Monday, May 25, 2009

A Free Dictionary

Grant Barrett's book The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English has been bootlegged. And so he's playing along and providing a link to a free PDF since the copyright is his.

Well, not just playing along. He writes:

But the main point here is that I'd like to draw people to my site for the free download, not to some shady place on the Internet.

Head on over.
No fees, registrations, logins, passwords, ad-clicking, or hoop-jumping required.

It's realistic and sensible.

Friday, May 15, 2009

New slang spawned from phish

It's new to me at least: whaling

(from Steve Jobs' Amazon account hacked?)

If the rumor is true, Jobs would be the latest victim in a string of "whaling" attacks aimed at corporate executives, legal firms, government agencies and other high-value targets. iDefence has reported over 15,000 victims in the past 15 months, saying the hackers would target bank account information to net "millions of dollars."

I like how intuitive it is.

And of course Grant Barrett has already got it in his net.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Awkward of the day

Head over to Ross Horsley's My First Dictionary. He has done some fine work there. Very Edward Goreyish.

So in that spirit— a tribute to Mr Gorey. My favourite letter of his alphabet was N.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Summer Reading

This summer will probably be about as busy as the semester. But it's a fine time to reorganize the table top and move books up in the queue.

I received a copy of Michael Adams' Slang: The People's Poetry. Looking at the chapter and section headings, my expectations are high. I'll get back to you on it.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Third's not always a charm

News stories about simple homicide and acts of violence typically don't interest me. Maybe if the story looks culturally significant. Or if there's a dash of cannibalism in there. But throw a little ambiguity into a headline or lede and I'll sink my teeth into it.

Ambiguity is always tasty. When I saw the following headline one meaning pushed it's way to the front:

Drew Peterson indicted in 3rd wife's death

The easiest reading for me is that he was married three times and he killed his third wife, not the first two. But other readings are possible. Even if unlikely.

To interpret the phrase we have to assign a quality that the ordering term refers to. In the headline above, we have very little information for 3rd to refer to.

David Beaver has recently written a post on a similar ambiguity with the phrase first American. There he suggests the simple reading:
In general, "the first X" means "the example of an X that was first to achieve Y". In simple cases, Y is just reaching a state in which the description X is appropriate.

So the 3rd wife is the example of a wife that was the 3rd to achieve 'being his wife.' And that's how I come to my first interpretation.

To get other interpretations we open up the scope of the ordering. In this case, every different answer to 3rd to do/be/experience what? gives us another understanding. And as Beaver suggests, the possibilities are endless. In a sentence like he killed his third victim we assume that the first two victims were also killed, even tho the sentence doesn't require that reading. He could have maimed the first two. Victims don't always die. But we make a short jump, giving third N the meaning of an individual who was the third to have received the action of the deed we are claiming he committed. This is the same jump that would lead us to read the headline as if this was his 3rd wife to die.

It's also possible to interpret 3rd wife as the third person to be a wife, not necessarily Peterson's wife. An absolute scope of ordering would require that we find the 3rd human being to ever be a wife. This isn't likely. I don't think Peterson was indicted of killing the mother of Irad.

But it would be reasonable to assign thirdness to a list of wives that Peterson has been indicted for killing. This could even survive the inclusion of a possessive pronoun, his, if we understand it the same way one might say I saw my third Sasquatch last week. I don't have any Sasquatches. The possessive is more about the sighting than the object of the sighting. If Peterson is indicted for killing his third wife, it could be his third indictment, but not wife.

There's also the possibility that three wives have died, but only the third one that looks like his work. The scope of ordering could be absolute—only three wives ever have died—or more likely, relative. The story would then probably tell us what the 3 deaths had in common that justifies a grouping.

We've been focusing on the structure, [[3rd wife]'s death]. And I could go on and on, trying to tackle [3rd [wife's death]] as another possible, and rather awkward, structure.

But after having just finished a season of Dexter earlier tonight, I think I could stand to cleanse my palate of the macabre. Leno's on. That doesn't help.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Its dem dadbrn fonez

The grad students were reeling and stumbling looking for some way to keep moaning about how horrible the schools have gotten and how their cruel English teacher with the leather mask and gag-ball was the best thing that ever happened to them and that's what schools should be again in order for students to be able to write.

A professor here at Purdue (one that Buffy holds in the highest regard, calling him a sharp reader, and a very diligent stylist) had mentioned to a group of his graduate students that every year he samples submitted undergraduate papers and he quantifies the quality of the work on mechanics and style. Before he had revealed what he has found, all the grad students at the table closed their eyes and nodded dejectedly, jumping in with some form of the seemingly obvious observation: It's just gotten worse and worse. They weren't asking. Not even guessing. Everyone was sure. Students are worse. The professor shook his head. 'No. It's never really changed. It goes up and down. The lowest point was actually about 15 years ago.' That relative stability is what we would expect.

It takes numbers to convince some people. When you're lucky.

Ben Zimmer was on Charlotte Talks with Mike Collins Monday morning, talking about language change in the electronic age. Fellow guests on the show were Cynthia Lewis, Professor of English at Davidson College, and Pam Kelley, reporter at the Charlotte Observer. When Zimmer's phone connection was cut, in the middle of the interview, I actually wondered if he had just decided bail, and let the party spin its mad little tales without him. I wouldn't have blamed him.

In his intro to the hour, Collins mixes in a bit of the should-we-be-worried? panic with a dash of the but-language-has-always-changed sobriety. He leans towards worry, but as the hour goes on he sounds willing to learn. Right as things get started he questions Strunk & White's proscription regarding less, calling it a silly rule. But he rolls over too easily when Kelley and Lewis stand firm insisting that it's just plain wrong. They choose to believe that less doesn't go with countable quantities. Ignoring the fact that— it does. And they both agree that they themselves use it with countable quantities. And neither can come up with a good reason that it shouldn't be used that way other than a capricious and unnecessary rule that does absolutely nothing to improve writing or speaking. It's a rule for the sake of a rule.

Here's a bit from later in the show right after Zimmer was introduced. He comments on the supposed worsening of literacy:

Zimmer: Studies that have been done on the effects of text messaging, for instance, among students [inaudible] have shown that in fact it has not led to a decline in the ability to spell or a decline in literacy rates. In fact it may very well have the opposite effect. There's been some work done in the United Kingdom where text messaging has kind of taken off 5 years before it took off in the US. And according to those studies, in fact texting may have a positive [effect] on student literacy because they're being exposed to so much more reading and writing just through the act of texting.

Collins: Cynthia Lewis? Are you certain he's right about that? You're the college professor.

Lewis: Well I can't say for sure why, but I do know that spelling ability has declined considerably in the 29 years I've been teaching undergraduates.

Collins: Why do you suppose that is? It can't just be spell check— depending on spell check.

Lewis: Well I think students don't read as much as they used to. And they are exposed to—you know, as Ben was saying—a variety of texts some of which are much less accurate than others.

These claims about declines in literacy and writing skill are so easily thrown around as if they represent attested measurements. The professor I mentioned earlier has probably chosen several standards and marks of writing quality that I wouldn't choose. But a few of the things he mentioned were the familiar crumbling pillars. From his work with Buffy I know that he also pays attention to substantial and fundamental matters of organization, clarity, development and style. If he says a word doesn't work, it probably doesn't. The important point in all of this is that his quantification has shown overall stability. And recent improvement.

In the exchange above, Zimmer mentions research that has produced similar results, (he later specifically mentions David Crystal's book on the topic) and offers a simple, believable suggestion, based on the numbers. No. It's not proof. And the study shows a correlation, not cause and effect.* But it's certainly a more convincing argument than anecdotal evidence. And even a correlation problematizes the claim that texting is harmful.

Lewis responds by holding even tighter to her observation. And what of the suggestion that all reading helps develop literacy? She turns it around and suggests that spelling is simply declining, and it must be due the small and sloppy portions of reading that kids are doing. What's her evidence? How does she know they're not reading? Not reading what? What does she mean by worse spelling? Is it there/their/they're confusion? Does she regard that the same as there/thare confusion? Those/doze? Has the writing gone down only since the online boom? Are the students at Davidson the only ones that are getting confused by all these less accurate texts? I don't doubt that she believes the trend exists. And I'm absolutely sure that she can mention a student's paper in the last few years that was horrible horrible. Most Horrible. But that's not much of a case against the state of literacy today. Nor does it make the more specific case for texting as the cause of spelling woes amongst these digital whippersnappers.

Lewis' assurance that the best writers have never been better at her school is probably true at every school in the country. And there might even be some truth to her claim that there's more mediocre (or even bad) writing coming across her desk than there used to be.

But let's separate slight changes in higher education from changes in society. The make-up of the student population has changed. The percentage of males aged 18-24 enrolled in school was pretty much unchanged from 1965 to 1984. In 1965, 38% of females aged 18-19 were enrolled. In 1984 that number rose to 48%. For females aged 20-21 the number rose from 19.5% to 31.7%. And from 22-24 years of age it rose from 6.5% to 14.6%. The weighting of several groups has shifted, as has enrollment in types of programs. How many students are in the classroom that would never have made it past high school years ago? How many students with strengths in specific areas are now given the chance to attend university because of skills other than composition? And how many of those students would have dropped out of high school in the system of 50 years ago, and would have chosen training from a more limited set of options? These are important variables.

But I'm most curious about Lewis' analysis of spelling ability. Is it in fact increased inability that she laments? Or is it increased apathy? Perhaps even increased antagonism. Rogues and rebels armed with wanton pens.

It's unfortunate that with this attitude critics are often unwilling to even see much value in texting conventions as creative problem-solving. When one caller suggests that the limitations imposed by the technology require pragmatic editing, and whittling in combination with time saving techniques, one of the studio guests simply responds That's why I don't text. I just pick up the phone and call. I guess that's one way to avoid bad spelling.

* I'm assuming that Zimmer is speaking of Plester, Wood and Joshi "Exploring the relationship between children's knowledge of text message abbreviations and school literacy outcomes." British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 27 (1), 145-161. But that's just a guess.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Baltimore's son

Mr McIntyre has moved You Don't Say to his new writing pad, and his new blog is up. Funny, I always figured him for more of a Minima than a Scribe. (Blogspotters should know what that means.)

It seems he's been waiting a while to stretch out and put his feet up on the table.

As the observant may have noticed&hellip, now that I am free of the shackles of Associated Press style, I am reverting to the Oxford comma.