Archive for the ‘Conditions in conflict’ Category

Reduced questions

August 30, 2017

A recent One Big Happy in my comics feed:

The woman with the little yappy dog offers Ruthie a casual-speech reduced question, here just a NP a good protector, plus an assent particle. Unfortunately, the reduction introduces a multiplicity of interpretations that would otherwise not be present: the unreduced form could be Is he a good protector? (the woman’s intention) or Are you a good protector? (what Ruthie understands, given her knowledge of the dog and his proclivities) or various other possibilities, like Do you want a good protector?.


Big-ass globalization

August 18, 2017

Back on 7/1/16, in the posting “Big and cool and tangentially surreal”, I looked at an ad that had been appearing in the NYT Magazine for a while, an ad that was interesting in two ways: the American adjectival idiom big-ass ‘really big’ in the name of the Big Ass Solutions company (which makes the huge ceiling fans in the ad); and the ad’s caption Ceci n’est pas un ventilateur ‘This is not a fan’, exemplifying what I’ve come to call the Magrittean Disavowal.

The company turned up in a front-page story in the Times on the 16th, about the complexities of globalization (and the trade agreements that advance it).



January 3, 2015

Briefly noted: in the 11/15/14 issue of the Economist, p. 83 in “Unchained malady”, on testing drugs and vaccines for Ebola fever:

This is called a “step-wedge” design and will be ue by another American government organisation, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Centres. Well, the Economist is a British publication, so it uses the British spelling centre rather than the American spelling center. (And they do this consistently in this case.) But, wait! That would be fine for the common noun (a centre of intellectual activity, etc.). But Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a proper name, and Centers is one of the words in it, so messing with its form is at least dubious.

It’s another conflict between faithfulness (Faith) — in brief, be failthful to the original, leave things the way you found them — and well-formedness (WF) — make them conform to your local practices. There’s no one “right” resolution of these conflicts, though you can make a case for one resolution or the other in specific cases. Here, altering a proper name for the sake of WF makes me very uneasy; it feels to me like insisting that in French contexts my personal name should be spelled Arnaud or Arnauld.



October 31, 2014

On the 28th, I posted “Drunk on words, and a lot of whiskey”, on Dylan Thomas. To which Bill Halstead cried out in pain on Facebook:

“whisky” No ‘e’!!!!

I replied:

I carried over the spelling from the NYT story, which, being American, used the American spelling, with the E; the British and Canadian spelling lacks the E. There’s no winning here: omitting the E would mis-report the NYT, but keeping it is incorrect from the British point of view. A sensible person would just treat the two spellings as interchangeable alternatives.

This is a classic case of conditions in conflict, in particular faithfulness (Faith), saying (among other things) that a quotation should be faithful to its source (so: WHISKEY when quoting from the NYT), vs. well-formedness (WF), saying that a quotation should be well-formed according to the practices of the original source (so: WHISKY when quoting from a UK source about Scotch).

(A complexity here is that the NYT was pretty obviously not faithful to its sources, which were British.)


Edward I as Oliver Cromwell

March 18, 2012

From Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words #778 of 3/17/12:

Miles Irving found this in an article on Dalhousie Castle in the Scotsman on 14 March: “The castle was visited by England’s King Edward I, also known as Longshanks, the Hammer of the Scots, and Oliver Cromwell.”

Three contributions to the problem: (a) the combination of a parenthetical or appositive construction with coordination, both of which use commas, but in two different ways; (b) the possible use of asyndetic coordination (lacking an explicit coordinator) in Longshanks, the Hammer of the Scots — it helps to know that these are two epithets for Edward I — though perhaps the writer’s intention was that the Hammer of the Scots is to be understood as in apposition to Longshanks, inside the parenthetical introduced by also known as (one parenthetical inside another is a potentially confusing configuration); and (c) the choice between using the serial, or Oxford, comma or avoiding it. The result is that even if you know that Oliver Cromwell is not an epithet of Edward I, but the name of an entirely different person, you are likely to get hung up on that absurd interpretation.

Some comments on this particular example, then an inventory of LLog and AZBlog postings on the Oxford / serial comma.


sg or sg = pl

October 24, 2011

From “Beating a retreat” in The Economist, 9/24/11, p. 99 (on-line here):

… soot particles absorb sunlight, and so warm up the atmosphere. Then, when snow or rain wash them onto an ice floe, they darken its surface and thus cause it to melt faster.

This is 3sg or 3sg (snow or rain) functioning as 3pl for the purposes of subject-verb agreement (wash rather than washes), though a general principle —

(1) When all parts of a subject joined by or or nor are singular, the verb is singular; when all parts are plural, the verb is plural (Little, Brown Handbook, quoted in “Agreement with disjunctive subjects”, here)

would predict 3sg agreement (and I would have used 3sg in this case).

Intuitively, this is a kind of “notional agreement”, snow or rain being understood as ‘snow and rain, whichever happen(s) to occur’. This is an unusually simple example; in the other sg or sg = pl cases I’ve collected, other things are going on.


than stuff

September 28, 2011

A summary of various phenomena involving the comparative P (subordinator or preposition) than, focusing on non-standard variants.


September 19(th)

September 19, 2011

A blast from the past: from a 2009 posting on writing dates:

… any number of manuals tell you that you must not write {January 13th} (curly brackets enclose written material); only {January 13} is acceptable. The usual defense is that {January 13th} is prolix, because it has an unncessary {th}. Omit Needless Letters, or something like that.

What makes this proscription especially bizarre is that {January 13} must be read as “January thirteenth”. I cannot say “I met him on January thirteen”. That is, {January 13th} is faithful (but, to some people’s measures, not well-formed).

So there’s an orthography-to-pronunciation convention. Ok, I guess. But what riles me is all those advice sites that dump on {January 13th} and the like, as if they were signs of idiocy. Why do people care so much?

Some publications have taken the matter in hand and decided to spell such dates rationally. The Economist, in particular, is consistent in its spellings. A recent issue uses the rational spelling in its headers:

The Economist September 10th, 2011

and in the text, as in this example from “The Libyan dilemma” on p. 45 on that issue:

On September 6th, China issued a white paper on its “peaceful development” (ie, rise) …

I’ve started using this variant myself.

More on Google+

July 17, 2011

This time (earlier, here and here) in the webcomic Cyanide and Happiness (hat tip to Jeff Shaumeyer in Facebook):

A note about the webcomic, and then some notes about the idiom everybody and his brother.


Data points: Faith vs. WF 12/1/10

December 1, 2010

Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, in an op-ed piece (“A Stale Food Fight”) in the November 29 NYT, about the FDA Food Safety Modernization Bill now under consideration in the U.S. Congress:

… the bill is under fierce attack from critics — egged on by Glenn Beck and various Tea Partyers, including some in the local food movement — who are playing fast and loose with the facts.

First point: Tea Partyers (with a Y) rather than Tea Partiers. Second point: the NYT‘s rendering of the bill’s name as “the F.D.A. Food Safety Modernization bill”, with periods in F.D.A. that are not in the bill’s name. Two different kinds of conflict between faithfulness (Faith) and well-formedness (WF) — see the inventory of postings here — resolved in two different ways: in favor of Faith in the first case, WF in the second.