Thursday, 14 July 2016

Congratulations on being an alumni?

My final-year students are graduating today. They'll be graduands for the duration of the morning and afternoon, and by around 3.30pm they'll be graduates. I enjoy this use of Latin morphology: the -and ending comes from the Latin gerund and gerundives, which end in -andum or -andus/-anda/-andum respectively.

The gerund is a noun derived from a verb, so in English it would be something like Graduating is a reason to celebrate. The gerundive is an adjective, and it's translated as something like 'to be graduated' (or 'fit to be graduated' or 'ought to be graduated'). It's this gerundive sense that we use in English: they are the students who are (fit) to be graduated. (Notice that we're using an adjective to refer to a thing, as in 'the French'.)

It appears that we've knocked off the gender agreement ending (-us, -a, or -um) and this helps us out in English so that we don't have to worry about whether it's a male or female graduand. Incidentally, when we borrowed this word into English I'm pretty sure they'd have all been chaps so I don't think this was gender equality at work.

When the graduands morph into graduates, they also become alumni, another Latin word. It's plural, in that form, and pedants will have know that the singular is alumnus or alumna, depending on whether you're male or female. Again, this is a bit annoying for English speakers who don't really bother that much with gender other than pronouns, and even there we're not fully signed up to a gendered system (we make no distinction other than for singular humans that aren't me or you (he and she, in other words), and singular they is also available if we can't be bothered even with that).

Normal procedure when removing gender distinction is to go with the male for everyone: actors and actresses become actors, lady doctors become doctors, and so on. With alumni, we're taking to using the plural form for everyone. You're an alumni once you graduate. This ever so slightly grates on me but I am a good linguist and a descriptivist and do not go around correcting people. I don't know why we use the plural. We're familiar with this in words like cactus/cacti so we might have used alumnus as the singular; we just didn't. Perhaps it's because we use alumni in the plural way more often than the singular and, as it's not that common a word, that's the one that stuck.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Who are men?

News changes quickly at the moment and this article from last Friday is already well out of date. However, it contains an interesting turn of phrase.

It's about having a female Prime Minister, and being female in politics. It says this:
Even now women who choose politics have to decide how to define themselves in the context of gender in a way that would seem bizarre for men (although familiar enough to politicians from black and minority ethnic backgrounds). 
If I'm being generous, I'll say that it's contrasting women with men, and white people with people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, and these two groups cross-cut each other (you can be both or neither).

If I'm not being generous, I'd say that 'men' here refers to 'white men', given that otherwise there's a weird contrast in that 'men' would find this situation bizarre but 'politicians from black and minority ethnic backgrounds', who are likely to be men, wouldn't.

OK, intersectionality is hard, and we haven't mentioned the fact that plenty of other sorts of people would recognise this disparity, but it is possible to avoid clumsiness like this.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Can you not?

I've written before about negation and the difference in meaning when it takes different scope. The other day, a friend in the pub said this, directed at a football 'pundit' on telly:
You're 60, can you not wear a suit and trainers? 
By this, he meant
Because you're 60 [and should know better/are too old], please don't wear a suit and trainers. 
It can have another meaning, though, and one that I think is much more accessible, or perhaps only available, in certain dialects:
You're 60, so is it impossible for you to wear a suit and trainers?
For me, both those readings work fine for the sentence and the intonation is pretty much the same in each case. The difference is once again a matter of how 'high' the negation is in the sentence:
Is it the case that
you can
[not wear a suit and trainers]?
vs
Is it not the case that
you can
[wear a suit and trainers]?
For more on this, a very easy to read article (old now, but still good) is Bob Ladd's 1981 paper.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

English Grammar Day

I seem to do nothing but livetweet linguistics events these days. Here's the tweeting from the English Grammar Day at the British Library yesterday, organised by UCL.

Monday, 27 June 2016

ELL research day 2016

We held our annual department research day on Thursday, and I storified the livetweeting (as usual, mostly from me and Christina):

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Lies and lying by implication

The UK voted (by a narrow majority) to leave the EU this week. I am furious about this and terrified about what it says about us as a country and what it means for our future, both as a country and for me personally. Nevertheless, life goes on, so here's an EU referendum-themed blog post on lies and lying by implicature (meaning beyond what is said).

A lot of the debate raged around the figure of £350million, which was claimed by the Leave campaign to be the weekly amount the UK spends on the EU. This figure is itself not actually accurate, and it was quoted even more inaccurately (I heard it mentioned as the daily amount, for instance), but the main deception here was the idea that this £350million a week would be spent on the NHS if we voted to leave the EU. Immediately after the result was announced, Nigel Farage said that this promise would not be kept and that if you voted for Leave on that basis it was 'a mistake'. This was no surprise to those of us who knew that there was no £350million a week, or to people like me who assume that Farage is lying every time he says anything, but a large proportion of the 17million Leave voters did apparently believe this promise from a politician with no ability to enact anything.

After the result and subsequent backtracking, people said things like 'no one ever promised that £350million would be spent on the NHS'. Other people responded like this:

This makes that point that they did indeed say that they would do exactly this. Here, it's absolutely impossible for it to be read any other way:


Pronouns are notoriously slippery little buggers and their meaning is entirely context dependent. They refer back to something in the discourse, and what that referent is depends partly on some syntactic constraints but mostly on whatever is the most recent possible referent. Here, it's more or less impossible to interpret 'it' as referring to anything other than the £350million:


(It could do, if that ellipsis included some other referent. Imagine: 'Every week we send £350m to Brussels. I only get £5 pocket money per week, but I would spend it on the NHS.')

Here, the Leavers have some wriggle room: nowhere do they actually state they'll spend the £350m on the NHS:

They merely make the point that we spend £350million on the EU, and that we should spend some unspecified amount on the NHS instead. If we put an extra fiver into the NHS, that would technically be fulfilling this. Not only that, they don't even promise to do it (which they can't anyway): they say Let's, which is a suggestion (a 'hortative'). A hortative has no truth conditions, which means it can't be true or false, and it certainly isn't equivalent in truth conditions to 'We will spend £350million a week on the NHS'.

However, this is a sticky legalese way of getting out of it. If you write two sentences on the side of your battle bus (actually, they're one sentence, but an ungrammatical one - they need some punctuation in there), it's entirely reasonable for people to assume that they're related. It would be disingenuous and misleading to say that the 'fund' in the second clause does not have any relation to the '£350million' in the first, and I would consider that lying by implicature.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Warning: extra care has been taken

Asda's smoked salmon trimmings have this warning on the packet:
Warning: Extra care has been taken to remove bones, although some may remain. 
If you scroll down a bit at the link, you can see it there. For most of the time it took me to make smoked salmon crostini this morning, I was trying to work out why I didn't like this phrasing. Eventually, I worked it out, and I think it's a real-life example of the misunderstanding that conjunctions and subordination work in different ways that I'm constantly correcting in my students' work.

Our online marking software allows you to create comments that you can use whenever you need them. Here's the one I created for this:
Whereas: introduces a subordinate clause (usually before the main clause). It is not followed by a comma, but the clause it introduces is. It therefore looks like this, where X and Y are complete sentences:
1. Whereas X, Y.
2. X, whereas Y.
And it does not look like this:
3. X. Whereas Y.
Although: works exactly like 'whereas'.
However: Unlike 'whereas' or 'although', when followed by a comma, it can introduce a sentence. Also unlike them, it cannot join two sentences unless you also use a semi-colon. If you're trying to do this with 'however', you probably want 'but'.
It looks like this:
1. X. However, Y.
2. X; however, Y. [but I would recommend 'X but Y' instead]
It does NOT look like this:
3. X, however Y.
4. X however, Y.
Therefore: works exactly like 'however'.
The substitution of however for but is the one that annoys me the most: it's pure 'big word syndrome', and sounds clunky.

Back to the salmon, they've used although when but would have been better. That would have given them the precise meaning they wanted to convey, namely that even though they've been totally diligent, there might even so be some bones in the salmon. That would work because but coordinates two clauses, so neither clause 1 (extra care has been taken to remove bones) nor clause 2 (some may remain) has more importance than the other and the whole of clause 1 and clause 2 together is interpreted as the warning.

The problem with although here is that it subordinates the clause that it introduces. In their formulation that's clause 2 (some may remain). This clause, because it's subordinated, can't be the main bit of that sentence and therefore can't be the warning. Only the main clause can be the warning, and the main clause is the one that's not subordinated, namely extra care has been taken to remove bones. They're warning me that they've taken extra care to remove bones, and as some extra information they note that some may remain. That's not right! If they really wanted to use although, they could have: they just need to make the warning be the main clause and although subordinate the real extra information (their claim of diligence):
[Although extra care has been taken to remove bones,] some may remain.