Wednesday, 28 October 2015

If you could read this blog post

Sometimes, a request is expressed like this:
I'm snowed under, so if you can just book that room for me. Thanks! 
My colleague/friend/fellow twitterlinguist Damien Hall (@EvrydayLg) says that this has an implied 'that'd be good' after the if-clause. I think he's right about this, and the full form would be this:
If you can just book that room for me, that'd be good.
The if-clause is a conditional, and conditionals have to be subordinate to a main clause. So technically, this is a fragment: it's a subordinate clause set adrift, with no main clause to modify the meaning of. But we see it a lot. I do it myself, because it's a very convenient way of making a request in writing.

Written requests have become a problem, if they are from one person to another on the same level. You have to be polite and grateful, and one by one, our ways of doing it have become too abrupt. A plain request would be Please book that room for me. This is way too imperative, so we have questions. Can you book that room for me? is not technically a request: it's a question, and the askee could say I'm sorry, I'm not able to without having to say I won't. But then we feel we need to add please, and then could seems to sound more polite, and we get Could you please book that room, and then we add hedges like just as in the first example... and so on. Eventually you sit at your computer rephrasing it over and over but it all sounds like you're ordering the person around. Right now, to me, this 'unfinished conditional' construction seems to be non-imperative. It's a simple statement of fact: I'm not asking you to do anything, but if you were to happen to do it anyway, that'd be grand.

But here's why I love it most of all: it looks just like the way you ask a question in some other languages. We aren't really using it to ask a question in English: conditional-if is different from question-if, and they just happen to have the same form. But if it was question-if, look at this question in Polish (source):
Czy Basia ma kota?
'Does Basia have a cat?' (literally: 'If Basia has (a) cat')
Here, the same word czy that is used for if in an embedded question (as in English I wonder if Basia has a cat) is used for a main clause question and it looks really like the English unfinished conditionals.

We said that the English one is a conditional, not a question, and I think this is right. But imagine that it was a question: If you can book that room for me means Can you book that room for me? and we have what is apparently exactly the same syntax as Polish. (I'm not claiming it is the same - just noting the parallel.)

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Not as much hedgehogs

On the RSPB's website there's this rather charming text (emphasis mine):
Many of us feel there are fewer bumblebees bumbling around our flowerbeds, less sparrows flitting between our gardens and not as many hedgehogs sniffing around our green spaces. 
We might also add 'not as much' to complete the set.

Of course, a pedant would say that less is ungrammatical for a countable noun like sparrows, and that both ought to be fewer. Similarly, it would be 'wrong' to say not as much if it were followed by something like hedgehogs, but in this paragraph it provides a nice variety in the expression used.

Monday, 19 October 2015

How to be a lecturer just as good as me

Lately, perhaps as a reflex of the news that there will soon be a TEF, articles have often included advice on how to do lecturing better. This THE article, for instance, talks about how to engage with sullen students. It has some good practical advice in it, if you scroll down, but the contribution from Tara Brabazon is about as useful as her earlier advice on how to write a PhD thesis just like hers. She tells us everything that was wrong with the way her unfortunate colleague has been teaching the students, leaving them unresponsive and robotic. She tells us that she plays music five minutes before the start of her lectures, and '[they] have a dance and a sing and it orients students into a learning experience'. Eventually, after 'exertion and stress' and 'the constant trickle of stress down [her] back', the 'students revealed a shard of light'. Great. I'll just do that then, shall I? 

This person writing in the NYT is similarly exercised:

Holding their attention is not easy. I lecture from detailed notes, which I rehearse before each class until I know the script well enough to riff when inspiration strikes. I pace around, wave my arms, and call out questions to which I expect an answer. When the hour is done, I’m hot and sweaty.
I don't know what kind of place these people teach in. I can't play music five minutes before the start of my lectures: there's another lecture taking place in the room. I do see the benefit, though, as playing music during group discussion in seminars seems to help students relax (though it didn't make a difference to their marks in a study I conducted last year).

I don't think it's necessarily good advice to promote the idea that because you're working up a sweat and pacing around, that you're working hard and lecturing well. Students don't often appreciate pacing around, for example. It would be much better to find out what actually works in a lecture scenario from the students' point of view (and the advice lower down in the THE article does just that). Much of the subjective, I-work-bloody-hard stuff seems to be defensive in the face of a perceived slight against the traditional lecture format. I've seen other articles defending chalk and blackboard over PowerPoint and so on. If there is any attack on traditional lecturing, it's coming from the right place: from research showing how effective learning takes place, and from the need for accessibility for those with dyslexia, visual impairments, and other conditions that make taking down an hour of uninterrupted talking difficult.

I put a lot of effort into my lectures, because I genuinely find the topic interesting and I get excited about it. I hope that this comes across and helps students to find it interesting too. But sweating? I don't know how you work up a sweat by walking and talking, because I don't. Working from a detailed script is another matter. I don't. I have slides, and I know what I want to say, but I don't read a script because I think it can be boring for the listener. If you can do it well, I daresay this is an inspiring type of lecture to be in. But I don't have time to rehearse thoroughly before each lecture when I teach around 12 hours a week. Is the TEF going to penalise those of us with heavier teaching loads?

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Maximum (of) flavour

I get emails from Carluccio's, for some reason, and today this one arrived.

At the bottom, it says:
These dishes capture Antonio Carluccio's 'MOF MOF' philosophy - 'minimum of fuss and maximum of flavour'
This reminded me of the chapter we read for our Syntax Reading Group yesterday, in which Richie Kayne demonstrated microcomparative syntax for various constructions in English and French, like the following contrast (p.19):
English: something heavy
French: quelque chose de lourd (literally 'some thing of heavy')
In other words, French requires de in this construction (*quelque chose lourd), while English disallows it (*Something of heavy). In the email I got, the phrases minimum of fuss and maximum of flavour are similar, in that English doesn't use of here. You can say with a minimum of fuss and that's OK, but not a maximum of anything. Antonio Carluccio is, obviously, Italian, so without knowing for sure I speculate that perhaps in Italian, the construction with of is grammatical and thus a point of microcomparison between English and Italian.

Reference: Kayne, Richard S. 2008. Some notes on comparative syntax, with special reference to English and French. In Guglielmo Cinque & Richard S. Kayne, The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Syntax. Oxford: OUP. pp. 3-69. 

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Lol it on yourself

This is the best thing I've seen today. Maybe all week. I present.... 'lol' used as a transitive verb!

Friday, 2 October 2015

Iceland in translation is less icy

I read one of Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen books, And then you die. Part of the plot (not really a spoiler) involves Zen (an Italian) finding himself unexpectedly in Iceland. The Italian consul, who meets him there, tells him where he is, and they have this exchange (in Italian):
Snæbjörn Guðmundsson: This is Iceland.
Aurelio Zen: I don't see any ice.
Snæbjörn Guðmundsson: No, Greenland's the icy one. 
This is true. Iceland isn't specially icy (not all over it, anyway) and Greenland is very icy. This fact always pleased me.

But Zen is Italian, and does not speak English (he originally believes himself to be in America, where he was bound for, and assumes the people are speaking in some obscure regional dialect of English). The Italian for 'ice' is ghiaccio, though, so the etymology of the Italian name of the country, Islanda, is not obvious as it is in English. It comes as a direct borrowing from the Icelandic name, and the Italian Wikipedia page has to explain this fact, indicating its non-transparency. Similarly, Greenland is Groenlandia in Italian, while 'green' is verde. In Italian, the confusion should never arise.