Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Edit or perish

[If you caught the original spelling of the post title, you'll notice that it now makes a little more sense. Thank you Nancy. If I wanted to make up some clever explanation for the parish/perish pun, I'm sure I could. Especially in a post about editing. But when the red pen is right, I shouldn't look too hard for a way to make it wrong. No dignity in that.]

John McIntyre wrote Tuesday evening that he mixed himself a nice big Manhattan in honour of his last day at The Baltimore Sun. On Wednesday he explained in his final post that it's the result of "the grim economics of the newspaper busines."

We can rest assured that my post title is an overstatement. A reasonable voice like Mr McIntyre's will out. He's on Twitter, and that's where I expect to find news of his re-emergence.

He closed his antepenultimate post with the following two paragraphs that read very differently now that I know his desk is cleared.

So long as people have difficulty writing with precision and clarity, copy editing will be useful. Whether that usefulness will be recognized, however, is questionable. The 'dead-tree media' — newspapers, magazines, books — are dismissing their copy editors at an alarming rate to cut costs. Electronic media have never invested all that heavily in editors to begin with. These developments have been accompanied by a great deal of asinine rationalization to the effect that writers don’t really require all that much editing.

So, you smart young people who want to get into the paragraph game, who show some ability and enthusiasm for the act of editing, there is an enormous need for your services. The potential inner satisfactions of taking low-grade prose and turning it into something clearer, more forceful, and more precise have never been greater. Unfortunately, you may not be able to land a job, and any job you land is unlikely to lead to prosperity. For you, going into editing will be like following a monastic vocation. God bless you, and don’t forget to write.

We can explain so much these days

You've probably missed Fredorrarci's recent comment on this old post.

In his comment, he links to a post he wrote a few weeks ago. I followed the link and read the post and was richly rewarded. Go thou and do likewise.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Washington Post correction: a purely symbolic gesture

The Washington Post has corrected itself:

A Jan. 19, 2008, Metro article incorrectly described the Korean language as using symbols. It has an alphabet.

It's true that Korean uses a writing system that represents individual phonemes in words.

And certainly the editors at the Post know that an alphabet is a system of symbols. So I figure they're correcting their assumption about what those symbols represent.

Most simply: writing systems can represent the sounds in a word, the meaning of a word, or both. Those that primarily represent sound are phonographic and can be either phonemic or syllabic. Those that primarily represent meaning are morphographic.

If the system represents the sounds, it can represent each identifiable sound in an ideal 1:1 relation with the symbol. So the sound we make when referring to that thing I wear on my head, has three sounds that have an effect on our understanding of the utterance. It starts with a [h] then there's an [æ] and finally a [t]. When I write it out you can see that the symbols I use represent the sounds I would make if saying the word instead of writing it. If I want to spell out the word for the wooden contraption that I hang my hat on, I would add three more symbols to represent the three added sounds. in addition to [hæt] I would add [ɹæk] (Notice that the 1:1 relation between English spelling and sound is notoriously imperfect.)

If I'm going to create a syllabary, I would use only one symbol for the first word [hæt] and two symbols for the second word [hæt.ɹæk]. In a well ordered system, I would go ahead and use the symbol I used for the first word because the syllable is the same. The second syllable would have its own symbol, and here's a telling analysis—there would be no clue that that vowel is the same in both syllables. Even if the syllables were almost identical—imagine I keep my hat on a hatmat—the syllabary would merely represent these as Syllablex and Syllabley. The components of the syllable aren't represented.

Regardless of the semantic intention of the sounds or syllables, these symbolic systems represent the sounds that are uttered. The last syllable of diplomat and the first syllable of Matlock would look the same within a syllabic and an alphabetical system. (Exceptions do exist because of factors outside the writing system. We'll not get into that here.)

A logographic system does not represent the sounds, but represents the meanings of words. A purely semantic representation would ignore the sounds and even the syllables of a word, instead representing either the whole concept with a symbol or symbols in combination. (This fact is of course abused by such ongoing silliness as the crisis/opportunity canard perpetuated by nobel prize winners who should know better than to repeat something that has been sufficiently discredited.)

So let's create our own little logographic system here: The thing on my shoulders (my [hɛd]) might be written out as 'ɑ'. Then I need a word for that saintly glow also known as a halo. So I write @. The symbol for 'halo' has within it the symbol for 'head' but the symbol isn't guiding my pronunciation in any compositional way. It's pure convention that allows me to use the logogram to figure out the sounds that represent the same thing.

If I could access the original story by the Post, I would have a better understanding of the original claim that was made. It's likely that the story did misrepresent the Korean writing system by claiming that it's not a phonetic system. In that case a correction is warranted. But a more precise correction wouldn't imply that the alphabets and syllabaries are not also symbolic systems.

I noticed (as q-pheevr also mentions in the comments) that the correction comes along pretty late. But if you note the other corrections on the Post's page, this one hasn't had the longest wait. The comments on the article mentioned this error as soon as it came out -- that very day. Way to get on that people.]

Friday, April 24, 2009

When writing fades in the wash

And make n't bury that, ascribable the freakish nature of the creation, rectifications of somebody else 's address or composition are more likely to comprise faults themselves and place you upwards for others ' mirth the following clip you do a fault.


The whole post was more of the same. And little by little it seeped into place. I recognized this as another case of "text laundering": covering your plagiarizing tracks by using synonyms.*

Using disturbed instead of crazy is passable. State instead of say is a bit awkward, but trifle instead of bit is an improvement isn't it? Precisely what our English teachers assured us is the more interesting word?

Here's an important point. Listen, all you Roget's wielders who believe a huge vocabulary is impressive: the programs that rely on an exhaustive thesaurus to do this are obviously limited by the fact that they rely only on forms, and syntax isn't used as a clue where it could help to disambiguate the actual use.

So the phrase a couple of weeks is replaced with a couple of hebdomads. That's a fancy schmancy word. Surely the work of a wordsmith. But If I write well, that huge vocabulary doesn't tell you if it's an adverb meaning properly/in a good manner or if it's an adjective meaning in good health or a noun meaning a hole full of water? Language is not an SAT vocab quiz.

Once I'm laughing at these posts I love finding words that are taken away not just from their meanings, or connotations, but out of their lexical categories as well. Such as the analysis of the auxiliary verb have (I have eaten) as a main verb have (I have food). There's really no synonym available for AUX have. But the main verb have can be replaced (more or less successfully) with various words: possess own contain and as the post has chosen, hold. So we get
I inquired why I holded n't seen any new columns…

Hadn't becomes "holded n't"? Of course. The program apparently can't recognize that had followed by a verb is an AUX and not a main verb. That's in the first lecture of the syntax unit! And it has no idea what to do with -n't because it obviously has no heading in the thesaurus.

And this machine is also unable to produce irregular past tense forms such as held instead of holded. It speaks like a toddler.

But by far the most amusing substitutions in this post were the proper names.

We know that a 'john' is a toilet or a 'can', and 'chief' is another word for 'head', and altho 'justness' isn't common, it's a fair substitute for 'justice' if you need it.

But saying Head Justness Can Roberts instead of Chief Justice John Roberts strikes me as non-native speech.

Jan Freeman becomes January Freewoman for some reason. Since when is woman a synonym for man?

And how many of you knew that Murphy is slang for potato? If you ask me, Lynne Spud deserves a better nickname.

* Once I realized what this was going on I remembered this post by Neal Whitman, obviously the source of the original text.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

A gag dish

Okay -- continuing on linguistic stretches just for the sake of an easy post. Errr… the original page is in Russian.

I can't wait to try preparing a version of this meal. It'll at least make for some cool pictures.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

We didn't start the flame war

To connect this to linguistics… um… apparently the writer pronounces <pwn> like 'pone' instead of just like 'own' or 'poon'. I've seen all of them suggested and more.

from the Bambooweb entry

There is no uniform way to pronounce "pwn" as it is most often encountered in text. Possible pronunciations include:

  • (pōn) (rhymes with "moan")
  • (pān) (as "pawn" in chess)
  • (pwǐn) (as "pwin")
  • (pōōn) (rhymes with "soon") This comes from pronouncing the "w" as in Welsh.
  • (pwôn) (rhymes with "on")
  • (pwēn) (rhymes with "queen")
  • (prān) (as prawn)
  • (pēwǐn) (as "pea win")
  • just as "own", ignoring the typo

  • Some of those make little sense to me.

    Friday, April 17, 2009

    On terms and clarity

    The Facebookers are after me. This post arises from the same comment thread that spawned the last post.

    I wrote

    in my opinion the best way to observe grammar is by noting how fluent speakers purposefully form their sentences, not by how some people wish sentences were formed. and if i want to be a good writer -- i'll learn from the example good writers (tho not always from their advice).

    Friend the Second responded:

    Who defines "fluent" and "good writers"? To me, they are the ones who use the language in a consistent manner to convey information in the most clear and concise manner. So the people I consider "fluent", you would probably consider stagnant. For me, the language is a communication tool, not an art medium, as it hampers my work when … communication is not consistent. Perhaps the best "quick example" I can give is with the common names of organisms. Common names are regional, applied haphazardly, and often misused. Just because everyone calls members of the Coccinellidae "ladybugs" does not suddenly place that group of organisms in the Order Hemiptera, which is the group of "bugs", rather it remains a beetle (order Coleoptera), despite misuse by many people considered "good writers", or even "good scientists".

    Fluency is not a measure of aesthetic quality or fluidity. Linguists often use "fluent" to describe speakers who learn a language with native ability and no syntactic, phonological, or semantic/pragmatic limitation beyond that which would be expected of their dialect. It's not about being smooth or melodious. Many stagnant writers are completely fluent. As I use the word. Other terms for this would be first-language or L1 speaker, or speakers with native competence and proficiency.

    Defining good writing is not that important to me in discussing the issue. The argument is of limited interest to me generally. When linguists use examples from writers' works, it's usually in the interest of countering the argument that "masters of the language" won't use singular "their" or split an infinitive or put a preposition at the end of a sentence. It's a simple argument: If you think Shakespeare was a master of the English language, then shouldn't his example be worth considering? If you don't think he's that great, give me your favourite writers. You'll find that they break many of your favourite rules in their work. So who can be trusted to define the language if not the speakers?

    Linguists know better than anyone that language is not a free-form art medium. It's a system. It's bound and constrained by real grammar. Not by an arbitrarily manufactured and promoted set of expectations. The premise of descriptivism is that languages are best studied when they are considered as they are, not as some would argue they should be. It's the difference between observation and imposition. Even if I have favored forms and aesthetic sensibilities, I must admit that language isn't defined by desire, no matter how well I can argue that it would benefit from this or that feature.

    The issue of conventional labeling is a real concern in many situations. It's true that many of the labels used by laypeople don't correspond exactly to the labels used by specialists in various fields. That's a jargon and terminology issue, not really a grammatical one. When I say that use informs grammar, I'm not also saying that the use of one label necessarily controls the category to which that thing belongs. Categories can have fixed definitions, conventionalized by one group, regardless of the labels that are conventionalized by another group for items that might or might not fit in that category.

    People who point and say "Look! A ladybug!" are in no way saying "Look! A member of the Order Hemiptera!" They're using a common word for the insect even tho an entomologist might not use that same word... anymore. But are they pointing at a ladybug? On this one I'm going with the majority rule. Yes. They are. Why is it a ladybug? Because that's what people call it. The common label doesn't need to find the approval of the scientific label. It doesn't even need to take it into account. In some circles a label might be discouraged. But being discouraged in one group does not make it wrong in all others. Come now. Is ladybug really bad grammar? Isn't it the clearest and most concise label the vast majority of the time? That's what establishing a standard of consistency gets us. Speak so they can understand you.

    Appropriately this relates to the question of fluency and grammar and even English and language. As we saw, I was using fluent differently from the way my friend thought I was using it. And that definition was key to a part of my point. The purposefully fluentnative usage of fluent1.native speakers defines langauge, not the purposefully fluentpleasing usage of fluent2.pleasing speakers. I find much of E.E. Cummings' poetry to be wonderfully fluid and ungrammatical at the same time. Grammar has to be defined as well. Many peevologists like to use grammar to mean a style of writing that conforms to a list of chosen and imposed standards regardless of the actual use of native (fluent1) speakers. A standard is chosen and its merit is argued and the reality of actual usage is ignored.

    When they speak of Language they are not thinking of the same system that linguists consider. For peevologists, The English language is a Platonic ideal that exists even if nobody is careful enough to speak it. For linguists the English language is the system, varied and mutable, that must be observed honestly, even when a more efficient and unambiguous system can be imagined. Such a system is much more interesting to me when seen as a field with barely visible borders—at times distant; at times nearby—rather than a vault with sturdy cement walls. We know those vaults exist. And we understand that they are safe. We know that they are fixed. We call them dead and frozen languages.

    On Like

    This post and the next will address challenges to my views that were expressed elsewhere. These topics are familiar to many of you.

    So if we, like, all say, like, a lot of "like"s...then it's somehow correct?

    Alexandra D'Arcy nicely addresses several faulty notions about the word in Like and language ideology: disentangling fact from fiction. The word is not meaningless. There's no proof that women say it more often than men. It wasn't introduced by Valley Girls. D'Arcy then analyses vernacular like as fitting into four categories:

    Quotative Complementizer

    She was like, 'Shut up' and I was like, 'Leave me alone!'

    Approximative Adverb

    It was like a week ago and he hasn't forgotten about it.

    Discourse Marker

    Like I have no idea what their problem is.

    Discourse Particle

    That's like really nice of you!

    (Vernacular like is distinguished from the uses of like that many call the real or acceptable forms.)*

    And while it fits in all sorts of places in the same sentence:

    1. So, like, I told him to shut up immediately.

    2. So, I told him to, like, shut up immediately.

    3. So, I told him to shut up, like, immediately.

    4. does follow some rules. The following sentence doesn't work as easily:

    5. ?So, I told, like, him to shut up immediately.

    But even that one is passable if the intention is a contrastive focus. Imagine that the previous sentence was "He told me to shut up!" In sentence 4, with a stress on him, the like is part of the focus. Pretty handy in written language if you ask me.

    Yes. Like is grammatical. Using it too often can be a distraction. It's not standard in writing or in formal speech, but it's not an incorrect form. Of more concern then is the overuse. Anything that is overused can easily become tiresome and distracting. A friend of mine was recently interviewed on the radio and he said clearly so many times that i started chuckling at each one. But he wasn't speaking incorrectly. He was just using one perfectly good word too often.

    Some would argue that too many likes is evidence of sloppy thinking. There's no evidence of that. Some would argue it's a hedge. A stall. In fact it's often used to propel speech and keep it rhythmic. It has a grammatical function and can signal specific intentions in speech. It can introduce a quote. It can signal an imminent description. It focuses figures.

    Like is not thrown around without rules and without regard for meaning. It serves a function in a sentence. It follows rules and accomplishes something. There's nothing parasitic about it.

    But like, you know, my point is not that, like, a sentence with like, twenty likes is like, the best way that you can like, say something.

    Just that it's a matter of style rather than correctness.

    *D'Arcy provides the following unremarkable examples:
    1. Verb: I don't really like her that much.
    2. Noun: He grew up with the likes … of all great fighters.
    3. Adverb: It looks like a snail.
    4. Conjunction: It felt like everything had dropped away.
    5. Suffix: I went, [mumbling] or something like stroke-like.

    Thursday, April 16, 2009

    Pullum on TotN

    Geoffrey Pullum speaks with Neal Conan on Talk of the Nation about Strunk & White.

    And while I'm probably still too smug in my dismissal of the book, it should be noted that Pullum does not throw it out as completely useless. His essay explains (and in the interview he repeats) that he reserves his disdain for the grammatical claims and analyses in the style-guide. The advice on style, he says, is often fine. Harmless even.

    Don't just say Ah.

    Mxrk sent me a link to a simple but interesting page.

    Two details that jumped out at me:

    It isn't until 79 A's that not a single token shows up. (And that'll change soon because of the page.) But it's surprising that every number from 1-78 is out there. Of course I expect several tokens with 8 A's and a few with 15 A's and a few with 42 A's. Because it makes sense that a bunch of writers decided to just sit on the keyboard and let out a good long 'damn' in response to something craaazy. But every number up to 79? I'm surprised there's no gap earlier than that.

    The drop at two A's and the rise back up at three. I would have expected this if only because of my own intuition that when drawing out a word for effect two A's aren't enough. Doubled letters occur naturally in a lot of words that adhere to conventional orthography. (Is conventional orthography redundant?) So a scream of Eek! A mouse doesn't extend the word at all.

    And let's say that I send a quick note to a friend expressing sudden realization. If I write 'ooh now i see what you meant' that could almost look like 'ooh' with the same vowel as 'ooze'. (In fact I would probably extend the word by adding the H's for that reason.) And altho <aa> isn't as common, it is out there. Aardvark. Saab. Baal.

    But the point of extending the word seems to be that it isn't just a little longer. It's not just a merely lengthened pronunciation. It's a drawn out pronunciation. So while <daamn> does indicate a longer syllable, <daaamn> (to me) indicates a syllable that lasts at least a second and a half. But let's not focus on chronograph arguments here.

    Exaggeration is by its nature obvious. If I want to joke about little 12 pound newborn I'm not going to remark that it must weigh 15 pounds. I'll probably pick a number like 30 or 40 pounds to make it clear that I'm not venturing a guess. 'Cause I want to make it clear that I know I'm giving an incorrect number.

    And I wonder if the same thing comes into play with the two A's. <Daamn> can look like a typo but <daaamn> is intentional. And consider that the drop in doubled-A spelling almost certainly includes several occurrences that are typos. I would bet that there are more typos in that number than there are in the tripled-A examples.

    Monday, April 13, 2009

    Pullum on Strunk & White

    Thousands of gullible students who were always told that their grammatical mastery proved they were smart don't like hearing that their little Paperback Gospel isn't worth the match it would take to burn it.

    So Geoffrey Pullum's recent piece for The Chronicle Review of Higher Education has gotten a good amount of attention. Because he tore Strunk and White a new one. Actually "tore" isn't the right word. His argument and his claim was too fine and careful a critique. Rather, he took a scalpel and dexterously sliced a new one.*

    Some of the gems from "50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice":

    The book's toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity is not underpinned by a proper grounding in English grammar. It is often so misguided that the authors appear not to notice their own egregious flouting of its own rules. They can't help it, because they don't know how to identify what they condemn.

    The book's contempt for its own grammatical dictates seems almost willful, as if the authors were flaunting the fact that the rules don't apply to them. But I don't think they are. Given the evidence that they can't even tell actives from passives, my guess would be that it is sheer ignorance.

    as well as
    It's sad. Several generations of college students learned their grammar from the uninformed bossiness of Strunk and White, and the result is a nation of educated people who know they feel vaguely anxious and insecure whenever they write "however" or "than me" or "was" or "which," but can't tell you why.

    But he saves his sharpest barbs for the gnats who think they can bother him into admitting ignorance and defeat.

  • To the guy who said "my penis could type a better article": your girlfriend told me she doesn't think so.

  • No needless words there.

    *Two new ones?

    Thursday, April 09, 2009

    Going going gone pro

    Think English might be a null-subject language?

    Could be.