Archive for October, 2009

The nanosecond of uncertainty

October 31, 2009

A couple of years ago, Neal Whitman and Mark Liberman scrutinized a claim by James J. Kilpatrick. From Mark’s summary, here:

James Kilpatrick complained in print about the “horrid” headline “Mass Transit Not An Option for All Drivers”, on the grounds that “if mass transit is not an option for ‘all’ drivers, it cannot be an option for even one driver”. He added, “Even a little ambiguity is a dangerous thing. The problem with this Horrid Example is that it creates a nanosecond of uncertainty.”

Neal Whitman and I ignored the “nanosecond of uncertainty” business, since a literal application of this idea would put pretty much all of the English language off limits.

Mark and Neal focused instead on Kilpatrick’s treatment of negation and quantification (and Jan Freeman joined in with a discussion of another example from this point of view). Here I’m going to go a bit further with the “nanosecond of uncertainty” matter and the dangers of “even a little ambiguity”.


Dislike of blog

October 30, 2009

A fair number of people dislike the word blog, to varying degrees (from mere disapproval to something approaching full-blown word rage). Some of the objections seem to be mostly visceral, others are backed by reasons.

Of the first sort:

“What’s Lewis Black mad about now?” Larry King asks the Daily Show frequenter and comedian-author-actor, and the answer is: blogs! “I will not blog… I hate the word ‘blog,’ it sounds like a condition.” (link)

Of the second sort, here’s David Giacalone, concerned about the “language legacy” the digital community will leave behind and calling for “an ethics and aesthetics of language creation”:

We have an obligation to craft a nomenclature that makes sense within the context of our langage and that — as much as possible — is aesthetically pleasing (easy on the ears and eyes).

Of course, language must and should evolve, but new words and terminology should be built upon root forms that have some meaning within the history of our language.  “Automobile” made sense (a vehicle that moves by itself — no horses needed, with the root words being the Greek for self and the Latin for move).  “Telephone” has its roots in the Greek words for distant and voice.   Even a techie term like “kluge” has real roots in an actual language, as explained here.  (It’s the German word for clever and is used when one has found a clever, even if homely, way to solve a problem with the tools on hand.)     In contrast, “blog” has no linguistic, historical, or cultural frame of reference.

Perhaps, most teens (or even aging geeks) don’t care whether the jargon they create has lasting linguistic appeal — indeed, they often want to use terminology that is edgy, offensive or cliquish.   But language-lovers and serious users of words should care — as should those who want the new concepts and tools of technology to be readily accessible to a broad public.

There is no good reason to leave a language legacy such as the four-letter word “blog”.

… As new formats and technologies are created, let’s remember that we are also creating and sharing a verbal legacy.   If the goal is better communication that leads to better understanding and wider use of the new inventions, jargon and lingo and four-letter neologisms just won’t do. (link)

To sum up Giacalone’s objections to blog:

1. It’s a neologism, an innovation.

2. It’s a clipping, rather than a word with a proper etymology and morphological strtucture.

3. It’s short (a “four-letter word”, in fact).

4. It’s jargon (or slang).

5. It’s fashionable, especially among the young and the nerds.

(Objections like these are all over the peeve world — trotted out against any number of words, especially verbings, nounings, back-formations, and clippings.)

Since Giacalone wrote, in 2003-04, blog has pretty much carried the day, though there are still people who fastidiously use web journal or web diary instead.

Insofar as Lewis Black gives a reason for his dislike, it has to do with the sound of the word; plenty of other people find its sound troublesome. I see two lines of objection here:

6. It sounds like vomiting. (A number of sites say this.)

7. It evokes associations with other bl- words: blob, blood, blather, blase, blah, blabber, blubber, bloat, etc. (Of course, there are plenty of bl- words that are affectively neutral or positive.)

For many people, these sound-based objections might, of course, be rationalizations for judgments based on considerations like 1-5.


October 29, 2009

On the menu at my local Gordon Biersch restaurant: housemade pretzels.

Housemade for older home-made (or homemade) seems to be sweeping U.S. restaurant menus, though it doesn’t seem to have made it into any of the standard dictionaries yet; and if you search for it, Google suggests you meant homemade; and the site flatly labels it as an error in English grammar.

Literalists have long complained about home-made on menus, on the grounds that it means ‘made at home, made in someone’s home’ and so shouldn’t be used for food that is prepared in a restaurant’s kitchens (much less for something brought in from elsewhere, made it a factory, or bought in a store); this is the meaning given in most dictionaries. Nonetheless, an extended use for ‘made in-house’ has been around for some time.

The innovation housemade serves to convey this meaning clearly. But it also provides a cachet lacking in the homely and amateur-sounding home-made. So, despite the fact that a fair number of people find it pretentious (to judge from comments on the web), housemade is steadily advancing.

Andrew Romano looked at the word for Newsweek this spring (“House Sweet House”, on-line on May 22, in the magazine on June 1) and reported:

Behold “housemade”: the artisanal adjective that has yet to appear in Merriam-Webster but is suddenly materializing on menus across the nation, often where a humble “home-made” used to be. In Brooklyn, restaurants such as the Michelin-starred Dressler rarely deign to serve dishes not described as housemade: housemade gnocchi with morel ragout ($15); cheddar burger with housemade pickles ($13.50); housemade pecan sticky buns ($4); and, lest the liquor feel left out, a cocktail with house-infused orange vodka ($11). According to, 244 New York restaurants now boast housemade (or “house-made”) fare, and the eateries of Los Angeles (118), Washington, D.C. (112), Chicago (79), South Florida (62), Boston (57) and Philadelphia (56) don’t lag by much. In San Francisco, the term has nearly outpaced homemade (192 to 176).

Home-made is of course still available for a contrast with store-bought, especially with reference to non-food items: homemade soap, laundry detergent, garden sprays, weed killer, solar power, wind generators, stun guns, and much more.

Slifted allegations

October 28, 2009

In the letters section of the New York Times on October 25 (in the Week in Review section), readers commented on conflicts between the public’s right to know and the rights of those involved in legal proceeedings. The last letter accused the Times (and other news media) of subverting the presumption of innocence, via the syntax of the sentences the paper uses to report charges (involving a construction known in the syntactic literature as Slifting).

Clark Hoyt, the public editor of the Times, then explained why journalists sometimes chose Slifting, but conceded that the letter-writer had a point.


Lagers and loggers

October 27, 2009

Chris Waigl sends on the cartoon below, displayed in Silver Gulch (“America’s northernmost brewery”) in Fox, Alaska:

For Chris, lager and logger are a minimal pair (with an unrounded vowel in the first syllable of the first, a rounded vowel in the second); for me, they are homophones (with an unrounded vowel in both), which blunts the effect of the joke.

The history and dialectology of low back vowels in English is extraordinarily complex; the Wikipedia entry on the phonological history of the English has a detailed account of the situation, taken from scholarly sources.

With respect to the low back vowels, Chris’s variety of English approximates British RP (“Received Pronunciation”), where there are three phonemically distinct vowels in this phonetic space:

an unrounded long vowel (in father and cart);

a rounded long vowel (in law and caught);

a rounded short vowel (in bother and cot).

My system in this domain is a subtype of GA (“General American”), which has two phonemically distinct vowels:

an unrounded long vowel (in father, bother, and cot; my variety is rhotic, so cart is not directly relevant here);

a rounded long vowel (in law and caught).

Note that I don’t generally have the cot/caught merger that is fairly widespread in American English (usually in favor of an unrounded vowel), but like many GA speakers, I have the merger in some words. As it happens, log is one of them; I have a rounded vowel in dog, but an unrounded vowel in log and also logger (and for some words I have alternative pronunciations), though many GA speakers have a rounded vowel in all three words.

So logger and lager end up being homophones for me (but a minimal pair for Chris Waigl).

(Note: normally I allow comments on this blog, but I’m closing them for this posting, because my experience is that the topic provokes a cascade of unproductive comments about people’s pronunciations of specific words. It’s well known that there are a great many varieties and sub-varieties of English in the domain of low back vowels; that there’s also variation in the treatment of specific words; and that all this variation is associated — but not rigidly — with geography, social class, age, and other non-linguistic factors. Information from particular people about particular words doesn’t advance our knowledge, entertaining though it may be to exchange anecdotes about the way we talk.)


October 26, 2009

The beginning of a Los Angeles Times story, “How a girl’s stark words got lost in the Polanski spectacle” (by Joe Mozingo, October 25):

In the flat light of the grand jury room, a nervous, deeply embarrassed 13-year-old girl sat alone — no attorney, no mother, no friend — facing three tiers of middle-aged strangers silently studying her from their leather armchairs.

The questions that day in March 1977 were clinical in tone.

The answers would set off a furor from Hollywood to London and Paris that has yet to subside.

Samantha Gailey — sandy brown hair, dimpled chin, missing class at her junior high in Woodland Hills — described her alleged rape by director Roman Polanski two weeks before at Jack Nicholson’s home above Franklin Canyon. She clutched a small heart charm her friend had given her.

“After he kissed you, did he say anything?” asked the prosecutor, Roger Gunson.

“No,” the girl said.

“Did you say anything?”

“No, besides I was just going, ‘No, come on, let’s go home. . . .’ He said, ‘I’ll take you home soon.’ ”

“Then what happened?”

“And then he went down and started performing cuddliness.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means he went down on me, or he placed his mouth on my vagina. . . . I was ready to cry. I was kind of — I was going, ‘No. Come on. Stop it.’ But I was afraid.”

Yes, cuddliness for cunnilingus — an eggcorn in a disturbing scene. Much commented on on the web. All the examples I’ve found except two make reference to Gailey’s testimony, and these two are recent (from September 30) and might have been picked up from the Polanski story:

How do you perform cuddliness without instruction from porn? (link)

a beefy cholo who isn’t afraid to perform cuddliness on his woman. (link)

(Hat tip to Philip Lopez.)

[Side issue: note the occurrences of quotative go in Gailey’s 1977 testimony. The first reference to quotative go in the linguistic literature seems to have been in a 1980 note in American Speech by Ron Butters, “Narrative Go ‘Say'” — but of course usages don’t get reported in the literature (and dictionaries) until they’ve become reasonably frequent, so 1977 occurrences of quotative go (especially in the speech of a young American female) are not especially notable.

The innovative quotatives like, go, and all have been touched on several times in Language Log (here, here, and here), and there is now a considerable literature on their syntax, semantics/pragmatics, sociolinguistics, and history. Quotative go didn’t make it into OED2 (1989), though it will appear in the OED when the go entry is revised, and it is already in NOAD2 and (with a usage note) in AHD4.]

Neg-quant scope

October 25, 2009

From a rodeo queen competitor interviewed on KQED’s “California Report”, October 23:

(1) It’s sort of depressing when you haven’t won many times, again, again.

The intended reading of “you haven’t won many times” is not one in which negation has scope over the quantifier many

(1a) ‘it’s not the case that you have won many times’

(a reading that mirrors the ordering of the negator and the quantifier in (1) — but one with the quantifier scoping over negation:

(1b) ‘there are many times when you haven’t won’

In fact, (1) might be understood as implicating something stronger than (1b), namely that there aren’t any times when you have won, an understanding that’s encouraged by “again, again”: you keep on failing to win, time after time.

Here’s a case that follows Kilpatrick’s Rule (KR), which prescribes the scoping of a quantifier over negation. KR is so called from James J. Kilpatrick’s insistence that the headline

(2) Mass Transit Not an Option for All Drivers

must mean that mass transit is an option for no drivers (‘for all drivers, mass transit is not an option’), though this is clearly not what the headline writer intended.

Mark Liberman mused on KR on Language Log (here, here, and here), disputing Kilpatrick’s claim, as did Neal Whitman and Jan Freeman. All three writers maintained that wide-scope negation was by far the most natural reading for examples like (2), and Mark provided a pile of examples, from a variety of respected writers over the centuries, in which negation scopes over the quantifier all, and he hadn’t found any examples with the other scoping.

In fact, it’s not hard to find examples with wide-scope negation where the quantifier all precedes (rather than follows) a negative element, as this case from Nicholas Kristof (“More Troops Are A Bad Bet”, NYT op-ed piece of 9/22/09):

… there are some first-rate commanders on the ground who cooperate well with local Pashtun leaders. That creates genuine stability. But all commanders cannot be above average, and a heavier military footprint almost always leads to more casualties, irritation and recruitment for the Taliban.

The reading here is ‘it’s not the case that all commanders can be above average; not all commanders can be above average’, not ‘for all commanders, they cannot be above average; no commanders can be above average’.

But (1) has the quantifier many, not all, and the two quantifiers work somewhat differently. Indeed, the difference between the readings (1a) and (1b) is subtle — even more so for (2′) (cf. (2)):

(2′) Mass Transit Not an Option for Many Drivers

‘not many drivers have mass transit as an option’ or ‘for many drivers, mass transit is not an option’.

Zippy humor

October 24, 2009

A weekend cartoon.

I usually “get” Zippy cartoons — some people are just baffled by them — but here’s one where I don’t see the point; in particular, I don’t see why it’s called “The Best-Seller Principle”:

Any suggestions from the readership?

Inventorying stuff: Include All Necessary

October 23, 2009

Some notes on inventorying postings about topics in the world of grammar, usage, and style — mostly about how these inventories are assembled and the imperfections that result.


Walter Gretzkying Carnegie Hall

October 23, 2009

The New Yorker isn’t given to prudishness, but sometimes its writers get waggish. As in a Tad Friend “Talk of the Town” piece on October 19 about Kevin Smith on stage.

Kevin Smith, the writer-director of such couch-potatoes-rule films as “Clerks” and “Dogma,” and the author of a new book called “Shootin’ the Sh*t with Kevin Smith,” has a sideline in standup. Not long ago, to pretty much everyone’s surprise, he played Carnegie Hall.

[The asterisk in “Sh*t” isn’t a contribution from Friend or a New Yorker editor; it’s in the book’s title.]

Early on, Smith began

offering candid, digressive responses to his fans’ questions–so candid that, in these pages, it’s necessary to relay them in code. We’re going to substitute “Wayne Gretzky,” the hockey great whom Smith reveres, for the intimate body parts that he frequently mentions. When he discusses those body parts’ being involved in certain private activities–when he uses them as a verb–the proxy phrase will be “Walter Gretzky,” Wayne’s father, and, according to Kevin Smith, one of the great human beings.

Note the extravagant indirectness of “intimate body parts” and “certain private activities”, expressions that send up the sort of elaborate taboo avoidance indulged in by the New York Times and some other publications. (Some day when I want a mildly frivolous project to brighten a down time I’ll assemble a document with all the NYT taboo avoidance examples I’ve collected over the years.)

Friend went beyond this to introduce the absurd Gretzky Code, thus deliberately tying himself up in knots in reporting what went down at Carnegie Hall, since Smith got some questions about the actual Wayne Gretzky. But the Gretzky Code did enable Friend to pull off some wonderful weirdness.

The last comment came from an audience member who had been

watching the reactions of Smith’s mother and wife, who were seated up front, to Smith’s profane musings. Smith pointed proudly at his mother and his wife and said, “There’s the Wayne Gretzky I came from, and there’s the Wayne Gretzky I go to.”

And later, Smith comes across his 9-year-old daughter (who had introduced him at the beginning of the event) attempting “If I Fell” on the piano, and says:

“I won’t remember anything else about tonight, but I will remember my kid trying to plink her way through that Beatles song backstage in the Maestro Suite at Walter Gretzkying Carnegie Hall.”

[On a different, um, note: when he talks about substituting “Wayne Gretzky” for intimate body parts and about using those body parts as verbs, Friend indulges in a common metonymy according to which a linguistic expression and the thing it refers to are conflated: a reference to the thing can convey a reference to the linguistic expression (body parts as verbs and the like). In ordinary language, this practice is usually harmless, but in discussions of linguistic structure, identifying words and things can lead to trouble.]