Monday, May 26, 2008

Step away from the words

Several months ago I was in heavy traffic when my brakes snapped. Rust had done its damage and when I pressed on the pedal for a not-so-hard brake I heard a snap and the car lurched forward freed of my rein. I smacked into the car in front of me. We both pulled over. The kids in the other car stepped out looking a bit dazed. I stepped out and asked if everyone in the car was OK. We walked to the bumper and saw that no damage was done. We weren't going that fast. I was still in a bit of shock and I looked up at the two kids standing there. The fact that I didn't know which of them was the driver or owner kept me silent for just long enough for them to shrug and say "Oh well." I too shrugged and got back into my car.

It was about a mile home. When I stepped into the living room I realized that I had never apologized. I felt like a cad. A jerk. A fool. An ass. I felt like flipping myself off. I still felt bad about it the next day (still do) so I told the story to everyone in the office and all my classes and I assured them that I knew I had been an idiot.

That was important: that I judge myself for the lapse -- accuse myself of behaviour that I do not approve of. I lost control of a vehicle and I had agreed to manage safely. I had then failed to apologize to a car full of people that I will probably never see again (they got on the highway and left town) so I apologized to another part of my community hoping to assure them that my second oversight was unintentional and uncharacteristic. And by assuring them that it was uncharacteristic I was promising to be more careful in the future.

My take on Hillary Clinton's statement of regret really doesn't add anything new or exciting to the analysis of public non-apologies.† As The Ridger says in her comment -- Clinton's is pretty standard.

In that post I asserted something that deserves explanation.

Tho I've given my understanding of her reason for using the example…I agree that an apology was necessary.
Why was it necessary? If you have seen Keith Olbermann's invective you've heard his reasons. I don't agree with all of them. He believes the mere use of the word assassination is unacceptable. He verges on chastising her for the mere reference or even utterance of the word. I don't. Otherwise I'd have to implicate him too.*

I do agree that Clinton doesn't need to have made a purposeful implication in order for an apology to be appropriate. The lines of responsibility in language get fuzzy while in other interactions they are managed with more resolution. If the brakes go out in my car I apologize if I rear-end you. I don't have to accelerate into your car with the intention of causing damage. Not just personal safety, but good manners and social grace keep me aware of the effect my vehicle can have and I accept responsibility for whatever happens even when it's something that I never intended to do. Even if it's something I was trying not to do. Even if I was being reasonably careful. Some situations call for extra care. And even if I'm being careful I might not realize just how much more careful I should be.

It's winter. I'm planning to make a turn. I slow down. I downshift. I brake lightly. I know the road is icy so I start this process early. But the road is more slippery than I thought and I slide through the intersection. I was trying not to do that. But I smash the side of your car. And I apologize because if I could go back I would make different choices. It doesn't matter that I didn't put the ice there. Or that I've never gotten a ticket before. I'm not apologizing for being a bad driver or mounting a malicious attack. I'm apologizing for something I would like to have done differently.

Language makes the line fuzzy partly because getting 'hit' isn't the same as being offended. I can't just realize 'Hey--I've been offended!' It's more like 'Hey--someone said something to which I take offense.' You can't be offended without consenting to it. This view doesn't blame the victim because it doesn't nix the responsibility of the offender. No one need apologize for being offended.

All candidates are in the middle of a volatile campaign. There are all sorts of connotations and landmines out there that people are being careful to avoid. Way back when Joe Biden described Obama as both black and "articulate" he was hammered by people who hate hearing those qualities mentioned together. This was even tho Biden used "articulate" in a non-restrictive clause (tho not everyone agrees he did).

It doesn't matter that articulate is a positive quality and it doesn't even matter that contrary to many opinions it's not a token compliment. People of all ethnicities and all cultures are praised for being articulate. For speaking well. For speaking forcefully and clearly. Why was Biden's comment a problem? Why should he have apologized? Because the public didn't like it. Because the statistics on how the adjective articulate is used are not as loaded as the opinions regarding its use.

Part of an apology is an assurance. And this assurance does well to acknowledge that learning has occurred. This is why I say Clinton's apology was necessary. She has used the timeline reminder before and now she has been told that it's not a pleasant rhetorical device. That's subjective yes. But a politician would do well to say that she cares about the things the voters care about. (Unless there's a principled reason to disagree with the voters. The best politicians know when to do that too.)

What about a reasonable misunderstanding? This goes beyond the scope of any linguistics that I know how to do. There's a miraculous amount of weighing and balancing and negotiating and maneuvering of a complexity that I won't attempt to describe or understand. One one side of the field is a reasonable reaction and on the other is an unreasonable reaction. And the centerline is dotted and moving. It's hard to tell where and if it's been crossed.

How do we guard the edges of our ambiguous language?

If I say 'Get the funk out of here' and you are horrified thinking I said 'Get the fuck out of here' I should probably apologize for using the word that I knew could easily be confused. If I say 'Get the firetruck out of here' and you didn't hear the '-iretr-' I don't need to apologize. I might apologize for not speaking more clearly -- but that'd be charitable of me. If I say 'Hello' and you think I said 'fuck you' then you should probably apologize for such a ridiculous accusation.

Then why am I so sure that Clinton should apologize? How do I know that those who were offended by her comment are being reasonable? I don't. Maybe I don't have to know.

An apology isn't necessary for Clinton to be a good person. For that it's neither necessary nor sufficient. She's a politician and an apology may be necessary for her to seem like a good person. (And no: I don't use seeming to preclude being.) But I have no say over- and little understanding of- the impression politicians make on the public. I'm often baffled by the things that ruin a political career and I'm more often angered by the things that don't.

The truth is that she will help voters to move on whether she apologizes or not because politicians are good at fooling a lot of people. A slick misdirection and some sleight of mouth and it becomes apparent that a hefty mass of the population is stuck in Piaget's sensorimotor stage. A clever politician knows to push aside forgiveness and ask for amnesia instead. Clinton doesn't have to convince her critics that they shouldn't have been offended. She just needs to convince them that they never were.


†The blending that leaves Clinton sentence nonstandard gets brief mention in Mark Liberman's post. He sees it as a blend of an I regret that- and an I'm sorry if- sentence. It's true that 'I'm sorry if-' is much more common (and natural to my ear) than 'I regret if-'. So he sees if as a complementizer. Read his post for more discussion and several links to helpful analyses of apologies.

*In his bit Olbermann asks disbelievingly: You actually use the word assassination? She didn't. She used the word assassinated. Of course his argument doesn't rely on this distinction.

Friday, May 23, 2008

If Hillary Clinton offended anyone

It's not likely that in her meeting with the Argus-Leader Hillary Clinton was making a statement like anything can happen. That would be sick.

We all remember: Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California. She puts stress on June and I take the point to be an entailment: It occurred in June therefore the campaign was still going in June.

Her point is that previous campaigns have gone into June. A horribly chosen juxtaposition of points for evidence. Speaking of juxtaposition...

You should be willing to campaign for every vote. You should be willing to debate anytime anywhere. I think it's an interesting juxtaposition where we find ourselves. And you know, I have been willing to do all of that during the entire process and people have been trying to push me out of this ever since Iowa.

YouTube provides a few clips of her statement but none that I could find with this passage. View the fuller Yahoo! News video here

Her use of juxtaposition is very close to position. There's a fuzzy line here. A juxtaposition is the relative position of two or more items -- especially in proximity. So an interesting position is almost by definition because of a juxtaposition with something. I say her use is passable. Tho notable.

Back to her unfortunate example. Tho I've given my understanding of her reason for using the example (≅ of course we remember it was in June because something horrible happened) I agree that an apology was necessary. And she almost gave one. But it's the typical hedge.

(I use the slashes as 'uh' pauses)
Clarification isn't always necessary or helpful because it can come across as a defense of the statement. She offers this:
I was referencing those to make the point that we have had nomination / primary contests that go into June. / That's a historic fact.
That's okay so far. She doesn't excuse the statement.

She gets a little eely right after that statement:
The Kennedys have been much on my mind the last / days because of Senator Kennedy.
This acts partly as an explanation (excuse?) for why she would bring up RFK's assassination. In that role it's weak.

It works better as another part of an apology. The reassurance. Statements of regret will often make clear what is valued and what is respected just as a reminder that no ill intent would be compatible with such a stance. It's the Don't worry. I do love you bit. And there's nothing wrong with it when it's honest. I believe Clinton's statement of respect for the Kennedys is honest.

Then we get to the I'm sorry part. I'd rather see I'm sorry than I regret but the language of apologies in public statements is changing to the latter. I'm not yet convinced that this is a matter of honest language change. I don't believe regret is the same statement of remorse. And it is too often followed by a conditional clause. I've seen Clinton's apology transcribed two ways:

1. I regret that if my referencing...was offensive (here)
2. I regret if my referencing...was offensive (here)

I transcribe it thus:
I, you know, regret that if / my referencing / that moment of trauma for our entire nation and particularly for the Kennedy family / was in any way offensive. / I certainly had no / intention of that whatsoever. / My view is that / we have to look to the past and to our leaders who have inspired us and / give us / a lot to live up to / and I'm honored to hold Senator Kennedy's seat in the United States senate from the state of New York / and have the highest regard / for / the entire Kennedy family.

In text it's difficult to tell if she said that as a demonstrative or a complementizer. In the video it's clearly a complementizer. A demonstrative in 'I regret {that/this/those} if...' would almost certainly be followed by a slight pause and wouldn't be reduced to the weak form of that in 'that if' such as we hear: [ðəɾ.ɪf]. Only the complementizer is pronounced that way. It's not grammatical but it's not rare in speech to have this type of blend.

I regret that my referencing was offensive.
I regret if my referencing was offensive.

(If can also be used as a complementiser in sentences like I doubt if I'll make it but for now I'll forgo any argument for why Clinton's statement isn't such a case.)

But while the grammar isn't disheartening the lack of a true apology is. The first statement regrets the quality of the statement -- necessarily defined by a reaction -- but not the choice to make it. The second statement only regrets conditionally. It's a favourite of public figures. What is most disingenuous is the implication that the statement might not have been offensive. Clinton knows that it offended some. She knows it was offensive. How would the same apology sound for another type of offense.

I'm sorry if I totaled your car.
I'm sorry if I broke your arm.
I'm sorry if I don't know your name.

Once the fact has been established every one of these sounds ridiculous.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Lazy river shortcuts

When I was a kid we played football with a Mississippi-count rule before we could rush the passer. Usually a 5-Mississippi.

You had to count it out loud and if you were caught saying 'Missippi' instead of 'Mississippi' a sack [of the quarterback] wouldn't stand. Offense could call a do-over.

But while we didn't allow haplology we did allow syncope.

How could we tell?

Haplology is the loss of a repeated (or similar) syllable: sphygmomanometer → sphygmonometer. It can be hard to tell which syllable is lost because of the similarity. In sphygmomanometer the first of the two similar syllables appears to be dropped because the resulting pronunciation preserves the [mə] of [momə]. But that could also be a result of vowel neutralization in an unstressed syllable adjacent the primary stress.

Haplology in /mɪsɪsɪpi/ is loss of one [sɪ]: /mɪsɪsɪpi/ → [mɪsɪpi]

Syncope is the loss of a medial (usually) vowel (usually). Some common examples: territory /tɛ.ɹɪ.tɔ.ɹɪ/ → [tɛɹɪtɹɪ]; frightening /fraɪ.tɛ.nɪŋ/ → [fɹəɪt.niŋ].

Syncope in /mɪsɪsɪpi/ is loss of one [ɪ] (we'll say the unstressed one): /ˌmɪ.sɪˈsɪ.pi/ → [mɪssɪpi]

Syncope retains both [s] segments tho they are now adjacent. That's a geminate -- transcribed either [ss] or [sː].

Both haplology and syncope shorten the word by one syllable. And in Mississippi we can't be absolutely sure which syllable it is. It's most likely the unstressed. But it seems that on my playground more important than the surface syllabification was the length of the middle consonant [s]. As long as the [s] was geminate (either [ss] or [sː] in transcription) it sounded like a four-syllable word and nobody complained.

Haplology -- minus [sɪ]: mɪsɪpi *[mɪsɪpi]
Syncope -- minus [ɪ]: mɪsɪsɪpi √[mɪssɪpi]

The difference in the consonant would sound something like the different [s] sounds in the following:

The sippy cup
This sippy cup

Now this was just a rule during the game. Afterwards we were haplologizing to Missippi with wild abandon.

The markedness of repetition helps to explain why the rhythmic spelling of Mississippi was sometimes 'shortened' to a longer form.

from 'em eye ess-ess eye ess-ess eye pee-pee eye'
to 'em eye double-ess eye double-ess eye double-pee eye'

The repetition in 2σ ess-ess and pee-pee was more work to say than 3σ double-ess and double-pee. Altho double-pee often became something like dulpee. That's more like syncope than haplology.

Or maybe it was just a sense of Spanish etiquette that kept me from saying eses and pipi.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Not just linguification

In an article (Reuters) about Barack Obama's focus on the general election Jeff Mason writes:

Obama praised Clinton, but spoke of her in the past tense in another sign he has shifted focus past the primary season.

I would expect the proof quotes to be something like this:

Senator Clinton campaigned valiantly.
Senator Clinton ran a tenacious campaign.
The crafty Clinton campaign gave me a good challenge.
Hillary Clinton was a fine opponent. She did not win this nomination.

Here are the quotes Mason used:

She has been a formidable candidate.

She has been smart and tough and determined and she has worked as hard as she can.

She has run an extraordinary campaign.

These are quotes that any candidate can make at the beginning in the middle or at the end of a campaign. There's no grammatical evidence that Obama is speaking of Clinton as something only behind him. If I say I've had a headache for three hours now am I saying that my headache is over? Even if I say it without the now and I mean that in that past I have had such a headache (as if to say that in the past at least one of my headaches lasted for three hours) I'm still not speaking in the past tense.

Linguification is commonly diagnosed with a comorbid disorder: a false claim about the grammar itself. Not a single one of Obama's statements is in the past tense. They're in the present perfect. Every one of them.

I don't really mind linguification. While I agree that grammar choices aren't proof of mindset there are times when grammar or word choice can indicate something about attitude. The past tense is commonly noted as doing so. When someone dies people start choosing carefully phrases like he meant/means a lot to me or she was/is my favourite aunt. The choice is often commented on by the speaker. Refusing to use the past tense can be a way of saying that the dead loved one is still important and their life is still relevant. Or something like that.

But before you try to haruspicate the reasons for choices you really should know what was chosen.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Broadcast standard.

We just drove through Iowa and spent an evening in Des Moines with friends.

It's true what they say. I didn't hear a single accent the whole time I was there.

Except for a young boy about a year old who was practicing his linguolabial stops. I think they were voiced because he wasn't aspirating them. They sounded a lot like [b(ə)].

A linguolabial is marked by a subscript 'birdie' (or 'seagull') diacritic. The coronal articulation is noted by the [d] and its labial placement gets the diacritic [   ̼]? The IPA doesn't recognize a [b̼] because the [b] would be a bilabial and the linguolabial doesn't use the lower lip. The 't' and 'd' are the most reasonable coronals to use because symbols like 's' 'n' 'θ' 'ð' 'ʃ' 'ʒ' etc are fricatives not stops. The other coronal stops 'ʈ' and 'ɖ' would make little sense because they are retroflex symbols. Why would a symbol used for a retroflex be used in a symbol for the opposite of retroflex?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

What you can do today.

Ben Zimmer's new digs at the Visual Thesaurus give him a chance to do some strolling: Word Routes - Exploring the pathways of our lexicon.

Read his first installment now. It's on procrastination. [update: his related article on Slate is also available now.]

I admire Ben's work and his scholarship. He's an impressive student of language. His observations and insights consistently encourage careful attention to the discussions about language and the data informing those discussions. He adeptly identifies gaps in arguments and ably suggests strategies for filling them.

But I have to chuckle when he says that he's "been battling the bugbear of procrastination" his whole life. That's cute.

That bugbear drinks 3 pints of my blood a day. And I thank it every night in my quivering tearful prayers.

That's a problem.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Not that there's anything wrong with it

A blog I have started reading regularly just posted a bit of commentary about a newspaper correction reported by a blog I might start reading regularly.


I've been reading fev's posts at headsup: the blog lately. There's good stuff there.

Fev comments on a recent correction in the Los Angeles Times on a story by staff writer Melissa Healy. The editors let Healy get away with more than a typo.

The error correction (and many others) is posted at Regret the Error: Mistakes happen. I'll start checking-in there too.

Monday, May 12, 2008

He puts the Y in XYZ

Ultimate fighter Jens Pulver is in the crowd watching game 3 of the Detroit-Dallas series. A few minutes ago one roving reporter scurried over for a few questions. When sending it back to the guys up in the box the reporter offered the following commentary on Pulver's near aptronym:

He puts the pulver in pulverize.

How does that work? He puts the 'powder' in 'to make into powder'? Isn't the X of he puts the X supposed to be a word that carries a relevant and otherwise unconsidered meaning? Like she puts the fun in fundamentals or he puts the pain in painting or she puts the love in clover? (Not that I understand what those last two would mean.)

It actually works, if redundantly, because pulver is an obsolete verb meaning to make into powder: pulverize. So using current terminology he puts the pulverize in pulverize.

But I doubt that our speaker was thinking of that meaning. It seems more likely to me that he was thinking of a phrase like you can't spell pulverize without Pulver. See -- there the kid's name doesn't have to have a meaning but it still makes sense when using it to call attention to a near aptronym.

It's a big wheelhouse

On a rerun of According to Jim, Larry Joe Campbell's character "Andy" just used the phrase I'm in my wheelhouse upon entering a carnival.

It's an interesting switch from the typical use where the thing in the wheelhouse is an object or task that will be acted upon in a way that illustrates the strengths of a performer. Like a baseball or an argument.

Used this way the wheelhouse is apparently a comfort zone or area of expertise. To be in your wheelhouse is to be in your element.

I can see sweet spot being used this way. (I've never heard it but there are a few Google™ hits.)

I find two hits for I'm in my wheelhouse and both are used this same way.

Here and here.

I find one hit for He's in his wheelhouse here and one hit for She's in her wheelhouse here. Both of these 3rd person uses are in reference to contestants on the current season of American Idol.

This is how idioms get started. Or in this case we see a metaphor becoming an idiom.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Think/ing again

I'm blessed to have been a teenager during the 80s when heavy metal was still gleaming. That might explain why I say 'you've got another thing coming' instead of 'you've got another think coming.'

I was surprised when I heard only a few years ago that the expression with think was the original. I had always thought it was a later turn of phrase. But there's plenty of evidence that it has been around as long as another thing. Or longer. The antedating game has been playing leapfrog and will continue. But the company line is that another think makes sense structurally and another thing is idiomatic. Reason to think that another think came first.

Jan Freeman definitely prefers think and laments that it's getting pushed aside by thing

But You've got another think coming is a bit of wordplay; substituting the meaningless thing erases the entire point of the phrase. Unfortunately, it looks inevitable - for now.

I disagree with the argument made by Freeman and others that thing can only be understood idiomatically. Doesn't the phrase make sense structurally? If someone holds a view or belief they might be expected to change their mind because of new evidence -- because there's something new on the way.

I'm missing something. That happens a lot.

Please do yourself a favor and read Jan Freeman instead of William Safire. Her column is about real language.

Geoff Pullum, not one to hand out praise easily, commends her for having great style and humor, good research and a real sense of what is important and what is not.

That I agree with.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Maybe I need an editor

Every once in a while I check my subscriptions and inbound links to see who's paying attention.

This morning I noticed that my subscriptions through FeedBurner were cut in half. That doesn't happen a lot. I looked at the pie chart and saw that no Google™ subscriptions were listed. Those usually make up about half. Odd. It's some sort of Google™ feed block.

That's better than my first thought: that my readers were growing weary from my tiresome tangents. My wandering paths. My fuzzy focus.

Because some critics are less than impressed. I recently saw a note on a bookmark.

Eeeeehhhhhh, an okay blog full of lofty and seemingly cumbersome discourse, but it links to several interesting language-related blogs.

I feel so used. You only want me for my network.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Just peruse this. No. Peruse it instead.

I think it was in high school when a friend told me that peruse doesn't really mean to read through quickly. But I don't think it was until after I met Buffy -- and we were playing one of those nerdy-wordy games coming up with as many autoantonyms as possible -- that I threw away the idea of such right and wrong meanings.

What is the right meaning of peruse? Of cleave? Of bound Of let? Of sanction? Of overlook? Of dust? Of enjoin?* (Keep playing on your own time).

Not all these pairs of are explained in the same way. Some are a coincidental similarity of once-distinct words. Some are due to semantic bifurcation from a single meaning.

Both processes occur naturally. But semantic sentinels pick on them unequally. Of all the words I listed I've only heard complaints about peruse.

Most recent is this admonition from the Minnesota mavens at Grammar Grater.

It turns out the word peruse means something different than browse.

(Follow the above link to read the copy or listen to the show below. It's a bit cheesy but at least it's short.)

Our well-meaning counselor Luke Taylor cites the Oxford Dictionary of Current English and the Random House Unabridged Dictionary to claim that peruse denotes a careful reading. But by taking the sense of careful back to the 1500s Mr Taylor doesn't explain why the other meaning (to read quickly) that emerged in the 1500s isn't equally valid. (The episode is actually written by Jennifer H.)

The show eventually rests on advice based on Fowler's vague reminder of the obvious: the suitability[...]is a matter of discreet (and often delicate) contextual choice.

Some citations can't make clear the distinction between a quick reading and a deliberate reading by mere context. Who knows what each of the following means? There's no way of knowing.

'Peruse this.'
'Did you peruse it?'
'He perused the book.'

But some sentences make it clear by context.

'I don't have time to peruse it so I'll just skim it.'
'If you're too busy you can just peruse it and that'll be enough.'

The OED provides this 1589 citation of George Puttenham's use of 'peruse' with an illumination:

An Epitaph is..pithie, quicke and sententious for the passer by to peruse, and iudge vpon without any long tariaunce (Arte Eng. Poesie I. xxviii. 45).

That's clear enough.

The argument that peruse means 'read carefully' and that 'read quickly' is a later use not yet ratified by the gods of English is another example of the recency illusion. Both meanings are well established since roughly the same time. A usage note in the OED explains that peruse has been a broad synonym for read since the 16th cent., encompassing both careful and cursory reading.

I don't have a copy of Fowler's nearby but Taylor claims that the advice on suitability is from clarification on the use of formal words.

I don't know if I've previously heard the argument that a polysemous word should always mean one thing in a formal setting and another thing in a less formal setting. That might not be Taylor's actual point but he's approaching something like it. Why is there the specific mention that in formal settings unambiguous usage is important? Isn't ambiguity an issue wherever it comes up? Is this the old lie about formal language being more rule driven and careful than informal language?

This looks a lot like a wink and a nudge to an elitist shibboleth. I guess if you want to prove that you belong in a formal setting just make sure that you always use peruse the 'proper' way. Only those curs down in the galley use it as a synonym of browse. Because they don't care about language as much as we do.


*Buffy came up with enjoin.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Just give me a reason

A short bit ago Mr. Verb mentioned Susan Jacoby's claim that linguists are to blame for the current plague of anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism.

Not long after that I saw her on C-SPAN talking to Nick Gillespie for an hour.

I was waiting for her to start her argument but all she did was complain without reasoning her way to any conclusion. Along the way she tosses around premises and definitions that Gillespie challenges without pursuing them. Her views are full of contradictions.

She says that fundamentalism is a source of anti-rationalism granting that religion doesn't preclude a belief in evolution even tho it would preclude it for her. How does that work? If she doesn't think it's a necessary belief why would it be for her? But that's beside the main point.

Gillespie (agreeing that there is a decline in reason?) asks her why she says this is a key moment in intellectual decline rather than just part of a cycle. She only offers the 24/7 scourge of "infotainment" without answering how that makes it a crucial point. After arguing that the non-stop news cycle is a poor medium she complains that people don't spend enough time with their sources of information. She argues that a newspaper is permanent and stays put so the reader can revisit it if necessary. But so is the TV. The internet even more so.

She claims there is proof that we don't know as much as we did in 1980 because books and newspapers aren't read. There is no way that we don't know as much and I doubt that such a cause could be shown. Just how is any amount of information measured? Is this counting information such as computer skills and familiarity with technology? Is there some tally of the recognition of faces? Are politicians' faces worth more intelligence points than actors' and athletes'? What about statistics? Don't all sports fans have more data to memorize with each passing season?

When Jacoby objects that so much on the internet is junk Gillespie interjects that you could say that about books. She doesn't respond but continues with her point that people are watching junk. Then she backs up saying that the problem isn't just that people are watching TV or are on the internet. The problem is that it's all they do. She's jumping away from her argument that people only use it dabblingly -- and she agrees that's also a problem with books: if it's all you do it's a problem. But then why is she saying only that TV/internet is a problem. She agrees that it's a tool. But she hasn't argued that it is bringing about any result other than that people are not reading books. Another tool.

Gillespie poses the most important question. How can her claims be quantified? He rightly doubts that it can be measured by the number of books read. He believes for instance that people are more skeptical of leadership. Surely that's a good indication.

Her counter offers no rational argument or reason: "It seems to me we are not living in the same universe."

He cites other indicators: the decline of party affiliation as evidence of independent thought: bestseller lists showing "niche" discrimination.

Nowhere does she give a definition of intellectualism. No explanation of how it is measured. More importantly she can't even explain what would be measured.

She makes the undeveloped unsupported and unevaluated claim that there are things that "we all need to know" for some reason. She hasn't given a reason. This view has been out there for a long time but I'm still waiting for someone to give me a reason to buy it.

Then she jumps into that favorite mud pit of elitists -- colloquial language as an indication of intellectual poverty. She closes with this gem.

When you listen even to the way people speak I don't see how you can talk about us having reasonable discourse. I say this and I'll say it here: the word folks embodies -- which you haven't used once -- embodies everything I hate. No presidential speech before 1980 ever used that word. Imagine: We here highly resolve that these folks shall not have died in vain.

On 6 December 1904 in his Fourth Annual Message to the Senate and House of Representatives Theodore Roosevelt wrote:

Others, living in more remote regions, primitive, simple hunters and fisher folk, who know only the life of the woods and the waters, are daily being confronted with twentieth-century civilization with all of its complexities.

OK. So this State of the Union Address was actually written and submitted to congress rather than delivered as a speech. And Roosevelt says folk not folks. But Jacoby's point is just as ridiculous either way.

Her entire argument is maddening because of its vapid presumptions. She's making the old and familiar arguments that a canon of knowledge and the method of investigating it has been determined and must be protected -- but apparently she doesn't care to defend it rationally. The only argument she can come up with against the subject matter of the material in a class on the horror genre is that the movies are "crap". She hasn't defined crap but from hearing the views spewing out of her mouth I think she must assume we can all taste it too.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Of course

The image of Eight Belles slumped over her grotesquely bent ankles makes me shiver. I can't imagine what pain means to an animal. But I imagine pain is a sensation that levels any hierarchy putting humans above beasts. I suspect a human soul isn't what caused a grimace when I heard a soft snap on twisting my ankle. As I curled over and grasped my foot I was only knowing that I felt pain.

If anything I think Eight Belles had to have been more focused on the pain than I was.

This distinction was leading me to write a post about the claims of semantic weakening when words like tragedy and catastrophe are used to describe the events following Saturday's race. But that's a slick path to tread. One ADS-L comment picks on the word choice as a 'degradation of meaning' -- which is probably less judgmental than it sounds. Calling a process semantic weakening or degradation can be a description and not an accusation. Well it can be both.

But while browsing through the online stories (looking for other words to discuss) I came across this:

Alex Waldrop, president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, said there will be an autopsy to find the cause of Eight Belles’ death. (here)

They really don't know what was in the syringe?

Thematic roles help sort out this semantic clump. And they allow us to move away from subject as a semantic category.

My teacher always told me that the subject of the sentence is the person or thing doing the action. They'd give me an easy sentence like 'Michael broke the window' then ask who did the action. But a smartass could argue that a rock probably broke the window. 'But that's not in the sentence' Mrs Cook counters. Well what if it was? In the sentence: Michael broke the window with a rock the old trick doesn't work.

Effectors can be divided into four types:
An agent exists outside the event and acts willfully.
A force doesn't act willfully but can act independently of the event and can use an instrument (e.g. gravity, wind, a locomotive...)
An instrument is neither independent nor willful and must be put to the work in question.
The means is not a person object or physical force (e.g. a plan, policy, public opinion...)

In the death of Eight Belles the agent is clear. The agent of Eight Belles' death was Dr Larry Bramlage the on-call veterinarian. (This is not an incrimination. It's a semantic distinction.) The instrument was the drug in the syringe.

The autopsy will not reveal any more information about the instrument or the agent. There are some forces and means that might be illuminated but a final judgement regarding the means is bound to be more philosophical than scientific. The indifference of the training to physical harm; or the wanton breeding in the pursuit of speed without strength; or the disregard for the danger to an physically immature horse -- these will not be revealed by an autopsy. But they are factors to consider.

Some people have blamed jockey Gabriel Saez' technique. It may seem like splitting hairs to separate him from his technique but in this case it's appropriate. An agent has to be a willing instigator of the event but a force can be accidental. It's not reasonable to accuse Gaez of trying to kill Eight Belles. Even if you want to argue that he didn't care (and that's a ridiculous accusation) he was not hoping for the horses demise. That intention is necessary. Saez no more directed his technique to his horse's death than any other jockey on the course. And beyond intention his technique wasn't unique in any other way. His technique could be a means impelling a sequence of events that ended in the horse's death but that becomes a campaign of blaming every action and every decision that didn't reverse the course of events away from death. We approach blaming every cheer. Every bet. Everyone who knew a race was taking place and didn't stop it. Some people are making that argument. Whether it's silly or not the autopsy won't reveal.

The autopsy might reveal evidence of certain forces contributing to a means. Evidence of already-weak ankles more likely to give under the intense force of gravity on a heavy body. Evidence of a genetic defect. Evidence of prior injury. Evidence of malnutrition. Evidence of physical immaturity. This could reveal how some decision-making was a means (a not the) by which a system of discovered forces was responsible for the event that put Dr Bramlage in the unfortunate position of making the appropriate choice using the instrument he did to be the agent he was.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Have red pen. Will travel. (part II)

But that first post was all about ambiguous structure and interpretation. The argument isn't about values and beliefs. What happens when I look at those.

OK. But this is just for fun. Like the TEAL folks, I'm neither looking to blame, nor chastise. (Actually I do chastise a little at the end.)

Issue 1:
On their about page the cruising copyeditors call these typos vile stains on the delicate fabric of our language. I disagree. This language is not delicate -- nor is its fabric. There is no danger here. The language is extremely resilient and relatively stable. And I don't think that typos are vile -- but I really don't care about overstatement.

Issue 2:
On the same page is the following claim: But slowly the once-unassailable foundations of spelling are crumbling. Once-unassailable? Are they serious? Written English has never been free of typos. No written language is. And anyone who has studied the stew-pot era of Middle English has to realize that we've moved towards uniformity not away from it.

Sub-issue 2.1: We believe that only through working together with vigilance and a love of correctness can we achieve the beauty of a typo-free society. It ain't gonna happen. And I happen to like what errors can tell us about the representation of language in the mind.

OK. So I disagree with some details in their statement of purpose. No big deal. But here's a statement I can't forgive -- Deck tells the story of a menu that listed corn beef instead of corned beef. They were going to fix it but on checking his Random House unabridged dictionary he found the alternate form listed. Perhaps, he worries, this is an example of a dictionary being too permissive. Permissive? What are dictionaries supposed to permit? No Mr Deck. This is an example of a dictionary accurately reporting the words people use. What else do you want a dictionary to do?

See Grant Barrett's advice on a dictionary purchase. Nowhere is there a suggestion that you buy a picky dictionary. The best dictionaries will push your boundaries. In all directions.

Think about it -- if dictionaries didn't report usage accurately, where would you go to find out what an unknown word means? Do you really want a dictionary constantly throwing up its hands and saying Sorry -- I don't want to tell you about that word because it's not how my favourite group speaks? We don't need dictionaries to tell us what we already know and to confirm the usage that we are already accustomed too. And how arrogant it is to think that the usage of certain groups doesn't deserve to be represented in a full description of the language. Dictionaries are best when they strive to present a body of the language broader than that which any individual already grasps. Or what's the OED for?

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Surfing beyond the USA

I have recently started using web browsers for specific tasks. I'm looking for one browser capable of meeting every internet need but I haven't found it yet.

is a good standard with a good rendering of HTML and CSS. I find it easy to design for. And it has some nice add-ons and extensions.

Camino is Firefox's younger brother designed specifically for the Mac. I've started using it because I like it's integration with the MAC interface and function.

Firefox and Camino are both Mozilla projects.

Opera has a lovely 'speed-dial' feature and good font handling.

Safari is designed by Mac for Macs. I've been finding it best at displaying international characters.

While Opera handles fonts better than the Mozilla products its HTML/CSS rendering is not as good. And while Safari is best at fonts there are issues with diacritics and spacing, and I have problems with the HTML/CSS display.

I was recently looking through some of goofy's posts over at bradshaw of the future and the font issue became obvious. It's a good site if you're interested in etymology. It's also good for checking on how the browsers are handling text (as are Bill Poser's posts at L-L).

Using goofy's post banyan and venus we can tellingly compare the four browsers.

Firefox and Camino display identically using the question marks when confused.

Opera displays the Devanagari for goofy's example of the Sanskrit. But in an attempt to show something instead of nothing the Gujarati comes out in a familar style of mangled surrogate characters.

Safari handles all the fonts without a problem.

In another post goofy throws some Arabic characters in there. The text shows up simply in the Mozilla software:

While Opera gives us block placeholders:

And Safari gives us a more detailed script:

Safari looks like the clear winner. But now it gets interesting. Take a close look at the Devanagari in the first example. Compare the text as presented by Opera and Safari. We'll zoom in on vāṇija

in Opera

and in Safari

Notice the flipped characters. We can set up a rough correspondence between the Devanagari and Roman characters in these words.

= v

= a

= n

= i

= j

Because the last character is a word final consonant it includes the [ə] in its pronunciation and we don't need a vowel written after it.

With these correspondences Opera at first appears to render the characters in the correct order. But Safari actually gets this one right as well. The ~<i> character is actually a diacritic on the ~<n> character. And it is correctly rendered before the consonant. So Safari has the right order. (Bāṇija shows the same ordering issue.)

This ordering of the diacritic has even confused the designers of the Wikipedia logo. Look at the puzzle-piece globe on the front page (where it's big enough to see). On the left limb you'll notice the ~<vi> syllable represented in the wrong order. Bill Poser mentioned this about a year ago.

Thank goodness for Exposé.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Have red pen. Will travel. (part I)

Mxrk has encouraged me to be kind to Jeff Deck and his migrant mavens over at TEAL. I heard about these galloping grammarians a few weeks ago over at Grammar Grater.

But why does Mxrk accuse me of hating any kind of corrections?

Because it's not true. I believe mistakes should be corrected by the appropriate parties. I think what he's getting at is my typical response to careless peevology: those complaints about language that falsely describe language. I also jump on those statements about language that show an irrational fear of change. I like the challenge of the argument.

Deck and his red-pen roamers travel around the country looking for typos and grammatical mistakes on signs. They correct them when they can. If they've got the money and the time and they do it without an attitude...fine. I don't care.

So how good are they at their mission? Not too bad. But there are some slips.

The site includes a blog with pictures and a rundown of the typos they have found. One post reports a minor punctuation issue on a sign: a missing comma in the following sentence.

The Museum's first taxidermist, John James Audubon was hired in the winter of 1819 to do taxidermy, build collections, and create exhibits.

Our faithful servant put a comma after Audubon because he believes "John James Audubon" is the appositive. There is some ambiguity here and some commenters disagree with him. So do I.

What we have is a fronted appositive. Consider a similar structure in the following sentences.

- A skilled stuntman, Evel Knievel set several world records.

- A strict disciplinarian, my father never let me watch more than 4 hours of TV a day.

- A prolific writer, Fouqué gathered much of his material from Scandinavian sagas and myths. (online Brittanica -- subscription needed)

The indefinite article makes the intended structure especially clear in the second sentence where I'm certainly not using my father to specify a strict disciplinarian. The definite article on the sign makes the intention less clear. But if the name is the appositive we have a strange sentence explaining why the first taxidermist, any first taxidermist, was hired. If the sentence ended with the date the first taxidermist was hired then the name as appositive would make more sense.

One commenter even mentions what I believe is the best clue to the intended meaning. If the name is the appositive the simplified sentence would be The Museum's first taxidermist was hired to do taxidermy, build collections, and create exhibits which is grammatical but has an odd redundancy.

In a response to comments Mr Deck defends his reading saying Audubon may have been mentioned in the title, but this is his first mention in the text itself. Ergo the newspapery construction that they had originally did not work. So Deck is arguing that this structure can't occur on first mention. But he gives no reason why this should be so.

Because it isn't so.

It's fine as a first mention. It was good enough for the above Britannica entry on Fouqué right after a heading. And it's fine for the little bio of Patrik Ervell on this page that begins

- The son of Swedish parents, Patrik Ervell grew up in Northern California.

The only previous mention of Ervell? In the heading.

Deck then adds an 'and besides...' argument claiming that the full name would not likely be used as a subject because since such a structure only works when the name has already been mentioned only the first or last name would be used. This simply isn't true.

Even when an individual has been mentioned the full name might be used:
The son of Guianan parents, René Maran was born in Martinique fifty three years ago [1887-1960]. (here)

A gifted musician, Bill Evans studied classical music prior to his lifelong commitment to jazz in the late 1940s. (pdf here)

The eldest of fourteen children, Léon-Pamphile Lemay was born 5 January 1837 at Lotbinière, Quebec... (here)

The full name can be mentioned any time a writer wants to stress it. Sometimes a little known middle name is used for the effect of biographical detail. But whatever the reason for the use -- Deck's argument falls over.


Liar's poker

I say it again: it's always fun to find willful violations of Grice's maxims of cooperative communication.

Today's violated maxim: In the category of Quantity -- give complete information.

Sometimes I feel comfortable giving information at the poker table. When I'm feeling cocky.

Well I will tell you this: my first bet was a bluff. Of course that leaves it open. My later bets might be backed up by what came on the flop, turn or river.

I was chasing a hand. And maybe I caught it. I haven't given all the information.

But those aren't violations. They're cheeky. They're transparently opaque. I'm not misleading you because it should be clear that while what I've said is true you don't have enough information to know how to bet.

Poker After Dark: Match 23 -- "Of Mouth and Men". Jamie Gold and Alan 'Boston' Dvorkis face each other on a hand.

Boston is holding queen-10 and Gold is holding a pair of kings. After Gold raises Boston's bet Boston reports that he has Queen high. Gold says that he has king high.

Boston shows a queen and Gold shows a king.

Gold: I don't have king-queen so I don't have any of your cards.

After thinking and mumbling about it Boston reveals suspicion.

Boston: If you got king-queen that's really sickening
Gold: I don't have king-queen.
Boston: well you'd want to tell me that to get me call this so that i'd really make a bad call
Gold (showing his card to Paul Wasicka): Do I have king-queen?
Paul: Nope.

Boston doesn't trust Gold and suspects that he might have ace-king. Apparently thinking he wouldn't lie about not having a queen but might lie about having king high.

Gold: I said I have king high. I don't have ace-king
Boston: You have king high? You have king high?
Gold: Yes.
Boston: And you're claiming not to have king-queen?
Gold: I do not--

At this point Jamie has already said that he doesn't have king-queen. But Boston's latest question isn't about Jamie's hand. It's about Jamie's claim. Even had Jamie not yet claimed to not have king-queen, if he answers 'yes' to Boston's question there would be an entailed null speech-act of claiming to have a hand by answering a question that asks if the claim is made. Boston pushes for another claim.

Boston: So you don't have kings you just have king high?

Aha! Now he has revealed that he understands "king high" to mean only one king and another lower and not equal card. This was of course known -- but he has now made it an explicit claim.

How does Jamie respond? Does he confirm Alan's definition?

Gold: You know what -- you make your own decision. What do you want me to tell you. I gave you enough information.

So here's where Boston probably should have noticed that Gold is unwilling to answer his question. What does Gold mean by "enough information"? Gold surely knows that Boston defines king high exclusively. But he's unwilling to give the relevant information when asked. Is that cooperative? It probably would be if he made it clear that he was unwilling to answer specifically because Boston asked about a pair. But it could also be that Boston has asked for reassurance too many times. Here Gold's refusal to answer (which is a response) might be violating the maxim of manner by being ambiguous. But is it a violation in a game in which ambiguous information is an agreed manner of conversation? The problem is the changing frames of expected cooperation. In poker it is perfectly acceptable not to give a single word in response. But once you create a more specific frame of cooperative agreement the edge of the frame becomes important. Gold, by deflecting the question makes that edge fuzzy. It blurs the line between conversational implicature (I've said enoughI've already said so) and transparent opacity.

Boston calls the bet. Both players show their cards.

Gold: highest card in my hand is a king.

Boston: That's not king high.

Gold: Highest card I have is a king.

Boston: Yeah. That's kinda [bleep]. You got me.

There's an important distinction between the maxim of unambiguous information (category: Manner) and the maxim of sufficient information (category: Quantity): Violations of ambiguous information often leave the hearer feeling that information has been left out. Violations of sufficient information are likely to mislead because the hearer often believes that all information has been given.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Physio-linguistics on SNL

See I was alway told that baldness is inherited from the mother. Even Professor Paris at Michigan said so. But he's a psychologist. What does he know about heredity?

Turns out it's all linguistics.

If only I'd said it correctly all these years.

I remember when this ad first ran on Saturday Night Live. I didn't even notice those amazing pants back then. I'm ashamed to think that I probably had a similar pair.