Friday, 4 September 2015

Steven Pinker at the Royal Institution

I went to a talk by Steven Pinker to promote his book, The Sense of Style. It was held at the Royal Institution, which is a science institution and this book is probably the least scientific thing Pinker has ever written, but still. I went along because although I'm now enough of a linguist to know that Steven Pinker is not some kind of god, his book The Language Instinct is still indirectly the reason I'm now a linguist (I read it aged 15 or so and found it fascinating, and that was my first introduction to linguistics). I took my copy along to sign and he very graciously did so despite me not buying a copy of the one he was plugging.

The talk itself will be available to watch on the Ri channel so I needn't summarise it too thoroughly. Pinker was a very entertaining speaker, with lots of jokes that most of the audience didn't seem to have heard before (I had heard them but still laughed because he tells them well). He began with the standard 'everyone has always said language is degenerating' bit, and the 'look how silly most style advice is'. So far, so expected. But the interesting part was when he got onto his own advice.

Digression: style guides serve one useful purpose, which is to ensure consistency within a particular publication. So the Guardian, for example, has a style guide, and it means that the writing of many different people published in the Guardian follows the same rules (usually). It's a slightly different style from the New York Times, but that too is internally consistent. Everyone knows the rules are arbitrary to some extent (else they'd all be the same), but the important thing is to follow the ones for whoever you're writing for. Therefore, style guides that lay out pernickety rules as if they're gospel are never going to be useful. They just cater for nervous writers who think there is a right way to do things that they need to know. People who think they need style guides really just need to read more and to have more confidence in their command of language, not to be told they're doing it wrong.

So this was why I thought it was odd that Pinker had done a style guide at all: what makes him think that his advice is any more likely to stand the test of time than Strunk and White's, now hopelessly outdated? While he did have some arbitrary peeves (he seems not to like the intensifier use of literally, for example, which is currently 'wrong' but very common and no doubt on its way to being unremarkable), his main focus was on the big picture. This is unusual in style guide land and, I would guess, more along the lines of what you'd get if you took a writing course (I've never taken one so I don't know, but I'm assuming they don't teach you not to split infinitives). But developing a good, readable, accessible style is of course much more what 'style guides' should help with, rather than minor grammar issues.

He promised that there would be insights from cognitive science and linguistics. I'm not sure how much there was from linguistics in the talk (perhaps there was, and I missed it as it's too familiar to me?) but his main point was that a good writer uses 'classic prose' style. I'd never heard this term before, but having now googled it a little bit, it seems that it's related to something called 'plain style'. I'm not totally clear on what each is - either classic style is a fancier version of plain style, or else it's plain style with some sophisticated thought. Either way, classic style apparently has clarity as its main aim. This is obviously a very good aim. Pinker criticised 'academese' among others as being very verbose and not at all clear, and much of it is, but I always aim for simplicity and clarity and encourage simplicity for the sake of clarity in my students' work. The focus is on the thing being shown and guiding the reader with not too much hedging, narrating a story.

The cognitive science part came when he compared this to the idea of knowing what someone else knows (theory of mind, illustrated by the Smarties tube task or the Sally-Anne task). Bad writers, he said, can't forget that just because they know some jargon or fact doesn't mean that others also know it. Good writers are better at putting themselves in other people's shoes and bringing the reader along with them.

This was pretty cool, and also linked into a hoary old chestnut of style advice: passive voice. He demonstrated how narrating a story means that sometimes it's better to use active and sometimes passive, so it's silly to say never to use passive. But he also said that passive voice is more common in bad writing. Why? Because bad writers work backwards from their own knowledge and don't properly tell a story in order, beginning from the position of not knowing something.

I hope I haven't spoilt all the good bits of the book. I'm putting it on my reading lists, as I think it'll be useful for students. Their 'curse of knowledge' is different, though: rather than being unable to forget that they know something and wrongly assuming their reader does too, they are unable to forget that their reader does know the material and feel as though they don't need to explain it. And although I didn't feel exactly that I learnt something, as such, the talk did make some subconscious knowledge conscious and that always makes it easier to apply it. But don't analyse the writing in this blog post because I publish these totally unedited (because time) so the style is bound to be all over the place.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015


I'm currently reading English for the Natives by Harry Ritchie. I might try and do a proper review sometime, but for now here's a snippet.

I knew that this book was not going to be sympathetic to my linguistic views when I saw Ritchie at the English Grammar Day this year and he went on about how wrong Chomsky was about Universal Grammar. I work within the paradigm of Generative Grammar, which is what people outside GG call 'Chomskyan' grammar. Chomsky himself does not use this term, and I dislike it as it implies uncritical acceptance of all his ideas (and, actually, the worst critics of Chomsky do assume this of his 'followers', as they inevitably call them, as if he is a cult leader).

Generative Grammar has been extremely successful, and is a flourishing research area, but there is an equally flourishing anti-GG crowd as well. Some of these people simply work within different frameworks and don't pay too much attention to us, but others actively attack Chomsky's ideas in particular. A characteristic of these people is that they tend not to engage with very up-to-date work, they tend to look at Chomsky only and no other researchers, and they often misunderstand or misrepresent things. Ritchie is not a linguist, although he has had some training, and so I'm going to put the mistake I'm about to talk about down to misunderstanding rather than deliberate misrepresentation. (One thing that is definitely misrepresentation is when he switches from a reasoned exposition of the ideas of Universal Grammar into using terms like 'magical', which is simply ridiculous when he outlined the non-magical explanation a few pages earlier.)

On page 51, during the 'ah, but it turns out Chomsky was totally wrong' section, he describes Geoffrey Sampson's work refuting Chomsky's claims using the British National Corpus. At one point, he says that he simply 'dusted down his 1947 edition of Teach Yourself Malay' to show that there is no universal distinction between nouns and verbs - apparently this language doesn't have this supposedly universal demarcation. They must think generative grammarians literally never look at other languages. If it was that easy to disprove just by looking in one book, would the theory really have stood up all these years? He even then says that English 'often dispenses with any noun-verb distinction and relies on the speaker to figure out how the word is functioning', with examples like 'cut' which can be either, depending on context.

This is such a basic misunderstanding. English and Malay both do distinguish nouns and verbs. Having them behave differently in the two different contexts precisely is distinguishing them. When cut is a noun, it can take an article, for instance ('make a cut along this line'), while it cannot when it's a verb, but then it can have a subject ('she cut the cake'), which nouns cannot. This is distinguishing nouns and verbs. Malay is even less of a good example: it actually has affixes to indicate if a word is a noun or a verb. This is not even just context: the form of the word itself distinguishes the categories.

The literature, especially popular books like this one, abounds with such fundamental errors. See, for example, the recent book by Vyvyan Evans, criticised here for its many, many misrepresentations. See also the lengthy debate about recursion, admittedly not helped by a fantastically unclear definition of recursion, but which once properly defined ought simply to have ended but trundles on regardless.

Anyway, I'm expecting the book to get much better once we're past the Chomsky-bashing, because Ritchie had a lot of interesting things to say at the English Grammar Day and spoke (and writes) in a very entertaining manner.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Esperanto 2: Warning, contains meat

Esperanto has certain suffixes for various grammatical purposes, and others that add some extra meaning. One of the latter is -aĵ, which you add to the name of an animal in order to get the word for its meat. Some examples:
Chicken (the bird) - koko, chicken (meat) - kokaĵo
Cow/bull - bovo, beef - bovaĵo
One of the sentences I had to translate was kokaĵo estas viando, which means 'chicken is meat'. Now obviously the word for 'chicken' in that sentence has the 'meat' suffix already in it, so there's a certain redundancy here. It's a bit like saying chicken meat is meat in English. (Incidentally, I don't know if any other language has a suffix specifically for 'meat', and I don't know if it can be extended to fruits, for instance, as in the flesh of a peach, which I'm sure does exist in other languages.)

I was thinking about this redundancy and its counterparts in English. We don't have exactly the same thing, of course, as our words for meat are either the same (chicken, fish) or a different word entirely (beef, pork). So I suppose what we have is a kind of semantic redundancy: 'meat' is part of the meaning of beef. In other words, beef is a hyponym of meat. But someone might not know that beef is a meat (say they were learning English and you were explaining what the word meant, for instance). That wouldn't happen with Esperanto because the meaning is right there in the word if you know what the parts mean. It's 'compositional'. 

That said, people are not always that conscious of the grammatical parts of words, especially if the word is common. It's pretty usual for me to discover that many of my second and third year students can't correctly identify clauses as past or present tense, for instance. (Sorry students, if you're reading, but it's true.) They know as a native speaker what it means, but it's subconscious knowledge. 

And we have comparable redundancy in English. Imagine if you said I've been hurt in the past. Well, I've been hurt is past tense so in the past isn't necessary. It is possible that it might remove the 'immediate past' meaning that we would normally understand from the perfect tense if it's uttered out of the blue, but in context it is definitely redundant and still perfectly fine to say. Similarly, a little duckling doesn't normally mean a duckling that is particularly small compared to other ducklings, and the -ling tells us it's little anyway. 

I might need to find a fluent Esperantist to give me some 'native' speaker judgements on whether the sentence I had to translate has the 'explaining the meaning of the word' interpretation or not. 

Incidentally, Esperanto is literally the only language that uses the character ĵ, which means it's not on my computer's keyboard and is hard to type and that's annoying. 

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Titles again

I wrote a while back about the absolute stupidity of having a choice of Mr, Mrs and Ms. Normally I don't get called by my title and it's only on forms that I ever use it, but lately I've been called by it a lot, because I've been interacting with banks and estate agents and so on. It turns out that estate agents are an extremely conservative lot.

Estate agents are not capable of using Ms - it simply doesn't exist for them. You have to be Mrs or Miss. OK, well, then I'll be Miss, I suppose. But, distressingly, they've been tending to opt for Mrs (which makes me feel old). OK, so I'll correct them. Normally, even call centre staff are capable of switching to Miss when given a sharp reprimand after the first Mrs. Not so estate agents.

OK, well then I'm Dr. This has provided estate agents across Margate with the most scandal they've seen in a while. Every one that I've corrected has then made a big point of using it frequently. One, who had written 'Mrs' on a bit of paper told me a number of times that he'd get it changed in the computer system, and also decided that I was unlikely to like the place he was going to show me (which was insulting in itself, actually - am I not living in an appropriate place for my job?). Another called me 'Doc' and appeared most amused about the whole thing. And with another, I had this conversation:
Her: Is it Miss or Mrs?
Me (embarrassed): It's Dr, actually.
Her: Oh, I'll just put it in your name [rather than your husband's??] *writes Miss*
I mean, OK, there probably aren't that many people with a PhD in Margate, and the real doctors probably all live in St Peter's or somewhere, but... but.

And I'm pretty certain that the mortgage affordability calculator discriminated against me on the grounds of my gender, but I can't prove it.

Anyway, this is becoming not-linguistics, so I'll just mutter something here about the odd power-imbalance created when one person in a conversation (the bank person) uses your title+surname and you use their first name.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Still here

Sorry for the non-posting lately. Things have got a bit manic as summer draws to an end and I try to finish off all my various research projects before I have to begin thinking about teaching again (plus some personal life things).

Sometimes (often) people outside academia ask me if I'm on holiday, or what I'm actually doing. I don't get too annoyed by this, because admittedly it does look very much like I'm on holiday when I'm in the pub on a Tuesday afternoon (for instance). But it's simply that the work we do over  the summer is a different kind of work from term-time work.

There are basically three things lecturers do: teaching, research and admin. The idea (I think) is that the proportion should be 2:2:1. My contract is fairly teaching-heavy, so during term time I do a lot more teaching than anything else (and by teaching I mean the actual contact, preparation such as writing lectures and working out module outlines, marking, responding to students, etc). However, I want to remain employable so I still have to do research, and the best time to do this is during the long summer 'holidays'.

We finish teaching in April at my university, and don't begin again till the end of September. There's a lot of admin to be done during that time, and plenty of marking, but there are a good few clear weeks to focus just on research projects in a way that's not possible in term time. Some of my colleagues go off for the whole summer and either work from home or go abroad, maybe to do fieldwork or just to get away. I tend to mix working from home and going into the office, and I allow my working hours to be more flexible so that I can take advantage of what sun we do get if it turns up on a weekday.

This summer, I set myself a few projects that I wanted to work on. Some of these are collaborative, and I've been having regular research meetings with three different people about three different projects. These are all just coming to the point where we have results to analyse and discuss, so now is the time to try and get our teeth into that before there's no more time to think about it.

One thing that I think is essential is not to start on teaching preparation too soon. If you begin it, it can take up the whole summer. That can wait: the 1st of September is when I begin doing it. This is tricky (and there are a couple of little things that have to be done sooner) but it helps me to get more research done. This is a lesson it's taken me a while to learn. Teaching-related tasks are typically more focussed and manageable than 'doing research' so the temptation for me is to 'just do that one thing'. I've learnt now to leave aside those small, easy tasks because otherwise the big, scary ones never get done.

And this year, I've been pleased with what I've done over the summer. It'll take a little bit more effort to get us to the point of having a paper to submit, but a lot of the work has been done.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Esperanto 1: Duolingo

I've been learning Esperanto. I'm doing this not because I have too much free time, but because I'm a big language nerd but don't feel like I have time to practice languages as much as you need to to get good, so Esperanto allows for quick progress and no need to actually speak it.

I'm also interested in it because I'm interested in invented languages generally: given that they can have any rules their inventors choose, why do they have the rules they have? So I'm keeping one eye open for the grammar quirks as I learn it.

You'll notice I've put a numeral in the title of this post; that's normally a death knell for a series of blog posts but I will attempt to follow it up with more.

I'm using Duolingo to learn it, as the much awaited option to do so became available a while ago. I find Duolingo pretty good. It's not perfect, but it's easy to use and does the trick well enough, and is free on all my various devices. I'm supplementing it, though, when I feel that it doesn't give me enough information. It likes to drip-feed grammar, but I like having the full paradigm so I can see the patterns more clearly. And sometimes something it teaches me raises a question: it told me, for instance, that the -in- suffix marks a noun as feminine, and bebo means 'baby', but it didn't tell me if bebo has a feminine form or is used for any kind of baby (cultures differ over whether a baby can be an 'it' or not). I looked it up and in this case, bebino does also exist.

So, for now, just my first impressions: I like it, I suppose, as an intellectual exercise, but I'm not loving it. Maybe because I'm not actually using it? Or maybe I haven't got into it yet - so far it seems more like a cobbled-together mishmash of Italian and English than its own language, which I'm certain is not the case.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015


Yesterday, quite coincidentally, two of my colleagues sent me electronic communications and used the word bumf. (This is not a reflection of their opinion of my work, of course.) But what was interesting was that both of them mis-spelt it bumpf.

Bumf is a 'clipping' or shortening of the word bumfodder, and both used to mean 'toilet paper'. I always thought it was Dutch and have just this very moment discovered that it is not. It's dated back to 1889 and is given as 'British schoolboy slang'. This mis-spelling as bumpf might come from mixing up the two spellings: it can also be bumph.

Bum-fodder is three syllables, with the first two divided between the /m/ and the /f/. This is unremarkable: if you have an /m/ and an /f/ together in English, they're normally either side of a syllable boundary. Ham-fisted, chamfer and bumface are all other examples of this. But when it's shortened, it's just one syllable, so that single syllable ends in the consonant cluster /mf/. This is a bit unusual in English. Try and think of other words that end in this combination. There's a few, but they're rare. The OED has nymph, galumph, wumph, triumph and harrumph, among others. And they're all spelt with a 'ph'. I don't have an explanation of this spelling quirk (some come from Greek, which is where most of our 'ph' spellings come from, but not all). I can tell you why that rogue 'p' gets into bumpf though.

Basically, /m/ and /f/ are very nearly as different as two sounds can be. This means that when we say them next to each other, we add in another sound that's halfway between them to make the transition a bit easier. /p/ is made with the same lip-shape as /m/, and the airflow is the same, but the vocal folds are like they are when we say /f/. This insertion of a sound is called 'epenthesis' and we do it all the time: adding a 'p' in 'hamster' is a famous one, showing that this isn't because the cluster comes at the end of the syllable. It only occasionally shows up in spelling mistakes (like bumpf or hampster), and this is a really cool insight into what we say and what we are aware of when we say it.