Archive for the ‘Usage advice’ Category

This week’s diathesis alternation

June 1, 2015

From the NYT yesterday, in “Who Will Watch the Charities?” by David Callahan:

Last week federal authorities disclosed that four cancer charities had bilked tens of millions of dollars from donors.

The subordinate clause here has a VP of the form:

(1) bilk MONEY from VICTIM

where I might have used one of the form:

(2) bilk VICTIM of MONEY

i.e., four cancer charities had bilked donors of tens of millions of dollars. Same verb, same participants in the event (a victim, some money), but different syntax: different argument structures, that is, different associations of the syntactic arguments (direct object DO and oblique object OO) with the participants. In more detail:

(1) V: bilk DO:MONEY P: from + OO:VICTIM

(2) V: bilk DO:VICTIM P: of + OO:MONEY

There is some tradition for referring to such a variation between argument structures as a diathesis alternation. In this case, both alternants are standard, and, so far as I can tell, are treated as such in the usage literature.

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Briefly: Language reform

May 24, 2015

In the June 2015 Funny Times, a cartoon by UK cartoonist Clive Goddard, for which I supply here only the caption, which bears almost all the humor anyway (I haven’t been able to find an image on-line). A committee of four people are gathered thoughtfully around a conference table:

Central Sub-Committee Steering Group for the Facilitation of Brevity & Clarity of Language Usage in the User/Provider Communication Interface (Formerly the plain English group)

Oh, how they have fallen!

Follow-up on the 25th: Sim Aberson has unearthed a copy of the cartoon, in a Nuclear Regulatory Commission posting on “Plain Writing and Its Benefits”:

Intervention

May 19, 2015

Part 1:  Back in my posting on “Words to eliminate”, I looked at a site that proposed to get you to improve your writing by eliminating 15 words from it. (Yes, a silly idea.) One of these was that:

[Mashable advice] It’s superfluous most of the time. Open any document you’ve got drafted on your desktop, and find a sentence with “that” in it. Read it out loud. Now read it again without “that.” If the sentence works without it, delete it.

The idea is fraught with problems, most turning on the fact that there are several distinct lexical items that, with a large number of uses, and with distinct syntax, discourse functions, and sociolinguistic statuses for each use.

Part 2: On one of these items, the complementizer that, and its use to mark the object complement of a verb, as in

They know (that) pigs can’t fly.

(where the that variant and the ∅ variant are both fine).

But then I started an e-mail to a friend:

 I do wish people would credit sources.

(with the ∅ variant; the that variant is also possible) and thought to link to previous context with a though — but then the ∅ variant struck me as very awkward indeed:

?? I do wish, though, people would credit sources.

though the that variant is fine:

 I do wish, though, that people would credit sources.

What’s crucial is that material intervenes between the complement-taking verb and the complement. It turns out that this intervention effect is well-known in the variation literature.

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so (that)

May 19, 2015

A sideline in an investigation of “optional that“– that is, variation between that and ∅ — that I’ll post more on in a little while: so that vs. so as conjunctions. I have a bit of personal history with this variation.

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Words to eliminate

May 15, 2015

“15 words you should eliminate from your vocabulary to sound smarter”, by Jennie Haskamp for The Muse on Mashable, 5/3/15 (hat tip to Paul Armstrong). The list is a mixed bag, though many are criticized for being vague or overused.

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Getting it all wrong

December 2, 2014

Back on November 3rd, Ben Zimmer posted on Language Log about another episode in the New Yorker‘s getting usage issues (“descriptive” vs. “prescriptive”) wrong, especially when Steve Pinker is involved: “Screwball reasons and gloriously simple distinctions”, in which

another New Yorker critic, Nathan Heller, makes a mess of things in his review of Pinker’s book The Sense of Style. [“Steven Pinker’s Bad Grammar”]

Heller accuses Pinker of “sentences [that] do not add up” and says that his usage suggestions “actually make the language more confused.” But I found Heller’s piece to be deeply confused, even while it purports to elevate clarity above all else.

Ben is actually being kind here; what Heller wrote is a monstrous fruitcake of flat-out wrongness, misunderstandings of both terminology and facts, and unexpressed (and confused) assumptions about language.

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Paralellism watch

November 17, 2014

Read this sentence, from “G.O.P. Senate Challenger in Alaska Wins” by Kirk Johnson, NYT 11/13/14, p. A23, quickly and, as far as you can manage it, without reflecting on its syntax:

His Senate race featured bruising attacks, including a pro-Begich television ad suggesting that Mr. Sullivan was soft on a crime – a claim that many voters scoffed at and angered others.

And then note any responses you have to it.

(Yes, yes, I know, it’s hard to behave in an everyday unmonitored way in a context that calls attention to language.)

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Monday quartet

November 10, 2014

Four varied cartoons in this morning’s crop: a Zits on address terms; a Scenes From a Multiverse on ; a Rhymes With Orange on case-marking of pronouns with than; and a Zippy reviving Doggie Diner.

(#1)

(#2)

(#3)

(#4)

One by one …

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Not ending with a preposition

September 13, 2014

Today’s Mother Goose and Grimm:

Not ending a sentence with a preposition is one of those grammar myths debunked by virtually every usage authority. Here it surfaces in the supremely silly version that you should never end a sentence with “a preposition”. Note that the proscription violates itself.

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Three diverse

May 21, 2014

This morning: a classic Doonesbury on foul language; a Rhymes With Orange citing the spurious “rule” that an English clause must not end in a preposition; and a Zippy looking back at an ad icon of the 1940s and 50s (“drink more flavored liqueurs”, says Judge Arrow).

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