Archive for the ‘Usage advice’ Category

The Jargon Matrix

April 12, 2017

Yesterday’s Dilbert takes us into a dark world of language, the Jargon Matrix:


The Matrix, but with jargon from the world of technology businesses.


It was correction killed the desire

March 19, 2017

Yesterday’s Bizarro:

(If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 2 in this strip — see this Page.)

First, the adverb bad in I want you so bad. Then some notes on correction as a social practice, especially in one-on-one interactions.


Risible (faux-)commercial name

March 13, 2017

From a posting by Randy Murray to the Facebook page‎ “THE ERRORIST MOVEMENT – Correct grammar, with humour”, where he comments, “apostrophes mean so much”:


At first glance, this ad would seem to fall into four big topic areas on this blog: dubious commercial names; It’s All Grammar; vulgar slang; and phallic play (in particular, word play). To which I add: the conventions on the form of hashtags, e-mail addresses, and web addresses (URLs). But first, I have to tell you that this particular Dick’s Pizza is a fabrication.


The power of the Subject Rule

March 4, 2017

Over on ADS-L yesterday, Wilson Gray reported the following example from his reading:

(X) A nine-year-old boy is being hailed a hero for saving his mother’s life after being struck by lightning.

Merriment ensued on the mailing list over the boy’s impressve act, his toughness, and the like — all these responses indicating that readers interpreted (X) as asserting that the boy performed his heroic act after he had been struck by lightning.

The phrase after being struck by lightning is a SPAR (a Subjectless Predicative Adjunct Requiring a referent for the missing subject), and virtually everyone reading the phrase in the context above will take the required referent to be the referent of the subject in the main clause (a nine-year-old boy), rather than the referent of an NP closer to the SPAR: his mother’s life, an unlikely candidate, since that referent isn’t even a concrete object that could be struck by lightning; or, better, his mother, surely the NP the writer of (X) had in mind as supplying the required referent.

If the writer had absorbed the lessons of their school grammar, they would in fact have expected that the boy’s mother would be supplied as the required referent — because that school grammar tells you, very firmly, that a SPAR will (indeed must) pick up its referent from the NP nearest to it (the Nearest Rule). (That’s not the way school grammars, and books of usage advice, talk about these things — they speak of nouns and dangling modifiers — but here I’ve cleaned up the deep conceptual confusions in the traditional way of talking about these things.) Unfortunately, the empirically more adequate general principle isn’t a Nearest Rule, but a Subject Rule (and even that’s just a default, not an inviolable law of grammar).


International Day of Persons with Disabilities

December 4, 2016

That was yesterday, December 3rd, using the rather awkward name recommended by the UN. And the Comics Kingdom (King Features) blog offered a set of comics for the occasion, most of which I didn’t find particularly funny, though I liked this Bizarro:

(If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 3 in this strip — see this Page.)

V cripple, Adj crippled, N cripple. The cartoon has the V cripple, which seems not to have (yet) picked up the opprobium piled on the Adj crippled, and (worse) the N cripple (and its slang short form crip).


Iatrogenic grammar sickness

August 28, 2016

From 8/26 on Lithub, “How a Self-Published Writer of Gay Erotica Beat Sci-Fi’s Sad Puppies at their Own Game”, by M. Sophia Newman:

When I was a little kid, my mother would come into the bedroom I shared with two of my sisters each night and read us a book before we slept. Inevitably, a minor fight would erupt over whose bed beside which Mom would sit

Another WTF moment, to go along with the moment of failed anaphoric reference in my posting of the 26th. In this case, it’s hard to believe that the boldfaced relative clause comes from a native speaker of English, but it was, by a professional writer, in fact — and that’s surely the source of the problem. (In contrast, the source of the problem in the anaphoric reference example is almost surely that its writer was unpracticed at the task.)

In brief, Newman would never have committed the bizarre strangulated relative clause above — let’s call it Hern — if she hadn’t been subjected to rotten advice about how to write and taken it to heart: she was told that stranded P (“ending with a preposition”) is a grammatical disorder, which can, fortunately, be treated by a simple procedure, fronting the P. That is, the putatively malformed relative clauses

which/that/∅ Mom would sit beside

(in the Strand family) should be remedied by relocating the P beside (to the front of the relative clause) and using the (prosthetic) relative pronoun which to support it. The result of this procedure  is the appalling Hern, actually a bit of sick grammar caused by ill-advised therapy: iatrogenic grammar sickness.


A sad editing moment at the New York Times

September 12, 2015

In last Sunday’s NYT Magazine, I was saddened, and not a little outraged, to read, in Dan Kois’s piece “The Misanthropic Genius of Joy Williams”, the following bit of garbled English:

In the end the essay is a call to arms for a new kind of literature, one Williams sounds doubtful that anyone, including she, can write.

(After nearly a week, the sentence is still on the paper’s site. Apparently nobody thought there was anything wrong with it.)

Now, I’m familiar with examples like this, and have posted about them, but not from professional writers or editors who are presumably native speakers of English; instead, they come from amateurs who are so unwilling to trust their instincts about how their language works that they cast about for guidance from (poorly remembered) advice on how to write their language that they’ve been taught. They have some excuse. But Kois and whatever editors worked on this piece do not.


This week’s diathesis alternation

June 1, 2015

From the NYT yesterday, in “Who Will Watch the Charities?” by David Callahan:

Last week federal authorities disclosed that four cancer charities had bilked tens of millions of dollars from donors.

The subordinate clause here has a VP of the form:

(1) bilk MONEY from VICTIM

where I might have used one of the form:

(2) bilk VICTIM of MONEY

i.e., four cancer charities had bilked donors of tens of millions of dollars. Same verb, same participants in the event (a victim, some money), but different syntax: different argument structures, that is, different associations of the syntactic arguments (direct object DO and oblique object OO) with the participants. In more detail:

(1) V: bilk DO:MONEY P: from + OO:VICTIM

(2) V: bilk DO:VICTIM P: of + OO:MONEY

There is some tradition for referring to such a variation between argument structures as a diathesis alternation. In this case, both alternants are standard, and, so far as I can tell, are treated as such in the usage literature.


Briefly: Language reform

May 24, 2015

In the June 2015 Funny Times, a cartoon by UK cartoonist Clive Goddard, for which I supply here only the caption, which bears almost all the humor anyway (I haven’t been able to find an image on-line). A committee of four people are gathered thoughtfully around a conference table:

Central Sub-Committee Steering Group for the Facilitation of Brevity & Clarity of Language Usage in the User/Provider Communication Interface (Formerly the plain English group)

Oh, how they have fallen!

Follow-up on the 25th: Sim Aberson has unearthed a copy of the cartoon, in a Nuclear Regulatory Commission posting on “Plain Writing and Its Benefits”:


May 19, 2015

Part 1:  Back in my posting on “Words to eliminate”, I looked at a site that proposed to get you to improve your writing by eliminating 15 words from it. (Yes, a silly idea.) One of these was that:

[Mashable advice] It’s superfluous most of the time. Open any document you’ve got drafted on your desktop, and find a sentence with “that” in it. Read it out loud. Now read it again without “that.” If the sentence works without it, delete it.

The idea is fraught with problems, most turning on the fact that there are several distinct lexical items that, with a large number of uses, and with distinct syntax, discourse functions, and sociolinguistic statuses for each use.

Part 2: On one of these items, the complementizer that, and its use to mark the object complement of a verb, as in

They know (that) pigs can’t fly.

(where the that variant and the ∅ variant are both fine).

But then I started an e-mail to a friend:

 I do wish people would credit sources.

(with the ∅ variant; the that variant is also possible) and thought to link to previous context with a though — but then the ∅ variant struck me as very awkward indeed:

?? I do wish, though, people would credit sources.

though the that variant is fine:

 I do wish, though, that people would credit sources.

What’s crucial is that material intervenes between the complement-taking verb and the complement. It turns out that this intervention effect is well-known in the variation literature.