Archive for August, 2009

Short shot #10: one of the oldest countries

August 31, 2009

From American Public Media’s Morning Marketplace this morning:

Japan is one of the most indebted countries in the world, and it’s also one of the oldest.

The adjective indebted is unremarkable (NOAD2: “owing money: heavily indebted countries“), but oldest is at first puzzling, until the following context makes it clear that old here means (roughly) ‘having (many) old inhabitants’. Unsurprisingly, neither old nor oldest is in the OED online in this sense.

The usage here is as a non-predicating adjective (see discussion of contagious country and indigenous nudity, with links to earlier postings, here), so many of which require background knowledge, plenty of context, and practical reasoning to interpret. Without these, “one of the oldest countries” would be understood to refer to countries that have been in existence for the longest time.

Short shot #9: a tough get

August 31, 2009

[I’m several days into suffering from a dreadful intestinal virus, which among other things has deranged my nights. I’ve been playing KQED on the radio, to keep me company and absorb my attention. So I’ve picked up various odds and ends, from this source and some others.]

I’ll start with one from KQED’s Morning Edition this morning, where sports writer John Feinstein reflected on Rafael Nadal’s chances in the U.S. Open tennis tournament, saying “it’s a tough get”, meaning that the championship would be a tough thing for Nadal to get.

This is a zero nouning (a direct conversion) of the verb get. As with so many very frequent verbs, the nouning of get has been going on for a very long time, but not quite in this sense. (more…)

In the NYT

August 30, 2009

On the New York Times op-ed page of August 11, two very different finds: an odd whom from Benjamin Netanyahu (the Israeli prime minister) and a scholarly reminiscence of the late anthropologist Ann Dunham Soetoro (Barack Obama’s mother). (more…)

What the iPhone can’t do

August 30, 2009

David Fenton wrote yesterday with a puzzle:

This post, which is just a link to a video, has as its comment this phrase:
[1] Is there nothing the iPhone can’t do?

Reading this caused a mental stumble — seems like double negative problem, and more naturally expressed as:
[2] Is there anything the iPhone can’t do?

But then I thought about it, and it seems to me that the two phrases mean exactly the same thing. Normally nothing/anything would be something of a loose antonym pair, but in this case they are interchangeable.

(Slightly edited)

I replied (again, slightly edited):

Seems to me that [1] is naturally read as a rhetorical question, conveying
There is nothing the IPhone can’t do. [3a]
There isn’t anything the iPhone can’t do. [3b]

while [2] can be read as an information question, asking about the abilities of the iPhone. But, in the right context, information questions can be deployed rhetorically, so [1] and [2 ] can end up having very similar effects.

I consulted negation maven Larry Horn, who agreed with my take on the question, and expanded on it:

I don’t see the two questions as being at all the same in terms of what kind of background they presuppose and what kind of answer (if any) they anticipate.

[1] is most naturally uttered as a surprising empirical conclusion to a repeated demonstration of the iPhone’s versatility and capability, and is indeed (as are many negative questions) normally intended rhetorically, roughly equivalent to a (hedged) assertion like “(So) it seems there’s nothing the iPhone can’t do”, i.e.”The iPhone can evidently do anything, right?”

[2], on the other hand, is naturally asked when one is uncertain about the limitations of the iPhone, and might be asked of a salesperson in the Apple Store as a legitimate query: “You’re asking me to pay all this money for a device–what are its limits? What can’t it do?” But [2] can also be used rhetorically in a way quite similar to [1], building in an inference that apparently there isn’t anything it can’t do.

So [2] is a bit more versatile than [1].

Note that Larry’s and my responses go well beyond simple-minded truth-functional semantics (not that you couldn’t try to devise a complex-minded truth-functional semantics, though that takes a considerable amount of work). In particular, both of us replied with references to concepts that are ordinarily understood as pragmatic rather than semantic: see the references to questions understood rhetorically and Larry’s more general reference to “what kind of background [the questions] presuppose and what kind of answer (if any) they anticipate”.

So [1] and [2] are subtly different pragmatically.


August 30, 2009

Caught from an interviewee on the Commonwealth Club of California Radio Program: cross-pollinize (rather than cross-pollinate), in this case used figuratively (rather than in its botanical use).

I’m going to focus on these two features — the choice of pollinize rather than pollinate as the verb derived from the noun pollen, and figurative as well as botanical uses of the two verbs — and on their coverage in a few dictionaries, but there are also some side issues having to do with spelling. (more…)

May I truncate?

August 29, 2009

One of the mysteries of studying advice on grammar, style, and usage is the apparent hit-or-miss character of the advice. One type of expression is labeled as incorrect, illiterate, unintelligible, etc., while superficially similar expressions get little or no attention. There are fashions in grammar/usage peeves, as in so many other things.

Part of the OI! (Omit Needless Words/Include All Necessary Words) project — see some findings here — looks at “truncations”, in a broad sense: shorter constructions that are in alternation with longer constructions that are roughly equivalent semantically (and where the two variants probably spring from the same historical source). There are a huge number of examples, of many different types.

After some background discussion, I’ll look at some no matter idioms, which have undergone initial, medial, and final truncation over the years.

Nonce truncation is very common, especially with fixed expressions, where parts of them can “go without saying” because the expressions are fixed. It’s not hard to find occurrences of above and beyond without the call of duty in contexts where the longer expression is clearly intended, or the whole nine without yards in similar contexts. Proverbs and famous quotations are often truncated in this fashion: Oh, sharper than a serpent’s tooth.

Sometimes the truncated versions become conventionalized, especially when speakers no longer appreciate the source: for example, the idiom trip the light fantastic, which long ago lost its toe for most people.

Other truncations with long histories are now simply idioms: truth be told (no if, no the), truth to tell (no the, not to mention the inverted word order), that said (with several possible historical sources), and so on.

Still others are idioms but still are associated with a somewhat conversational tone or informal style, even though they occur in various sorts of “serious” writing. For instance, truncation of the definite article with certain head nouns in sentence-initial adverbials: time was, point is, and so on. The syntax turns out to be rich and complicated (these aren’t just phonological abbreviations), but in any case the phenomenon is well-attested in editorials in newspapers, in The Economist, etc., in science writing, and so on.

Then we come to truncations that seem to have become conventionalized fairly recently while escaping usage criticism, so far as I can tell: for instance, long story short ‘to make a long story short’, which strikes me as somewhere in the gray zone between standard and non-standard usage.

And then to conventionalized truncations that strike me as non-standard at the moment, but up and coming (they’ve also, as far as I know, escaped the attention of advice writers, though the keen eyes of ADS-L have picked out several of them). Here are two:

reason stands ‘(it) stands to reason’ (ADS-L July 2006)

that being ‘that being said’ (ADS-L June/July 2006)

[Note: I am neither recommending nor disparaging these usages. They are out there, and they are pretty clearly not inadvertent errors.]

Which brings us to the King of Truncation, as/so far as without trailing goes or is concerned. (The classic study is John R. Rickford; Thomas A. Wasow; Norma Mendoza-Denton; & Juli Espinoza.  1995.  Syntactic variation and change in progress: Loss of the verbal coda in topic-restricting as far as constructions.  Language 71.1.102-31.) The amount of venom that has been directed against this usage is hard to believe (it came in second in the Include All Necessary Words competition in the Stanford OI! project’s collection of usage criticism).

The Rickford et al. paper traces its trajectory from as far as NP with a long and complex NP (of some vintage) to the more recent as far as as just a topicalization marker (like as for, with respect to, or the much-despised in terms of).

[I’m somewhat puzzled by many people’s reactions to the usage, but that’s a topic I’ll put off for a later posting. Please don’t write to complain about it; plenty of other people have already done this for you.]

On to no matter constructions. Apparently the historical source is

(1) it’s no matter + Clause

(with no matter conveying ‘of no consequence’), in things like “It’s no matter what you think”. This was then initially truncated to yield a concessive adverbial:

(2) no matter + Clause

(where the clause can be a that-clause, an if-clause, or an interrogative WH clause). Then come the developments of interest. First, a final truncation to an even shorter concessive:

(3) no matter what NP ‘no matter what NP is/are/…’

A recent Google search on {“no matter what your”} pulled up 4,540,000 raw hits, with “what your size/business/taste/skin type/age/…” ({“no matter what your * is”} got a huge number of hits, but not as many as the truncated variant in (3).) Note that the truncated variant in (3) is formally similar to truncated as far as. But it’s amazingly frequent, and seems to have elicited no complaints.

(There are parallels to (3) with other WH words: “no matter how big your debt” and so on.)

The final development is medial truncation of (3), to give an even shorter concessive:

(4) no matter NP ‘no matter what NP’

Again, millions of hits for {“no matter the”} — “no matter the format/context/flavor/locale…” and {“no matter your”} — “no matter your age/route/size/generation…”  And no complaints that I can find.

Inventory of postings on abbreviation

August 29, 2009

Another collection of postings on  to write about, because there’s such a variety of ways in which words or other expressions can have shortened variants (in spelling or pronunciation or both), and because different sources use different terminology.

Some distinctions I’ll make here, first between abbreviations broadly understood and truncations broadly understood. Clear examples of truncations are short forms of longer phrases, in which words that appear in the longer expressions are missing in the shorter. Truncations in this sense include brief idioms like that said, informal variants like time was ‘the time was’, telegraphic variants (as in newspaper headlines), and several other things. I have a posting in preparation on some examples of truncation, but truncations are outside the domain of this posting.

That leaves abbreviations, in which the result is a short word or word-like expression. Many of these — Dr(.) for Doctor, Prof. for Professor — are orthographic short forms. I’ll call these “ordinary abbreviations”, since they’re what most people think of first under the heading abbreviation.

Then there are clippings, another type of word shortening, in which the abbreviation is both phonological and orthographic: ad, exam, chute, flu.

Finally, there are several types of what I’ll call “alphabetic abbreviations”, in which a word is formed from the initial material (usually the initial letters) in the words of some longer expression. There are two main types, and unfortunately there are two competing terminological schemes (both used in Language Log).

The terminology I have used for some time (and will continue to use) is the following:

alphabetic abbreviations: acronyms, in which a sequence of letters is pronounced as a word, using the spelling (as in NATO); and initialisms, in which the abbreviation is pronounced as a sequence of letter-names (as in FBI).

Unfortunately, Geoff Pullum’s terminology (which follows that in CGEL) is different:

initialisms (the larger category): acronyms (as above); and abbreviations (pronounced letter-name by letter-name)

There is no issue of right or wrong here; these are simply different terminological conventions, and both can be defended. In any case, you’ve been warned.

The inventory below doesn’t including passing mentions of specific abbreviations. (more…)

Mock eggcorns and their kin

August 29, 2009

Ellen Kaisse wrote me recently with a query about intentional eggcorn-like creations, particularly as names of companies or products: Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a Dupont business that develops and supplies “advanced plant genetics”. The name reproduces a common eggcorn (in the eggcorn database here), in which hybrid (OED2 etymology: “L. hybrida, more correctly hibrida (ibrida), offspring of a tame sow and wild boar”) is reanalyzed (with several alternative spellings) as a combination of high and bred. Ellen wondered if there was a name for such things.

Well, sort of. A while back, the ADS mailing list had some discussion of deliberate coinings that look like malapropisms. Your run-of-the-mill eggcorn is a species of (classical) malapropism, so it fits into the larger category of (as I called them on ADS-L) mock, or play, malaprops. I’ll replay some of this discussion in a bit. But first, some background comments. (more…)

And the winners are …

August 28, 2009

Phase 2 of the OI! (Omit Needless Words, Include All Necessary Words) project has come to an end. In phase 1, Rachel Cristy collected phenomena under these headings (plus Redundancy/Pleonasm, a category often hard to distinguish from ONW) from a number of advice manuals and usage handbooks. These were sorted by source. In phase 2, Tim Moon added a few more sources, and then sorted the advice by phenomenon.

In the end, we went through 30 books, ranging from the scholarly (MWDEU) to the cranky (James Cochrane’s Between you and I: A little book of bad English), and including frequently-cited items like Fowler (the original Fowler, Gowers’s Fowler, and Burchfield’s Fowler) and Garner’s Modern American Usage. This is of course just a small sampling of the literature; I have hundreds of these volumes. And we relied almost entirely on sources that were arranged dictionary-style; most college handbooks are not arranged this way, but instead have sections on themes in grammar, style, and usage, and so are hard to process for the OI! project.

There are many other sources of advice, proscription, and prescription — for instance, the huge effusion of peeving in newspapers, on the web, and so on — but these are even harder to cope with.

Once Tim Moon had the advice sorted by phenomenon (rather than handbook), he went on to create an Excel sheet with the phenomena sorted by frequency. (more…)


August 28, 2009

On NPR’s Morning Edition on Thursday (August 27), reporter Steve Inskeep mixed it up with Michael Steele, the Republican Party Chairman, on health care. Here’s an excerpt from the middle of the transcript:

INSKEEP: You said that’s something that should be looked into. Who is it that should look into that?
Mr. STEELE: I’m talking about those who – well, who regulates the insurance markets?
INSKEEP: That would be the government, I believe.
Mr. STEELE: Well, and so it – wait a minute, hold up. You know, you’re doing a wonderful little dance here and you’re trying to be cute, but the reality of this is very simple. I’m not saying the government doesn’t have a role to play. I’ve never said that. The government does have a role to play. The government has a very limited role to play.
INSKEEP: Mr. Chairman, I respect that you feel that I’m doing a dance here. I just want you to know that as a citizen, I’m a little confused by the positions you take because you’re giving me a very nice nuanced position here.
Mr. STEELE: It’s not nice and nuanced. I’m being very clear.
INSKEEP: You’re giving me, nevertheless, a nuanced position, a careful…
Mr. STEELE: What’s nuanced? What don’t you understand?
INSKEEP: What nuance means is you’re not doing it absolutely black and white. You’re saying you recognize the government has a role to play here, but when you…
Mr. STEELE: Wait a minute. But that is the – is that a…
INSKEEP: …and your party…
Mr. STEELE: …not reality?
INSKEEP: Come to the actual rhetoric, it seems more along the lines of absolutes. It’s between the patient and the doctor.
Mr. STEELE: I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I don’t accept your premise. And, you know, you have your view and you can see it as nuanced all you want. But the reality of it is I’m being…
INSKEEP: I’m not saying nuanced is a bad thing, sir.
Mr. STEELE: I’m being very clear. I want to have an open debate. I want to put ideas out there. I want the people to understand what this is going to look like when it’s all said and done. And I’m not – you know, seriously, I’m not trying to be nuanced. I’m not trying to be cute. I’m trying to be very clear. I’m not saying the government doesn’t have a role to play here. It does. It’s managing a Medicare program, so it has a role to play.
INSKEEP: Maybe we’re getting hung up on the word nuance. Maybe I should say complicated. Do you find it challenging to get into this complicated debate and explain things to people in a way that it’s honest to the facts and still very clear and doesn’t just kind of scare people with soundbites?
Mr. STEELE: That’s a good point, then. Well no. Look, no one’s trying to scare people with soundbites. I mean, you know, I’ve not done that, and I don’t know any of the leaders in the House and Senate that have done that. And so, yeah, it’s complicated, and you want to break it down.

Steele seems to think that nuanced means something like ‘unclear’ or ‘obfuscated’ and so conveys a negative judgment. This as against the OED‘s definition (draft revision December 2003) — ‘Possessing or exhibiting delicate gradations in tone, expression, meaning, etc.’ — which is certainly positive.

But you can see how someone might come to Steele’s understanding of nuanced, from contexts in which some position is expressed with provisos, limitations, exceptions, and the like, which some might see as obfuscating a point that should be clear. That is, the negative understanding of nuanced is a “private meaning” (see Language Log discussion here).