Monday, 11 December 2017

They's using singular verbs as well now

There's been a bit of a flurry of discussion about the use of pronouns for nonbinary people in linguist twitter lately, because of a blog post by the well-known Geoff Pullum on the well-known platform Language Log (so, a person using their position of power and privilege to complain about something that is far less onerous than constantly being misgendered). Kirby Conrod has written a good response and it was posted on Language Log, so no need to add my own comments here, especially as I'm cisgender and so don't really have anything to contribute to the debate.

What has been interesting to me is something that I hadn't seen before: people using they+3rd person singular verb, so They is joining us later. I would have always assumed that singular they took the unmarked verb form, same as all the other pronouns apart from the third person singular he, she and it, and crucially, the same as the plural they. Then the verb form follows the pronoun form, and in this sense it's the same as you, which takes the same form in singular and plural. Similarly, in German the polite form of you is identical to they and takes the same verb forms. Using the -s form, is, is logical if we think that verb form is attached to the semantic (person and) number, rather than just the form of the verb, so it shouldn't be so surprising, but nevertheless I was surprised by it. I think we haven't settled down on this yet, so I will watch developments with interest.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

I'm literally lowkey a telly star now

I was on the telly recently! It may just have been the local station, but it's a start. Media stardom beckons! If you want to watch it, it's here.

It's a funny thing, being asked to talk about some research that's not your own and that you may not have actually read (as I hadn't, in this case). I was talking about what the papers had been calling 'gradable adverbs'. As I attempted to explain, it's the adjectives that are gradable and the adverbs that do the grading, so you can describe something as hideously old or bizarrely purple. We are apparently, says a linguist from Lancaster with a book to promote, using less of these and this shows we're becoming more confrontational. Furthermore, this is something we are learning from the Americans. Ding ding ding, all the boxes ticked for a news story: language is fundamentally changing, it reflects a deep and sweeping cultural change, American English is ruining our language.

I haven't read the original research, as I say, so I don't know how much of this Paul Baker actually says. I also couldn't really comment on the veracity of British usage following US usage by around 30 years. But I could say that we definitely are not losing all our adverbs, and it definitely can't be ascribed to us becoming more confrontational. I did agree with my interviewer that the words we are losing are the 'posh' ones (frightfully, awfully and so on), and there is, I'm sure, a link between your desire to sound posh and how direct your attitude is.

But we've got LOADS of these adverbs. We use them all the time. Kind of and sort of and a bit are pretty common, as is pretty, really, etc. They go in and out of fashion. You can check corpora, as Baker did, to find out what ones were preferred in a certain type of text at a certain point in history, and you can do other kinds of searches of online corpora to find out what's going on right now.

Two that I really wanted to mention and didn't manage to are literally and lowkey.

I can't believe that all the papers missed the chance to moan about literally as well, and can only assume that (as evidenced by them using the meaningless phrase 'gradable adverb') that they don't really know what an adverb is so didn't realise that it is one. Anyway; it is.

Literally gets a lot of column inches (or whatever the online equivalent is). People get upset because other people use it as an intensifier rather than using it to mean what they think it should mean. Other better people than me have written about why worrying about this is a fruitless activity, and why the peevers aren't using the literal meaning anyway (=to do with letters) and the slackers aren't using it figuratively (go on, try it - try replacing literally with figuratively. It won't make sense because that's not what it means) so I won't try. But what it is is an intensifier, exactly like what Baker says we are losing, although it's a bit more versatile in terms of its syntax. So there's one more new one we can all adopt.

Lowkey is not so familiar to me; I've never heard it in the wild, I don't think. I've seen it written, online, so it's obviously used by people outside my own social circle (=young people, probably). Gretchen McCulloch has written about it and gives some examples. It means kinda, so it's a 'downtoner' of the kind Baker also says we are losing. There's something more going on, I think, as one of Gretchen's examples has it combined with an intensifier af (= as fuck):
When you're lowkey sad af but trying not to care
But there's another one. We've got tons of these. Come on, people. Use your adverbs. Those adjectives need grading!

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Picking up your litter is dangerous

Right, here's the other post I promised yesterday. The other litter-related sign I saw said this:
Picking up your litter puts road workers' lives at risk. 
This time, it's not ellipsis that causes the ambiguity, as it was in my previous post. Rather, it's a choice between two people who are doing the picking up:
You picking up your litter puts road workers' lives at risk.
Them [road workers] picking up your litter puts road workers' lives at risk.
And also unlike yesterday, it's clear which one is meant here. There's not any obvious way that you picking up your own litter puts anyone else's life at risk; it's a good thing and you should do it. On the other hand, a road worker having to dash out into the traffic to pick up your crisp packet is a danger to that person.

This is another example of ambiguity in the reference of a pronoun, just like yesterday. But in this case, it's the invisible pronoun that linguists call 'PRO' (pronounced 'big pro', to distinguish it from 'little pro', which is a similar but different invisible pronoun). It's the subject of the clause picking up your litter, which has a gerund form of the verb in it (the -ing form). When you have that, you can have a subject which isn't pronounced (PRO) and gets its meaning (reference) from something else in the surrounding discourse context.

If something is the topic of the sentence, that's likely to be what's assumed to be the meaning of PRO, but other things are also relevant, like where the other possible referents are in the sentence, and what kinds of things they are (e.g. litter is not a likely candidate to be picking itself up here, for many reasons!). Shameless plug: you can read some actual research by me and my colleague Vikki (mostly her) here, on a related subject, and we cite a load of previous research that you can look up if you like.

In my sign, the road workers are the topic (well, their lives are, but you also need to be an animate creature to pick up litter). 'You', the reader, are also an option, because your litter is in there too. It's also closer in the sentence to the PRO that needs a meaning, which counts for something, but a strong combination of the road workers being both the topic and the more sensible meaning ensures that no one would read it and think that PRO meant you. Except me. I thought that. That's why I wrote this whole blog post about it.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Take your litter home with them

I was driven across the country on Saturday, all the way from Sidmouth in Devon to Margate in Kent. On the way I noticed two signs about litter on the roads, both of which are pleasingly ambiguous. I couldn't take a photo as I whizzed by, but the first one said this:
Take your litter home with you.
Others do. 
The ambiguity is between what linguists call a 'strict identity' and a 'sloppy identity' reading of the missing bit of the second sentence. Others do stands for either Other people take your litter home with them or Other people take their litter home with them. The first one is the strict reading because it strictly preserves the part of the original sentence that is elided, and the reference is the sloppy one because it allows the reference to shift from your litter to theirs, along with the subject.

[Aside: note that the fact that the second pronoun must be them in either case, namely the sloppy reading. I'm not sure why; something about the semantics of take and home and you, probably. But it seems to be an exception to the generalisation discussed here by Neal Whitman, referring to work by Johnson and Dahl, that you can have all the possible combinations of strict and sloppy except for the one where the first is strict and the second sloppy. Which is weird.]

Unlike with most ambiguity, where context tells you which meaning is probably meant, I don't think it's so clearcut here. Presumably they are trying to shame you by saying that other people behave properly so you ought to as well (sloppy). But it is possible, I think, that it means that if you don't take your litter home, the litter-pickers will have to pick it up and take it away (presumably not literally to their homes), namely the strict reading. (We'll leave aside the point that if you take it home it's not litter, which is what my aunt Becky always points out.)

Right, I've gone on about this for so long I'm now completely unable to English so I'll do the other sign for a new post tomorrow.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Nut nut's nut

EDIT: SO APPARENTLY 'TO NUT' MEANS SOMETHING VERY DIFFERENT IN AMERICA. SORRY. (But I'm leaving the post up. In the UK it means 'headbutt', ok? And THAT'S ALL.)

This is an advert for nuts:

The nut nut's nut
It says 'the nut nut's nut'. I took a photo because it reminded me of the buffalo sentence we sometimes use to show the flexibility of language:
Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.
For this to make sense you need to know, as I didn't, that 'buffalo' is a verb meaning 'intimidate'. You also need to know that Buffalo is a place and that a buffalo is an animal and its plural form is buffalo. So it means that buffalo from Buffalo intimidate (buffalo) other buffalo from Buffalo. Buffalo is a funny word, isn't it?

So nuts. KP is apparently the nut nut's nut: the nut for those who are very keen on nuts. Fair enough. Let's imagine a situation in which some of these peanuts, anthropomorphised, headbutt other peanuts.
Nut nuts' nuts nut nut nuts' nuts.
EDIT #2: It has been pointed out to me that you could nut someone in the nuts (also won't transfer to US, I'm sure: bollocks, balls, nads, testicles...). So:
Nut nuts' nuts nut nut nuts' nuts' nuts. 

Thursday, 29 June 2017

The logical Cantonese

Post number 3 from The Leopard! What good value that book was.

Now, here's a nice example of linguistic FACT being used to propagate linguistic SILLINESS. Kaja asks Harry Hole a negative question, You don't take milk, do you?. There follows the kind of misunderstanding we have all the bleeding time in English, because English is ambiguous in its answers here: he answers Yes, meaning 'yes, that's true, I don't take milk', but she thinks he means 'yes, I do take milk'. The fact that English can even do this is unusual and interesting and a worthy object of study, but we'll leave it aside for now (I think I've written about it before anyway).


Languages differ with respect to how they confirm the truth of a negative question. English is confused and can answer yes (= yes, that's true, I don't take milk) or no (= no, I don't take milk). Most languages pick one or the other. Cantonese, which Hole is familiar with because he's been living in Hong Kong, confirms the truth with yes (= yes, that's true, I don't take milk). Kaja says, when Harry uses this strategy, that he's "stopped using double negatives". I assume by this she means that he doesn't echo the negation in the proposition, answering No, I don't take milk. This isn't what we normally mean by a double negative, but it's the way Norwegian (the original language of the book and the characters' language) confirms the truth of a negative proposition.

It's not more logical to do it the Cantonese way, though. I'm not sure why it would be considered to be so, and in any case, languages are not logical. They're messy and arbitrary(ish) and when there's two options, as in this case, they're just one or the other without one being more logical. If there was a good reason for doing it one way, all languages would do it that way.

I got all this information from the brilliant SSWL database, by the way, where you can read more about this and other syntactic facts to your heart's content.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

For certain it's categorically a tautology

Here's post number two in the series from Jo Nesbo's The Leopard. In this extract, one character says "I know for certain of others with the selfsame reputation who categorically are not" (my emphasis).


The other chap tells him that using both the expressions for certain and categorically is a tautology. It's not, of course. They do mean the same thing (here, at least - categorically can also mean other things), but they don't refer to the same bit of the sentence. For certain applies to know, so Gjendem is certain about the state of his knowledge. Categorically applies to are not, i.e. to their state of being rather than to his knowledge. This doesn't mean that an editor might not suggest rewriting for stylistic reasons (after all, it means the same without either phrase), but it's not a tautology.