Time-travelling verb tenses must will have existed

January 20, 2014

Brian Clegg’s entertaining pop-physics book Build Your Own Time Machine: The Real Science of Time Travel (2011) has a couple of amusing examples of how grammar gets wonky when you’re talking about time travel. The first example comes in a discussion of what’s called the block universe model, which encompasses “all of space and all time that will ever be”:

If the block universe is the correct picture, even if we managed to travel backward in time, we could never do anything that would change the future, at least within a particular quantum version of the universe. Because the future and the past already exist in the block, any action we take must already exist. (We have trouble with tenses emerging from time travel here. It might be more accurate to say that any action must will have existed.)

Later, Clegg talks about “Destination Day” in Perth, when a time and place were announced to welcome possible visitors from the future. (Similar events have taken place in MIT and Baltimore.) Note that the DD website is no longer directly accessible and can be reached only in cached form via tools like the Wayback Machine – the internet equivalent of time travel. Clegg:

I can’t find any official description of what happened that day in Perth, but I suspect there was some form of welcoming committee, eagerly anticipating visitors from the future to pop into existence. Of course now March 31, 2005, is in the past, and we aren’t so much awaiting them as we have been were awaiting them.

Have been were awaiting: lovely. I recently noted that English has no future tense, but whether the grammar of time travel would be easier if it did is a question for another day. As things stand English verb tenses, Clegg concludes, “definitely aren’t designed to cope with time travel”. This is good to already will have known.


Adjectives, danglers, and wretchedness

January 10, 2014

In Wretched Writing: A Compendium of Crimes Against the English Language (Perigee, 2013), compiled by Ross Petras and Kathryn Petras, I encountered the following remarkable passage showing the overuse of adjectives. It’s by Pel Torro, aka Lionel Fanthorpe, from his 1968 story Galaxy 666:

The things were odd, weird, grotesque. There was something horribly uncustomary and unwonted about them. They were completely unfamiliar. Their appearance was outlandish and extraordinary. Here was something quite phenomenal about them. They were supernormal; they were unparalleled; they were unexampled. The shape of the aliens was singular in every sense. They were curious, odd, queer, peculiar and fantastic, and yet when every adjective had been used on them, when every preternatural epithet had been applied to their aberrant and freakish appearance, when everything that could be said about such eccentric, exceptional, anomalous creatures had been said, they still remained indescribable in any concrete terms.

Rather than “wretched”, I would say it’s deliberately over the top, done for humorous effect. Extravagant repetition aside, the style is solid and rhetorically varied. But you can see why it’s been singled out.

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Introducing Indo-European Jones

January 6, 2014

It started on Twitter, as these things often do. I read a comment about linguists and lexicographers being to language “what grave robbers are to archeology” (the context: hatred of the newly popular because X phrase), and I tweeted it with a raised eyebrow.

Jonathon Owen replied that he wished he’d been given a “leather jacket, bullwhip, and fedora” upon graduation, James Callan said he wanted to see an “Indiana Jones pastiche focused on a linguist”, and I felt it was a meme waiting to happen. So without further ado, let me introduce Indo-European Jones (or Indy for short).

James got the giant boulder ball rolling (click on images to enlarge):

stan carey - Indo-European Jones meme - this belongs in the OED - James Callan

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Fleeting greetings

December 22, 2013
[click to enlarge]

 New Yorker cartoon 3 - William Steig - either cheer up or take off the hat

New Yorker cartoon 1 - George Price - Between the ho ho hos and the bah humbugs

Cartoons by William Steig and George Price, from The New Yorker Album of Drawings 1925–1975. “Cheer up or take off the hat” is a good motto for the winter, wouldn’t you say?

In the meantime, thanks for your visits and comments to Sentence first this year – the blog wouldn’t happen without you. Have a peaceful Christmas and a happy new year, and see you on the other side.


Like a ha-ha

December 19, 2013

Robert Harris’s 1995 thriller Enigma, which fictionalises a group of code breakers in World War II, contains a playful nouning of ha-ha:

Jericho drew back the curtains to unveil another cold, clear morning. It was only his third day in the Commercial Guesthouse but already the view had acquired a weary familiarity. First came the long and narrow garden (concrete yard with washing line, vegetable patch, bomb shelter) which petered out after seventy yards into a wilderness of weeds and a tumbledown, rotted fence. Then there was a drop he couldn’t see, like a ha-ha, and then a broad expanse of railway lines, a dozen or more…

Is this the influence of Nelson Muntz, or are we to ‘hear’ the laugh some other way?


‘Ineptnorant’ and other neologifications

September 26, 2013

Ralph Keyes has an enjoyable essay on neologisms at the American Scholar, analysing the factors in their success or failure and sharing some facts surprising to me, such as that Thomas Jefferson coined indescribable and neologize, and that negawatt began life as a typo – showing how happenstance and error are underacknowledged sources of new words.

He says one reason fanciful coinages catch on is that their inventors think them “so absurd that no one will adopt them, little realizing that this is just the type of neologism we covet”. Duly encouraged, I set to work when recently asked if there’s an adjective for when someone “can’t do [something,] therefore [doesn’t] understand when it’s done properly and when it’s not”.

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Book Review: The Speculative Grammarian Essential Guide to Linguistics

September 5, 2013

Every serious field of study deserves a satirical wing, and linguistics is blessed in this regard with Speculative Grammarian, a journal some say is now centuries old. SpecGram, as it’s known to fan and foe alike (and they often are alike), lately drew on its formidable archives to produce The Speculative Grammarian Essential Guide to Linguistics, a copy of which I received for review.

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