Multiple negation and the meaning of ‘grammar’

April 24, 2015

I have two more posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. (Yes, I mentioned a prior couple just a week ago – I wasn’t keeping up!)

First: Grammar at cross purposes highlights a common source of unnecessary strife over language use: the meaning of grammar, by which linguists usually mean syntax, morphology, and so on – the rules we pick up informally when we’re very young. By contrast:

When non-linguists talk about grammar, they are normally referring to more transient things like spelling, style, and conventions of usage. This discrepancy between the technical and popular interpretations of ‘grammar’ fosters uncertainty and disagreement over what a grammatical rule is, and what therefore counts as correct. Disputants may be at cross purposes because advice on ‘grammar’ is often simply instruction on style and usage. . . .

Grammar rules, as I once tweeted, come from how people use language. They emerge from the bottom up; they are not imposed top-down from logic, Latin, or some higher ideal.

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One example of a ‘rule’ imposed by decree from logic, Latin, and higher ideals is the proscription against multiple negation, better known as double negatives.

Ain’t nothin’ (grammatically) wrong with no double negatives addresses this perennial point of controversy, looking over the usage’s long history in different varieties of English and how it came to be ostracised from reputable use:

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage reports Otto Jespersen’s observation that because negation in English has often been marked subtly – ‘by no more than an unstressed particle like old ne or modern -n’t’ – speakers have long tended to reinforce it with additional negation. So the double negative is a feature of many dialects, and indeed was once common even in the literary English of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Defoe. But that was before it gained a bad reputation, the result more of social than of grammatical pressures.

The post then briefly documents double negatives’ fall from grace as a result of unwarranted pejoration from 18thC grammarians and those who’ve carried the torch for them ever since.

Older posts can be read in my archive at Macmillan.


Unexplained jargon in fiction

April 22, 2015

richard stark - the rare coin score - Parker - book coverI picked up this Richard Stark novel in a local second-hand bookstore and was attracted by the reviewers’ descriptions of its main character (click the photo to enlarge). Funny how repulsive can have a contra-semantic effect. The ‘unforgettable Parker’, it turned out, is the same one played by Lee Marvin in John Boorman’s 1967 film Point Blank. Sold!

The Rare Coin Score has one stylistic detail I want to analyse here. Parker, Billy, Claire and Lempke are in a backyard planning a heist of rare coins. Parker, the ‘supreme bastard’ protagonist, has suggested a shortcut in packing the loot. Billy, a rare-coin specialist, explains why it wouldn’t work (note: he’s holding a spatula because he’s barbecuing burgers):

‘You take valuable coins,’ Billy said, gesturing with the spatula, ‘you just drop a lot of them in a canvas sack, carry them off someplace, dump them out on a table, you know what you’ve done?’

Parker said, ‘Tell me.’

‘You’ve lowered their value,’ Billy told him, ‘by maybe twenty-five per cent. Coins are more delicate than you might think. They rub together, knock together, the value goes right down. You go from unc to VF just like that.

‘Billy,’ Claire said wearily, ‘they don’t know those terms.’

‘I’ve got the idea,’ Parker said. ‘The point is, we’ve got to pack them up, right?’

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Kibitzing chess players and editors

April 18, 2015

After a binge of Ed McBain books a few months ago – they often touch on linguistic topics – this week I picked another of his 87th Precinct series off the unread shelf: Let’s Hear It for the Deaf Man (1973). It uses a form of the Yiddish word kibitz twice in short succession:

In the April sunshine four fat men sit at a chess table in the park across the street from the university. All four of the men are wearing dark cardigan sweaters. Two of the men are playing chess, and two of them are kibitzing, but the game has been going on for so many Sundays now that it seems almost as though they are playing four-handed, the players and the kibitzers indistinguishable one from the other.

Kibitz is a handy word that means to watch someone do something (normally a game, often cards) and offer unwelcome advice. It can also simply mean to chat or joke around. The word entered English almost a century ago via multiple languages, thieves’ cant, and ornithological onomatopoeia. This delightful etymology is summarised at Etymonline:

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Link love: language (62)

April 11, 2015

For your weekend-and-beyond reading pleasure, a roundup of language-related items I’ve enjoyed over the last few weeks:

Gibberish as a tool of empowerment for girls.

Rewilding our language of landscape.

Historical slang terms for money.

Ghost of editor past (cartoon).

What part of ‘No, totally’ don’t you understand?

Ending utterances with a comma is definitely A Thing.

A corpus of 25,000 early English texts is now openly available.

The amazing story of the Doves Press typeface.

Old proverbs we should use more often.

Swearing around the world.

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‘Literal meaning’ is an oxymoron

April 6, 2015

David Bellos’s 2011 book Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: The Amazing Adventure of Translation is full of delights and insights not just about the history and phenomenon of translation but about communication, language, and culture more generally.

In a chapter on what Bellos calls the myth of literal translation, he points out that the word literal is sometimes used ‘to say something about the way an expression is supposed to be understood’. This applies to the word literal itself, and thus to the perennial nontroversy over literally which centres on the claim that it should always and only be used ‘literally’. The claim is flawed on several levels.

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Strong Language 2: Swear Harder

March 29, 2015

Back in December I introduced Strong Language, a new group blog about the use, culture, and linguistics of profanity cooked up by James Harbeck and me. While some of you are now regular readers, others may be unaware of it or glad of a reminder or an update, so this post can address that. The language below may offend, so caveat lector.

Strong Language started well and this year has gone from strength to sweary strength. We’ve redesigned its appearance, partnered with Slate’s Lexicon Valley, and added more writers to the team of regular contributors. The @stronglang Twitter account ties in with the blog but does its own stuff too, such as film stills and swearwords of the day.

I’ve written ten posts for Strong Language and have as many more in various stages of completion or planning. Published posts look at filthy old songs, Irish English shite, multilingual swearing, and Rob Chirico’s book Damn!, among other things. I also compile ‘Sweary links’ – like the ‘Link love’ posts here on Sentence first, but swearing-related.

behold the field in which i grow my fucks - medieval meme

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Punctuating Yeats and reading writers’ minds

March 23, 2015

‘Yeats’s handwriting resembles a mouse’s electrocardiogram,’ writes the late Daniel Albright in his preamble to the marvellous Everyman Library edition of W. B. Yeats’ Poems, which he edited.

Albright goes on to give a similarly forthright account of the poet’s spelling and punctuation, excerpted below. While acknowledging his debt to Richard Finneran, who oversaw a different collection of Yeats’s poems, Albright parts company from him in two ways:

First, he is more respectful of Yeats’s punctuation than I. He supposes […] that Yeats’s punctuation was rhetorical rather than grammatical, an imaginative attempt to notate breath-pauses, stresses, and so forth; and that the bizarre punctuation in some of Yeats’s later poems is due to the influence of experimental modernists such as T.S. Eliot and Laura Riding. I suppose that Yeats was too ignorant of punctuation to make his deviations from standard practice significant. Although Yeats surely wished to make his canon a text worthy of reverence, he conceived poetry as an experience of the ear, not of the eye. He could not spell even simple English words; he went to his grave using such forms as intreage [‘intrigue’] and proffesrship. His eyesight was so poor that he gave up fiction-writing because the proof-reading was too strenuous. Finally, Yeats himself admitted, ‘I do not understand stops. I write my work so completely for the ear that I feel helpless when I have to measure pauses by stops and commas’.

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