Oxford commas, Nelson Mandela, and Stephen King

September 15, 2014

The Oxford comma (the one right before and in the title of this post) has been in the news again. It never really goes away, but now and then it intrudes more noticeably into general and specialist discussion. I’ve a couple of brief points to make about it, but anyone unsure of the terrain should first read my earlier post on the Oxford, Harvard, or serial comma, as it is variously known.

The Oxford comma is one of those in-group niceties that some wordsmiths use to mark their editorial or writerly identities. It has become a sort of tribal badge of style, reinforced by whether your preferred authority prescribes it – for example, the Chicago Manual of Style strongly recommends it, while the AP Stylebook says leave it out.

It’s remarkably divisive, so I’ll restate for the record that I’m not a die-hard Oxford comma user or leaver-outer. I like it, and I tend to use it, but not always. Neither its use nor its omission is a universal solution – ambiguity can arise either way, so it doesn’t make sense to be inflexible about it.

This tweet is a case in point:

@socratic tweet - oxford comma on mandela, 800-year-old demigod and dildo collector

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Communicating with the distant future

September 11, 2014

It’s sobering to imagine modern English as an archaic dialect – how the language might evolve and how our version(s) of it might appear from a position many generations into the future. That English will change radically in a few centuries or a thousand years is beyond doubt: read a few lines of Old or Middle English and you’ll get an idea of how much.

This presents a problem when communication with people in the far future is an absolute must. Whatever about literature becoming ever more impenetrable, how do we warn future humans about dangerous contaminants that we’ve buried for safekeeping? It’s not enough to isolate these materials now; they may need to be kept isolated for a very long time.

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Link love: language (59)

September 7, 2014

Link love is back! I took a break from this regular feature a year ago, for reasons, but never intended that break to be permanent. So here’s a selection of language-related articles and other material that caught my eye over the last while. It’s a bumper crop.

10 words that are badly broken.

How do you rhyme in a sign language?

What to say to peevers.

Podcast on accent diversity and prejudice (22 min.).

How do our brains treat metaphors and idioms?

Sending text messages in calligraphy.

When nouns verb oddly.

Ammosexual.

The defensive/impatient use of Look.

What were medieval scriptoria really like?

Timeline of 870 madness-related slang terms.

De-extinction: when words come back from the dead.

Who can save Ayapaneco?

The fevered art of book blurbing.

Google’s global ‘font family‘.

On loanwords and the Dictionary of Untranslatables.

The strange hidden logic (not hidden strange logic) of adjective order.

For a president today, talkin’ down is speaking American.

Unpacking America and Americans.

The origins of bum’s rush.

The problem of socialised male speech dominance.

Graphing the frequency of English letters and their position in words.

A good podcast on linguistic relativity.

On the birth of italics.

Crowdsourcing linguistic explanations.

Stand-up comedy in a second language.

Samuel Beckett and the voices in our minds.

Comparing the language of climate change in Germany and the US.

10 ‘grammar rules’ it’s OK to break.

The bodacious language of Bill & Ted.

Microaggressions in metacommunication.

Lovecraft and the art of describing the indescribable.

Why a painting in the White House has a deliberate spelling error.

How slang wilding was used to uphold a narrative of race and crime.

:) vs. :-) – Stylistic variation in Twitter emoticons (PDF).

Is erk related to oik?

Learning the language of love, 1777.

Interesting interview with Games of Thronesresident conlanger.

Also, GoT is more linguistically sophisticated than you might think.

Against editors? Make that For writers.

What goes in a dictionary when the dictionary is online?

A list of words coined (or notably used) by Edgar Allan Poe.

Recreating silent-film typography.

How to market a dictionary, 1970s-style.

That will do for now. If you’ve the appetite and time for more, you can browse the language links archive, or visit some blogs and sites linked in the sidebar – they’re all good. You can also follow me on Twitter – on the days I’m there I usually post a few links, among other things.

One last thing, lest it get lost in a list of ling-lust: the Speculative Grammarian book, which I reviewed positively last year as a feast of satirical linguistics, is now available as a PDF for $5.95 – or $4.95 for Sentence first readers.


Fear of feet and relative ambiguity

September 3, 2014

In Lucy Ellmann’s sharp comic novel Varying Degrees of Hopelessness there is a minor but interesting ambiguity:

Later, she formed an alliance with a man much younger than herself, a man with small feet that didn’t scare her, a man who earned his living by entering supermarket competitions and the occasional raffle.

The question is, what didn’t scare her (she being the narrator’s mother) – the man or his small feet? I don’t think the book mentioned fear of feet elsewhere, so my first inclination was to assume that that in a man with small feet that didn’t scare her referred to the man.

But then why use a man who in the next clause? If the variation is meaningful, and not motivated by whimsy or euphony, etc., we could reasonably assume the fear refers to the feet. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

In a post on animals and pronouns, I summarised as follows: that can refer to things or people, which refers to things but not normally people, and who refers to people (and sometimes animals, or entities that are humanlike or have an implication of personality).

So a man with small feet which didn’t scare her would definitely imply that the feet didn’t scare her, while a man with small feet who didn’t scare her would connect the lack of fear decisively to the man. But that is ambiguous. How would you read it?


Book spine poem: The Name of the World

September 1, 2014

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[click to enlarge]

 

stan carey book spine poem - bookmash - the name of the world

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The Name of the World

Everybody dies
In search of memory –
The first word, my last breath,
The name of the world,
The world without us.

*

One of these, you may have spotted, is a library book, while another appeared in an earlier bookmash and I still haven’t read it. I discussed Buñuel’s book in a recent post on curses and adjectives; Kenneally’s featured some years ago in a brief post on language evolution.

Other than that, I have nothing to add except my customary thanks to the authors: Lawrence Block, Eric Kandel, Christine Kenneally, Luis Buñuel, Denis Johnson, and Alan Weisman; also to Nina Katchadourian.

Older bookmashes and links to other people’s are browsable in my archive of book spine poems. Join in if you like.


Book review: Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation, by Ammon Shea

August 26, 2014

In his groundbreaking Dictionary of Modern English Usage, H.W. Fowler, with his customary insight, wrote:

What grammarians say should be has perhaps less influence on what shall be than even the more modest of them realize; usage evolves itself little disturbed by their likes & dislikes. And yet the temptation to show how better use might have been made of the material to hand is sometimes irresistible.

If the history of the English usage wars shows us anything, it’s how overpowering that temptation has proved, and still proves, to be. No special training is required to be an amateur grammarian, and so the annals of language commentary fill with unfounded peeves from those who like to tell other people they are Doing Language Wrong.

ammon shea - bad english -a history of linguistic aggravation - perigee book coverOf course, there has always been an opposing force from those who know the perils of setting usage advice in stone, of saying a certain word must mean this and never that and so it should be forevermore. Decrees of this type may be out of date by the time they’re published, and can seem particularly odd or surprising a mere generation or two later.

Ammon Shea’s new book Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation (a copy of which I received for review from its publisher Perigee Books), is a very welcome addition to the canon of usage commentary. It is light yet scholarly, explaining disputes in a clear, informed and entertaining fashion and proceeding in each case to a sensible conclusion.

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Subject contact clauses in Irish English

August 22, 2014

Everyone came home from England was questioned. (Timothy O’Grady, I Could Read the Sky)

Contact clauses are dependent clauses attached directly to their antecedent, i.e., without any relative pronoun. For example: a book I read; the town we visited; a person you admire. In each case that, which or who might be added after the noun phrase, but doesn’t have to be.

Otto Jespersen introduced the term, calling them contact clauses “because what characterizes them is the close contact in sound and sense between the clause and what precedes it”.

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