold. (If David Letterman ever made the joke I take back the 'hack' accusation. If Jay Leno made it...well...)

I wonder why those words get so much attention while no one finds it necessary to jump and point every time someone says relator for realtor. And almost no one notices when someone says jewlery for jewelry or comfterble for comfortable. And if you are thinking of defending yourself by saying "I hate those too! I notice them every time!" you have missed the point of this post entirely.

Question: does anyone think that Agt Jack Bauer's pronunciation of "nucular" is intended as a comment on the silliness of deriding George Bush's same pronunciation? And didn't Secretary of Defense Heller say it as well?

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

I'm sorry if that made sense.

When Monica Goodling testified before the House Judiciary Committee there were representatives that wanted to help her and others that wanted to trip her up. Representative Dan Lungren (R-California) prefaced his first question with an account of his work as the attorney general (elected) of California.

After describing the judgment he was necessarily allowed in order to deliver on his promises, he asks Ms Goodling

Analogously, doesn't a president have a right when he appoints an attorney general to expect make the decisions in terms of priorities that the president wants? And isn't that an appropriate thing, and is that the kind of thing that you did while you were in the department?

He tees it up for her so all she has to do is swing with a Yes and she's safely on base.

The gentlemanly Virginian Bobby Scott (D-Virginia) isn't so kind.


SCOTT: In your testimony, you indicate that you..."may have taken inappropriate political considerations into account on some occasions." Do you believe that those political considerations were not just in appropriate but in fact illegal?

GOODLING: That's not a conclusion for me to make. I know I was acting...

SCOTT:...What do you believe? Do you believe that they were illegal?

GOODLING: I don't believe I intended to commit a crime.

SCOTT: Did you break the law?...

GOODLING: The best I can say is that I know I took political considerations into account on some occasions.

SCOTT: Was that legal?

GOODLING: Sir, I'm not able to answer that question. I know I crossed the line.

SCOTT: What line? Legal?

GOODLING: I crossed the line of the civil service rules.

SCOTT: Rules? laws? You crossed the line of civil service laws. Is that right?

GOODLING: I believe I crossed the lines, but I didn't mean to. I mean, know, it wasn't...


Mr Scott is also looking for a simple answer. In this passage he asks two wh- questions, but he follows them with a yes/no question -- trying to keep her from giving an explanatory answer.

"What do you believe? Do you believe that they were illegal?"
"What line? Legal?"

Both Lungren and Scott realize that the right simple answer will give a clear message. Lungren is hoping for a 'Yes! We did what we were legally and ethically expected to do.' Scott is hoping for 'Yes. I believe I broke the law.'

Then comes along Ms Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) with a request that doesn't make a lot of sense. Because time is running short she asks Goodling to make her answers "as cryptic and as brief as possible."

I can understand if Jackson Lee wants Goodling to sacrifice comprehensive answers for the sake of simplicity. That has been the order of the day. I can understand if she wants to assure Goodling that a confusing answer is acceptable. I understand if she wants to assure Goodling that her answers don't have to be complete and unproblematic.

But is she really hoping that Goodling's answers will be as cryptic as possible? I'm going to analyse this as a syntactic compression. She probably meant to ask for Goodlings answer to be as cryptic as necessary and as brief as possible. Otherwise she would have to be very pleased if Goodling responded PHHFFFT

I have to wonder if this might just be a misuse of "cryptic." Since the word usually means hidden or secret Jackson Lee might be asking Goodling to leave out as much information as she can. Then "as possible" would have to be followed by the unstated "while still making sense."

Read the entire testimony as transcribed by The New York Times

Monday, May 28, 2007

A whole glottal love

I've done a few impressions around the office that have gotten chuckles from my generous colleagues. The impressions are only good enough to be recognized. Not good enough to get any calls for an encore. I only pick the easiest and most obvious. A few people around the department have habits and tics so characteristic that they need only be mentioned and everyone knows the object of emulation. (The "low-voice" is a crowd favorite.)

Years ago when he got famous for doing his George Bush (Daddy) impression Dana Carvey liked to describe the voice as a combination of Mr Rogers and John Wayne. The speech and mannerisms of Bush the younger are also emulated of course and by much better performers. Frank Caliendo does one of the best impersonations out there. He doesn't use the the rubber face masking like Steve Bridges, but his voice is spot on. Bridges has mastered the mannerisms and body language. Just type either name into YouTube and you'll find several clips of their work.

It's quickly apparent from a study of Bush Jr videos that his characteristic facial expression is a squint and his body language often involves stretching his neck, pushing his face forwards towards the audience while either gripping the lectern with both hands, or symmetrically doing a the-fish-was-this-big gesture with both hands, or repeatedly pointing down at the lectern with one.

Let's consider some phonology then. If you choose to watch the following clip listen for the glottal stops.

Glottal stops are a very common in English both phonemically and non-phonemically. They're almost always used as the onset of a sentence that begins with a vowel as in Apples are delicious. If a word begins with a vowel but follows a coda consonant, the consonant will often serve as the onset and a glottal stop is unnecessary. Consider Red apples are delicious. The [d] serves as the onset for apple so no glottal onset is necessary. But Bush uses them in all sorts of odd places where they are commonly not used. He especially favors them for emphasis.

I won't transcribe these passages, but I'll place the symbol for a glottal stop [ʔ] at the head of each syllable that begins with it. Note that many of these syllables follow a coda consonant. There are also glottal stops on some syllable onsets that already have an onset. Typically the glottalized C onset is a soft consonant like [h] or [r] or [N]. It is common when a vowel follows a stylized pause for a glottal stop to be used -- Bush isn't the only one. But note that in several passages he doesn't pause and still uses the stop. I've provided the rough time marker before each passage.

:39 - ʔand the subsequent ʔexplanation of these changes ʔhas been confusing ʔand in some cases incomplete. Neither the attorney general ʔnor I approve...

1:10 - to explain how the decision was made ʔand for what reasons. Second(ʔ) we're giving congress ʔaccess to ʔan ʔunprecedented...

3:00 - We will also release ʔall Whitehouse documents ʔand emails ʔinvolving direct communications with the justice department ʔor ʔany ʔother ʔoutside person ʔincluding members of congress ʔand their staff

3:20 - ʔa ʔreasonable solution to the issue. However ʔwe will not go along with ʔa partisan fishing ʔexpedition ʔaimed ʔat ʔhonorable public servants.

After quite a fluid passage about ("'ll be a shame") Bush really puts his foot down with four glottal stops, the last three of these are especially odd and clearly employed for emphatic style. 3:45 - ʔit ʔwill be ʔreʔgrettable

Syntax -- Bush like appositives: He likes to reword his claims.

(I've chosen to post a FOX News video because sometimes we forget that this man is the President and FOX News kindly flanks him with flags to remind us. They also like the tasteful alert graphic to remind us to be at a responsible level of awareness. And you have to love the understated "BIG STORY" graphic. Thank you FOX News. Without you I forget to be "an Amerkin")

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Angal fixation

My friend Rick used to laugh every time he saw a commercial for Black Angus burgers. And at our local steakhouse he'd always flip through the menu looking for the Angus beef picture and smack his lips saying "Mmmm...I sure could use some tasty black anus!" Now Carl's Jr. is suing Jack in the Box for making a similar joke. The lawsuit claims that Jack in the Box misleads viewers by implying that Angus beef comes "from the rear-end and/or anus of beef cattle by creating phonetic and aural confusion between the words 'Angus' and 'anus."

Are viewers really going to get confused if they get the joke?

The lawsuit also claims that one Jack in the Box ad is comparing "apples to oranges" (or making that type of comparison) when it compares Sirloin to Angus. Sirloin is a specific cut of meat and Angus is a breed. Watch the ads. Weakening the suit is the fact that the ad ultimately compares, or contrasts, the hamburgers not the type of beef. And they're obviously meant to be funny. That's quite a task -- arguing that a joke is intended to be taken seriously. (Sorry about the double passive. Read what Neal says about them here here and here.)

Friday, May 25, 2007

How breaking is it?

I saw the following over at Johnny's Cache. These Google current_ videos are hit and miss. And foul sometimes. Sometimes easy pop-up. To extend the metaphor poorly -- this one reaches an error. It should be an out but one good joke saves it.

The use of "breakinger" (around 1:45) is a lovely reanalysis of "breaking" as an adjective rather than a progressive participle. The two categories are close for it to make a good joke. It's related to the "hey...why not" question I mentioned in an recent post.

It's a clear difference between participles and adjectives when you focus on one as a verb and the other as a quality. But consider that both describe define or modify a noun, and in some phrases a substitution test shows they're interchangeable.

And as the structure of "a breaking story" shows, we can use a participle in an attributive position, but how similar are participles and adjectives?

1. He was tired.
2. He was walking.

Throw in an adverb and they both seem fine still.

3. He was clearly tired.
4. He was clearly walking.

But that's too simple an analysis of the adverb's function in the phrases. If we flip the order of the participle/adjective and the adverb in each of these sentences a not yet obvious meaning pops up. (I've left out the commas as per my usual habit. A comma in sentence 6 would resolve the possible ambiguity)

5. He was tired clearly.
6. ?He was walking clearly.

Sentence 5 doesn't make sense if we parse clearly as a modifier on "tired." In sentence 6 the new meaning is more salient and the ambiguity is between the scope of "clearly" in the sentence. It could be modifying the walking (which would be odd) or it could be modifying the apparency of the entire proposition that he was walking.

Let's consider another adverb to highlight the ambiguity.

7. He was quickly tired.
8. He was tired quickly.
9. He was quickly walking.
10. He was walking quickly.

The adverb as event modifier is the only possible reading of 7 and 8. That helps avoid the ambiguity. In sentences 9 and 10 the ambiguity is still there. Was he walking at a quick pace or did he start walking right away?

Some adverbs won't work at all with the participle.

11. He was very tired.
12. *He was very walking

This is because very cannot modify a non-gradable adjective or a verb, and it cannot be an event modifier. So the limits of a participle as a modifier become utterly apparent here. The Oxford Companion to the English Language identifies the importance of a "permanent characteristic" for a participle in attributive use. Such permanence loosely defined, but it does help with some analyses. Consider the difference between "the running man" and "the man who is running." We might easily assume that the former is always running or at least has a habit of running. The man who is running could stop and never run again and we would not need to correct ourselves. We would simply reassess the situation. He's not running now. But if the running man stops being a runner "he's not running now" doesn't quite address the change. The correction would have to address the characteristic. He's not the running man anymore or he no longer runs

Newscasts trust that a word like "breaking" is practically (albeit not syntactically) interchangeable with adjectives like important or interesting. Anyone who has been watching Game 7 of the finals when a breaking story interrupted knows very well that's not true.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The the question

Recently Buffy and I were planning for a 3 hour drive on which I would not be allowed to listen to the radio. Buffy was going to be reading her Donne and the raucous music I listen to would distract her. You know how crazy that NPR interlude music can get. So I went online to search through the NPR podcasts and I came across KPBS radio's A Way With Words hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett. It's an hour a week of the usual language issues that you'd expect to hear on NPR: mostly discussion of etymologies and pet peeves. The episode I downloaded aired 5 May 2007. In this episode Ms Barnette shares a vocabulary tidbit (the synonym of synonym) a guest shares a puzzle, and several callers ask questions. The answers are occasionally confused and even misleading*. One of the lower points comes when a NASA engineer calls to ask about acronyms. His question is fine.

While setting up the problem the caller notes that some acronyms such as FBI CIA IRS and NTSB are always preceded by the definite article while NASA is not. Nor does the article precede UCLA FSU UGA CNN or ABC.

He makes an important observation in noting that NASA, Laser and Radar are "pronounced like words." He looks up the words and at this point, I'm not sure why, he throws up his hands and accepts that the language has stumped him. He says "guess what. They're not even capitalized anymore. But they are acronyms. So that's how I feel. I can't figure it out. The language has conquered me."

Oooh he's so close.

Mr Barrett then rightly makes the distinction between initialisms and acronyms, which the caller has used indiscriminately. And though this distinction could give him a very important half of the solution he makes an odd turn into a terribly clumsy answer. Here I'll provide a snipped transcript:

Barrett: "It didn't sound like you looked at the long form that the short forms came from. I think you'll generally find the rule is is that if the long form of an initialism takes an article (that is the...) as part of its formal name then so does the short form. And that's where you get the distinction between universities. UCLA is not The UCLA, because we don't say...we...we may say the University of California Los Angeles in the long form but it's not The Official formal name of it, not like the...

Barnette (talking over him): "...and it's not 'the Uklah'...'the Uklah'...

Barrett: "Right and it's also's also not an acronym. So that's the general rule. it doesn't always hold but it''s gonna get you there most of the time. ...Acronyms however don't...they almost never take the article even if the longform does."

Mr Barrett's focus on the long form as the determining factor is misguided. It's not just incomplete. It's easily disproved. He appears to catch this himself when he starts using UCLA to support his point. He resorts to making a distinction between "official" definite articles and apparently 'unofficial' ones. (Language Log has dealt with this issue regarding The buckeye school.)

His analysis cannot explain the definite article before FBI even though the official name does not include the definite article. The official name is Federal Bureau of Investigation. The article when used is not capitalized. I'm guessing this is what Barrett meant by a not "official" article. The same is true of the Central Intelligence Agency.

We will grant Mr Barrett's claim that true acronyms typically do not take an article regardless of the official name. We are then left with the question of why some initialisms take an article and some do not. Why do FBI CIA and UN regularly take an article when UCLA UGA and FSU do not? I suggest that the nature of the organization is more important than the name. The initialisms for civic or administrative organizations will take an article regardless of official name. Commercial or private organizations (or organizations that are commonly perceived as such) will not take an article.

Forget about "official" names. For the long form of NBC most people would likely say "The National Broadcasting Company" and for PBS most would say "The Public Broadcasting Service." But no-one says the NBC or the PBS because they are not administrative. They are companies. They are not governmental. They are run by citizens and they control only themselves: they have no jurisdiction outside themselves. The same is true of colleges and universities. I believe this holds even if we consider the PGA the NBA the NFL and the NHL, which are not companies but administrative bodies that have jurisdiction over various corporations and individuals that are not owned by them and do not work for them. (Note that Major League Baseball is not tagged with the initialism and NASCAR is an acronym.)

Now I'm making a connection to the power of "the" in another case. Is this related to the difference between "man" and "THE man"?

*It's unfair to make a claim like this without qualifying or explaining it. The show is not an embarrassing display nor do the hosts lose credibility. As Mr Barrett reminds us in his comment, it is difficult to consider these questions on the fly without overstating or stumbling on a claim. One answer I had in mind (regarding the word "integrous") was logical and accurate. A relevant tangent during the discussion was hard to follow, and I had to listen again before I understood what the claim was, but that could be my fault. I'm kinda...slow.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Morphology enhances a joke

On The Simpsons tonight Principal Skinner told Lisa to enhance a computer image of an empty school desk. When the image showed "Skinner Stinks" scratched into the top he quickly ordered "Dehance! Dehance!"

This is not quite a back formation. With a back formation we would expect to find the word hance used as a root of the word enhance. Back formation is conspicuous when the morphology is not productive or assumed root is not the actual root. But it doesn't have to be a false assumption to be a back formation. Even though George Bush (elder) might not have heard "recreate" as the verb root of "recreation" he was using a form descended from the Latin recreāre.

But this Simpsonian derivational morphology does assume (ironically) that enhance en- is the productive opposite of de-. While en- does etymologically correspond to a sense of towards, at, for or in the direction of it's not working morphologically anymore. The morpheme was once part of a productive form but no more. The joke comes from the implication that it's still a productive morphology. It's not much of a leap. We do find a somewhat productive en- in a lot of words. (Note: the OED treats en- and in- as practically identical forms. em-/im- could be included in that form as conditioned variants.)

There's just no productive antithetical substitutional de- form that I can think of. In some cases dis- can be an agglutinated prefix as in disembody. But disbody is as odd as dehance.

This joke works partly because after hearing the word and thinking Haha that's not a real word. You can't "hance" something a little voice starts to whisper hey...why not?

Friday, May 18, 2007

What is expected

I was surprised to read that when one does not hear a word or phrase the proper response is "What?" and not "Pardon?" This is according to the Los Angeles Times. Staff writer Kim Murphy explains that "'What?' is more posh." If posh is defined as conforming to the standards of royal etiquette.

I remember when my grade school classmate was reprimanded by a substitute teacher for asking "what?" when he didn't understand her. The substitute told him the proper response is "pardon?" or "excuse me?" At the time I thought "what?" made more sense. Why should the student ask forgiveness or excusing? He wanted to know what she said. So "what" made sense to me.

When his name was called and he responded with "what?" he was again lectured. "The proper response is "yes?" I could see "yes" making sense there. It's affirmation that you have heard the call. But I already had the impression that this substitute was too interested in silly manners. She said "about" with the Canadian [ʌʊ] (or perhaps [əʊ]) diphthong ("aboot" in most orthographic representations) so to my 8 year old ears the exotic difference meant that perhaps she belonged to a stodgy and inflexible class. She was after all trusted with the distinctive honour of driving the school bus too. Anyone who could teach and chauffeur the youth of America must be of exalted lineage.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

About 'in about in'

The many tongues at Language Log have found a new issue to drive their wagging. (That sounds derogatory and I don't intend any derogation. It is an excellent web log.) There's some preposition doubling going on. Some of their examples:

  • A thing of which I'm afraid of

  • A phenomenon in which I'm starting to believe in

  • the streets in which he lives in

  • making sense of the world in which he lives in.

  • something to which Traore grew accustomed to

Theories abound. I remember in the summer of 94 once saying "that's the professor about which I was talking about." Why did I say it? It was a combination of trying to be "grammatically correct" by not stranding the preposition, but not being used to that construction. So that heavy transitive accretion persisted. A syntactic blend.

A few months ago now I first noticed the "in about in" phrase. Consider the combination of the following two forms: In about two hours and In two hours. Searching for this construction is tricky. A web search of {in about in} brings just short of 10,000 results. But a lot of those are clear typos. This leads me to exclude a few repetition typo markers such as "in about in about" or non-credible forms as in the following passage:
I have visited same SWSS that you talk in about in Thailand farms shrimps. But, I have seen it in P.indicus in Iranian farm shrimps in ago year. That shrimps had sign SUBCARAPACE WATERY SAC with white muscle in abdominal together. Outbreak been limited some farms but in ponds been height and... . If you have propensity, I have excess data in about to accompanying pictures.
Best regards!

Odd as that is I don't think it has much to say about English forms that are becoming standardized or normalised.

I hate jumping on bandwagons. Just ask mxrk. He'll tell you that I mentioned this in about in construction to him at least a month ago.

But I don't think this is fruitful as an emerging syntactical form. Mark Liberman has suggested that some preposition doubling might hail a future of case marked prepositions. He makes the claim lightly. With more chuckle than anticipation. In the case of in about in I'm not holding out for much more for more than a simple syntactic blend analysis could provide.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The passive should not be used

I can't remember what led me to this site expressing opinions about grammar and writing. In one post the writer takes up arms against the evil passive. Here are some snippets to give a sense of the argument:

  • Passive voice and passive writing doesn’t accomplish anything – nor does it seek or have the goal of accomplishing anything.

  • lack of emphasis on anything in particular happening

  • It just doesn’t make sense to beat around the bush in a business because nothing is going to get done.

  • passive voice seems not only natural but in an over-abundance.

  • I find passive voice distracting.

  • it can be eliminated just about every time.

So one would expect him to avoid the passive in his post. He certainly should if he believes his own argument that the passive voice lacks urgency and accomplishes nothing.

Let me make it clear that I am not simply trying to highlight someone else's grammar mistakes. I'm not a high school English teacher (anymore). The passive voice is not a mistake. I don't even consider it poor writing. There are times when the passive voice makes for the clearest and most direct expression. There are also writers who abuse the passive voice. But when a self-proclaimed "grammarian" takes the stand against a form we have a right to evaluate the testimony. What we find is that the form of grammatical apologetics will either support the content or refute it. Very often we see that the argument relies on those very forms it tries to subjugate.

Here's what we find in the piece:

  • "Being that I haven’t been inspired as of late"

  • "Her thoughts were well spoken"
  • : Okay these might be attributive and earn a pass. But then would a hyphen in "well-spoken" help to eliminate some of the ambiguity? As he has written this it could be an inversion of the passive "spoken well."

  • "In the way that those stories are told"

  • "it can be eliminated just about every time"

  • "there is a sincere lack of attention paid to how things get written when something more formal is required."

  • "What’s worse is that when I am asked to write something for someone in my office, it gets rewritten with passive voice"
  • : Wow a "two-fer"...

He offers the following illustration of a sentence that he thinks is worse when a manager rewrites it in the passive.

I wrote: I need these forms to be signed by the end of the week, or Mr. X will not be able to get you your money.

Manager rewrote: These forms will need your signature sometime this week, so that your money may be sent out in a timely fashion.

We got our signed papers three days late. It's not straight-forward, and there's no sense of urgency.

The rewrite is an improvement. The tone is less patronising and more focused on a desirable outcome with positive claims instead of negation. Instead of ominously warning the client you might not get the money the rewrite offers a plan by which the money will be sent quickly. And one passive was simply traded for another.

He plays around with the passive voice in his last sentence (follow the link above to read it). It's a nice try. The joke falls flat after so many unwitting slips into the very mire he says all good writing avoids. It's like a tiny pie in the face of someone who's slopping around in a vat of banana cream. Too little to be funny.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

What's next, octupies?

I'm not judging. I'm just curious about anomalous or not-fully-developed forms. And listening to sports broadcasters nee athletes is a good way to find odd constructions. Just before overtime in game 2 of the NHL western conference final Brian Engblom recapped the events of the game so far, explaining that at one point a fan "threw an octupi on the ice."

I've mentioned the plural of -us words before. In that post I said

Octopus comes from Greek so the plural would be either octopuses or octopodes. Octopi has wriggled its way into common usage and its tentacles are holding firm.

But I was only thinking about the plural form when I wrote that. I had no idea the reach had extended even onto the singular.

Jaded on Safire

Barry Popik has an unapologetic agenda against William Safire. It's only partly personal. It's mostly decent scholarship. On the ADS-L he has identified the amateur linguist's most recent lapse.

Safire in his "On Language" column for The New York Times Magazine this week makes the following observation:

The warm old phrase you’re welcome is rapidly disappearing from the language of civility. Though the word welcome first appeared in “Beowulf,” the O.E.D. notes that the whole phrase surfaced in print in 1907. We have now come to the 100th anniversary of the birth of our acknowledgment of someone’s expression of gratitude.
I was driven to send the following message to him. He'll ignore it I'm sure.
...Beowulf may be the first documentation of the word. To argue otherwise would take more time and effort than a simple missive should require.

But I must take issue with your claim that 1907 was the earliest that the entire phrase "you're welcome" was cited. The OED does cite the line "You're quite welcome" in W W Jacobs work, Short Cruises. And that phrase does include the entire lexical bank of "you're welcome" though the extra quite interrupts the continuity of the phrase. No matter. We will accept this as an example of the entire phrase plus one word. This does however move us to acknowledge those citations (in the same OED entry) that predate the 1907 example. 300 years before Jacobs, Shakespeare wrote "O Apermantus, you are welcome" in Timon of Athens. About 600 years before that Caedmon's Satan contained the line you "sind wilcuman" which is perhaps too early to be easily recognizable. But clearly the phrase was around well before 1907.

I do understand that you then intend to identify the phrase as a salient (if waning) response to that most common expression of gratitude: "thank you." In that case a quick look at only the OED supports your claim. But you should not be so hasty to trust even such a lofty tome to be your only source. It is not a regularly updated work. You need not lower your sights to find an example that predates the OED's 1907 citation. Look to the Bard good sir. In Othello you will find the following exchange between Lodovico and Desdemona:

Lod. Madam, good night; I humbly thank your ladyship.
Des. Your honour is most welcome.

Use this information as you wish.
I'll let Mr Popik's comments sum up the judgment.
So what Safire is really saying here is that this is not the "100th anniversary of 'you're welcome,'" but that this is a poor researcher relaying obviously outdated information to an uninformed general public. This is a joke.
Doesn't The New York Times have any journalistic standards?

Mr. Verb is also fed up. Read some of his thoughts on Safire over at his space.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Summer of corruption

[Read more about the blogging syllabus here.]

I have been teaching for the last 10 years. In all that time I still haven't learned to value of daily lesson plans and or units or syllabuses. Some students respond well to this and stick around asking questions because they get the impression that I'm willing to answer/guide/research or otherwise accompany them on the path of learning (you can roll your eyes).

This also means that several students are ignored and learn very little.

So we got our evaluations back the other day and they're about what I expected. The online format yielded more honest results than the evaluations of past semesters. What interests me are the comments.

Here are three of them:

  • While the instructor was friendly and laid back, there was no clear syllabus to follow. I feel that I didn't expand any of my reading or writing skills in this class.

  • He is one of the best professors I have had. He really cares about us students. He wants us to really learn and do good in the class.

  • I could only hope that Purdue University is lucky enough to have individuals as exceptional as Michael Covarrubias for teachers or professors for the rest of the University's existence.

Sounds about right.

Next term I get to teach a 108 (Advanced Composition) instead of a 106 (Intro Composition). Some friends and I will be joining forces and using contributor blogs as a composition forum. I'd like to take some credit for coming up with the idea. I don't know if I'll get any.

But more importantly I've been given a 327: History of the English Language. This is what I've been hoping for. I have some planning to do over the summer. This will be alongside the sound change research I have to continue as I prepare for my prelim papers.

My reading for the summer will be focused on Labov. Specifically the first two volumes (Internal Factors and Social Factors) of his Patterns of Linguistic Change series. James Milroy will also get my attention. The ELL prelim examinations allow me to write 4 papers, each focusing on a different area. The 3 required areas are Syntax Phonology and Semantics. I'll try to get Historical in there for the 4th. My hub topic is going to be prescriptivism and its ability to sublimate or change the UR of a phonetic form. My main question will investigage the evidence of URs that have disappeared in some dialects and the possibility of either resurfacing or being spontaneously introduced into other (sometimes later) dialects.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Initial impressions

The following initialisms/acronyms should be familiar to most. I don't need to spell out the meaning of these. You astute readers know them all.


The list can be divided in two. The first three which are pure initialisms in which each letter is pronounced, [ejkejej, ɛffwajaj, ɛsowɛl] and the last two which are acronymic and pronounced as traditionally spelled words, [ejwɔl, ejsæp]. I know I've 4 of these in writing. I don't know that I've encountered SOL in print. I've only encountered it in spoken language. I'm not sure how to categorize DIY. I've only seen it in writing and usually as a book title or a section of a bookstore. And of course there's the channel...

The list is growing. The following list was gathered from a quick run through some recent email messages posted onto the ADS listserve.


Probably the most common of these is FWIW. I have never heard any of these pronounced. They are probably pure abbrevatory spellings that would always be read as the intended phrase. Some of them are pretty clear.

Which ones do you already know?

How many can you figure out?

Have you run across any others?

In the comments section Jaŋari mentions another class of initialisms that everyone has seen: that of abbreviated information without a typical conversational role. The most well known examples are lol rofl roflmmfao. These don't usually fit into the syntax of the speech surrounding them. They're little snippets of information that no one would ever say out loud -- they were created specifically for a medium of distanced communication. I think of them in some ways as cousins to the orthographic sound representations so common in cartoons that I mentioned here. While the onomatopoetic spellings are now divorced from the originally intended sound these initialisms are divorcing from their originally intended phrase or strict semantic content and may be closer to a representation of simple laughter like Haha. Is roflmmfao HAHAHAHAHA?

Update 2:
For those curious few who are still wondering about a couple of them:
SOL = Shit Outta Luck
IOW = In Other Words
WRT = With Regard/Respect To (I recently saw IRT)
IIRC = If I Recall Correctly
IMHO = In My Humble Opinion (Sometimes just IMO)
FWIW = For What It's Worth
OTOH = On The Other Hand


Saturday, May 05, 2007

No more not on negative concord

An earlier post made reference to the following lines spoken by Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice:

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not mov'd with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;

Note the negative concord. To rewrite it as Ms B my junior high grammar teacher would suggest we then have to choose which negative to change. Which is better?

The man that hath no music in himself, nor is movd...
The man that hath no music in himself and is not mov'd...?

Of course the rhythm requirements would only allow the second version -- which still isn't as good as Shakespeare's.

The use of nor to as a negative on the verb phrase is a stretch of the common rule for a coordinated negative that does not change (ie reverse) the semantics of a previous negative. Think of the neither...nor rule. As that rule is usually applied the two negated words/phrases function as the same part of speech.

Neither borrower nor lender be.
Neither snow nor rain nor heat...

I can neither read nor write.
I neither agree nor disagree.
We will neither retreat nor surrender.

He is neither kind nor honest.
That's neither here nor there.

I work neither for them nor with them.


Occasionally this coordination jumps categories. Sometimes it's a very awkward union as in I have neither friends nor have enemies. That sentence sounds weird partly because the first "neither" negates the noun "friends" and the corresponding "nor" applies to the verb "have". But it's probably mostly because the second "have" sounds repetitive. Consider the following that has a similar non-parallel structure but avoids the repetition: I have neither friends nor do I want any. Not a great sentence but it's okay.

Correlating an adjective with a verb sounds fine too: She was neither present nor did we expect her.

And without the "neither" (which does have the power of suggesting a parallel structure) A sentence like No one called nor did they write is barely noticeable in its non-parallel form. The "nor" coordinates a negated verb with a negative quantifier, not with another verb. But it sounds fine to me.

As we pick up this argument that negative concord has not lost its place in the underlying form of English, support comes from some situations in which two negatives are not proscribed by even the most staunch advocate of mathematical logic. Consider the following exchanges.

Speaker A: You don't think Carrot Top is funny?!
Speaker 2: No.

Speaker 3: Are you going to the game?
Speaker D: No, I don't think I'll make it.

Let's play with the second example.

Speaker 3: Are you going to the game?
Speaker D: Yes, I don't think I'll make it.

Here we see that the opening is probably a single word response to the question. And to the question "are you going" (derived from the statement you are going) the proper response in this case is a simple "No." We could even argue that what follows is a separate sentence not commanded by the single word response. Maybe.

In the first exchange the speaker wants to affirm the statement that she doesn't like the prop-comic. Consider how this would sound:

Speaker A: You don't think Carrot Top is funny?!
Speaker 2: Yes.

The intention of the yes/no response is to paraphrase one of two answers. Either "Your statement is true" or "your statement is false." Although the response is to an interrogative, not a declarative, so it gets muddy. But whether the question is a surprised "You think he's funny" or "You don't think he's funny" the answer is the same: "No" (for anyone with integrity).

Finally let's turn to an example from a horrible show that was not put down soon enough. Heard on The Class during the obligatory hook-up scene between two main characters:

He: "This means nothing."

She: "It better not!"

I will rest on this simple claim. The intention of the second speaker is ambiguous. In Standard English she could be hoping that it means either 'something' or 'nothing.' Agreeing with him or correcting him. For this ambiguity to exist there must be an underlying form that is sometimes realized in the phonetic form and sometimes is not.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Rearranging links [updated (thrice)]

In just the last week I've learned of four more blogs being written by the friendly folk of Heavilon Hall. Casey restarted his posting and now Jon, Dave, and Anna have plugged into the current. I've reorganized my links to provide a sanctuary of all blogs Purdue. The foci vary as all well-nourished academic discourses should.

Buffy (PhD Comparative and Renaissance Literature) likes to make fun of herself as an academic (and no-one deserves the ridicule less).

Casey (PhD American Literature) tries to focus on existential truths while lamenting that they have no easily discernible edges that assure us of their place.

Brian (MFA Poetry) looks at poetry and art while making fun of Casey and dreaming of Wallace Stevens.

Marc (PhD Rhetoric and Composition) focuses on technology and rhetoric (or is that rhetoric and technology? Which one "works" better Marc?).

Anna (MFA Poetry) has just started blogging and she promises to write about more than celebrities (should she have to?).

Dave (MFA Poetry) paints the life of a poet who does much more than just talk about and write poetry.

Jon (MFA Fiction) proves that he loves reading contemporary fiction and is able to contribute. Read him to keep up with what's out there now.

Sycamore Review is Purdue's literary journal.

Mark (PhD American Literature? nee MFA Fiction) has his blog set up and will start posting soon. I'm only assuming he'll make it interesting. He can be a jerk.

My name is Michael.

Two more blogs to add to the list.
Monica (PhD Jewish Literature and Philosophy) tackles and considers the philosophies and words and people and actions that seek everything spanning the power and grace between Good and Evil. (look for her contributions over at Jewcy too.)

Rebekah (MFA Poetry) gathers all sorts of materials and constructs all sorts of things. She kindly provides lots of pictures (when you're talking about a poet "images" can mean too many things) to document her work.

We're like a flock of Hitchockian birds. We just keep comin' atcha.

Monica (MA Comparative Literature) provides an alternative to Garp's world view. West Lafayette will soon be in her rearview mirror.

Dave (MA English Language and Linguistics) and his fellow contributors offer stories and theories on grilling fuel, audiology experiments, graduate school, movie wizards, political conservatism and marathon walks. And sometimes they branch out.

Eric (MFA Poetry) is using a new blog to take us along as he uses Markov chains to create poetry. His old blog is still going along, becoming a "more of a personal type blog."

Theresa/Tess (MFA Poetry) provides her own introduction. Of one blog she says "[it] is extremely poetry-ish (I post a fabulous, my-choice-but-not-my-work poem a day on it, plus extras)." She picks good poems so go read them. Of the other she says "[it] will only interest you if you happen to know and like me." Hers are young blogs. Give them some nurturing attention.
Everytime I think I'm out...
Chad (MFA Poetry) plans to post a new poem regularly and he invites all "to read along."