Friday, 18 April 2014

More on 'is' and 'are'

Consider the following two sentences, talking about prizes:

Two million pounds is paid out every day.
Two million pounds are paid out every day.

Both seem ok to me, actually, and I'm not sure which I'd be more likely to say. Because 'pounds' is grammatically plural, the plural agreement is fine, and because it's semantically one sum of money, the singular is also fine. But I do think there's a slight meaning difference. I think that perhaps the singular implies that there is just one prize, while the plural implies a multitude of prizes. But then perhaps I'm overthinking it.


Friday, 11 April 2014

It's the last day of term today! That means no more teaching for this year. Wow. In honour of this, we had a party for our students on Wednesday which was really fun:


I also learnt something interesting. We use the term 'fresher' colloquially to refer to a first year student, particularly when it's the start of the year and they're arriving for the first time (so you have a freshers' fair, etc). I always assumed it was a shortening of the American term 'freshman', which we don't use here but which is totally standard over there. Turns out that maybe it is, but they don't use 'fresher' there - only the full form. So it seems like we somehow borrowed a clipped form which doesn't exist in its original context without ever borrowing the full form.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Why everyone who works with language needs linguistics

Someone on a blog I read the other day posted this question, asking for advice:
Does anyone know any tricks to know when English -ed is pronounced as [d~t] as in “begged” and “knocked” versus [ed] like “petted”?
Some of my students have issues and I don’t know how to help them.
(I haven't linked to the actual blog because I don't want to seem like I'm criticising them personally.)

You might think that people who teach language know linguistics. Most people seem to think that linguistics *is* teaching languages. In fact, lots of linguistics graduates go on to do language teaching, but they are far outnumbered by language teachers who don't have a linguistics background. TESOL MA programmes frequently have a core linguistics component, but people who've chosen to do TESOL but not linguistics are probably not that interested in linguistics anyway.

The reason I mention this is that the question above is taught on any first-year linguistics course as the absolute go-to example of phonologically-conditioned allomorphy in English. Typically, we point out that native English speakers do this subconsciously and consistently, and it's an example of how there are rules and we can discover them by careful investigation, as well as to teach the theoretical concept.

Of course, speakers of other languages with different rules will not do this subconsciously, because the rules of their language might not automatically force the same result as English. They'll need the rule taught to them. The fact that someone who (presumably) is teaching English doesn't know how to explain this simple fact is quite shocking to me, but I doubt the asker is alone. A few basic linguistics classes would make life as an English teacher so much easier, I can't even imagine why it wouldn't be standard.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

1912 grammar test

One of my former students tweeted this link at me this morning. It's a 1912 test for Kentucky 8th graders (13-14 years old) which includes a section on grammar. Oh dear. Well, I had to give it a go.


It's a good example of how a test can only test what's been taught: none of these are difficult, but some are impossible for me to answer, because I don't know what's required. It's not a matter of stating the facts (eg listing the parts of speech) because - of course - it's not that simple.

  1. There are some basic parts of speech, of course: noun, verb, adjective, preposition, adverb and so on. But there are others which aren't so easy to agree on. What about the German verbal particle doch? And the Mandarin aspect marker le? OK, this is an English grammar test (though it doesn't say that), so what about auxiliary verbs? Are they just verbs, or do they have their own part of speech category? Their definition will be very different from lexical verbs, after all. 
  2. OK, not so hard: a proper noun is a name. A noun, on the other hand, is harder: it's not just 'a naming word' or 'a thing'. Linguists define parts of speech in terms of how they behave in a sentence - so if it behaves like a noun, it's a noun. Therefore, defining a noun and listing its properties are the same thing. 
  3. Ditto. And as for declining 'I'... I'm stumped. I think the answer is just 'I, me' and perhaps 'mine' - but that seems too easy. Would 'my' be in there too? I suppose so, though it's actually a possessive determiner. What about 'we, us'? Still first person, just plural. Giving up on this one. 
  4. LOADS. What kind of properties might they be after? Well, they agree in person and number with the subject, to some extent, and in some languages with the object too. They are inflected for tense, aspect, mood and voice. They typically have a certain number of arguments, beginning with a subject and adding one or two objects depending on the verb (or the context). They are usually located adjacent to their complement, if they have one, though they might not be. Usually, the subject comes before the verb. 
  5. Easy. James was struck by William. Active to passive transformation. Next. 
  6. Three, I think? I'm not totally sure, but it's asking about the positive, comparative and superlative forms of adjectives. So good, better, best; wise, wiser, wisest; beautiful, more beautiful, most beautiful
  7. I can't do the diagram. We do draw tree diagrams of sentences, but they don't do that in schools, whereas in the US they at least used to do a different type of diagram, called the Reed-Kellogg system, and I don't know how to do that. Here's one (not very modern or accurate) way of doing it linguistics-style:
  8. And finally, I don't know how to parse. As I use and understand the term, it's what people do when they hear a string of sound and they interpret it as a sentence with structure. So I suppose you have to identify a main verb (ranlove), which has a DP subject (John, Helen's parents) and a complement, if there is one (over the bridge, her). If we're going further, we can say that the PP over the bridge consists of a preposition over with a DP complement the bridge. We can also note that her must refer to Helen, and it can only do so because Helen is part of the subject of the clause but not actually the subject (her in Helen loves her can't mean Helen). 

So yeah, I'd fail. But if I'd been in this school and had been listening in class, I'd probably be OK.

Look though! It's got the now old-fashioned use of have as a verb that can undergo movement in questions: What properties have verbs?. Now, you'd say What properties do verbs have, with an extra verb do because we can no longer move all our verbs, like English used to be able to do (What say you and the like). There's also a spelling mistake in the spelling test section, if you go to the full link (which has maths, geography, physiology, civil government and history sections).

Monday, 24 March 2014

Helping 'them'

You'll probably have seen this by now:



It's - I was astonished to discover - not a parody. It's real. Not a parody. A real image produced by the Conservatives to publicise the benefits of their recent budget to 'hardworking people'. As you can see from the poster, this amounts to reducing the cost of bingo and beer. 

Actually, I have no opinion about bingo tax, but scrapping the beer escalator is a good thing, as far as I can tell, as it reduces the financial strain on smaller breweries. It doesn't actually help any individual drinkers, though, as they've only taken a penny off the price of a pint. Even I don't drink that many pints. I estimate I'd be better off by about £12 a year if the brewers passed the penny saving on to my local and my local passed on this penny saving to me (just kidding - that's how much better off I'd be if I drank 100 pints a month, which I don't. Honest). 

Anyway, the shocking fact that the Tories have done something right amongst all the wrong things they've done is beside the point. This is a linguistics blog, not a beer blog. There is so much wrong with this poster that I can't address it all, but there are two things about it that I will mention: the phrase 'hardworking people' and the pronoun 'they'. 

'Hardworking people' is an unfortunately overused phrase among all the major parties. I have no idea what it means or who it refers to. I'm a hardworking person. Is it me? Maybe. Are the Conservative MPs themselves 'hardworking people'? I'm sure they'd like to think so, but the wording of this poster doesn't seem to say so (more on that shortly, when we come to 'they'). Unfortunately, beer and bingo are stereotypical pursuits of the working class, and I fear that this is what they mean this time by 'hardworking people'. In this sense, it's very much a euphemism, because 'working class' really means 'poor people' and there are rather a lot of people currently out of work and therefore not doing very much 'work' at all. Whether they're drinking beer and playing bingo, I don't know. 

So, 'they'. Owen Jones in the Guardian describes this as 'the fatal pronoun'
The fatal pronoun is "they": it looks like a conscious attempt by well-heeled Tories to distance themselves from the great unwashed, who are presumably all getting hammered in bingo halls. This is the real "plebgate".
They is a versatile little word. It's very useful as a gender-neutral alternative to he and she, handy when you don't know someone's gender or would rather not specify one of those two. In its 'usual' use, as here, it's the third person plural pronoun, in nominative case (ie the one used as the subject of the sentence). It refers to some group of people who include neither the speaker nor the hearer. And that, perhaps, is the problem here. Clearly, the Conservatives (the 'speaker' of this sentence) do not consider themselves to be among 'the hardworking people', but neither do they consider the reader (the 'hearer' of the sentence) to be 'hardworking people' either. So who are 'they'? The 'little people', those who well-meaning people would like to help but really aren't one of us at all. 

The alternatives are no good either, by the way: the first of these is better, but still feels patronising, and the second is just clearly nonsense. 
'To help hardworking people to do more of the things you enjoy.' 

'To help hardworking people to do more of the things we enjoy.' 

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Most tastiest

This story recently appeared in the Guardian newspaper, about a schoolboy who bullied Tesco into changing some 'ungrammatical' wording on its juice cartons. As you can probably tell, I'm (unusually) on Tesco's side here, or rather I would have been if they hadn't caved in instantly and completely.

Here's what happened: this 15-year-old boy noticed that his orange juice was described as being made with the 'most tastiest' oranges, and he felt that it should be either 'tastiest' or 'most tasty'. He felt this so strongly that he wrote first to Tesco customer services, and then to the Daily Mail when he didn't get a reply. And he wrote a real letter, with a stamp, not an email, which is how you know he was incandescent.

To clarify: yes, it 'should' be one of the two options he provided. The superlative doubling that he objects to is a very common feature of everyday speech, and I hear it approximately once a day (I listen out for it because I like it). In writing or formal speech it is considered wrong, and any piece of writing such as an essay should not include this construction. I'm very pleased that the standard of education in our schools is such that this child not only knows this, but cares about it. He sounds utterly insufferable, but I'm sure I was also insufferable at his age, so I'll let him off with that.

I do, however, want to suggest a better way for Tesco to have responded (rather than sending a grovelling letter promising to change the wording). The wording was probably carefully selected by a copy writer who knew exactly what they were doing, picking a construction that's frequent but not prescriptively correct, in order to come across as informal, friendly and possibly more eye-catching. Innocent, for example, while not using any 'ungrammatical' constructions that I can see, do their utmost to make their blurb informal, using no capital letters, lots of contractions ('we're', etc) and words like 'stuff', none of which would be acceptable in formal writing.

It's OK to use non-standard language if you know what you're doing and it's for a particular effect. As the saying goes, you have to know the rules before you know how to break them. Had Tesco been a linguist (and perhaps their copywriter is - lots of our students go on to do jobs like that) they might have responded to this young pedant with some facts about the frequency of use and the contexts in which superlative doubling is found, to demonstrate that it is not in fact ungrammatical, but merely register-specific. Then they could have explained to the young man that this wording was intentionally chosen to give the impression of a nice, friendly orange juice seller that you can trust, to mitigate the fact that you're buying concentrated orange juice from a huge corporation that probably pays its orange growers virtually nothing (I don't know this - just guessing).

Actually, the text from which this doubled superlative is taken is not specially informal, so it probably was an oversight. But there we go. I do think it's important not to always uphold the 'rules' of grammar, as being prissy about it is what causes people to dislike grammar when really it's such an interesting and fun thing, if you just look at it in the right way. I'm much more concerned about the genuinely ungrammatical things people (=students) write. If they'd never say it, why do they write it? But that's another rant for another day.