Friday, January 30, 2009

What have you thought about this?

Have I asked you this before?

How do you parse the line: what do you think i'm stupid?

I've always struggled with this question. It could go a few ways.

a. What? Do you think I'm stupid?
b. What do you think? I'm stupid?

And if we throw away the contraction:
c. What do you think I am? Stupid?

If I hear the last option it's pretty clear. It would indeed be rare for someone to say I am unless it's in that final position. And I'm in turn is never sentence final. So we know that with contracted I'm it has to be one of the first two.

Sometimes the speaker uses a pause, making the parsing more apparent. But sometimes there is no pause. And at such times I have no idea which question I'm answering.

I was reminded of this by a collection of musings on the office blackboard today. All the usual punctuation games and one variation on the old joke:

Woman without Herman is like a fish without a bicycle.

[Update: Buffy reports that she's more accustomed to hearing and using the 'c' question—without the contraction. And if it's with a contraction (which she says she therefore wouldn't likely use) she would hear it as a b-question. But when I propose a-type she says it's fine even tho it hadn't occurred to her.]

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The worst perfect word

Someone out there is spreading the idea that diarrhea is a perfect word. At least that's what one of my students told me. 'Is that true?' she asked. Perfect for what? I asked.

The claim apparently has something to do with the sound and spelling of the word. About the spelling I assured her that the word is actually a pretty bad example of spelling/sound correspondence. The <d> is fine, corresponding to [d]. Then we have <i> corresponding to [] and <a> corresponding to [ə]. The doubled symbols <rr> are clear, but only one is necessary. Then we have the <h> that corresponds to nothing; there is no [h] in the pronunciation. And finally we have a digraph <ea> that often corresponds to [i] but in this case represents two syllables, [i.ə].

It's not a particularly confusing spelling -- but it's far from a perfect correspondence.

More interesting then is the onomatopoetic quality. Is diarrhea the perfect word for what it means? Because of the blood oath I took to believe in the arbitrariness of language, I have to start off by saying that this is often a pointless argument to make. Words capture and express their meaning because of a conventionalized denotation and connotation, not because of an inherent quality.

But this shouldn't stop us from appreciating that the sound of diarrhea does in some ways capture the flowing nature of its disgusting extension. After the voiced stop onset we have a diphthong gliding into a schwa leading into an approximant giving way to a tense vowel that falls into another unstressed mid vowel schwa. The word flows.

But an important point to make here is that it's really just a coincidence that we can make these observations about the word as a mimetic expression. There's no reason to think that diarrhea would not work equally well for another meaning. If a word sounds horrible to us it's almost always because we find something about the meaning horrible. If a word sounds beautiful to us it's usually because we appreciate what it means. If we switched the meanings, and diarrheal traded places with mellifluous we would probably think diarrheal was the perfect word for a rich and lyrical sound.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Obama really should give up his PDA

via Fritinancy on twitter ("retweeting" lizhenry)

Simplify, simplify, simplification

From The Onion

The opening list of suggested sentences:

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Fish out of school?

I should probably repent of many of the things I've said about education. But only because I think I probably sounded like Stanley Fish.

His fears have been the topic of much discussion lately, and for a while I dabbled in tentative comments because I found myself confused about how to read his recent blog post/book review.

Friends have commented on it and pointed at it and commented still more on it. Mr Verb has given it the twice over, and Mark Liberman has decided to fry him some Fish too. [Update: I have to mention Polyglot's fine post as well.]

I would suggest reading all of these of course. But especially the comments on Liberman's piece where there has been an excellent ex-change of ideas. (I put that hyphen in there for you Santos and now I feel like a filthy whore.)

Two ideas that I reject: 1) That education should try to not be utile. 2) That the humanities are in danger.

Regarding the first:
The differences between basic and applied science are not all clear. Fish embraces the argument that the difference between applied skill and basic theory is an important one. And I can agree, if only because finding those differences will foster beneficial, and perhaps merely interesting, discussion. Categorization is a fine practice. I have no problem with the pursuit of delineations. The imposition of delineations is less valuable to me.

So the insistence on inutility as a requirement is ridiculous. Fish's definition of theory, or learning which is expressly focused upon an enterprise of understanding and explaining (Oakeshott's words) is:

understanding and explaining anything as long as the exercise is not performed with the purpose of intervening in the social and political crises of the moment, as long, that is, as the activity is not regarded as instrumental – valued for its contribution to something more important than itself.

Those as long as lines get me. Why not say even if there is no purpose of intervention? There is no reason to insist that no useful goal be present. Even if that goal has political implications. Insisting on non-instrumental study is only necessary if we don't trust the scholars to reach worthy understanding. With such insistence Fish has already judged theories and creations that he has not yet seen or known.

Fish is setting the stakes around a perfectly fine pursuit: aesthetics that survive without apologetics. This could be simply because he would like that pursuit of happiness protected. It could also be because he believes education needs it. But his argument must then snake around to its point. Such a scholarly path is useless by his own demand. So why does he argue it's important? For its own sake. And why should we care about its own sake? Is it an important type of scholarship? To whom? To the people who do it. Can it be important to anyone else? No. So why should anyone else care? They shouldn't.

This is of course a false argument I've made. I'm counting on importance being identical to utility. But my disagreement stands. Fish's insistence on purposeful purposelessness relies on intrinsic importance. But his defense of intrinsic importance does not adequately indict utility. Unless he believes that utility or an effective agenda is incompatible with intrinsic importance his argument has set the protective stakes wider than necessary. He seeks to turn a right into an obligation. He believes that without intent indifference the right and opportunity to indifference will be lost. Again — that's only a problem if one believes that inutility bestows a value that utility destroys.

Since I don't think it does, I come to my second point: that the humanities are not in danger.

The proportion of tenure track faculty to adjuncts and graduate instructors is changing. Universities are bigger and more inclusive than they used to be. Our population has grown and a greater percentage of citizens is getting a university education. Small seminars in padded chairs are reserved for a small and dedicated group of teachers and students.

This change in proportion doesn't signal an extinction, just a wider demographic within the ivory tower's blast zone. And while those groups used to have more of the campus to themselves, they now have to share the quad. But no one is telling them to leave. This is only a problem for future Professors Fish if they insist on being the only game in town. And if they're determined to be useless there's no reason to lament their replacement by people who do gorgeous work and don't mind if it serves a purpose greater than itself.

I've changed a line in this post: In calling aesthetics that avoid apologetics a fine pursuit, I seem to contradict my criticism of Fish's agenda. Avoid implies more intention I meant to indicate. I changed the line to aesthetics that survive without apologetics. Still, it's not the best line.

McWhorter on Obama's address

Obama won because he pronounces it historih. That's a flat oversimplification of John McWhorter's short essay at The New Republic.

But it is an interesting piece. Consider McWhorter's claim that

Black English is a matter not just of slang, but of sentence structure and sound (why you can tell most black people's race over the phone, which is proven in studies).

I'm no mindreader, but I assume he mentioned studies in anticipation of those who would think such claims of 'hearing' race are based mostly on prejudice. One major introductory linguistics text includes in a list of language myths: You can almost always recognize someone's background by the way he talks.

Of course McWhorter's claim isn't so wide. It's true that some dialect markers are very apparent. It's also true that some regions and backgrounds and cultures have distinct dialects. I remember that during the first OJ Simpson trial one witness claimed to hear a black man talking. OJ's defense team jumped on this claim saying that it was impossible to tell race by sound.

And that's true. But McWhorter could easily defend his claim with nuance. First of all, "most" is very different from "almost always." He might also agree that dialect markers are circumstantial evidence. And tho I don't know the studies he's referencing,* I imagine there is a correlation that makes the case defensible: that from hearing only speech, some inferences are easier to make than others. And tho our ears might alert us to details that sometimes serve as clues, that doesn't mean they give us knowledge of race.

He's obviously thinking about this, writing later in the article:

It is not uncommon to hear a group of teenagers speaking in Black English, and find when they pass by that they are actually Latino, Asian, or with the cohort under about 25, white.

McWhorter is well-informed about the history of this language. I'm on the fence about his politics, but his linguistic scholarship is reliable. I don't fussily discard his statement regarding "pitch" in speech when he observes that Obama often ends sentences on a higher pitch than, say, Tom Brokaw would. It's probably true since Tom Brokaw often speaks with a very low voice and the frequency is going to be lower just because he sounds like a bass and Obama... maybe a baritone. But I assume McWhorter is talking about the more important feature of tone or contour.

When he suggests that Obama, in saying responsibility, used pitch and pronunciation in a way that is warp and woof of the grammar of, for example, his father's native language Luo, I'm more interested than skeptical.

* see comments

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

...and Max said "I'LL EAT YOU UP!"

I can never remember if the rumpus starts or begins.

A friend over on i'm popular dot com just updated her status with a reference to Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. I wanted to leave a comment quoting a line from the marvelous book. You know— to show that I've read all the classics. I just had to do a quick check on the web to make sure I got the line right.

So searching for 'let the wild rumpus' brought up several pages including this URI that was helpful.

But is that the best URI for a page? I guess for Sendak's book it's pretty good. But because of the ambiguity caused by writing without spaces between words, I wonder if a change might be in order. Because those would be some disgusting tarts.

Misspellings you can count on

The official website of the White House is apparently expecting some misspellings of President Obama's name on web searches.

Here's a look at the page's keyword metadata.

<meta name="keywords" content="President, Barack Obama, White House, United States of America, 44th President, White House history, President Obama, Barck, Barek, Barak, Barrack, Barrak, Obma, Barack" />

via ironicsans on Twitter

Friday, January 16, 2009

Everyone has a song inside...

...and maybe it should stay there.

No one should have to stumble on music this horrible without a warning. Really, we need a new competition for such horrible music: Battle of the Banned. Microsoft's Songsmith promo is going to rival Hillary 4U&Me for the title.

I'm having trouble believing this is real. But here's a link. (Follow it. there are some amazing songs on there. Trust me.)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Will Safire ever burn out?

It's been a while since I complained about William Safire's column. To keep the coals warm, over at Headsup: The Blog Fev does a fine job of reminding us of how silly it gets.

Specifically this claim by the linguist manqué:

Y’know reached its usage peak among teenagers in the 1980s, later replaced by I mean, then by like and of late by an elemental uh.

Language punditry is so far behind even the most annoying and banal sportswriting. There are standards and methods available to and expected from lexicographers and sociolinguists. The foundational standard: Make true statements. The best method: Do actual research. Why do so many journalists ignore both of these when writing about language?

As Fev writes:

Sports writers, you might have noticed, tend not to do that…and expect to be taken seriously solely on the size of their mavenhood. I expect that's because sports writers know they're fairly likely to be called out, by readers if not first by editors, should they start inventing stuff at random.

I'm not sure why I pay any attention to Safire. Probably the same reason I gently bend a sprained ankle just to make sure it still hurts.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Fit to print

Bono's New York Times column is getting all sorts of attention and provoking all sorts of emotion. Surely it's just as he hoped. And as a provocateur he's perfectly happy to absorb some bad reviews.

Some of these names are noteworthy. Some are not. But they all agree on one thing:

Bono's new column is truly dreadful.
-Andrew Sullivan

In just his first effort, Bono has already managed to combine the worst tropes of Thomas Friedman and Maureen Dowd and fuse them together into some new alchemy of awfulness.
-Daniel Drezner

[A]s a newspaper columnist, you are truly an execrable failure. "Glasses clinking clicking, clashing crashing in Gaelic revelry"? Did you come up with that in a freshman writing seminar?
-Jeff Bercovici

Why did the "New York Times" make this deal? Didn’t Bono have to submit any samples? Couldn’t they have rejected this piss-poor piece before they printed it? Can’t they cancel the deal now?
-Bob Lefsetz

It doesn’t even bother me (that much) that his writing style seems to have been influenced entirely by Rolling Stone articles about himself. It is that pretentious, but it’s not that surprising. I mean, having been exposed to the guy’s music for my entire life, it’s hardly a major shock that he’d try and force the same kind of pompous grandiosity into every sentence and paragraph.

Bono bloviates nonsensically about "duality" as he wraps things up, trying to locate himself within the pantheon of great, drunken Irish authors, but it's no's a poorly conceived piece that shows how tone-deaf he is to the reality outside his jet-setting bubble.
-JT Ramsay

I'm glad I'm not teaching composition this year. But I'm a little sad that I won't have a chance to use Bono's piece as an example of a rambling disjointed inflated and pointless effort. He might have intended a point about the opportunities and challenges of the new year, but he doesn't say anything about them. Unless you think there's wisdom in Frank Sinatra's torch song My Way. I'd say there's about as much wisdom there as in Elvis' Viva Las Vegas.

It's just the type of writing that a healthy demographic will think is brilliant (just check the comments on JT Ramsay's piece). But it's not going to last because it's full of all the tricks and turns that a promising fourteen-year-old shares with his teacher after class—because the other kids will never get it. I must be one of those kids. And Bono should have outgrown this purple prose by now.

† I might use it as a bit of audio for transcription. The text of the column is accompanied by a recording of Bono's performance.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Looking forward

Because of all the events and invitations and birthday announcements on Facebook it makes sense that somewhere in their translation of numbers into words, the timestamps allow "tomorrow" as a label.

But then shouldn't it say that this contact "will write" or "will have written" the note.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

ADS WotY: bailout

Seeing bailout win the Word of the Year vote is kinda like seeing the regular season leader win the championship: it's a deserved but boring win. It already won the Merriam-Webster championship. So at least the ADS gives us some other categories to keep it interesting.

MOST USEFUL: Barack Obama

It's not a political statement. It's about the words. Barack the vote. Can you smell what barack is cooking? Obamanation. Obamania. &c.

Among the nominees: Palinesquepertaining to a person who has extended themselves beyond their expertise, thereby bringing ridicule upon a serious matter. The birth of a legacy.

MOST CREATIVE: recombobulation area

An area at Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee in which passengers that have just passed through security screening can get their clothes and belongings back in order. I hadn't heard this one but I think the idea of general recombobulation could stick.

MOST UNNECESSARY: moofing (Mobile Out of OFfice)

Shouldn't that be Mooo? Or Mooo-ing? Or Moooficing? In her tweet report Erin McKean calls it a stupid PR-created word. Agreed.

Bromance was nominated and got some votes but I like the word. It's relevant and it sounds right and it's got some miles put on it. Brian— Casey— you guys make this one work.

MOST OUTRAGEOUS: terrorist fist jab

E. D. Hill is an idiot.

MOST EUPHEMISTIC: scooping technician

A pooper scooper (agent, not instrument).

The runner up, age-doping, doesn't seem too euphemistic to me. Had I been there, I would have voted for thought showers, used in place of brainstorming out of respect to epileptics. I'd roll my eyes but that might be offensive too.


It's a term used to describe infrastructure projects that can be started quickly when Obama's economic stimulus package is enacted writes Ben Zimmer rooting for this word. The problem I have with it is that I keep imagining that the shoveling refers to something else. Phrases like get your shovel ready or you're gonna need a shovel have contaminated this term. To me it sounds almost like the opposite of what it means.


An appropriate category for Hillary's bitter supporters


Anything but.

Hockey mom was nominated and I'd say it's as good as soccer mom considering kids in the states don't play either.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

The C word

When you need to smack down idiots, go to the best for help. Some commenters on Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog were giving him trouble for defending the word conversate. One even argued that until a word is in the OED it shouldn't be said.

How did TNC settle the argument?

Well, I had nothing better to do today, so I decided to call up the OED people and see if I could get an editor to talk to me.

They couldn't spare one of their toadie interns so he had to settle for Jesse Sheidlower. Coates gets right to the point, asking: So is conversate a word? As usual Sheidlower responds with a lovely display of knowledge and reason. And he offers up some pretty good lines.

They're all words, but it behooves us to be serious and ask, is it acceptable in this context? If you're delivering the State of the Union address, maybe "fuck" is not acceptable. If you're having sex with your girlfriend, maybe it is acceptable.


The comments are surprisingly well-balanced. Sheidlower made a good case and it shows. Only a few people are standing firm in their backwards view of language. And even some of the prescriptivist views are reasonably supported. Consider the view of laborlibert who writes:

Unfortunately the opinions of others do matter and as long as the consensus is that conversate is not a word and that aks or "mines" are improper, than these should be used sparingly in certain circles.

Alot of people in my office say "mines" and I advise them to knock it off. I'm not a language Nazi, I just think its for their own good.

This is close. It's true that usage determines the language. And usage is in many ways a product of opinion. But the consensus is obviously not that conversate is not a word. There is no clear consensus on this. And the circles in which the consensus is clearly intolerant are often unable to enforce their pet constraints. So they often don't matter. And If you're willing to use a word sparingly I say go ahead and use it confidently.

If you really care about the good of your peers, don't bother with changing their dialect. Stand up for dialectal equality and roll your eyes at ignorant disdain.

My favorite comment comes from KevDog who writes:

Also, since spell check flagged conversate, I just added it to my dictionary. So there.

Perfect. Choose your lexicon. Own your words. I love the spellcheck "ADD" option. That's how it works.

† And until I've eaten I have no right to get hungry.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Linkin' logs

Chris Waigl has started her new blog querbeißer. She has some quality posts already up.

If you don't already know about the Monty Hall problem read this post. Even when I understand the famous probability puzzle I just can't let go of some of the logical mistakes I know I'm making. It's a weird feeling. Her treatment of it goes a long way in helping me regain my balance. I think.

Monday, January 05, 2009

The royal they?

How confusing is this language thing? Or rather, how confusing is the terminology? We is not a 3rd person pronoun.

Lynn Sweet was on C-SPAN talking about Rod Blogejevich's ballsy attempt to appoint Roland Burris. Sweet has also written on the topic, and the headlines on two of her nearly identical pieces both use a line that was mentioned on the short C-SPAN segment.

As Burris sees it: 'We are the senator'

Burris proclaims, "We are the senator." Wants to avoid media circus over Obama seat.

Sweet explained the title(s) by pointing out that Burris likes to use the 3rd person to refer to himself. That title is supposed to give a nudge to that quality. So does she care that "we" is 1st person?

It is true that Burris has referred to himself in the 3rd person. More specifically he refers to himself by name (perhaps 3rd person POV but it's not really the same as a 3rd person pronoun). Andrew Herrmann writes (also for the Sun Times):

Speaking of himself in the 2002 interview, Burris said, 'Roland Burris, who started way down here, in the segregation of a southern Illinois community, was able to set goals, plan and strategize and make it.'

Here's Sweet in another report mentioning the 3rd person habit:

This looks like conflation based on a sense that Burris doesn't stick with typical 1st person references. The third person and the royal we must somehow feel the same to Sweet. Perhaps there is a similar sense in both that the self exists in a way that isn't captured by the singular I or me. And both are commonly heard as arrogant or presumptuous. There might be something to that.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

List, list, O, list!

Lake Superior State puts the bore in borealis.*

A couple weeks ago the university released its anal annual Banished Words list.

I think the usual commenters ignored it because this list is weak. Particularly. It's predictable and familiar. More'n usual even. It's not really worth arguing against, but it's definitely worth mocking. Here is the skeleton:

Environmental terms:

in all it's forms. So then are we supposed to start saying adhering to certain standards for processes and materials widely agreed upon as less harmful to the environment? Yes I know that circumlocution is necessary to replace almost any single word. I'm not saying that without a certain word its concept can only be expressed with a ridiculously long phrase. My point: when a word works well and is relevant to a common topic of conversation, and you start getting sick of the topic, don't blame the word.

CARBON FOOTPRINT or CARBON OFFSETTING – "It is now considered fashionable for everyone, tree hugger or lumberjack alike, to pay money to questionable companies to ‘offset’ their own ‘carbon footprint.’ What a scam! Get rid of it immediately!" Ginger Hunt, London, England.

Ms Hunt appears to argue with misguided faith in a hard Sapir-Whorf reading: that we can't think something without a word for it; that getting rid of a word will eradicate the idea it represents. I'm going to stop saying 'Lake Superior State University Banished Words List' starting now. Check in a year from now to see if it worked.


Why waste time complaining about a word that was really just used by one person? OK two people. Next year they're going to banish Ross for Boss.

Texting horrors:

Representing a heart, or the word love. 'Cuz those dam kids r killing english one keystroke @ a time.

In the media:

Really? Banishing a phrase like this reminds me of those phrases on Wheel of Fortune that aren't really established phrases

…but that they have to come up with something because they're running out of ideas:

Reaching back to 2002 for words to start hating now.

You're all morons. Or moronic.

And I feel a little dumber for caring.

*To be fair I should point out that this yearly gem is put out by the PR department. The list and my criticism have nothing to do with the education available at the school. And I'm sure the students are cool too.