Thursday, 26 February 2015

I'm a linguist however I correct mistakes

I teach, among other things, first-year syntax seminars. I've found that this year's cohort are pretty good at knowing the basic parts of speech but one of the things we do at degree level is learn how to identify nouns, verbs and so on based on their behaviour and question mis-classifications. The other day, I said English really only has three conjunctions: and, or and but. (Actually this isn't totally accurate but those are the common ones, I think. Note that I'm only referring to what are sometimes called 'coordinating conjunctions' - subordinating ones are another thing.) One of my students asked whether however isn't a conjunction as well.

This is an excellent question. And as with most excellent questions, the answer is 'yes and no'. I was suddenly, in a 9am seminar, suffering from severe tiredness, faced with the descriptivist academician's paradox.

This is one of the things that is mentioned time and again when lecturers compare notes on common writing mistakes in student essays: however used as a conjunction. Here's an example:
This argument is very persuasive, however I believe the premise is false. 
This sentence could be written perfectly grammatically with but instead of however as follows:
This argument is very persuasive, but I believe the premise is false. 
With however, it's a comma splice and at best, clumsy, and at worst confusing. If you're desperate to use the word however, because you're keen to use polysyllabic words wherever you can, the following is acceptable:
 This argument is very persuasive; however, I believe the premise is false.
 So far, this is not linguistics so much as standard essay-marker's griping. The linguistics comes now. As linguists, we are descriptive, no matter how prescriptive we are as essay-markers. For that reason, we apply writing rules in what I think is a more sensible manner than many other subjects do (in my former life as a writing tutor I heard of history lecturers with flat-out bans on completely innocuous things for no discernible reason). We allow things that others might outlaw as long as it's done well. Lately, for instance, I've noticed that I no longer care about contracted forms in essays, as long as the apostrophes are correct and the style is otherwise formal and reads well - correcting this might lead to stilted, lumpy writing. We allow first-person pronouns (why on earth not?) as long as students don't use them to say things like 'I believe' (cf. my example above). Passive voice is perfectly fine as long as it's not used to pad out the essay with extra words.

So what of however? It all depends. Is the error in my example above a punctuation error, in which case it most definitely is an error and deserves the red pen, or is it a reflection of a change in language which will be permitted before long? The only way we could check would be to listen to the intonation. Is there a semicolon break preceding it and a comma break following it in speech? If so, it's wrongly punctuated. If not, perhaps I'll have to learn to live with it. Unfortunately, this isn't really a feature of everyday speech: it's formal style, and formal style is highly influenced by written style. If that written style is wrong to start with, we have a chicken and egg problem on our hands.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Language, Gender and the Power of Stereotypes

Our Head of Department, Amalia Arvaniti, gave an inaugural lecture last week and we livetweeted it. Here's the Storified version, complete with my sarky comments.

Thursday, 12 February 2015


It's more and more common for linguists of all types to use quantitative methods in their research. This used to be something that only certain people did, because it was the nature of the method/subject matter etc. Now I increasingly get the feeling that those who don't are seen by some people as somehow not doing work that is as valid. I'm still pretty well in the theoretical linguistics camp (which doesn't mean we don't use data, interestingly, but it's not quantitative data). This means that my ability to wrangle statistical packages and interpret complex facts is close to nonexistent, but even I could spot some clangers in a recent episode of More Or Less (a BBC World Service programme).

First, there was an item about the apparent rapid increase in antisemitic attacks. The organisation Campaign Against Antisemitism had carried out a survey which revealed a worryingly high rate of British Jewish people being concerned about their long-term future in this country. It's not in question that there is antisemitism to some extent, but the presenter, Tim, noted that it's hard to sample the Jewish population in a fully representative way in this country. In response to Tim asking the reasonable question 'How do you know your respondents aren't disproportionately worried about antisemitism?', the spokesman for CAA said 'If you look at the results, they represent a range of views'. Well. Maybe so, but I think it's quite obvious that you can't judge how representative your sample is just from the responses of your own sample, if you don't have anything to compare it to.

Then there was an item in which someone (I think a Manchester police spokesperson but I could be wrong) talked about 60 men found in canals over the last few years and put this high number of deaths down to an as yet unidentified killer. The programme's researchers looked into how many deaths from accidental drownings one might expect over a similar period. When this chap was told that one would expect 61 accidental drownings, he said this: 'You can't ignore the statistics - well if you want to ignore the statistics...' and went on to speculate further about these deaths being linked. But it's him who is ignoring the statistics, in this case, and speculating on the basis of misleading numbers.

I find More Or Less and similar 'behind the numbers' things really interesting, because I'm fascinated by how easy it is to confuse ourselves and others with statistics. I remember one particular example from Bang Goes The Theory where Dr Yan demonstrated (with bacon sandwiches) how nearly everyone fails to spot that 'bacon increases your risk of bowel cancer by 20%' and 'bacon increases your risk of bowel cancer from 5% to 6%' are making exactly the same claim. We are apparently very bad at this kind of thing.