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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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 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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Language cranks, hail-fellow-well-met

August 16, 2014

I have two new posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

First up, Why heed the language cranks? continues a recent theme:

People who are inclined to be intolerant of others find in language usage ample grist to their mill. Though English has a broad and accommodating variety of styles to suit a range of occasions and preferences, sticklers favour a very formal mode of the language – usually the version they were taught in school – and they advocate it in all contexts. This is as inappropriate, even as silly, as telling everyone to wear formal dress all the time.

I would happily ignore the usage cranks if they weren’t routinely given significant platforms from which to air their prejudicial misconceptions. This publicity helps them tap into widespread uncertainty about what grammar is and how language works.

You can read the rest here.

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Hail-phrase-well-met looks at a curious old phrase, hail fellow well met, to establish what exactly it means and where it might have come from:

Macmillan Dictionary, which hyphenates the phrase, says hail-fellow-well-met is an adjective that means ‘behaving in a very friendly way that is annoying or does not seem sincere’. So it packs quite a lot of nuance into a few familiar, if unpredictably arranged, words, usually indicating not so much a certain amount of social intimacy as an assumption or display of too much of it. It may be an extension of the shorter phrase hail-fellow (also Hail, fellow!, etc.), which the OED notes was both a greeting and a descriptive expression used in a range of constructions. The second part, Well met, was also a greeting: roughly ‘it’s good that we’ve met’, according to World Wide Words.

Sometimes, too, the phrase carries no negative connotations. For examples and further discussion, pop over to Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

For older articles you can browse the archive.


Word frequency game

August 13, 2014

The Red Words Game from Macmillan Dictionary is a new and addictive bit of fun that tests your awareness of word frequencies. It’s named after a feature of the dictionary, the so-called red words and stars.

The idea is that the core vocabulary of English has 7500 ‘red words’, comprising 90% of the language in Macmillan’s huge general corpus.¹ Macmillan Dictionary gives red words special treatment, describing their grammar, collocations, register, and so on. Three-star words are the 2500 most common, two-star words are next, then one-star words.

To play the game you guess how many stars a random series of words have, for 90 seconds. I’ve been scoring 225–300, but to get more than 300 I’d need more luck and free time than I have at the moment. It’s just maddening enough to make you feel hard done by and want another go, like when I had 250 points with 30 seconds to go and got every answer wrong after that.

There are bonus points for fast answers, so don’t dally. The tricky bit is not letting the answers distract you (implication has three stars, anonymous just one!?).² Watch out too for grammatical class, which appears under the word, as sometimes it will affect your answer. For example, the verb find has three stars but the noun has just one.

If you want to pass a few entertaining minutes, go play. It’s even subliminally educational.

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¹ Link and description updated for accuracy.

² I suspect anonymous will gain a star or two when more recent data are included in the categorisation.


Join your child (to the library)

August 8, 2014

I noticed this banner ad on the window of my local city library:

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stan carey - galway city library - join your child for free

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