Thursday, 22 January 2015
My wife came home the other day and said, “I have a language thing for you.” (This is always an excellent way to get my attention.) Her story: “I noticed that a person I work with says fustrasting for frustrating.” In other words, they leave off that first R in fru-.
That sounded interesting. I tried some web searches, but this proved, um, somewhat frustrating, because search engines overwhelmingly want to auto-correct your fat-fingered entry. (Did you mean...?) But I managed to get some hits, including Urban Dictionary, the Grammarphobia blog, the amusingly named Ottawa Valley to English Dictionary, and some cites on the Wordnik site. I didn’t get a lot of insight, but these hits did tell me that the pronunciation of my wife’s colleague was not an idiosyncrasy and that a fair number of people say (and apparently even write) this.
When you encounter a pronunciation that’s “wrong” but is nonetheless often attested, it’s a good bet that there’s a linguistic basis for the pronunciation. For example, the (in)famous variation ask-aks/ax reflects dialectal variations in English that go back 1200 years. As another example, people often “add letters” when they pronounce words, like mason-a-ry and ath-e-lete. This turns out to be a well-understood phenomenon that goes by the name epenthesis. (Some words that are perfectly standard today, like thunder, reflect historical epenthesis.)
I had a hunch that the fustrating pronunciation had some phonological basis, so I sent a query to a couple of actual linguists. One of them directed me to an entry on the Phonoblog, where I learned that R-less fustrating is an example of the delightfully named liquid dissimilation. (“Liquid” here is used here to refer to the “liquid” consonants: in English, R and L.) The exact mechanism isn’t nailed down, but Nancy Hall, the blog post author, mentions another linguist’s observation that the dropped R is in words that have another R in them next to a schwa sound, and a theory is that, to put it generally, the existence of one of the R’s is causing speakers to drop the other.
What made this vivid for me, and not just a weird thing that people with some other dialect do, was to see the long list of words in which this can occur. It’s very easy for me to hear, including possibly from myself, the dropped Rs in words like these:
As Hall points out, this can also occur with L—her specific example is Pache[l]bel’s Canon; there’s even a lovely example of this on Amazon.
- prost[r]ate (not to be confused with prostate [cancer])
- … and many more. (See the blog entry for her list.)
This is just another example of one of the wonderful things about learning linguistics—you go from “Why do people say this wrong?” to just “Why do people say this?” And the latter is actually a much more interesting question.
Tuesday, 20 January 2015
Apropos of the most recent post, I was using my phone to access the Dictionary.com site and found the following. I don't see this on the web-based site.
Monday, 19 January 2015
I haven't put a lot of thought into this yet, so this is a, you know, thought in process. Consider the following utterances:
I saw it on my Facebook.
I've posted a blog about that.
I read this great Tumblr ...
There's a Wikipedia about it.
I think it's clear that these are synecdoches of one sort or another, but there is some subtlety to their usage.
Let's start with Facebook. Many times I've heard people refer to my Facebook:
A guy on my facebook just proposed ... [source
An Open Letter To The Women On My Facebook Whose Husbands are Policemen [source
What you might expect here is something like my Facebook wall or feed or page or timeline. But there are other usages where people might be eliding account.
So by logging into my Spotify, my Facebook was reactivated without my knowledge.I've heard this own usage ("my facebook") from my own kids (mid-20s).
I still haven't logged on to my Facebook [source]
Since I’ve had a Facebook, I think I got one in 2007, that’s a total of 1,274 hours, or 53 DAYS. [source]
I've had my Facebook since third grade. [source]
Comment (on FB): My Facebook is basically all about life's small dramas.
Next comment: Everyone's facebook is.
It's not hard at all to find instances of people using blog to mean something like blog entry:
I posted a blog today [source]I like the second example because the writer uses uses blog in a meronymic way, but doesn't do the same for MySpace. It wouldn't be unreasonable to expect to see I have a MySpace here, but we don't.
I have a MYSPACE account where I posted a blog [source]
Update: I found an example of this in a surprising place, namely on the mobile page for Dictionary.com.Tumblr
Probably the most common example of a synecdoche that I hear these days is my Tumblr, representing (mostly) my Tumblr blog:
just added a music playlist on my tumblr :D
Finally! I added music to my tumblr.
I was actually inspired to post this because I overheard someone at work say There's a Wikipedia about that. It was the first time that I recalled hearing an example of this elision with Wikipedia specifically.
So, more another time when I've thought about this further and have more examples. And btw, I go back and forth on whether these are examples of synecdoche or whether it's some other phenomenon besides simple elision.
Monday, 12 January 2015
This is an update to an earlier post, People who work at "___" call themselves "___". At the time I wrote that piece, I worked at Microsoft, which is to say, I was a Microsoftie. In the interim, I spent a couple of years as an Amazonian. Late last year I joined a new company—Tableau Software. Naturally, one of the first things I wanted to learn about is what people inside the company called themselves.
It turns out that people in the company have given this some thought. So much so, in fact, that there are factions. One of the senior executives is fond of the term Tablets. But the rank and file seem to be converging around the term Tabloids.
Update I had a discussion in Facebook about this and got two excellent suggestions: Tablafarians and vizards. The latter probably requires some explanation. Tableau software is used to make data visualizations, which the in-crowd refers to as vizzes (singular: viz). Thus viz-ards. Brilliant.
Nancy Friedman reminds me that a while back she investigated
the surprising etymology of the term tabloid
When I look through the list I have of other such names, I'm seeing just one other -oid ending (Proctoids), which surprises me. For reasons I cannot articulate, it feels like it should be a more commonly used particle. I still have not delved into this (future project perhaps), but there are presumably phonological, perhaps morphological, reasons why the names emerge as they do. Why not more -oids?
And then there is still the question of a name for this name. In the earlier post, I noted that folks had suggested corporanym, employeenym, idionym, and the somewhat esoteric ergazomenonym. A while back, I also challenged the readers of VisualThesaurus.com to come up with a term, and they variously suggested ergonym (work+name), salarionym, and emponym or employnym.
Well, just today I ran across an existing term, maybe two, that might fit the bill, altho these might require a little squinting: endonym (within+name) and autonym (self+name). Endonym is surprisingly obscure: the OED has no entry, nor does Dictionary.com, nor does Merriam-Webster.com. But Wikipedia does, in an article that discusses both endoym and exonym. These are (per the article) terms from ethnolinguistics:
... exonyms and endonyms are the names of ethnic groups and where they live, as identified respectively by outsiders and by the group itself. Endonym or autonym is the name given by an ethnic group to its own geographical entity (toponymy), or the name an ethnic group calls itself, often laudatory or self-aggrandizing. Exonym or xenonym is the name given to an ethnic group or to a geographical entity by another ethnic group.I don't think a term like Microsoftie or Tabloid could be considered particularly "laudatory or self-aggrandizing." Nor would one necessarily want to suggest that company employees constitute an ethnic group, in spite of much talk (especially recently) about (corporate) culture. But such names definitely are endo- and auto-. So I'll try out endoym for a while and see how that goes.
Monday, 24 November 2014
We English speakers can occasionally have some hiccups sorting out the singular or plural nature of nouns, especially when the nouns
represents represent a collection of individuals.
Basically speaking, in American English, a mass noun tends to be treated as a singular:
Apple has announced a new version of the iPhone.
Microsoft releases a new update every week.
In British English, these tend to be treated as plural:
Apple have announced a new version of the iPhone.
Microsoft release a new update every week.
Not long ago, an FB friend of mine was posting about an upcoming tour by the rock band The Who. He wrote:
The Who is (are?) coming.
Following the general rule, this is The Who is coming in American English, and The Who are coming in British English.
But consider mass nouns of this type when the noun itself is marked for plural:
The Rolling Stones are
going on tour.[1
Not even Americans will treat this as singular.
I ran across another angle on this issue today when I saw a headline about Marshawn Lynch, who plays football for the Seattle Seahawks. Behold:
As with sports teams generally, the name is plural. And as with the Rolling Stones, even in American English, we'll treat this name—which is trademarked—as plural, since it's marked that way: The Seahawks have won the game.
But the writer here got in a bind: if the Seahawks are a team, and even if we think of them as a (plural) collection of individual, how do you refer to any one member?
I suspect that in informal settings, people will mostly use the singular: Marshawn Lynch will be a Seahawk. Perhaps an overly attentive editor got concerned about using a trademarked name incorrectly. But the result in this case comes out sounding very odd.
Wednesday, 5 November 2014
I was reading some employee policy documents recently when I ran across this:
It is still preferred that complaints are handled internally.There are some interesting things here to contemplate. Let's start with It is [still] preferred that.... A more active way to phrase this is We still prefer that .... The construct that starts with It is is not technically passive—there's no subject-object inversion (as in "The man was bitten by the dog.") But the it is used in an impersonal way here, which has a passive feel, and it seems clear (<-- haha) that whoever wrote this was intent on not stating who was doing the preferring.
Then there's ... complaints are handled internally. This actually looks like a real passive ([someone] handles complaints becomes complaints are handled.) Again it seems that there's an intent to avoid stating a subject for handle.
But an odder thing is that complaints are is an example that might be cited when people talk about how the subjunctive is disappearing in English. Many people would rewrite the sentence as ... preferred that the complaints be handled internally, which is a fine use of subjunctive ("be") to indicate a statement that represents "opinion, belief, purpose, intention, or desire." Consider:
They insist that he is there.
They insist that he be there.
The sentences mean different things, and the latter uses be to mark a subjunctive that indicates the aforementioned intention, desire, etc.
Gabe Doyle has a writeup on the what's invariably referred to as the "death" of the subjunctive, and one of his examples (3a and 3b) shows the same conflation between subjunctive be and indicative is.
Anyway, it's a lot of grammatical food for thought in one sentence, don't you think?
Thursday, 25 September 2014
I’m not sure whether this is an eggcorn or just a homonym mistake whose tense logic amused me. I was reading an article and ran across the following (picture here in case they edit the text later):
(The text of interest says “the diatribe was entirely representative of the reality, which is bared out not only by the aforementioned Pew poll, but another Pew poll”)
The author intended to bear out, meaning to “substantiate, confirm” (see definition 30). One reason to suspect that this is an eggcorn is that, as with eggcorns generally, the word substitution sort of makes sense: to bare out could mean, perhaps with a little squinting, something along the lines of “to make bare,” hence perhaps to make obvious.
And as I say, I liked the logic of the past tense. The past of bear out is born out or borne out. Thus this sentence was intended to read “… which is born(e) out not only by …”. But if you substitute bare, you’ve got a regular verb in terms of past tense, so it is inevitably bared out.
Eggcorns are interesting because they offer a tiny peek into how speakers parse and interpret things they hear. (And they are primarily based in sound, not reading.) Chris Waigl maintains a great database of eggcorns that’s fascinating to browse through for just this reason.
You don’t find eggcorns—or whatever this mistake is—in formal articles, not nearly as often as you do in blog posts or other unedited material. So this is, I think, a real find. :-)
Friday, 19 September 2014
One of the delights of my job has always been the chance to work with people from all over, and I mean, like, from all over the globe. A nice side effect is that people bring their unique brands of English with them, affording endless opportunities to listen to, read, and think about the vast dialectal variations in our language.
One of our developers has the task of sending out a biweekly email with tips and tricks about using our tools. He happens to be from Sri Lanka, so his English is primarily informed by British usage, and the subject line of his email read “Tip of the Fortnight.” Apparently having second thoughts after the email went out, he popped into my office and asked “Will people understand the term fortnight?”
I think it’s safe to say that literate Americans understand fortnight just fine. But it’s not a term that many Americans produce, I think. I lived in England for a couple of years, and I got very used to expressions like a fortnight’s holiday, but even with this exposure, the term never entered my active vocabulary.
His question, tho, sent me on a bit of a quest to try to determine what the, you know, isogloss is for fortnight. Right across the hall from me is a Canadian, so I asked him. Nope, he said, they don’t use it. My wife has cousins in Australia, so I sent a query off to one of them. Oh, yes, they use it all the time, she said. In fact, she asked, what do you say in the States when you're referring to something on a two-weekly basis? Good question, which underscored why fortnight is such a handy word. I mean, really: how do you phrase "Tip of the Fortnight" in American English?
The word has a long history—according to the OED, it goes back to Old English (first cite 1000), and if I read their note right, Tacitus referred to a Germanic way of reckoning time by nights. (Interestingly, the most recent cite in the OED is for 1879, not that they really needed a cite more recent than that for a term that is in everyday use in Britain.)
I looked in a couple of dictionaries, but neither of them indicated anything along the lines of “chiefly Br.”, as they occasionally will with a regional term. The two usage guides I have handy, Garner and the MWDEU, are both silent on the term. (I slightly expected Garner to comment on the term’s use in, say, legal writing, but nope.)
But I’ll stick to my now-anecdotally based theory that fortnight is just not used much in North American English. Still, I don’t think my colleague had much to worry about regarding the subject line of his email. As I say, I’m pretty sure that my American and Canadian colleagues recognize the term. And of course, many others come from places where it’s a perfectly normal word, and like the cousin, they might wonder why we don't adopt such an obviously useful term.
Saturday, 6 September 2014
Let's start with bump. Among its definitions is "raise" or "rise," along these lines:There is some subtlety here to the definition; there's connotation of a non-linear increase, as a bump might appear on a graph.
Anyway, by this definition, if something increases in speed, that would be a … speed bump, right? That's how the author of an article in Ars Technica intended it:
The Web is going to get faster in the very near future. And sadly, this is rare enough to be news.Except ... not. A speed bump performs precisely the opposite: it's a device designed specifically to reduce speed. (On a recent trip to Costa Rica, we learned that a speed bump there is referred to as a reductor de velocidad, an admirably straightforward term.)
The speed bump won't be because our devices are getting faster, but they are. It won't be because some giant company created something great, though they probably have. […]
Obviously, if you back up and read the sentence again, you get the intent. And perhaps the term speed bump in its traffic-calming sense isn't known as widely as I imagine, and therefore would not cause many people to, um, slow down. But a simple edit—e.g., "The bump in speed"—would have fixed this small ambiguity.
It never hurts to have someone else read through your text. You never know when their slightly different understanding of the world will send them off in the wrong direction based on what you've written.
And now, back to actually reading the article, which is actually quite fascinating.
Tuesday, 2 September 2014
One kind of writing error (I am tempted to put that into quotation marks) that editors catch is the so-called dangling modifier. In this construction, a modifying phrase appears, on close inspection, to have no antecedent. Here's an example:
Walking up the driveway, the flowers looked beautiful.The dangling aspect is this: who is it that's walking up the driveway? IOW, what does "Walking up the driveway" actually modify? It sure isn't the flowers.
Once you're attuned to dangling modifiers, you'll find them everywhere. For example, I hear them in radio ads all the time. Not long ago, I found this example on a poster in our bus station that was advertising Montana tourism:
(In case you can't read it, it says "As a kid the Mission Mountains were my backyard.")
And that's just the thing: dangling modifiers are quite common. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage has a whole slew of examples that go back to the 17th century. Under most circumstances, listeners or readers seem to have no trouble mentally filling in the missing antecedent from context. Indeed, MWDEU observes that "... they may hardly be noticeable except to the practicing rhetorician or usage expert." That's certainly been my experience as an editor—I've not only had to point our dangling modifiers to writers, but I've often had to go through the exercise of explaining why they're (nominally) wrong, as I've done here.
But sometimes opening modifiers do sow confusion. I was reading a movie review by David Denby in The New Yorker today and was taken aback by a dangler. The movie concerns two men (Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon) who are touring around Italy in a car. Here's the sentence that struck me:
Ogling the scenery in "The Trip to Italy," you wonder if the men's small car—a Mini Cooper—will drive off the edge of a cliff, or if, when they board a yacht in the Golfo dei Poeti, someone will fall overboard and drown.Who exactly is doing the ogling here? The nearest noun (well, pronoun) is "you." Am I doing the ogling? The next available noun is "the men's car," which is not likely to be ogling. Is it maybe "the men" (only making a brief appearance in the genitive) or maybe just "they" (which does appear as a subject in one of the clauses) who are ogling?
Perhaps I'm making too much of this, and Denby really does mean me-the-viewer. But the whole sentence—or the opening modifier, anyway—threw me enough that I had to stop and think about it for a considerable time. And another editorial rule suggests that if your readers have to stop and think, the sentence isn't working.