Sunday, 1 September 2013

Posh Options II - Fortuitous vs Lucky

 So many changes seem to come BrE from the US but I suspect this is home-grown. "Fortuitous" seems to have replaced the plainer "lucky" or even "fortunate", at least in the vocabulary of many media reporters, and not just in the area of sport. Is the idea of "by coincidence" being lost in that of good fortune or luck?

 Perhaps a US reader would comment and let me know if this is happening in AmE, too?

Monday, 12 August 2013

Costume Drama in Modern English

 My point about "the White Queen" (BBC1) was not that I didn't like modern language versions or employing the writer of "Shameless" to write about the fifteenth century. The reverse, really.

 Is the BBC's aim to attract a younger audience? To a ten-part period drama? I doubt it will work. A better approach might be to do it in strikingly modern English. So that it looks like a conscious decision, comparable perhaps to setting Shakespeare's "Coriolanus" in the Yugoslav civil war.

 As it is, it just seems as if they are not sure whether it is period or modern. And they forget and get it wrong all the time.

A White Queen for today

 "The White Queen" (BBC1) looks pretty good, if very dark with only candlelight. But at least I don't keep shouting, "Switch the light on!" at the TV as I do with Scandinavian murder mysteries. Unlike the lighting, though, the language is very modern. We have "Who eltse?" with that epenthesis (extra 't'); we have things like: "That 's the safest option". We even have upspeak!

 But best of all we had Lady Margaret Beaufort praying and speaking directly to God: "Give me a sign. I need a sign right now!" Beyond Downton: spiffing stuff! 

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Posh Options - discreet vs discrete

 When I first heard, or rather read,  "discrete" - it must have been in the 1960s or 70s - it was in an academic context and specifically that of language study or linguistics. Even then I wondered , I am pretty sure, if it added anything to "separate". But it did: it added a certain "cachet". Or would that now be spelt "caché"? (Btw, you will sometimes hear "a caché of weapons", nowadays.)

 Recently the spelling is showing signs of taking over from "discreet", defined in my Collins Cobuild as "careful to avoid embarrassment". (The pronunciation has not changed, and so remains the same for both, as far as I have observed. ) Those who use it like this, I would have been tempted to say, give themselves away: they cannot be real writers, or even readers, certainly not of quality or academic material. That now sounds a very snobbish thing to say. I apologise. You read it (when you might have expected "discreet") in the "quality press" and on websites that should know better (oops, sorry again).

 But, talking of snobbery, is it not part of what you might call the trend towards  "the posh option"? Those trying to impress use what they take to be a posher, a more distinguished word? It might be "word inflation", where a longer word is used, a syllable added, "competency" for "competence", for example. Or it might be that "fulsome" is thought to be a more substantial version of the rather plain "full". Or maybe a certain spelling is seen to be, as here, more learned. Of course, spellchecking and autocorrecting software creates further confusion with apparently authoritative but in reality, foolish and literally (ie in fact) brainless suggestions.

 I am not, of course, talking about long-established forms such as "transportation", even where "transport" is perfectly adequate. This is now used by UK local authorities, I suppose, for its sonorous effects. I have given up saying silly things like, "Surely we don't want to revive the penal colonies?"

 By the way (btw, earlier, sorry again), there is a subtle little joke about this in Patrick O'Brian's "Desolation Island". Aubrey is outraged that his new command, "the horrible old Leopard", is to be used for transportation. Is that not the prime purpose of a ship, asks Maturin, in apparent innocence.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Cricketers' Names - Walkers

  To walk or not to walk. Aussies have been famous for not giving anything: "Umpire's job, mate." Gilchrist, indeed, got into some trouble for doing it, with other cricketers and supporters but more especially with Test teammates. "If you are saying you are honest and don't need to go by the umpire's decision, what does that say for the rest of us?"

  But there have been Walkers in Test cricket: Peter Walker for England, Brooke G. K. for New Zealand and even one for Australia, Max Walker or, in full, Maxwell Henry Norman Walker.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

From "Unnecessary Apostrophes and other short poems"

o spring

friday branches shred the wind
monday a cloud of cherry blossom
springs long-awaited surprise

  I would like to submit this to the "Guardian International Apostrophe Day" competition, celebrating apostrophes, as well as pointing out problems. It is taken from my collection "Unnecessary Apostrophes and other short poems".

Friday, 28 June 2013

Tortoise again

  People are telling me that the -oyze tortoise pronunciation is not AmE or AusE but just a spelling pronunciation. Happy to hear that, in a way. We, or I, probably do ascribe too much to US influence. But I feel that there is a growing "international pronunciation", often following or at least strongly influenced by spelling. BrE seems to be losing confidence, perhaps regarding RP pronunciations as old-fashioned. The change of "wonder" and "wander" back towards spelling seems another example. And I certainly don't blame AmE for that one - haven't noticed Americans say it yet.

Known knowens

  Talking as we were of "unbeknown", with or without -st, has anyone else noticed (yes, I should have checked all the blogs, N-Gram or pronunciation equivalent etc, I know) the pronunciations of "known", "grown" (etc?) as "knowen" and "growen"? I have a feeling that Australians are leading this change. Any comments on that?

Taught us? What? BrE jokes

  Another thing strikes me about "new" pronunciations and usages, especially those that seem to come from overseas, Australia, let us say, or the US. I am just listening to "Book of the Week" on BBC R4. It is "The Reason I Jump", a book about autism.

  A young actor, I think, reads the words of a Japanese boy. He does it very effectively, movingly, even. But I am distracted: he has an RP accent but he several times pronounces "tortoise" with           "-oyze", rather than "-us", or rather schwa. This probably seems natural for people under, say, 40 (suggestions?), or those from most of the English-speaking world. Do the BBC feel they have to do this sort of thing to sell the programme world-wide? No, I doubt they notice that much nowadays or, if they do, individual producers would hesitate to "correct", or even query, an actor's pronunciation. If it is not particularly Aus or US, is it a sign of what I think of as "international pronunciation", which often seems to move towards spelling, or selective bits of it?

  What is wrong with this? Well, it is not just a loss of tradition, which could be a benefit, but more of a loss of continuity, especially of humour. Lewis Carroll's Alice books are a foundation of this tradition of humour. Are we now to lose all those jokes, puns mostly, or explain them to death? "We'll, you see the teacher was a turtle, which is a bit like a tortoise and 'tortoise' used to be pronounced like 'taught us.'" What, you guys think that is funny? Puh-lease!

   Well, perhaps most of those Alice jokes are just out-dated and we will have to explain everything soon: "So, 'lesson' used to sound like 'lessen'. Well, that means get less. Get it?"

 Ok, I know the academic, linguists' response will be that language change is inevitable and I am just moaning about what is important to me now but isn't in any historical perspective. After all, they will say, Shakespeare's pronunciation was very different and you need notes to understand a lot of it. Yes, and that is why, sadly, the comedy scenes are usually pretty dire! Is it that the pace of change is quicker? What was the common currency of British humour for  hundreds of years, the puns and wordplay, has changed, it seems to me very quickly, in the last twenty, in the era (pronounced "eara" for BrE, "erro[r]" for US punsters) of the web.

  Ok, just another rather petty, niggling cause of slight resentment among BrE speakers? Along with Harry Potter, and Monty Python - not pronounced "PyTHON"? Just being honest: there is often a sense of resentment both ways in online correspondence about AmE/BrE. Reactions?

Thursday, 27 June 2013

I might have beknown

  I've had helpful comments on "unbeknownst" from people in the US and UK who know such things, linguists, editors and so on. Henry Fuhrman, in charge of copy editing at the LA Times, tells me via Twitter (@hfuhrman) that the "-st" form is the commonest in their articles, if not the usual one. Other US correspondents confirm this.

  Still seems curious (though not unusual, I have been told) that quite a rare dialect word should establish itself in standard, "quality press" AmE. Was it a 19C British and Irish dialect form which caught on there more strongly than here? Comments from Scottish and Irish contributors on Lynne Murphy's (@Lynneguist on Twitter) excellent and comprehensive blog, which covered this, I find, several years ago, say that it has always been the usual colloquial form for them. And it seems to be established in the UK press now too.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Unbeknownst to me

  Where did "unbeknownst" come from? And why has it become popular in the media in recent times? Is it some sort of superlative from "unbeknown"? But what is the advantage of that over "unknown", anyway?

  The OED only notes the words from mid to late C19 so they are not, as one might say, part of the basic Anglo-Saxon vocabulary. "Beknow" is said to be "Long arch. and dial."  and to mean "be or become acquainted with; recognise, acknowledge, know." I wonder what makes "unbeknown" seem superior to "unknown"?

  Perhaps I can see some usefulness in a sentence like "Unbeknown to me, the package had already been delivered." "Unknown to me, the package" might seem some sort of dangling participle. It wasn't the package that was or wasn't known but the fact of delivery. Maybe the use of the "unbeknown" is some sort of signal that we are thinking of awareness of facts, rather than knowledge or acquaintance with things. But to object to "unknown to me" would be to get pretty pedantic, wouldn't it?

  And then what further advantage comes with the -st? Suggestions and comments, please.

Friday, 21 June 2013

A post wot I wrote

  I forgot to mention two other possibilities to consider in the #WhichvsThat debate. If you are still not sure, you can always try your sentence without a relative. Ok, hold it there, Uncle Jim, I mean use no / zero relative pronoun. So you could say just, "The piece I prepared earlier wasn't really finished." Yes, that works as a defining relative clause. Or "The piece, I prepared earlier, wasn't really finished." No, something missing and doesn't sound right with pauses. (Unless you mean it as non-defining and add a "which".)

  On the other hand, if unsure, just use "what / wot" à la Ernie Wise.
[****Joke - NB reinstate Irony Warning System (IWS)****]
Um, sorry, little Ern, should that have been "au"? I never know.

  Anyway, thanks (and apologies) to Eddie Braben (I think) for writing those marvellous "the play what I wrote" Morecambe and Wise skits. Yes, that is Morecambe with an A, for my overseas audience - or actually for many non-Lancashire home fans, too. Thanks to my loyal UK follower also for the prompt.

  And be careful with your commas, that's the important point. Now, I know, Muphry's Law holds that I will have made several punctuation and other errors by this stage. But this is an amateur blog, for love only, not a newspaper or a legal agreement. And I use a deliberately informal, colloquial style here - even using lots of dashes! (And afterthoughts in brackets.)

WhichvsThat - Blast it!

  I love the USA and many of my heroes, artistic and otherwise, are American. I know that sounds like the suspect  "some of my best friends" defence and preamble, but it is true and I spend a lot of my life enjoying all that music, literature and culture.

  But I do sometimes feel the need to resist US domination of the English-speaking media, especially the Twittersphere. Resentment can bubble up, like those clouds on the weather forecast, with thoughts about cultural imperialism and even about the "can do" attitude. This positive, but often combative, approach is admirable in many ways, I'm sure. But, don't you sometimes think, "Oh, why can't they leave well alone?" rather than their saying, "We can fix it, zap it with something." I think I am peeved this week because the BBC News style guide website has just adopted what seems to me yet another AmE usage.

  Consider the long-running #WhichvsThat debate - yes, it has its own Twitter hashtag. Journalists and lawyers, for example, may sometimes have problems with punctuation, especially if they are under pressure. (Perhaps also with relative clauses, but it is less a question of that, I feel.) The solution in the US media - and the UK always seems to follow nowadays - seems to be zap the difficulties on this point by instituting a clear, prescriptive (and proscriptive) rule, at least in usage and style guides: "That defines and which adds information" or something similar. I suppose it might seem to simplify things if you have an urgent deadline.

 The problem with simplifying and then blasting problems is that this may seem to help in that moment but it leads to other difficulties you haven't thought of. ("Unknown unknowns"? What great philosopher said that?) In this case you might think you have dealt with it and so don't have to worry about it any more (anymore? No, not yet!). The "guidance" might help you write faster but probably reduces the likelihood of your reading the sentence aloud, or even internally.

  In fact, that is all the problem comes down to. Do you read with a pause, to add extra information (comma needed) or read on in one phrase (no comma, defining)? It is not really a choice between
"which" and "that" at all. "Which" is fine as long as you know what you mean. "That" isn't, but if
your English is good it should come naturally.

  The trouble is (is is) that even "wordsmiths" seem to be losing what used to be called their "native speaker performance/competence" - my double or treble is is another example.  This may be a result of both the huge volume of unedited language, much of it from admired or, at least, celebrity figures, available on all sorts of media. But also, strangely, partly as the result of "rules" which seem to be authoritative but are simply made up for convenience, against the feel and sounds and even instincts of the English language.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Gaza - scores of casualties

careless reckless fearless
ruthless pitiless heartless
voiceless limbless eyeless


Both glamourous and humourous

  I've noticed what I have "dubbed (as)" - minor peeve there - "US / BrE hypercorrection", as in book shops having a "Humourous" section. I first noticed this in a UK Borders and wondered if there was any significance in this being a US chain.

  But is it really hypercorrection going on here? Or just co-incidence that these two examples have US connections? An American writing BrE might be tempted to overdo the humor / humour change. Brits in the US might lose touch a little or momentarily "over-egg" it, too. I noticed it in the recent article by, I think, a British 'Telegraph' correspondent in the US. The example in this case was "glamourous". A trend or just a common spelling mistake by BrE speakers? Comments, please.

Scores of casualties

100 - 2

  Last year, 2012, a snippet of a poem came to me, partly prompted by the daily scores of casualties in Gaza, with a vague (contrasting and possibly inappropriate) memory of Milton's "Samson Agonistes". The numbers of dead and wounded were reported each day and they were very unbalanced. A heavy defeat in sport is often put in war-like or violent terms - a beating, a thrashing even a massacre. Sometimes a rugby or football / soccer match is said to be approaching "a cricket score", which could be, say, a hundred runs for two wickets lost, or 100 - 2. Whatever the true numbers, this is the impression the Gaza figures made, a reflection and memory of a great imbalance and injustice.

  This comparison of sport to war and vice versa reminds me that some people do consider violence very coldly or perhaps as a game, as long as it doesn't directly affect them, totting up casualties, assessing impact and even PR factors. And of course many soldiers and civilian fighters (the distinction is often now blurred) seem to be trained and to spend their off-duty time on simulations / computer games in which deaths are kept as a running score. As I say, in a fantasy game or in a foreign country it doesn't seem that real human beings are involved. Or at a computer, controlling Drone strikes in Pakistan, perhaps.

  Lurking in the sporting comparison is the English phrase "It's just not cricket." No, war certainly isn't, or shouldn't be, any type of sport, but this sometimes satirised phrase has the basic meaning of  "It's unfair." This is not to trivialise, I think, but to say that we all recognise injustice when we see it.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Disappointed as usual by summer, / we settle for autumn...

People are saying that the two-day sunny spell we had the other week was the summer and that it feels like autumn has set in. I wrote a poem about that years ago, also looking at ways of settling. I won't publish it here now in case it is needed for my Collected, but I think that was how it began.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

The lucky blessed

So many people seem blessed these days - aren't they the lucky ones?
Is it the rise of religion in this secular society that encourages so much blessing?
What's wrong with being lucky or fortunate?  Leave the blessings where they belong - in the churches!

Monday, 20 May 2013

Homeless nomads and museums: "home to"

 Even well-known writers seem to use the "home to" cliché when they could just as easily put "there are" or even "has" or something. I recently read about a certain cathedral being "home to 13th century choir stalls". Do you, like me, sometimes fail to restrain your sarcasm? "Well, yes, it would be sad to see homeless choir stalls sleeping rough, with a dog, or selling the Big Issue."

 But really, cities being "home to museums", libraries "home to three million books" and even - my favourite this because it does make you think - "the desert is home to many nomads."

Friday, 26 April 2013

Historic Present: so yesterday!

  Why do historians on, for example, "In Our Time" (BBC R4) use the historic present? Don't they realise it annoys many listeners? Aren't they sensitive to the awkwardness caused by doing this, not so much real ambiguity but rather more difficulty in relating events and periods to each other? Also it seems so patronising, as if they are saying, "If we do this we can make history cool, now and happening for the listeners / students / young people / youth." Do they think we are so easily fooled?

  If you look online, you find that, as with many topics, there is much more discussion about it in the US. Things seem to start there and spread fast. Scientists there have been starting every answer with "So..." for years. And others have been complaining about it ever since.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Misspelt names

  In my last post I was wondering whether security forces looked closely at names in the search for "extremists". It now seems that the Russian security service alerted the FBI about the Boston suspects but  that there was a mix-up over different spellings. Of course, many names are spelt and pronounced differently in English, Russian, Arabic, Chechen or whatever, let alone the difficulties with alphabets and characters.

  Also we hear rather a lot of reports of people being wrongly arrested because their name corresponds to that on a suspect list. Then we hear that it was, say, Samir Ahmed or a very common Arabic name, something like John Smith! Also names of suspects often seem to be obvious noms de guerre like Mohammed Baghdadi, or similar. One sometimes wonders what sort of intelligence is in operation and what advice is taken.

Sifting for Names - Nominative determinism?

  I've been wondering if the FBI, MI5 and other security agencies "filter" or "sift" for names as well as extreme language. I was surprised, even shocked, when, a few years ago MI5 advertised openly in the press for people to monitor phone calls, emails and social media. I think the question: "Do you speak Arabic, Farsi or other foreign languages?" featured in the copy. But I think what shocked me was that the recruitment was carried out by a private firm called "Tribal": it seemed horribly inappropriate, or do I mean the opposite? A far cry, anyway, from the discreet tap on the shoulder in the common room. Or being asked, as I was, to do Chemistry 'A' Level by Mr Norwood, husband of Melita, the very successful nuclear "grandmother spy".

  Names have been in my mind particularly this week after another terrorist attack. The FBI were said to have had the suspects under observation for some time but found "nothing derogatory" against them. I wondered if the name Tamerlan was seen as significant? Timur, Tamberlaine, known as "the sword of Islam"? In Marlowe's play, at least, he talks of "the terror of my name" and says "our swords shall play the orators for us". Can names indicate a mind-set, of the parents, or of the person who adopts a name? Would anyone strive to live up to their name, to be a hero, a defender of the faith, a sword and champion? Is nominative or nominal determinism (the second sounds better to me, and is shorter) no more than a joke?

  Probably - and it is foolish to read too much into names. After all, many people are unaware of the origins of names, even those they give to their children. And etymologies are ancient and have little resonance now, otherwise we might not use, say, Campbell, from Gaelic for "crooked mouth". Or we might avoid the lovely name Pandora, "all the gifts", because of the myth of the first woman "created by the fire god Hephaistos as a scourge for men in general" and with a box that "unleashed every type of hardship and suffering on the world" (Oxford Names Companion, 2002). We might hesitate even with Mary, thought by some to mean "star of the sea", but by others to come from Hebrew for "plump princess", no doubt a great compliment at the time. And many Christian and Biblical names, and no doubt some from Hindu and other traditions, have quite war-like or even bloody origins.

But I can't help wondering if they give some attention to names with meanings or connotations of war, weapons and martyrdom.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

NotPopeQuotes - new hash tag

"Since no-one guessed that couplet was by me,
Fly downwards, Muse, to spheres of modesty."

Of all my worldwide audience not a single person has guessed that couplet in the previous post was by me and not by Pope. So I have started a new hashtag (one word, be modern, Autocorrect) called #NotPopeQuotes. The quotes in my previous #PopeNotPontifex tag (started around the time the Pope started tweeting, I think, rather than when the new one replaced him on the twig) wasn't ** much read and then was deleted by a higher power! So was the second one, #PopeQuotes. So these ones can try and make their own way.

I've also made the first couplet a bit more modest:

"Sometimes mistaken for his mentor, Pope,
He still toiled on, not quite bereft of hope."

**No-one noticed the deliberate mistake there so I will have to point it out. There was a false agreement, with the writer (apparently) distracted by the nearest noun ("tag") and forgetting the real subject, "the quotes". Anyway, nowadays GrammarCheck programs can make this sort of mistake for you - or you can blame them.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Pope Not Pontifex (not)

Often mistaken for his mentor Pope
He still toiled on, not quite bereft of hope.
(NotEvenPopeNotPontifex 2013)

That's not always the way, you know

"Perhaps they love and clasp this usage as a rule
Because a favourite teacher taught 'em it at school."
(School of #PopeNotPontifex)

I made the mistake of bringing up the "which vs that" controversy on Twitter recently. I was immediately involved in a discussion with, I think, well, I'm sure, an American correspondent who really does love that "that for restrictives / definitions - which for extra information" pseudo-rule, as @StanCarey calls it.

In that last, rather long sentence I used a restrictive (UK used to say "defining") relative clause. Why don't US writers, or more importantly editors, have similar problems with other wh- words? What about:

"The house where I was born has been demolished.
The house, where I was born, has been demolished."

The same problem (?) may / must exist, if less often, with "when". I suggested that it was mainly a problem of punctuation and that people just need to read aloud (or with internal voice) and decide whether they pause (add comma) or not.

It is true that it may be useful for harried and hurried journalists and subeditors, or people unsure of commas, but it is a matter of usage and punctuation, not grammar. Those who have been taught this usage as a "rule" - it is certainly not a rule in BrE, see standard grammar books and e.g. British Council Learn English website - seem to be fond of it and sometimes get self-righteously cross about it.

Mormons, Autocorrect and Twetherlands

I've tweeted about how Autocorrect is often funnier than I am on Twitter, so I often go with it. I've been communicating with @elchienbekker in both English and Dutch - well, trying to. But Twitter Autocorrect nearly always intervenes, at first, especially in Dutch. So (no, not that sort of "so", the "Hwaet" type, just a normal one), I responded to his usual "moin, moin" with "Mornin', mornin'" (I was guessing). Twitter instantly corrected it to "Mormon Mormon", which I might just start every day with. The trouble is (optional extra is is  here), is that, Twitter/ Autocorrect learns pretty fast (foreign, too), thus losing that mad spontaneity and (potential) inspiration.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Mare of Chicago or Night Mayor?

I posted way back about the move in BrE towards AmE pronunciation of "mayor", not always sounding the /r/ but with more stress than formerly on the -yor. This made it two syllables, rather than one as before, when it was the same as "mare".

I joked that this might be because we were copying the Americans reluctance to get involved in confusion or cracks about standing for mayor, or running for mare. Not so silly as I thought, in that, I notice, the joke occurred in "Boss", starring Kelsey Grammer [sic]. This is well worth watching but, too hard on corruption - and, one might say, much of the American way of life - it has been dropped, I think after its first series.

The latest episode on UK TV (or Sky Atlantic) opened with a nightmare / night mayor sequence about forcing a large pill down a horse's throat. Later the Grammer mayor character makes this dream explicit by punning on mare / mayor. Is someone passing on my ideas to US media or channel(l)ing me to satellite chan(n)el(l)s? *** NB IWS (Irony Warning System) in operation.

Btw, this reminds me of south London comedian Arthur Smith, who calls himself "the Night Mayor of Balham" (with pun on nightmare, for those who have pronunciations which don't allow this wordplay).

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Guardsmen and Bunny Ears

Melvyn Bragg and three scientists were discussing water today on "In Our Time" (BBC R4). In the preview on the Today programme Melvyn mentioned that water was the second commonest molecule in the (I think) universe. Today presenter Sarah Montague jumped in to ask what the commonest is. Melvyn admitted he was a bit thrown by that but promised that he would make it one of his first questions at five past nine, turning a difficult moment into a plug.

The Today programme's co-presenter Evan Davies quickly pointed out that Nitrogen was the commonest. Sarah M then queried whether this was the commonest element or molecule. A good question. All seemed keen to show they had some knowledge of science - but probably only revealed their lack of it. On the programme it was confirmed that Nitrogen is the commonest element - but molecule? I'm not sure the confusion was cleared up.  But there is a greater confusion: are we discussing our world, our own solar system, or the universe? Recent probes have emphasised that we have not travelled far at all so far - just rephrase that would you, Ed - um, up to now, even in this possibly minor solar system.

Terms are rarely properly defined and confusion reigns. Words seem inadequate to describe science. We soon descend into talk of atoms bonding with "bunny ears", of guardsmen, of piles of oranges. This sort of topic probably needs TV images - but then instead of attempts at rational discussion we would no doubt get pretty pictures and endless repetition.

Was I the only one to be distracted rather than helped by the repeated "bunny ears"? Was I wrong to notice the "I know this is difficult but are you still with me?" upspeak? I liked the accents, though. Was there a New Zealand one there, or have I been watching too much crecket?

Anyway, Japanese history next week, much more comfortable for Melvyn - and many listeners.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Pedestrian Thinking (and other diversions)

Lots of road signs roundabout at the moment - signs of spring?

Not sure about:
even if we are in a
but comfort myself with all the signs for

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Cockroaches and Related Instincts

"In Our Time" (BBC Radio 4) on Alfred R. Wallace (and Darwin, evolution etc): I'm not picking on a slip here - every broadcaster makes them and maybe my ears deceived me anyway - but "professor of cockroaches and related instincts"? Now that does sound interesting, Melvyn.

Soon Steve Jones has us wandering (or was it wondering?) in the philosophical fog - but it is still great stuff, if it is the sort of stuff you like.

All women experts last week on literature but none this on evolution.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Absolutely Important!

It used to be that there were some adjectives that were said to be "ungradeable", or "ungradable" *(looks better, but both acceptable). With most adjectives you could say "fairly" or "very" or "quite" (I'm talking about BrE here) or even "slightly". And you could use "more" or "less" with them and make comparatives and superlatives

But the ungradeable ones weren't like that. If something was "unique" it couldn't be more unique than something else. Less absolute than the one-off "unique" but also ungradeable were adjectives like "vital", "essential" or even "perfect" (though the latter was sometimes used with "more" or "less" as indicating a quest for that impossible perfection). These were thought ungradeable because, as one's English teacher used to say, "Well, is it essential, or not? It can't be slightly essential, can it?" Just about the only thing you could add to these "ungradables" was "absolutely", which, logically, might have been unnecessary, too.

Now, however, even with wordsmiths and broadcasters, anything seems to go. We not only hear ungradeables graded but we have eg "absolutely" used with gradeable* adjectives. It is not only "absolutely vital" but "absolutely important". This sounds like the sort of thing foreigners, but not educated native speakers used to say: "very delicious", comes to mind but now I hear it all the time.

Is it part of the word inflation I've often talked about? I mentioned both that but also ... um ... something else as well, too.

*"Ungradable" and "ungradeable" both look ok to me but "gradeable" doesn't. Comments?

Monday, 18 March 2013

Unnecessary Apostrophes - O Spring!

I've had some enquires about this little spring poem but as I still own the world-wide copyright, I'm going to publish it here as well.

O Spring!

Friday branches shred the air
Monday a cloud of cherry blossom
springs long-expected surprise

(from "Unnecessary Apostrophes and Other Short Poems")

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Yes, Melvyn. So, (not) ...

"In Our Time"(BBC Radio 4) this week was on Chekhov. Last week I noticed, along with several people in the Twittersphere, that there was a good deal of use of "So..."  to answer Melvyn Bragg's questions.

I suggested it might be because the scientists on that programme seemed to want to give the impression that they were making* a cohesive, logical presentation, rather than answering a chairperson's questions. These might or might not be relevant, or even correctly phrased, so we'll carry on ...

From a listener's point of view there seemed to be a lack of engagement with the questioner and the questions. It seemed slightly unfair on our chairman, even slightly condescending, perhaps?

This week there was engagement, disagreement, even argument but on more equal terms. MB did not back down with the experts - three women, interestingly - but stuck to his point, made them hurry up or backtrack. They answered directly, sometimes a with yes or no, and once or twice with "Yes, that's a good way of putting it."

They weren't always pleased: one said "It isn't as simple as that!" But MB came back with "Well, we haven't got much time." One of the experts said they had only scraped the surface of the subject. "It's a good surface you've scraped," said Melvyn, to finish.

Interesting comparisons? Two cultures, male, female experts, interactions?

*Make or give a presentation? Used to be "make a speech" but "give a talk / presentation / address" etc. But now I'm confused. I also had to avoid repeating "give".

Friday, 8 March 2013

Melvyn Bragg Flattery Controversy

In response to the overwhelmingly negative reception of the last post, with suggestions of fawning and flattery, not to mention criticism of it's grammar and punctuation, the management has considered re-instating the IWS (Irony Warning System) Four Star notation. However, this has proved impracticable, due to lack of adequate staff to deal with world-wide media traffic.

With the goal of total transparency always before us, it has been decided that a general statement should be made to cover all future and past posts on this site, viz:

These posts may contain traces of irony and humo(u)r.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Wanted: Renaissance Man / Woman / Person

Warning: this post may contain traces of irony and humo(u)r.

Melvyn Bragg is admirable on "In Our Time" (BBC Radio 4). I don't hear a lot of admiration expressed for him: many people make mocking, snide remarks about his wonderful hair, but I have no such hang-ups.

And I do admire the way he copes with literature, philosophy, anthropology, linguistics and even, um, science - ok, I know linguistics is the scientific study of language etc, but I mean quantum physics, or superconductors or, today, absolute zero (no caps, @GuardianStyle?).

I also appreciate the way he really tries to make science understandable for himself and the intelligent lay-person. He tries to strip away jargon and pin the experts down to something that can be expressed and understood.

Often, however, the experts and, dare I say it, the scientists in particular, fail to come up to his standards. Language (or their use of it) does not seem capable of expressing the concepts, or even the data. So they are fall back on analogies, mundane examples of footballs (round ones, ok?), oranges or plates and so on, or into absurd terms and concepts like "the Big Bang".

This was coined by Sir Fred Hoyle, I believe, to mock the silliness of the idea that time and space and matter came into existence at one moment in the past. (But unfortunately it caught on, not just as a simple, headline term but also perhaps as the sort of simplistic concept or answer that people seem to long for.) So where did the original matter come from? Where did this intense explosion occur? If space did not exist, where did it happen etc? But the data, as we have it and understand it, seems to point to expanding universe, so, they tell us, it must have had a starting point etc. Aren't  we getting into irrational territory here, dare I say? People will fall back on the big G word in a moment. Surely, the situation is is, is that we just have only a tiny amount of data and don't really understand it? So we are forced into these silly and simplistic phrases and concepts.

Melvyn gamely battles on against this sort of thing, trying to make them speak clearly and understandably. He isn't really a renaissance man, equally at home with science and arts but he's pretty good. If only the scientific experts could have some of his art or language skills.

Give the man a medal, I say,  or make him a "Sir Bragg", or something... Oh, have they?

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

40 People Killed After Crash ...

What has happened to the use of "after" in UK news bulletins? We often hear something like: "40 people died after" or even "were killed after a train crash ..."

What?! It suggests to me that the rescue workers went around putting badly injured victims out of their misery. I hope this doesn't seem a facetious point or a bad taste joke. It is a serious query about usage. Also, I feel that newsreaders (and writers) have a special duty to be careful about tragic events. This means that some gravitas is needed in tone of voice and that special attention should be paid to the writing, even to the grammar.

I think the awkwardness I have noticed may be related to a change in the use of tenses. There used to be a clear distinction between Past Simple and Present Perfect, at least in BrE. So "have died after a train crash" ("rail" and "railway" seem to be less commonly heard) would not sound strange. The Present Perfect would imply that the crash was fairly recent and the effects were continuing: so many people died or were killed instantly, others were injured, some have since died, some may still die as a result.

Also, in BrE the Past Simple was formerly used mostly with past time references and indeed with mentions of place, too, as in "died in an accident yesterday in X". The Present Perfect was often used in a vaguer, more general way more suitable for fluid, ongoing situations. (By the by, wasn't there once a journalist's check list on the lines of "Who, What, Where, When..." Do people still learn that sort of thing? Did it go out at the same time as the advice against using direct Yes/No questions?)

But, under AmE influence - and perhaps European language-speakers have had an effect, too - usage seems to be changing. The Present Perfect is sometimes used with past time-expressions ("Something has happened last year") and the Past Simple is used where BrE once had the Present Perfect eg "Did you finish yet?", which still seems strange to me.

Of course, I love all these changes! But sometimes they have a weird effect and can lead to a loss of distinctions, or even ambiguity. What do all you AmE and German-speakers think?

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Scrabble Apps, I's, Is Is, Isos

If you play Scrabble nowadays, perhaps using the app on your computer or phone, you will find that not only does your opponent Crome (see that? I typed "come") up with very strange little words to fill those awkward or triple-scoring spaces, but that many of the silly, random combinations you try are accepted too. It is not just the famous QI, but LI, ZO, ISO or even ST. After a while you think, "Oh, it just isn't fun any more" [de-autocorrected from "anymore"]. Or rather, "It's not very fun anymore!"

I was grateful to Barrie England of the excellent Twitter account
for replying to my query about "I's" (see previous post). He tells me that there are citations in various corpuses (corpi?) going back twenty year or more. I suspected there would be but suggested, slightly tongue-in-cheek, that it might be becoming standard. Barrie tells me that "the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language" does indeed list it as a "variant Standard English form". So there.

But I was also rather deflated. This is an amateur blog, in the sense that it is fairly off-the-cuff, random and done only for love. In my innocence, I note down usages or phrases that I think are interesting or amusing, or  just new or changing. But then I make the mistake of asking for help or advice from proper linguists. They nearly always tell me that this was first noted decades, or perhaps centuries ago, that it is now moving towards standard, appears in grammar books and indeed the President of the United States says it. At least that's what happened with "double copula" or "is is". And I thought when I heard John McEnroe say it twenty or so years ago that it was an interesting departure in and from native speaker grammar!

But, by the by, I do recommend looking at Barrie England's satirical (I think) website "the Proper-English-Foundation" (and his other sites and contributions). It makes fun of prescriptivists in an
ironical, deadpan way which you may like. On the other hand, I have had problems with irony and
did invent an Irony Warning Scale for previous posts.
NB I am not one of those prescriptive people, more an amused descriptivist who finds it rather less amusing (as with Scrabble) when he realises that now anything goes. Even things that conflict with basic English structures using the verb "to be". But  as the POTUS says, "The thing is is that..."

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Jack and I's marriage - "My" to join "me" on the way out?

I think it may be becoming more or less standard. It certainly seems so in "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills", and perhaps in California generally. And what they say in Los Angeles today, they say in London tomorrow - and Essex is always up there. I know we have heard it over here now and then but I expect it to be on everyone's lips soon - and maybe in writing, too?

Yes, "I's" is definitely replacing the awkward "my", as in "Jack and I's marriage" - or in general "Somebody and I's something". We've moved on from "between she and I". We are not just avoiding "me" and object pronouns, but we have extended it to "my" (possessives) too. So many of the best things come from that sunny state, not least language innovations.

But, on second thoughts, maybe I am being silly and this has been around for years and I just haven't been meeting the right people. Let me know, please: I don't get out much.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Both ... but

When someone says "both x but also y ..." I feel that it is worse than a slip. It seems like deliberate hype: the speaker feels, perhaps only half-consciously, that ordinary language is inadequate.*** In the same way that satisfactory is just not good enough and that even good is not satisfactory - all must be outstanding nowadays - "both ... and" simply doesn't do it any more.

Doesn't this show, though, an insensitivity (and even insensibility) both to normal phrases but also to the way the language works, or used to?

Did that sentence seem ok? Weren't you expecting a sort of addition and reinforcement, agreement even, after "both"? An "and",  in fact? (A lot of people wouldn't understand what I'm going on about by now.)

"Both" talks about two things, not more, and is not, or was not, normally followed by the contrast or disagreement shown by "but". (That is not to say that it didn't allow a semantic contrast, of course, eg "both light and dark".)

Does anyone else feel almost hurt every time they hear this? It is not like most grammatical slips, often caused by insecurity, but more like a blow to the guts of the language. And something rather representative of the hype and falsity of a lot of life in 2013.

***Of course, this may not always be true. Some deliberate use by influential speakers in the media may be copied, consciously or unconsciously or somewhere in between. Distinguished sociolinguists may well tell me I am wrong on this, or, at least, that there is no evidence for imitation of the media at all. Please do and discuss it here.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Omost but not olso

Has anyone else heard the pronunciation of "almost" as "omost"? Is it a regional one, Lancashire, perhaps? One of the first people I noticed say it was Mark Lawrenson and I think the Irish international is from Preston, or somewhere near. I haven't noticed these speakers extend it to "also" but there are some funny pronunciations of "albeit" around. Don't worry obout that one: I think only footballers use it.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

RHOBH - BrE outpost in Beverly Hills

"Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" (RHOBH) is on ITV2 at the moment, every afternoon at tea-time (ten past four). Some people have called it "a horror film" but I enjoy it - and not just because my niece, Lisa, is in it.

One aspect of interest is how Lisa (mostly) maintains her BrE and English accent - NB I prefer "English accent" to "British" as the latter could be Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish etc - discuss? Ok, I  know the same reservations could be made about "English": do you mean RP, London, Estuary, Yorkshire, Cornish etc? But you know what I mean, or not...

One move towards an American accent is noticeable with "ass", as in "kick some" and other phrases. I queried whether she was discussing striking somebody's donkey or mule but, no. Lisa uses both "long and short a" pronunciations. I think she usually uses the short one "in quotes", though. I'll be listening out for other short a's creeping in but I think her BrE is part of her appeal and she will try to maintain it. The other housewives comment on her BrE from time to time, with an interesting mix of sarcasm and appreciation. One of them says she feels rather talked down to: an English or British accent is thought to have "class" but can still raise hackles. Husband Ken and friend Martin don't appear to be changing much and former house-guest Cedric has an interesting blended accent.

Another point of interest is that most of the housewives go for "I" rather than "me" much of the time, even after prepositions eg "between you and I". So do UK sports commentatators and perhaps most native speakers (statistics please?). In commentaries this trend extends beyond we/us ("to we viewers") to he/him eg "between he and Smith". Is there some sort of stigma attached to the object cases? Lisa's clever joke comes to mind here: "He calls me his sex object, but I object." The housewives have further extensions, getting  "I" into some new positions eg "A friend of Kim and I's".

Further research is necessary - yes, please, just a little cream on my scone, thanks Clydesale.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Too posh to ... do anything

I've been having some Twitter conversation with  @Lynneguist @BrianAGarner and @StanCarey about whether another usage started as AmE. Have you noticed that (younger?) people say things like "That was a mistake / good move on my behalf" when they mean "on my part"? I think it is now so widespread that "on my part" would sound old-fashioned or even weird to many people.

Someone else on Twitter then suggested that if you are really posh you don't have to do anything at all: you have servants to do everything on your behalf.

A test for many of these points might be "What would they say on Downton Abbey"? Oh, no, on second thoughts ... maybe I'll ask Lisa on " The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills"?

Friday, 18 January 2013

Coloured Snow - Weather Again - Snow Warning!

Last night I heard on TV weather that "rain will be turning readily to snow" - re(a)dily? - and then that there was "a yellow snow warning". What a horrible combination.

Does any one else say "It's winter, in Britain. What do you expect - a herd of wildebeest?" when the forecasters talk of 10C in January being "disappointing"? They seem to think we are all on summer holiday and must have sun to go to the beach all year round. So "temperatures will be struggling", poor things. Why this need to anthropomorphise the weather? Rain is "organised" when not in "bits and pieces".

They are meant to be weather experts but why do they never seem to mention (still less show concern about) climate change?

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Cricketers' Names - Again

My son used to play with a boy called Thrower and I imagined the following scene:
Scorer (shouting): Bowler 's name?!
Captain and nearest fielder: Thrower!
Scorer: What?!
Captain: Thrower!
Scorer and both Umpires together: No ball!

Monday, 7 January 2013

First Female PM & MP? Meryl Streep - Iron Lady

I didn't really feel very keen to see "The Iron Lady", even though I have admired Meryl Streep's performances in the past. I was confident she would do a good job and probably even get the accent right but didn't go to see it in the cinema.

However it was on TV last night and in fact it was such a wonderful performance and impersonation - terrific in both language and acting terms - that I was unexpectedly moved. Not something I thought possible, and certainly not where those "terrible twins" were concerned!

The trailers showed big scenes in the House of Commons which looked pretty phoney but in fact the Cabinet and Opposition were reasonably convincing in close-up. However, it seemed that the Iron Lady was not only the first female PM but the first woman MP, too. A sad rewriting of history, erasing many notable women on both sides.