Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Not all moths

I host a quiz night in our local micropub (it's cosy). Recently, in the 'insects' round, I asked whether insects are warm- or cold-blooded. They are cold-blooded, of course (this is not a technical term: they are actually ectothermic, which means they don't regulate their body temperature internally). One quizzer challenged me, because there are in fact three species of moth (out of maybe 10 million species of insect - we don't know exactly) that are warm-blooded.

Leaving aside the fact that rounding this off to, say, 3 significant figures is 0.00%, we have a question of genericity. Now, either my statement 'insects are cold-blooded' is an absolute statement meaning 'all insects are cold-blooded', in which case a single warm-blooded insect is enough to prove it wrong, or it's a generic statement: 'insects in general are cold-blooded'. I meant the latter, of course, and in the context of a quiz question where two options are given, this should be clear. One of the things Steven Pinker said, actually, was that to avoid the hedging ('almost', 'in general', etc) you find in bad prose, you should allow your reader to assume the generic interpretation. In academic writing there is a place for the precision afforded by hedging, but for much other writing I agree.

There's limits though. While researching my quiz, I read the supposed fact that 'babies are born with blue eyes'. That, I thought, was astonishing. It turned out that what the author meant was 'white babies who will have blue, green, hazel or grey eyes', not 'babies in general' - there is a very high proportion of babies in the world who have dark brown eyes, and are not born with blue eyes. If you're going to make generic statements you do have to be clear about what the universe of discourse is and your generic statement has to actually apply to the majority of things in it. (In this case, the author had made the very easy mistake of forgetting that not everyone is exactly like them.)

Another of my quizzers challenged another question. In the picture round I had asked for the name of the species of fish pictured. One was a goldfish, and the team had written 'carp'. I didn't allow this, and the challenger wanted to know why, when a goldfish is a carp. It's true that goldfish are carp, but not all carp are goldfish. 'Goldfish' is therefore a hyponym of 'carp' (and 'carp' is a hypernym of 'goldfish').

I am clearly not strict enough with my quizzers. If I keep blogging about their complaints perhaps they'll stop.

Monday, 21 September 2015


In case you don't follow James Blunt on twitter, here's a tip: follow him. His tweets mostly consist of sporadic bursts of sarcastic retorts to people's Blunt-hate. Here's one:

Screenshot of a James Blunt tweet
I have in the past been guilty of criticising James Blunt. I seem to remember writing a not-very-complimentary article about his music many years ago. But then he was on something on telly and was very funny and likeable, and then he started tweeting, and, well, now I think he's great.

The tweet he's responding to includes an adverb from the 'literal-to-intensifier' group: physically. Along with literally, legitimately, virtually and the like, it's at risk of becoming an intensifier adverb like totally or actually. This use of physically does retain most of its lexical meaning: she wants to physically punch him, with her hand, rather than mentally wishing it upon him. But it seems like it might be an example of the kind of usage that can easily leak into more metaphorical usage.

And then Blunt responds with a clever pun on the word slapper, as well as a grammatical correction. Normally one doesn't approve of correcting grammar to win points in a fight but here it's intended to make the other person feel foolish so it's OK, I suppose? And also it's nice to see an over-correction re-corrected back down again. The over-correction comes about because we are often told not to say things like 'me and James Blunt', and that it should be 'James Blunt and I'. So it should, if it's the subject of the sentence. But when it's the object of a preposition like between, the pronoun needs to be in 'oblique' case, or in other words me rather than I. So would all nouns, in fact, if we had a richer case system, but we only have different forms for the pronouns in English.

Friday, 18 September 2015

LAGB 2015

I've been at LAGB this week. It's the annual meeting of the Linguistics Association of Great Britain, held around this time in a university in the UK. This year it's at UCL, which is a very nice university. I've spent most of the week in talks, of course, but there are also some nice museums that belong to the university itself to see while I'm here. I'll post something more shortly, but for now I just thought I'd better say why I haven't been doing much on the blog lately.
Jeremy Bentham's auto-icon at UCL

Sunday, 13 September 2015


The Morris group that I dance with did some workshops for some Dutch children this week. One of the girls said that the evening was gezellig - and she asked me did we have this word? Well, we don't, of course. I tried to kind of mutate it into English and got this far:

  1. -ig is an adjective suffix, meaning -y or equivalent. 
  2. ge- is a kind of verbal past tense thing, I believe, so this is an adjective formed from a verb

But then I got stuck (it also turns out I was wrong about the ge- bit anyway).

Just from the way it sounded, I suggested 'cosy', even though it didn't seem right in context. I looked it up when I got home and 'cosy' is one of the things it can mean, but the internet also tells me that this is an 'untranslatable' word.

Untranslatable words, it seems to me, come in two or three flavours. There's one kind where a language happens to have a word for a very specific concept. This is not untranslatable; it's just that language X encodes something in one single word that language Y does with a phrase. See, for example, German schadenfreude or Japanese origami (I have no idea how much Germans or Japanese people actually use these words). In this case, as with many others, the way we get round not having a word for this concept is to just borrow it. We also do this with foreign things like food (risotto, wasabi, pak choi, tea...).

There's also words where the translation isn't exact, although there's a bunch of words with similar meanings. See the Language Log entry on 'accountability', for instance. Prepositions are also a problem - they never seem to translate quite right from one language to another, partly because they don't have 'meaning', as such, but rather a grammatical function. These must be annoying for translators and make learning languages a little bit harder/more interesting, but we can learn what the nuances are.

Then there's the kind that seem somehow exotic because they refer to some concept that we hadn't thought about before. These have a great appeal on the internet. I suspect this is because they tend to refer to highly emotional states of mind. Nostalgia would be a good example of this in English, and saudade in Portuguese. They are often claimed to say something about the temperament of the nation that uses that word, so Portuguese or Brazilians are typically melancholic or nostalgic. We know the fallacy of attributing a characteristic to a whole nation, but nevertheless we like to do it because it helps us to label people.

Gezellig is said on Wikipedia to 'encompass the heart of Dutch culture', so it's a good example of one of these 'untranslatable words'. Wiktionary says it means 'companionable, having company with a pleasant, friendly atmosphere, cosy atmosphere or an upbeat feeling about the surroundings'.

It also says it comes from gezel, which means 'companion'. So much for my etymological analysis.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Something you never realised about factive predicates! This is epic!

There's a post about Guardians of the Galaxy. It's a cute story: blockbuster film helps child appreciate slash believe in self. But it's got one of those flippin' annoying clickbait headlines, which says this:
Something you never realised about Guardians of the Galaxy. This is epic. 
The problem, apart from clickbait headlines being a problem in general, is that realise is what's called a factive verb. That means that whatever is 'realised' should be a true fact. In this case, it's 'something about Guardians of the Galaxy'. Perhaps some hidden in-joke, or an 'easter egg', or trivia about how the film was made.

Compare these examples, taken from Wikipedia and modified by me, where the # means that it's pragmatically weird (doesn't make sense) to say the second part:
Marc realised that he was in debt...
#...although in fact he wasn't in debt.
Eliza regretted drinking John's home brew...
#...and in fact she didn't drink it.
With these, which are non-factive and can be cancelled without it sounding contradictory:
Marc thought he had scored full marks...
...although in fact he had got two questions wrong.
Eliza believed she was the winner of the race...
...but in fact she had come second. 
The thing that is realised or regretted must be true, while the thing that is thought or believed might not actually be true, as long as the person thinks or believes it (they may be mistaken).

This particular post is someone's personal story, and they freely say that it's not based on any factual knowledge, just on their own personal experience of the film. This isn't a fact that we might possibly have realised, so this headline is not only annoying, it doesn't even make sense, and whoever wrote it is now on my List Of People To Tut At Should I Ever Meet Them.

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.