Monday, June 28, 2010


It's almost too easy to beat up on these days. The whole site has devolved into a  garbage can of reactionary, simple minded, and flat wrong typists who are making dear Truman turn in his fabulous grave. One of the latest wastes of pixels is this review of the movie Grown Ups which hinges almost its entire critique on a hyphen (no shit, that's about the entire review):

Grown Ups. Just to be clear: That's Grown, space, Ups. What this might mean is a problem of Noam Chomsky-esque proportions. What's fairly certain is that at no stage of the movie's well-funded production did anybody think to check the spelling of the title.

The dictionary that Copy-Editing the Culture happens to be wedded to (not always happily) is Webster's New World College Dictionary: Fourth Edition. It's called "college" because it is intended for, as it were, grown-ups—or, as Webster's also allows, grownups. Never has Copy-Editing the Culture met a prescriptive dictionary that supports Sony's version of the word.

That's because the noun grown ups makes no sense. To grow up—or to push down, to walk toward, to jump up—is a straightforward verb intensified with a preposition. Grown-up is a single noun compounded from those pieces. But what's a grown up? Grammatically, this uncompounded object makes sense only if one is describing an "up" that has grown. And what's an "up"? Does it eat? Need it be socialized?

Way to name drop Chomsky, btw. As one of the rare people who've actually read the The Minimalist Program* I'm pretty sure Chomsky would not be impressed with this reference. The author, Nathan Heller, seems to think that the placement of hyphens are the height of grammatical analysis. As a former college writing instructor, I can tell you that citing a dictionary definition is the clear sign of an author who has ZERO idea what the hell she/he is talking about. Good authors structure their own arguments, they don't cite dictionaries as their authorities. Following up the dictionary reference with the incoherent claim that the preposition up some-how** intensifies the verb grown exposes Nathan's complete lack of credibility on all matters of linguistics. Even the most simple-minded*** grade school teacher would be wary of claiming the preposition up magically intensifies the verb grown in the title Gown Ups. It is an incoherent claim on all levels. It makes no sense.

* Believe me folks, I ain't proud of this. I just happened to be trained at a functionalist grad school which believed in know thy enemy pedagogy, and hence a summer reading group was born.

**Nate, whattaya think about my use of "some-how"? Hmmm? Weird hyphen, huh? Is it "uncompounded"?

***Oh shit, Nate, did you see that? I used another hyphen! Hyphens and Chomsky and Intensifiers, Oh My!

Friday, June 25, 2010

An X of Y

(a pod of whales from
[reposted from last year with update]

[UPDATE: kottke points to the same blog with added pics here).

10 years ago, when I was teaching English in China, I was surprised by how interested my students were in learning about phrases like "a pod of whales," "a cup of coffee," and "a pride of lions." When I mentioned a phrase like this, they would perk up immediately (difficult to do in the oppressive Guangzhou 广 summer heat). This was a year before I began studying linguistics proper so I had no clue what a collective noun was, nor did I know what a classifier was, nor did I know that Chinese languages like Mandarin and Cantonese have elaborate systems of nominal classifiers (this Wiki page is a good primer). I just thought it was a cute diversion to talk about at the end of an evening's class.

It turns out that collective nouns have very interesting properties which linguists love to obsess over (I regret I do not have access to a copy of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language because I suspect Huddleston and Pullum have some fascinating points).

Now, Via kottke, I discovered a blog called All Sorts dedicated to culling collective nouns from Twitter feeds. It relies on a little NLP and some crowd sourcing. It appears to be restricted to the syntactic construction "an X of Y". Since it relies so heavily on syntax, it gathers examples that are weak, at best. For example, in what way are the following collective nouns?

a conspiracy of theorists
a tantrum of 2 year olds
a pratfall of clowns

My first pass reading of those thee phrases is not as collective nouns, but rather as periphrastic genitives (e.g., "a mayor of Buffalo once said..."). The "a X of Y" syntax is, by itself, ambiguous between the periphrastic genitive and collective noun constructions (as well as simple PP attachment like "a webcomic of romance"). Do people prefer the use of "a X of Y" for one of these constructions? I suspect any preference would be based on the semantic features of the nouns involved (once you read the word "group", you pretty much know you've got a collective noun on your hands).

I wonder if anyone has done online reading tasks with subjects reading the two kinds of phrases and experimenting with different features to see what cues one reading over another. Imagine creating a set of stimuli containing sentence frames that could take either a collective noun or a periphrastic genitive and alternating each, controlling for features like animacy.

I'll take a crack at one such frame. My goal is to create sentence pairs involving minimal pairs of "a X of Y" constructions which differ only in the Y noun and where the first is a collective noun while the second is a periphrastic genitive. This relies critically on finding an X word that can be a collective noun like "group" as well as a possessive. Hmmmmmm, this ain't gonna be easy....

a. That cup of coffee that I broke has been cleaned up.
b. That cup of John's that I broke has been cleaned up.

My original hypothesis was that people will delay on (b) [meaning, their reading of the following region will be slower than (a)]. But I dunno, because some will be confused at "broke" in (a) as well. Part of this will depend on where the delay occurs.

Now, you go write up 100 of these pairs, norm them for acceptability, set up a moving window reading test in ePrime, run at least 30 subjects, then call me when you got results. I've done my part.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Grilled Cat With Lemon

I snapped the pic of the sign above at a beach near Hampton, VA. Yes, the new line and plural "PETS" helps, but still, can we buy a comma Pat?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Most Ridiculous Use Of The Umlaut EVER?

(image from a cell phone pic)
You tell me...Original here. (I have nothing to say about the odd use of underlines either).

Monday, June 14, 2010

Car Talk Goes Linguistic (kinda)

If you listened to this week's Car Talk, you heard the answer to last week's puzzler, which contained a semi-linguistic related brain tease. Unbeknownst  to the Tappet Brothers was the fact that there were a few extra puzzles hidden within their main one. First, the puzzler as it was presented on the show:

This was a puzzler that I'm stealing from the late Martin Gardner. I'm going to give you a number and you're going to tell me what's unique about the following number: 8,549,176,320. Now if you want a hint, I'll point out that there are 10 digits in that number. The question is, what's unique about this number? 

The answer requires some linguistic gymnastics. The extra puzzles are somewhat hidden until the first puzzle is solved:

Friday, June 11, 2010

Linguistic Dodge-ball

The playful linguists at University of Essex have wisely decided to give in to the football/soccer hype and link their great online linguistics game Phrase Detectives to The World Cup in South Africa with a new Dodge The Ball competition:

If you've had enough of the football coverage already, maybe you would be interested in the our Dodge the  Ball competition. Simply play the University of Essex's Phrase Detectives game between 11 June and 11 July and you could be selected to win a prize everyday. Now you have something better to do than watch 22 men kick a pig's bladder around a field.

Pssst, you can play the game and watch football simultaneously too. Now go play the game!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Is Arabic The Least Positive Language? (hint, no) ... sigh

Sometimes bad science reporting is a function of bad science. Garbage in, garbage out.

There's been some buzz about new research regarding the bias of negative and positive words in English as well as cross linguistically. I have refrained from commenting because it sounded like typical bad reporting and misunderstanding of academic research. Then Andrew Sullivan got involved. Sigh. Sullivan has his strengths and weaknesses as a blogger. His strength shone brightly last summer when he helped publicize the Iranian green movement. His weakness, however, peeps out anytime he blogs about anything remotely related to science or academics (see HERE and HERE). His most recent silliness has the title The English Language Is An Optimist. His megaphone is so big, I feel someone must clear up the foggy facts and murky interpretations currently being disseminated.

To begin, the research under question is from Rozin et al., U Penn psychologists who appear to be focused on emotion research (full citation below). As far as I can tell, no linguists were involved (and boy oh boy, they should have been. Ya know, Penn has a linguistics department that is, let's just say, above average). The basic point of the research cited is this: Positive events are more common (more tokens), but negative events are more differentiated (more types).  Sullivan simply posts a quote from another blog which regurgitates the research as if it were true with no ciritical analysis on anyone's part. I will offer the much needed critical analysis here.

Here are the four facts about English that everyone seems to find so fascinating:

Monday, June 7, 2010

War on Americanisms???

The Twitter world is abuzz with retweets of articles by UK journalist Mathew Engel who has published a few rants railing against the degradation of The Queen's English (see HERE for retweets; Engle's rants can be found HERE and HERE). Consisting mostly of whiny British self-pity (the Empire is dead, get over it!), Engel and his readers whimper about the bully Americans and our "useless", "infuriating", "ugly", and "witless" sayings.

Some choice samples of Engle's whimpers:
  • The battle is almost uncertainly unwinnable but I am convinced there are millions of intelligent Britons out there who wince as often as I do every time they hear a witless Americanism introduced into British discourse.
  • British English is being overwhelmed by a tidal wave of mindless Americanisms
  • Americans rarely hear any of our words, let alone adopt them.
  • But we are so overwhelmed by everything American that the British have lost their grasp on the difference between our form of English and theirs. This is the reality of cultural imperialism.
  • ‘Speciality’ (with the i) is a lovely word, full of rolling syllables. His version is the kind of usage that comes out of the mid-Atlantic and needs to be dropped back there, from a great height.
  • And there is widespread loathing of the verbalisation of nouns: incentivizing and all that rot.

Cheers mate.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Linguistics of a "Perfect Game"

Full disclosure: I am not a baseball fan*.

It seems to me a curious thing, this kerfluffel about the blown "perfect game" because it is an example of bizarro linguistics**. Despite the fact that incontrovertible evidence exists that proves the game does in fact meet the requirements of a "perfect game," the refusal of MLB to officially sanction it as a "perfect game" has caused a titanic uproar amongst fans. Why? We all know it really was a perfect game. Why does anyone care about the label that MLB puts on it? We care because they have been granted, by convention, the right to determine what counts as a "perfect game" and what doesn't. We could call it a "perfect game" amongst ourselves, but it just wouldn't be, because MLB has the ultimate say so. It's like Pete Rose. We all know he's a hall of famer, but he just isn't. Because MLB says he isn't. This is the opposite of the way linguistic items generally form their meanings. Generally if enough people agree that "wug" means X, then that's what it means. But not in this case. 300 million Americans (and several million Japanese, Cubans and Venezuelans) all agree that Armando Galarraga pitched a perfect game, but we are linguistically overruled by a governing body, and that's that.

This strikes me as a variation on Putnam's semantic externalism whereby speakers assume that a word's meaning is determined by someone else. We don't naturally see our own role in determining meaning. If there is a clearly defined group, like MLB, then it's even easier to surrender our contribution, even when our own intuition about the meaning is so acute.

It's also interesting that almost nothing rides on this label. They won regardless of what you call it; it doesn't affect the team's record at all.  That label will not likely affect the team's season, except perception. The pitcher might have been able to use a "perfect game" as a negotiating tactic to get more money, but few fans care about that. He would have gotten his name in the record books, that's tangible, but again, it does nothing for the team.

*I was a wrestler for 14 years; if there's no blood, it's not a sport.
**I invented that term, patent pending, all rights reserved.

Friday Funnies

For your linguistic comedy pleasure, click HERE for 5 comedy videos on language (from ALTA Language Services, via Twitter #linguistics).

Personal Fav, the ever awesome, Catherine Tate:

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

TV Linguistics - and the fictional Princeton Linguistics department

 [reposted from 11/20/10] I spent Thursday night on a plane so I missed 30 Rock and the most linguistics oriented sit-com episode since ...