Archive for June, 2009

No nouning!

June 20, 2009

There’s a lot of hostility out there towards certain words, especially when the complainer sees them as recent innovations, and especially when the words fit certain patterns. For instance, Mark Liberman reported (in “Centuries of disgust and horror”, here) on hostility towards some uses of the suffix –ize, as in incentivize. And direct, or zero, conversion of words to verbs or nouns (which I’ll call verbing and nouning for short) gets a lot of bad press: verbing weirds language (and so does nouning).

The usual objection to zero conversions is that they’re unnecessary: the language already has phrasal equivalents to the innovations, or has existing single-word equivalents. And the usual response to such objections is that the innovations are often shorter than the alternatives (brevity is good) and they almost always express subtleties not conveyed by the alternatives.

But sometimes people object to zero conversions simply on the grounds that they change categories.

Case in point: the nouning of the verb fail.


McIntyre, simmering

June 19, 2009

Act 2 of my latest posting on split infinitives looked at the prohibition against “split verbs” (as in “you can easily see …”), a proscription advanced in some legal and journalistic settings, almost surely as an extension of Alford’s Rule (No Split Infinitives).

John McIntyre has now fumed on his blog (on 4 June) about the appearance of No Split Verbs (in conjunction with No Split Infinitives) in the latest edition of the Associated Press Stylebook, which has been proscribing the usage for decades, while usage authorities unanimously label the proscription as a groundless superstition.

McIntyre’s piece is full of frustration. He’s been bashing at NSV for years, and as a long-time newspaper editor, he has a real stake in the matter. (Many of the rest of us have more peripheral roles in the matter, though we sometimes have to cope with intransigent editors or with students who opt for awkward, at best, sentences because they were trying to follow what the believed to be “rules of English”). That’s topic #1 for this posting. Topic #2 has to do with the details of the proscription, and where it might have come from (beyond simple confusion about what is and what isn’t a split infinitive).



June 19, 2009

Coverville is a regular podcast by Brian Ibbott (also available on KYCY in San Francisco, 1550 AM) that features cover versions of songs, usually in a thematic set. Program 576, back in May, was “Grammarville”, with songs whose titles seemed to Ibbott to offend the rules of English grammar.


Resumptive that 1

June 19, 2009

This is a first posting — more to come — on instances of “double that“, cases in which the complementizer is repeated, as in:

[spoken] I don’t want to perpetuate the myth that if you’re not in love in the middle of February that there’s something wrong with you. [old episode of the television sitcom Will and Grace]

[written] This is akin to arguing that because modern American students are not familiar with the printing conventions used in Shakespeare and Chaucer’s time, that for that reason alone, they’d be cut off from English historical literature. [commenter KYL on Language Log posting “Simplified vs. Complex / Traditional”, 4/24/09]

I’ll call the phenomenon “resumptive that“, because the first that initiates the complement and the second resumes the main clause of the complement after some intervening material.

Laura Staum Casasanto and I have collected a number of such examples. They’re much more common than you might think; people are likely not to notice them, especially if the intervening material is an adverbial subordinate clause (as in the cases above).

There’s some experimental literature (mostly due to Staum (Casasanto) and Ivan Sag) about the role resumptive that plays in language processing, but I’ll put off discussion of that to a later posting. Here my interest is in what the usage advice has had to say about the phenomenon — which is either that the second that is just “unnecessary” (a simple judgment on acceptability) or that it’s at root an inadvertent error resulting from loss of attention (an account of causation). I’ll eventually want to cast some doubt on the inadvertency proposal as an explanation of all instances of resumptive that (while not denying that some instances arise that way), but that too remains for a later posting. Here I’ll just survey some of the advice literature.


An insurmountable obstacle in the way of a speeding train

June 17, 2009

Ordinarily I wouldn’t comment on yet another raging against split infinitives, but the NYT Book Review chose to use a signficant amount of space to print an intemperate letter on the topic on 14 June (p. 6).

The letter by Richard Palumbo of New York (there are a number of Richard Palumbos out there, and I don’t know which one this is, so I have no idea how he comes to be pronouncing on matters of grammar and usage and founding a Society Against Split Infinitives), reacts to Roy Blount Jr.’s review of Patricia O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman’s Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language.

Palumbo begins by noting that Blount summarizes O&K’s discussions of hopefully and disinterested/uninterested and goes on to inquire:

As one of the old “fuddy-duddies out there” mentioned by the same authors, I ask: What about split infinitives, which have become even more commonplace in both the written and spoken language?

and to cite a couple of examples from the Times and then to offer what I think is a novel critique of split infinitives (well, it’s based on the popular, though mistaken, idea that infinitival to + V is a unit, but it clothes this idea in a striking metaphor).


peeve vocabulary

June 15, 2009

My last posting here was about peeveblogging and related phenomena. Then I began wondering about the history of peeve words. The OED did a draft revision of its entries on these verbs in December 2005, so I can report on much of this history here.

It seems to begin with peevish, of uncertain origin and with a range of senses, attested from ca. 1400. Peevishness followed not long after (attested from 1468 on). There’s then a long hiatus, until the early 20th century, when peeve words exploded: a verb peeve, back-formed from peevish, attested as a transitive from 1901, as an intransitive from 1912; then an adjective peeved (from 1908); and a noun peeve, as in pet peeve (from 1909).

Things were quiet until blogging came along, and with it the synthetic compounds peeveblogging and peeveblogger (the first, apparently, on Language Log in October 2005), along with the ordinary noun-noun compound peeve blog ‘blog for/of peeves’ and the (I suppose) inevitable back-formed verb peeveblog, as in this blog entry from 2008:

This will be the last time that I peeveblog about peeveblogging about peeves.


June 14, 2009

Commenter Jim G on Mark Liberman’s recent Language Log posting about Charles Krauthammer and passive/active voice:

The Language Loggers have twice found my quibble-button today.

You could have gone all day without using ‘reference’ as a verb, and I’d have been happier as a result.

And Prof. Pullum had earlier upset my pepsia by writing [here] that he was going to ruminate over lunch, although he was probably going to ruminate the lunch itself while he was thinking.

My main purpose in this posting is to ask what the point of this quibbling is. But there are some other matters to clear up before that.


Postings on split infinitives

June 13, 2009

Another list of postings, this time on split infinitives. I looked for postings that had something substantial to say about them, rather than just mentioning them in passing.

For a compact discussion of the topic, see Geoff Pullum’s treatment on his website.

AZ, 5/14/04: Obligatorily split infinitives:

GN, 5/23/04: Split decision:

GP, 9/20/04: Two bites of authors’ remorse:

GP, 4/11/05: The pointless game of Grammar Gotcha:

AZ, 5/7/05: Not to or to not:

GP, 5/19/05: Obligatorily split infinitive in real life:

AZ, 7/14/05: No splitting in court:

EB, 11/5/05: Better to X than to not Y:

GP, 3/29/07: Joe, this is for you:

GP, 4/29/08: Irrational terror over adjunct placement at Harvard:

GP, 4/30/08: Books more loved than looked in:

AZ, 5/2/08: Nonintervention:

AZ, 5/10/08: Contamination:

AZ, 5/13/08: Crazies win:

ML, 8/21/08: Heaping of catmummies considered harmful:

GP, 8/21/08: Minor writers, revolt!:
GP, 9/26/08: Inconsistent Latinophilia:

Postings on 2-p b-f verbs

June 13, 2009

Back-formations come in several flavors. Recently I’ve been posting on two-part back-formed (2-p b-f) verbs; a list of these postings is given below, for your reference. But there are also:

simple back-formed verbs (like incent);

nouns back-formed from nouns in -s, with the -s interpreted, ahistorically, as the mark of the plural (kudo);

other back-formed nouns (taxon, from taxonomy);

adjectives back-formed from negative adjectives by eliminating a negative prefix (couth);

other back-formed adjectives (gullible).

Back-formed verbs are hugely more numerous than the other types.

The list:

AZ, 8/22/08: To gay marry:

AZ, 11/2/08: Early/absentee vote (the verbs):

AZ, 4/5/09: scuba dove?:

Be-less passives and be-ful non-passives

June 12, 2009

Since 2003, the Language Loggers have been looking at what people say about passives: what people identify as “passive” or “passive voice” (or, sometimes, alas, “passive tense”) and what as not; what they advise about the use of this syntax; and so on.

From the very first posting on passives, the Loggers have noted the inclination of a great many people to identify as passive voice any clause that is “vague on agency” (by failing to assign responsibility for some situation to a specific human agent). (Sometimes it’s clauses denoting situations that are not activities that are so identified.) The agency tradition continues, in two postings today, from Geoff Pullum and Mark Liberman, on Charles Krauthammer, here and here.

Concerns about agency and activity have led a surprising number of people (including many who really should know better) to identify as passive all clauses with the head verb be and to condemn such clauses as “weak”, “inactive”, “vague”, “boring”, and the like. But this fails in both directions: there are passive expressions that lack be and expressions with be that aren’t passive.