Archive for June, 2009


June 30, 2009

In the obituaries yesterday (NYT, 6/29/09, p. A17): “Billy Mays, 50, Enthusiastic TV Pitchman” (by Julie Creswell):

Billy Mays, a beloved and parodied pitchman who became a pop-culture figure through his commercials for cleaning products like Orange Glo, OxiClean and Kaboom, died Sunday at his home in Tampa, Fla.

… With his twinkling eyes, distinctive, bushy beard and booming voice, Mr. Mays energetically scrubbed away stains on his way to becoming an infomercial star.

Born in McKees Rock, Pa., Mr. Mays learned his craft on the Atlantic City Boardwalk, where he drew crowds as he hawked his mops and other wares.

The Atlantic City “boardwalk product pitch” plays a big role in the development of the television infomercial, from its beginnings with Ed Valenti and his business partner (Ginsu knives, “But wait! There’s more!”, and “Call now!”, among other things) through Ronco’s endlessly inventive Ron Popeil (the Chop-O-Matic, among other things), Billy Mays, and Offer “Vince” Shlomi (aka Vince Offer, peddling ShamWow! absorbent towels and the Slap Chop food chopper; as I was typing up this posting, he came by on television wielding the Slap Chop and talking a mile a minute, punchily).

I don’t know if anyone’s studied the speech style and rhetorical structure of the boardwalk pitch, but it might make a good subject for someone who specializes in such things. (“Boardwalk pitches” aren’t confined to boardwalks and television infomercials, of course. I first experienced them at county fairs when I was a child.) Certainly, other styles and forms, used by people from preachers to auctioneers, have gotten attention.

Use your words!

June 30, 2009

Hilary Price’s Rhymes With Orange tackles a scene that will be familiar to people who spend a lot of time with small children:

I’m not entirely sure whether “I hate you!” or “NO NO NO!” is much of an improvement over “AAAUGHAAHGH!!”

Regional countries

June 29, 2009

Caught in a public radio news report about Afghanistan this morning, a reference to “three regional countries”, meaning ‘three countries in the region [that Afghanistan is in]’. Not a remarkable example of a non-predicating adjective (latest discussion here) — of a type that is interpreted much like a noun, so that regional country is parallel to area country ‘country in the area’. There is, however some interest in the question of how the region (or area) is identified from context.


One Right Way

June 28, 2009

Yet another inventory of postings (on Language Log and on this blog), this time on references to One Right Way in usage advice.

One Right Way  is the “one form, one meaning” principle (which has been articulated by a number of writers in various contexts) turned into usage advice, with two parts:

(1) There is One Right Way to use an expression; a form should have only one meaning.

(2) There is One Right Way to express a meaning; a meaning should be expressed by only one form. No true synonyms.

Both clauses are used to object to lexical innovations (or what are perceived to be innovations), among other things: clause (1) to object to extensions of meanings (decimate ‘devastate’ is a famous example) and to category shifts (verbings, nounings, and adjings, as in the case of fun); and clause (2) to object to novel lexical items, including back-formations, and also to the cases covered by (1) (on the grounds that the language already has ways of expressing the meaning in question).  There are other uses as well, described in the postings below.

The inventory covers only postings where the label One Right Way is used. As a result, they’re all by me, since I’m the writer who regularly uses this label (in these blogs and in ADS-L).


Faith vs. WF

June 27, 2009

Still another inventory of postings on Language Log and this blog, this time of discussions of conflicts between faithfulness (Faith) and well-formedness (WF), updating the inventory in “Article-article article abstract” and adding very brief annotations.

This inventory doesn’t include some types of cases that have been discussed in these blogs, but without an actual reference to faithfulness, among them: use vs. avoidance of taboo vocabulary in quotation (except in “A few dollops of taboo avoidance”, below); preservation vs. adaptation in borrowing (except in “If you’re uneducated you say it right”, below); “semantic” vs. “grammatical” determination in agreement; assignment of nouns to Count or Mass (on the basis of semantics vs. conventions).

AZ, 1/29/06: Dubious quotation marks:
punctuation and spelling

AZ, 4/9/07: Ducky identity:

AZ, 8/1/07: Cousin of eggcorn:

AZ, 8/12/07: e e cummings and his iPod: Faith vs. WF again:
spelling (esp. capitalization)

AZ, 9/21/07: Punctuational hypercorrection:

AZ, 3/23/08: Article-article article abstract:
articles in proper names

AZ, 8/17/08: A few dollops of taboo avoidance:
taboo avoidance

AZ, 10/30/08: Periods:
periods in abbreviations

GP, 2/2/09: If you’re uneducated you say it right:

BlackBerrys and BlackBerrying


Omit Needless postings

June 27, 2009


Another inventory, this time of postings (on this blog, on New Language Log, and on Language Log Classic) in which “Omit Needless” advice (mostly Omit Needless Words, or ONW, but sometimes advice to omit other things) plays a role. The inventory was prepared by Tim Moon as part of this summer’s work on the OI! project, under the sponsorship of the office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Stanford. The inventory is current up to 6/21/09.


Sotomayoral NomConjObj

June 23, 2009

“My poor friend,” she [Sonia Sotomayor] recalled years later in a speech honoring Mr. Cabranes, “he spent all that time listening to José and I dissect the Puerto Rican colonial spirit.” (David D. Kirkpatrick, “Judge’s Mentor: Part Guide, Part Foil”, NYT 6/22/09, p. 1)

José and I here is an instance of a nominative conjoined object (NomConjObj, for short) — from a decidedly educated speaker. Indeed, I have many examples of NomConjObjs from family, friends, and academic colleagues, mostly in speech but sometimes in informal writing as well.

A particularly likely context for them is in objects functioning as the notional subject of a following constituent (marked infinitival VP, bare VP, or predicative phrase) — as in the Sotomayor example, where José and I functions as the notional subject of the bare VP dissect the Puerto Rican colonial spirit. The conjoined NP “feels” subject-like to many speakers.

But a substantial number of the examples I’ve collected are not in this especially favorable context, but are just ordinary objects:

This is going to require the cooperation of Sali and I. (NWAV speaker, 10/22/05)

He came to my husband and I at M. D. Anderson [Cancer Center in Houston] and we treated him with radiation. (M.D. interviewed in NYT Science Times, 8/2/05)

For you and I, that’s not a very exciting diet… (British biologist on PBS program Origins, seen 8/30/05)

NomConjObjs have been savaged by usage critics as one of the worst offenses against grammar in modern English. James Cochrane, for instance, chose to honor them in the title of his sour little book of criticism Between You and I: A Little Book of Bad English (2004). But look at the Between you and I entry in MWDEU and the Language Log discussions by me in 2005 and Geoff Pullum in 2006.

Geoff’s discussion makes the important points (a) that people who use NomConjObjs are not confused about the distinction between subjects and objects, but are using pronoun case in coordination according to a somewhat different system from the grammar-book prescriptions; and (b) that whether this system should be accounted as acceptable in standard English is a separate (and much more difficult) question from how the system works.

Who is this Na person?

June 23, 2009

This morning I got a Facebook “friend” request from someone named Ds Na. I scratched my head for a moment over the odd name, but then I figured it out: Ds Na was really DSNA (the Dictionary Society of North America), with the name divided in two, and with capitalization as in personal names. And so it was.

I did wonder how to pronounce the name Ds (maybe like does) and whether it’s a woman’s name or a man’s name.

BlackBerrys and BlackBerrying

June 23, 2009

In the 22 June NYT, the story “At Meetings, It’s Mind Your BlackBerry or Mind Your Manners” (by Alex Williams) looks at smartphone use in meetings in the corporate and political worlds. Two points of note: the plural of the noun BlackBerry and the verbing of the word — together in this passage:

“You’ll have half the participants BlackBerrying each other as a submeeting, with a running commentary on the primary meeting,” Mr. Reines [Hillary Clinton adviser Philippe Reines] said. “BlackBerrys have become like cartoon thought bubbles.”

The article has BlackBerrys as the plural throughout. This is the plural spelling that is “faithful” to the base, by preserving the spelling BlackBerry. The alternative is to subject the base to the “change Y to I and add ES” rule that’s usual for pluralizing nouns spelled with a final Y following a consonant letter; that’s the “well-formed” version.

I’ve posted to Language Log many times on conflicts between Faith and WF. In fact, variation in the spelling of the plural for nouns with final Y — (rubber) ducky, Germany, Zwicky — was a topic in one of the earliest of these postings.

And there is variation here. Though the Times seems to have gone for Faith, other writers opt for WF, as on this site:

Wirefly’s 48 hour sale includes most BlackBerries for FREE (link)

Now, the verbing of BlackBerry. There are several senses of the verb out there, but the most frequent use seems to be as a “dative verb”, with its object understood as denoting the recipient of a communication (as in the quote above). Many have noted that as nouns denoting instruments or means of communication come into the language (in the course of technological innovation), they become immediately available as dative verbs; the point is made very clearly in Beth Levin’s 1993 book English Verb Classes and Alternations.

So we now have verbs bluetooth, skype (sometimes spelled with initial caps, sometimes not), text, IMS, etc. — and BlackBerry.

The question is then how to spell the PST/PSP forms of this verb. Again, there’s a conflict between Faith and WF. Both resolutions are attested: WF (with Y changed to I) in things like:

Thinking of Ben, I decided that he was the man to ask. He always had an answer to this sort of thing, so I BlackBerried him. (link)

but Faith (preserving the Y) in, for example:

Her frenetic yet motionless characters reflect the irony of BlackBerryed life: It only looks as if you’re busy. (link)

It occurred to me that if I said something live in person, it would not be as interesting to him as if I’d BlackBerryed him. It occurred to me that if I wanted to talk to him I’d have to BlackBerry him and say, “Please talk to me.” (quote from Peggy Noonan, blogged on here)

An invite

June 21, 2009

Caught in the New Scientist of 20 June, p. 35:

Joe’s status as an AIDS dissident won him an invite [to Peter Duesberg’s laboratory].

The nouning invite struck me as very colloquial in this context, and I wondered if it was a recent innovation. Far from it!

Not only is it very frequent these days, it’s been around for about 350 years. OED2 marks it as colloquial, with cites from 1659 through 1970. The first two:

1659 H. L’ESTRANGE Alliance Div. Off. 326 Bishop him an earnest invite to England.

1778 F. BURNEY Diary (1842) I. 105 Everybody bowed and accepted the invite but me..for I have no intention of snapping at invites from the eminent.

The etymological note shows it as from the verb invite and compares it to command, request, etc. — also nounings of long standing, but in no way colloquial.