Singing my praises

🐅 🐅 🐅 three tigers! for ultimate May and the end of the spring months

Facebook responses to my 5/24 posting “Who am I kidding?” (about this idiom) included two — very different in their focus — that were touchingly laudatory. With considerable misgivings about blowing my own horn, I’m going to reproduce some of this discussion here (and will reproduce the body of the 5/24 posting as an appendix to this posting, so that you can easily see what Chris Brew (computational linguist at the Ohio State University) and Lise Menn (psycholinguist at the University of Colorado) were talking about).

CB’s praise. His original response, and then my reply to it, which took us (as conversations will) far afield (nobody expects the Mendelssohn Octet).

CB: This is a great little piece. It’s just exactly technical enough, and accessible and interesting for linguists and non-linguists alike. Everyone gets taught something about idioms, but what is taught is often confusing and wrong. Nice to have something better.

AZ > CB: Wow, Chris. Thank you. Of course I had 60 years of practice to develop my skill at this kind of writing (which is a lot like my analyses of cartoons — pretty much always an astonishment to my cartoonist friends). And then my first hit publication was “Auxiliary Reduction in English” in, omigod, 1970, and I’ve been toiling in the AuxRed field (mostly in collaboration with Geoff Pullum) ever since, so *that* material was right to hand.

The piece exhibits not so much some kind of freakish ability (how on earth Mendelssohn could produce the masterpiece of his Octet as a fucking *teenager* [he was 16] I will never understand; I totally understand Keith Richards practicing his guitar doggedly all his life), but is a tribute to fruits of constant practice, refinement of skills, reworking of material, and rethinking. Plus researching and writing for long days, every day of the year. Oh yes, I totally love doing this stuff.

[This reply garnered loves from CB and John Lawler.]

CB > AZ: Most people underestimate the value of just sticking at it.

Mendelssohn wrote 13 highly competent string symphonies BEFORE the octet. That must be part of why.

AZ > CB: You’re right about Mendelssohn, of course. But somehow all that preparatory journeyman symphony-writing burst into bloom as one of the monuments of 19th-century Romantic music. Just fabulous music.

LM’s praise. Veers into meta-commentary: she praises my posting (“a sweet bit of analysis”) but then focuses on the circumstances of its creation.

LM: A sweet bit of analysis by Arnold Zwicky, posted in his blog this morning. Arnold, who I’ve known since 1974, is astounding: beset by a number of serious health problems, he crafts essays like this one for pure pleasure. [with a link to “Who am I kidding?”]

This comment has gotten 19 reactions on FB. But — given its meta nature — it’s not clear that these 19 people actually read my posting; they might merely have been approving of the sentiments in LM’s comments. In contrast, my own FB announcement of the posting got only 4 reactions.

What I do, why I do it, how I do it. CB’s comment immediately provoked a response from me about the craft of writing about language for a general audience — for civilians, as I sometimes think of it — and (implicitly) about understanding where the audience is (probably) coming from but also trying to get them to play along with you even when you’ll be challenging some of their presuppositions about the material, including some things that they’ve been taught; and also about grounding this writing in extensive and detailed knowledge of the phenomena of particular languages, especially of English, the language of your writing.

This is, of course, teaching, except without the physical and social setting of the classroom: no faces to scan; no immediate feedback; little knowledge of who, specifically, the audience is; no fostering of a classroom culture of mutual trust and openness; no general agreement about what you are all doing together. Blogging on language is like giving a class to an empty room.

On the other hand, you can polish your stuff as you would for publication.

Why do I do it? For various reasons, my days of classroom teaching ended a long time ago. But blogging gives me an outlet for my passion for analysis (I’ll find orderliness and organization in practically anything), my fascination with the extraordinary variety of  language use, and the joy I take in revealing these things to other people. (Pretty much anybody else: every one of my paid caregivers has been pulled into my enthusiasms.)

Beware the juggernaut, my friends!

How do I do it? Some brief notes on my inclinations in approaching the task of writing (and doing my research)

First important thing: I’m a miniaturist by preference — see the 5/24 post (and the “How do I do it? section of this posting you are now reading). Not naturally given to sweeping views of things, to Big Ideas, to grand syntheses. More likely to seek larger lessons in small things, carefully examined.

Second: I’m also a restless thinker and performer, a kind of Isaiah Berlin superfox — who knows and says many things, and makes associative, often playful, leaps from one thing to another (no hedgehog I).

Then there’s the matter of conveying important things about complex subjects to people who know little about these things: you’ve got to leave a lot out, you’ll have to traffic in useful half-truths, and you’ll have to look for colorful but effective metaphors.

Finally, I discovered over 20 years ago that even wonderfully crafted postings might fall on deaf ears because I’m an expert, and people tend to be wary indeed of self-styled experts, especially when the news the experts bring doesn’t accord with their preconceived ideas.

The cure for the problem seems to be a sense of personal connection between you and your readers. If they know about you as a person, see you as not only earnest but also empathetic, with their own interests at heart, they’ll be more willing to play along and to trust what you have to say. I have a wide range of stories about people (including my colleagues in other academic fields) who were deeply resistant to my messages — until they experienced me in a social context where they could judge me to be a good guy, empathetic, and trustworthy (some of them became friends).

I used to fret that my success in linguistics was entirely down to my being a nice guy (despite all that obtrusive queer stuff). But I was young and insecure then; partly through the opinions of people who admired, and some who loved, me, I came to see that I had plenty of genuine talents — but also that being a nice guy amplifies their effects

Appendix 1. From OED2 for the verb sing, in the idiom sing one’s praises (really, sing X’s praises, where X is a person or thing): ‘to be loud in laudation of’ [1st cite 1565; Thackeray, The Virginians (1858) May we … not sing the praises of our favourite plant?]

Note the two syntactic forms: sing X’s praises / sing the praises of X.

Appendix 2. The 5/24 posting:

This is about a perfectly common expression — Who am I kidding? — that went past me in a flash on Facebook this morning but caused me (as a student of GUS — grammar, usage, and style / register) to reflect on the pronoun case in it. On the interrogative human pronoun, appearing here in what I’ll call its Form 1, who, rather than its Form 2, whom.

The pronoun in this expression is the direct object of the verb in the expression, KID, appearing in sentence-initial position (appearing “fronted”) in the WH-question construction of English. There’s nothing at all remarkable about this: in general, both forms of this pronoun are available as syntactic objects (of verbs or prepositions) in the language, differing only in their style / register (very roughly, formal whom vs informal who), with the special case of an object pronoun actually in combination with its governing preposition, which is  obligatorily in Form 2:

Who / Whom did you speak to? BUT *To who / ✓to whom did you speak?

So there’s nothing remarkable about Who am I kidding? It’s just informal.

What’s remarkable is the unacceptability of Whom am I kidding? The stylistic discord between the formality of object whom and the informality of the idiom WH-Pro am I kidding? is unresolvable. To put it another way, the choice of the Form 1 pronoun here is part of the idiom. Just like the choice of the PRP form of the verb KID, conveying progressive aspect: Who do I kid? lacks the idiomatic meaning.

Background: the idiom (and a closely related one), from The Free Dictionary by Farlex (edited by AZ for form):

Who am I kidding?: an expression of self-doubt. Oh, who am I kidding, running for mayor — I’ll never win. | Taking art classes at my age — who am I kidding?

Who is (someone) kidding?: Would anyone really believe anything so ridiculous or obviously untrue? A: “I’m going to be super rich and run my own company once I’m on my own!” B: “Who are you kidding, Tom? You’re so lazy that you’re barely even going to graduate high school.” | He shows up at these public events with teary eyes, but who is he kidding?

Note: the present-tense verb form is not part of the idiom; both idioms are fine in the past tense: Who was I kidding? Who was he kidding?

(Yes, the idioms are conventionalized rhetorical questions.)

A parallel. Involving the choice of what I’ve called the shapes of forms rather than the choice of forms. From my 11/21/17 posting “??That is aliens for you”, in a section about Auxiliary Reduction (AuxRed) in English (in, for example, who’s versus unreduced who is):

certain words — “little” grammatical words — are especially accommodating hosts for AuxRed: expletive it, expletive there, demonstrative that, interrogative what, who, where, and how, personal pronouns I, you, it, she, he, we, they, complementizer and relativizer that. With these, unreduced auxiliaries are likely to convey either notable formality or emphasis.

As a result, an informal-style idiom that has one of these accommodating hosts followed by the very easily reducible auxiliary is is very likely to be frozen in its AuxRed version: the formality of the unreduced auxiliary would conflict fatally with the informal style of the idiom as a whole. So we get “obligatory AuxRed” idioms like these two:

How’s the boy? ‘How are you?’ (a greeting from a man to a male familiar)

What’s up? ‘What is the matter?’ or ‘What is happening?

And …:

That’s NP for you ‘That’s characteristic of NP’, ‘That’s the way NP is/are’

So: That’s aliens for you ‘That’s the way aliens are’, but ??That is aliens for you.

That is, in these cases the choice of the reduced shape is (again) part of the idiom.


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