Audio lingo

April 19, 2012

This blog normally focuses on text, sometimes on images and video. Audio is relatively under-represented, so what follows is a selection of podcasts and interviews I’ve listened to lately, in a language-and-linguistics vein.

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Some of you already know about Lexicon Valley, a new podcast on language from Slate, hosted by Bob Garfield and Mike Vuolo. There have been six episodes so far, 20–40 minutes long and covering such subjects as syntax, taboo words, pseudo-rules and Scrabble. The show is entertaining, well-researched, and sometimes surprising.

Critical reaction from linguists and others has been very positive. Arnold Zwicky, who features in one show, is impressed, while Neal Whitman finds it interesting and linguistically sound. Dave Wilton thought the first episode fun and first rate, despite one minor criticism; Joe McVeigh (“excellent”) and Crikey (“treasure”) also praised it.

Lexicon Valley is on a temporary break but will soon be back with new episodes. Listeners are invited to comment and suggest ideas for future coverage.

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Since 2009, to mark National Grammar Day in the U.S., John McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun has been writing humorous pulp serials which he calls Grammarnoir. This year they reappeared as podcasts: Grammarnoir 1 (2009) (text); Grammarnoir 2 – Pulp Diction (2010) (text); and Grammarnoir 3 – The Wages of Syntax (2011).

Grammarnoir 4 (2012) has yet to be broadcast, but the script is online in four parts: one, two, three, four. Each serial plays with the style and language of hard-boiled crime fiction, and is packed with drama, derring-do and editorial wit.

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Slang lexicographer Jonathon Green, author of the three-volume Green’s Dictionary of Slang, gave a lively and fascinating interview with New Books Network about slang in all its rambunctious glory. A voluble and thoughtful speaker, he discusses lexicographical research, historical attitudes to slang and taboo, the Urban Dictionary, and more.

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In 2001, Judy Swallow on NPR’s The Connection hosted an interesting discussion about language between Bryan Garner and David Foster Wallace – both articulate and passionate commentators on language. They are rather more prescriptivist in their outlook than I am, but don’t let that put you off. One listener calls in to criticise different than, insisting it should be different from. Her reasoning was quite strange:

If you compare two things, one’s gonna be up and one’s gonna be down, and then you use than, but if something is simply different, it’s different from the way it used to be.

(It’s possible she said gotta rather than gonna; I couldn’t tell.) Garner defended the usage, saying that different from would have been “very awkward and difficult” in the instances in question. My post on different than, from, and to, which received a fresh flurry of comments recently, shows that different than is acceptable.

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Finally, a shout-out to A Way with Words, a public radio favourite hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, which I’ve been enjoying for years and recommend highly to anyone unaware of it. Etymology, wordplay and dialectal variation are recurring themes.

If you know any podcasts or other audio material that you think I might enjoy, language-related or otherwise, feel free to suggest them.

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You need a good sense of whom, or…

August 2, 2011

There’s an old debate over whether that as a relative pronoun can refer to people. As far as I’m concerned, of course it can. The usage is fully standard and has been for centuries. Briefly: that can be used to refer to people or things, which refers to things, and who(m) is reserved for people and animals:

the house that she lives in (or which)
something which has long been disputed (or that)
people who fuss over relative pronouns (or that)
Tabby, whom I adopted as a kitten, is four today. (or who)

Note, though, that that and which are less interchangeable in AmE than they are in BrE. (The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage has a helpful history.) Sometimes a distinction is made depending on whether an animal has a name: who for animals with names, that or which for animals without names. This is the AP Stylebook’s advice.

AP style does not allow that to refer to people, and neither does the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage.* This is style advice, which is very different to grammatical correctness. For the latter, we consult works more authoritative than style guides. Bryan Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage contains the following note:

That, of course, is permissible when referring to humans: the people that were present or the people who were present. Editors tend, however, to prefer the latter phrasing.

Which brings us neatly, our sense of irony to the fore, to a recent edit in the NYT. Garner wrote a commentary in its Room for Debate on the need to reform legal education in the United States. His article concludes as follows:

the future of continuing-legal-education seminars for the practicing lawyers – the kind whom I teach – looks very bright indeed.

But this is not what he wrote. That, not whom, was the relative pronoun in Garner’s original text. Apparently an editor “fixed” it before publication, “thereby changing the sense entirely,” as Garner remarked. Thus:

the future of continuing-legal-education seminars for the practicing lawyers – the kind that I teach – looks very bright indeed.

The parenthetical text between the dashes – “the kind ___ I teach” – was meant to refer to the seminars Garner teaches; after editorial interference, it referred to the lawyers who attend them. The edit was worse than unnecessary.

If practicing lawyers were the antecedent (i.e., what the relative pronoun relates back to), that would be grammatically fine, though it goes against NYT style. But it would make more sense in that instance to use whom, since this precludes the possible ambiguity: whom could refer only to the lawyers; that could refer to either the lawyers or the seminars. So a sensible reading would connect that to the seminars.

Presumably the two readings were not noticed, just one mistaken one, and the edit was made automatically to accord with house style. If there had been any doubt, the editor would surely have consulted a colleague, or some reference books, or if necessary the author himself. Maybe multiple editors agreed to it.

Regardless, the change was made and published and it undermined the sense of the text.

If I were editing prose from someone who writes dictionaries of law and English usage, I would expect the prose to be smooth and punctilious, and I would not introduce changes lightly. It’s a minor matter, but not an insignificant one: the “typographic oath” for editors is to do no harm.

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* I don’t have a copy of the NYT manual, but I trust Merrill Perlman‘s report at the Columbia Journalism Review.