Monday, 23 November 2015

This is likely an Americanism

One other thing I've noticed in student essays much more this time than previously is the use of likely. Here is the relevant use:
This is likely a result of X. 
I understand what this means, it's not ungrammatical, but it's not in my idiolect (=the variety of English specific to me). I'd have to write one of the following:
This is likely to be a result of X.
This is probably a result of X.
Because the first type isn't in my idiolect, I can't tell whether it's proper 'academese'. It sounded informal to me, until I asked Twitter and was directed to this blog post by Lynne Murphy. It is apparently a UK/US difference. Why my students are using it, I don't know: presumably this usage is spreading to this country.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

The preposition with which you are filling it in

I am currently mired in marking. As you know, I keep note of which mistakes are currently popular. One that I spotted recently was a sort of preposition doubling but with two different prepositions. Let me explain.

So, there are two things English can do. You can either move your preposition (in, in this example) along with your wh-word:
It depends on the newspapers in which you are reading them.
or you can leave it where it is:
It depends on the newspapers which you are reading them in.
It's a stylistic choice nowadays (used to be frowned upon, not so much now, and the first sounds a bit stuffy in casual conversation). Ignore the fact that which probably ought to be that in the second example (incidentally, that's evidence that this which/that rule is a bit daft). English is unusual in allowing this choice: most languages can't 'strand' the preposition and have to move it, as in the first example.

Sometimes, people get halfway through the sentence and forget they moved the preposition, and stick it in at the end as well:
It depends on the newspapers in which you are reading them in
Oh well - no problem. Speech error. It happens. Paul McCartney is sometimes said to have sung 'this ever-changing world in which we live in' (though he thinks maybe it was actually 'in which we're living').

But today I read sentences like this from two different students:
It depends on the newspapers with which you are reading them in
How exciting! So I think here, the student has left the preposition at the end on purpose, because that's fine, but also felt like there really ought to be something in that space before the which, so stuck in another preposition (with) that sounds OK there. Add it to the list of 'more words = better' mistakes.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Euros and the emergency plural

I'm learning German - I don't think I said. It's quite fun, although you never learn much at an evening class because there are lots of people of mixed ability and you can't ask the teacher important linguistic questions because it's not fair to expect non-linguists to know the answer to such things.

Anyway today, we learnt about currencies and big numbers, among other things. Germany obviously uses the euro as its currency, which is Euro in German. I checked, and it's not pluralised. Languages vary on what they do with the plural, so in Spanish you have 1 euro and 10 euros, but in Italian you have 1 euro and 10 euro, not 10 euri (which just looks weird). I think the most interesting thing about this is the difference between British English, which is spoken in a country where the euro isn't used and pluralises it (10 euros), and Irish English, which is spoken in a country where it is used (so it's a much more frequent word) and doesn't pluralise it (10 euro). I don't know what Northern Ireland does - I'm sure someone will tell me. I remember noticing it when an Irish friend-of-a-friend and thinking it was funny to hear an English speaker do what I'm used to hearing in other languages.

German doesn't pluralise it, as I say. Nevertheless, my teacher today definitely said '10 euros' at one point. A slip of the tongue, no doubt, or perhaps it is pluralised in some non-standard variety that she is not teaching us. But either way, it's interesting for a morphology reason. Steven Pinker published a book in 1999, too early to mention the pluralisation of euro because it had only just been introduced. But he did talk about German plural suffixes. -s is 'by far the least common' of the several possibilities (-e, -er, -en, -s, or nothing), but it is the Notpluralendung, or 'emergency plural' (p.222). It's the one you pick if the word is new, or doesn't normally pluralise. That's why it turns up on foreign words or names, and, in this case, on Euro.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Professional toilet paper

Normally, ‘professional’ quality means better quality. Artists’ paints, for instance, come in ‘student’ and ‘professional’ grades, and the professional ones are made with real pigment instead of synthesised stuff and are correspondingly more expensive for the ones made of precious things. A professional bricklayer will do the job better than some bloke who does it in his spare time (in theory, anyway). A professional musician plays music for a living and can be assumed to be pretty good at it.

Olympic athletes are not professionals, though: they’re amateurs. It’s in the rules. If you ‘turn pro’ in boxing you can’t compete in the Olympics any more. Here, ‘professional’ means ‘does it for money’.

And the toilet paper they use in my workplace is ‘professional quality’, which in this context means ‘not the good stuff that you buy for yourself’. 

I was going to photograph the actual packaging but it's been thrown away, so here's The Professionals instead. 

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Michael Rosen loves grammar

This isn't a post, just a link. It's a post by someone who criticises Michael Rosen. I won't have this. Michael Rosen tirelessly defends good language teaching. This person says he is down on grammar, when grammar is important. But he isn't - he gives every impression of finding it fascinating, and is admirably intelligent and well-informed on modern linguistic thinking. He just thinks the SPaG test for children is stupid (which it is). It also seems that the post's author regards grammar as a set of terminology that help you to write well, whereas Rosen appears to see grammar as something interesting and exciting in its own right (which it is). Anyway, here's the post and below it you can read Rosen responding at length.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Trompe l'oeiling

There's an episode of The Simpsons (Flaming Moe, s22ep11 - a reference to the episode Flaming Moe's) in which Moe, for reasons, reinvents his bar as a gay bar for average-looking men.

It's tremendously successful, and he says this:
Now we can afford real bowls of pretzels instead of trompe l'oeiling them on the bar.
This is a fantastic bit of morphology. It's yer bog-standard noun-to-verb conversion (verbification, if you like), transforming the noun trompe l'oeil to a verb to trompe l'oeil (and notice, of course, that the noun is itself a translation of a French verb-plus-object: 'to fool the eye'). Then we are free to stick the verb suffix -ing on the end, because we can do that with verbs in English.

But it's so cool. For one thing, it means that the normally unpronounced final 'l' gets pronounced (he says it like trompe-loyling) and for another, it reveals how when we borrow a phrase wholesale with an idiomatic meaning like this we can put a verb suffix on a noun no problem at all.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

The Oxford, comma

For those that don't know, the Oxford comma (or serial comma) is the comma that can come before 'and' in a list. I was taught not to put one there when I was at school, but it is a stylistic choice (and a regional one: it's more used in America). It's massively controversial and people get far too worked up about it. Just google it and you'll see.

These examples are frequently cited as evidence that the Oxford comma is essential:

What they show is that sometimes, the writing would be clearer with the comma before 'and'. It's true; it would be. But there are also times when it would be better without:
Those at the ceremony were the commodore, the fleet captain, the donor of the cup, Mr. Smith, and Mr. Jones.
Here, the sentence could read as if Mr Smith donated the cup, but he is meant to be just another person in the list.

And then there are times when you'd have to be some kind of weirdo to misunderstand the meaning:

Note, of course, that all of these examples are only ambiguous in writing. In speech you have different intonation patterns to tell you what the meaning is.

What this boils down to is people on the internet wanting a rule that they can blindly apply and then criticise those who don't know it. What would be a more sensible strategy would be if people just read their work through and applied punctuation where it helps to make the writing better, and not where it doesn't.

(FWIW, this excerpt from Mental Floss seems to get the balance about right: 'George Ives, the author of a 1921 guide to the usage style of the Atlantic Monthly Press, ... [shows that] making the comma before "and" standard practice is more economical. This way, the reader will know for sure that if it's missing, there's a good reason.')