That puzzling omission

May 31, 2020

The following line appeared in a recent article in the Guardian:

Researchers who questioned more than 90,000 adults found “complete” compliance with government safety measures, such as physical distancing and staying at home, had dropped in the past two weeks from an average of 70% of people to less than 60%.

Notice the problem? This is a good example of a ‘garden path’ sentence. It leads readers up the garden path before the syntax takes a sudden turn that forces them to rearrange and reprocess what they’ve just read.

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Consumed by Lydia Davis’s short stories

May 11, 2020

An early highlight of my reading year has been Lydia Davis’s Collected Stories. Many of her stories put a slight and strange and startling twist on consensus reality (or a fresh insight that amounts to the same), sometimes combined with a self-conscious linguistic flourish:

Book titled "The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis" with text in white all caps on a bright orange background, with a double border of two thin white lines. Smaller text at the bottom reads: "Winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2013". In the bottom right corner is the Penguin publisher's logo.I am reading a sentence by a certain poet as I eat my carrot. Then, although I know I have read it, although I know my eyes have passed along it and I have heard the words in my ears, I am sure I haven’t really read it. I may mean understood it. But I may mean consumed it: I haven’t consumed it because I was already eating the carrot. The carrot was a line, too.

This synaesthesia-adjacent report is one of fifteen self-contained entries in a story titled ‘Examples of Confusion’.

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Cúirt book festival goes online

May 1, 2020

Every April the Cúirt literary festival kicks off the festival season in Galway, Ireland, where I live. This year, its 35th, events in their original format were cancelled because of the pandemic, but festival director Sasha de Buyl and team put together a terrific mini-festival entirely online.

I just caught up on the talks I didn’t see or hear live last weekend – live online, I mean – and you can do the same if you haven’t already. Nine are freely available to view on Cúirt’s YouTube channel, and two audio-only events can be listened to on Soundcloud.

It’s a feast of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Each talk is about an hour long and has one, two, or three authors speaking about literature, language, writing, and life, including short readings from their new work. If you’re not sure where to start, try Kevin Barry and Jan Carson talking with Peggy Hughes:

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Eggcorns, complements, and multiple modals

April 21, 2020

For my monthly column at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I’ve been writing about these linguistic items.

Wet your appetite for eggcorns is an overview of that special type of error known by linguists as eggcorns, examples of which include wet your appetite and gun-ho:

Close-up of acorn danging at the end of a thin stem. The acorn is green in a pale-brown cap and points down towards the ground. The background is greenish-grey and out of focus.Whet is not a common or familiar verb, but wet is, and wet suggests the way your mouth waters or your stomach juices flow when you’re about to eat. So wet your appetite seems right. Gung-ho means ‘very enthusiastic, especially about something that might be dangerous’, but gung (from Chinese) is not a familiar morpheme in English, whereas gun is – and gun is strongly associated with danger. Hence gun-ho.

The post shows how eggcorns differ from folk etymologies, malapropisms, and mondegreens. (Inevitably, someone was enraged by the headline and jumped straight to the comments section.)

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You might should know about double modals looks at a grammatical feature used in some dialects of English, especially in the USA but also in Scotland and northern England:

Can, could, will, would, shall, should, may, might, must, ought, and dare are modal verbs (aka modal auxiliaries, or just modals for short). Combine them and you get a double modal. The most common forms, at least in American English, are might could, might can, and might would, but many other pairs occur: might should, may can, should ought, must can, may will, and so on. Different combinations will be more or less typical or acceptable for different users.

I came across one just this morning (‘We might could work that together’) in the book I’m reading, Fear Itself by Walter Mosley – who also featured in my earlier post on multiple modals – but I never hear them spoken in Ireland.

*

A complement of compliments aims to sort out these words and their associated adjectives, complimentary and complementary. Confusable pairs like these are often explained in books and on websites without any help with remembering the difference, which is where the real problem lies. So I offer mnemonics:

Complement probably gives people more difficulty. Its meaning is related to complete, with which it shares the first six letters – including that ‘e’ in the middle, which is our next mnemonic. Macmillan Dictionary’s entry for the verb, sense 1, has the sample line: ‘The plants are chosen to complement each other’, and for sense 2: ‘This project is intended to complement, not replace, local authority programmes.’ Both convey the sense of something being completed – or supplemented, which, with its medial ‘e’, reinforces the mnemonic.

If you have alternative mnemonics, or even complementary ones, let’s hear them.

[Image cropped from original by Rene Mensen, shared under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.]

Vocative commas, -ise/-ize, and the -fishing libfix

January 16, 2020

My monthly column at Macmillan Dictionary Blog continues this year. Here are the most recent three posts.

In Catfishing, blackfishing, sadfishing: the spread of a new libfix, I report on -fishing, which has been quite productive since originating in catfishing about a decade ago:

Catfishing is ‘tricking someone into having an online relationship by adopting a fake identity’. It comes from a 2010 documentary film named Catfish. The word quickly became popular online – it’s still making headlines – and soon gave rise to other -fishing terms. . . . Libfix is Arnold Zwicky’s term for a certain type of combining form – a bit like an affix, but narrower in meaning and relatively liberated.

Blackfishing and sadfishing are among the more prominent spin-off terms, but many others have been coined by analogy, and ‘all retain the idea of hiding or feigning one’s ethnicity or physical appearance’.

Criticizing -ize and -ise explores this suffix, a common source of new verbs in English. After tackling the idea that such neologisms should be minimized (e.g., Garner says they are ‘usually ungainly and often superfluous’), I consider the vexed question of spelling:

The –ise suffix comes from French, ize from the earlier Greek. Popular lore says simplistically that -ize is American and -ise British. American English does mandate -ize, but it’s also standard in British usage and is the default for some publishers, including Macmillan and Oxford. British English also uses -ise, and it is house style for some newspapers and magazines, such as the Guardian and Economist. Englishes around the world use either.

Hello, vocative comma looks at the comma you often see between a greeting word and a name:

Some include a comma after the greeting word (Hi, Bob), while others skip it (Hi Bob). Sometimes it depends on the greeting word (Hi Kate but Hello, Kate), the register (Hello honey but Hello, Dr Smith), or things like mood and whim. So what are the rules for this erratic mark?

It’s called the vocative comma because these structures are in the vocative case. (The word has the same Latin root as vocation and shares its sense of ‘calling’.) But the vocative comma is used in many other types of situation, as the post goes on to show.


Verb all the things

January 13, 2020

Lauren Beukes’s novel Broken Monsters has a short passage on business jargon and young people’s attitudes to it. Layla, a character in her mid-teens, is visiting her friend Cas and introduces Cas’s father:

Her dad is a tech-preneur. Name a major company in Silicon Valley and he’s ‘pulled a stint there’ – his words. It’s why they moved from Oakland, California. Detroit is friendlier to start-ups: lower overheads, tax incentives, hungry talent, cheap office space in TechTown. He’s bought into the city’s revitalization ‘with bells on’. Layla loves hearing him talk. It’s another language, where any word can be verbed. She and Cas have a secret drinking game they play during dinner, taking a sip of juice every time he uses techno jargon like ‘angel-investor’.

‘How’s Crater going?’ Layla asks him, trying to remember the name of his big start-up project.

‘Curatr,’ he corrects her automatically, rolling the trrrr.

Some examples certainly qualify as tech jargon or terminology: the portmanteau tech-preneur and the fictional brand Curatr, with its fashionably dropped vowel (cf. Flickr, Tumblr, Grindr, Qzzr). TechTown, meanwhile, is a real-life hub for entrepreneurship in Detroit, notable in this context for its CamelCase style.

Other examples cited – pulled a stint, with bells on, angel investor – are not what I’d consider tech jargon, but the passage is from Layla’s pov, so I figure it’s more that she has only heard these phrases from Cas’s dad and associates them with his industry.

Her observation about verbing applies to English more generally.

But I suppose the point is that tech execs (and managers, advertisers, etc.) are more likely to do it with abandon, and that when you’re a teenager and it’s your dad or your friend’s dad, it can be a particular source of interest, embarrassment, or entertainment.

It’s refreshing to see this form of language, so often maligned, portrayed positively. I’m reminded of a cartoon by Dana Fradon included in The New Yorker Cartoon Album 1975–1985:

Two businessmen are in a room. One on the right stands, smiling slightly, facing the one on the left, who is bald and sits behind a large desk in front of a window. The one sitting says, "You're a good man, Washbourne. I like the way you use nouns as verbs."

[Caption: “You’re a good man, Washbourne. I like the way you use nouns as verbs.”]

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Science-writing tips from Cormac McCarthy

November 18, 2019

The science journal Nature recently published tips from author Cormac McCarthy on ‘how to write a great science paper’. Though familiar with McCarthy’s novels,* I hadn’t known about his work elsewhere, which includes ‘extensive editing to numerous faculty members and postdocs at the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) in New Mexico’.

Biologist Van Savage, co-author of the Nature article, knew McCarthy at the SFI and they worked together ‘to condense McCarthy’s advice to its most essential points’, combined with ‘thoughts from evolutionary biologist Pamela Yeh’, the article’s other author. This means it’s not always clear whose language is used.

In any case, the resulting advice interests me both professionally – I’m a freelance copy-editor with a background in science – and personally, as someone who strives to write better but is leery of much of what passes for writing punditry.

A lot of what McCarthy and co. say is sensible, if sometimes short on context, and some of it will likely be familiar to you, since many of the same ideas about writing perennially do the rounds. Other tips, however, are dubious or infelicitously phrased.

I recommend that you read the original article before my annotated excerpts below, because I’ve skipped a lot of the good stuff: You don’t need to read me saying ‘I agree’ over and over. So off we go:

Use minimalism to achieve clarity. While you are writing, ask yourself: is it possible to preserve my original message without that punctuation mark, that word, that sentence, that paragraph or that section? Remove extra words or commas whenever you can.

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