I spend a lot of time in my day job quantifying things, and apparently this falls under one of the many things I do that other people think is cool, because, as with Global Positioning System work and wearing wrap-around sunglasses, I often find people doing it in inappropriate contexts. Today I find yet another in a long line of people desperately trying to score language and grammar. This time, it’s in the New York Times, and involves trying to figure out which works of literature the speeches of various politicians are most similar to. The method of comparison uses axes of “complexity” and “positivity” to classify both books and speeches. I could delve into why these things are hard to quantify in language, and why it might not work, but we don’t really need to get into all that. Besides, Language Log is better at that than I’ll every be. But there’s no need to get all clever about it; there are two much simpler ways to examine this whole thing.
First, let’s look at the results. Are Ted Cruz’s speeches similar, in any meaningful or useful way, to Beowulf? Has anyone ever listened to Bernie Sanders speak and thought it sounded like James Joyce’s Ulysses? No. The answer is no. So the final results don’t help much.
But heck, let’s also look at the axes of the graph. Is Peter Pan really characterized by it’s relentlessly negative language? Is the language in Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat really simple? Again, maybe in some sense, but from a purely practical sense, is that a useful sense? No. So apparently the scoring system doesn’t really work, either.
So there we go. Back to counting personal pronouns.
I don’t expect much from television stations, Lord knows. But Scripps Interactive seems to fancy themselves something of an owner of educational programming (Food Network, Travel Channel, etc.), not that horrible brain-rotting stuff that encourages coarse behavior and lack of socialization that you hear about. Still, even educational programming can be cut a bit of slack, and I don’t demand detailed knowledge of fiddly arcana.
But come on, DIY network, this new ad is too much. The ad I refer to is for “Building Alaska” (there was a law passed recently that at least 20% of new reality shows have to be set in Alaska, I believe). It features someone defining words one might hear on a building site in Alaska for the benefit of residents of the lower 48 (and I presume Hawaii – I don’t know why Alaskans always ignore that state). Some of the words aren’t really regional Alaskanisms, but we’ll let that pass. What bothers me is when the guy gets to the word “snoozle”, which, hell, might be only used in Alaska for all I know. Anyway, he points out that it is both a noun and a verb – to be precise it can mean either “something to poke with” or “a type of movement”.
Now, my readers are no doubt all shouting “Hah! What a maroon! Those are both nouns, the way he said it! Or maybe that second one is an adverb! I’m not really sure!”. But the fellow was speaking extemporaneously (or pretending to), and anyway, he actually meant verb for the second, because the example he gave was “snoozle on over there”. No, the real problem is with the knucklehead who wrote the copy for the words that are printed under him while he talks. When he says “Any kind of poking device”, the text reads “Snoozle = (n.) To poke” – identifying a verb form that the guy didn’t even mention as a noun. Then, when he says “type of movement”, the text reads “Snoozle = (v.) Movement or go to fetch” – which, sheesh, I don’t know, just throws in a noun and some random clause and calls it a verb.
This is all part and parcel with people mis-identifying “passive voice” of course – the vague notion that the function of a word has something to do with its grammatical definition, so if something is vaguely related to motion, it must be a verb or whatever. But you know, the person responsible for that copy is like, a writer.
My word processor does not believe in contracting “it is”. My phone does not believe that “it” can ever take a possessive. I assume this is a manifestation of some kind of battle between Microsoft and Google, but it would be nice if they’d loosen up and take less absolutist stances, vis-a-vis autocorrect. Oh, and MS Word? “And then” is worse than “and” or “then” 99.99% of the time. Cut it out.
This here not only perfectly captures my feelings on linguistics, but gymnastics as well!
I was listening to the news the other day, and heard someone say that they were “literally flabbergasted” at something. I don’t recall what had caused the flabbergastation, or anything in particular about the news story, but it got me thinking. Is there any other way to be flabbergasted?
I mean, I’m not here to rehash the old “literal versus figurative” thing, though I tend to abandon my normal descriptivist leanings and come across all prescriptivist about that particular topic. Obviously, it doesn’t make sense to tack “literally” onto “flabbergasted” if one is using literally properly. Flabbergasting doesn’t really have a concrete sense, so there’s no need to explain to everyone that you aren’t, in this particular case, talking about being figuratively flabbergasted (what would figuratively flabbergasted look like?).
But see here, even if we allow improper use of literally as a generic intensifier, it doesn’t make much sense here. “Flabbergasted” is a pretty damn intense word already. Intensifying it is kind of gilding the lily, isn’t it? It’s sort of the ne plus ultra of surprise already, folks. Leave it alone.
Or rather, what used to be? There’s a nice compilation by Lauren Davis at I09 about various things that have been blamed by descriptivists past for messing up English. Now, I think we can all agree the the English tung
shoulde be written unmixt, cleane and pure, and that Shakespeare ruined everything by using metaphors even if English makes no sense whatsoever without them. But some of these complaints seem a bit overblown, if familiar.
538.com has done a survey about the Oxford comma, and come up with some interesting results. Americans only prefer it by a small margin, which seems strange at first, given how useful it is. Why wouldn’t it be overwhelmingly favord, you are no doubt wondering. Well, it sort of becomes more clear if you dig into the statistics, as these things often do. A careful read shows that people who don’t like the Oxford comma tend to be the sort of people who don’t know what it is. As such, they may be simply reacting to the word “Oxford”. Sad, but can you really blame them?
I recently took one of those defensive driving courses online, in order to get a discount on my car insurance rates. This is not my first time taking the course, so I knew what to expect – one hour of material stretched to 6 hours through statistics rendered meaningless through lack of context (118,000 drivers are over 65 years old , and 124,000 are under 20!), potentially useful information with shaky relevance to driving (alcohol can cause peptic ulcers!), and startling contentions with no citations (20% or drivers have fallen asleep at the wheel!).
But we can all learn something from the prose stylings of whoever wrote up the bullet points for that course. For one thing, they really know how excite the reader’s interest with sentences like “School buses carry our most precious cargo (children)”. I mean, who ever would have guessed what they meant by “precious cargo” without that parenthetical? School buses, after all, carry many other things, like, um, old gum, and the occasional forgotten pencil.
But my favorite is this bit of prose magic: “You might think that is true, but it is contrary to actuality”. What kind of lame-o says “that is incorrect”, amirite? “Contrary to actuality” is way classier, and I, for one, intend to use it from now on.
Ya’ll have likely heard by now about the Subway employee in Worchester, in the UK, causing a bit of a kerfluffle by using the bread oven where she worked to dry her wet socks (and gloves, but really, it is the socks that have caught everyone’s attention). One can understand, of course – the weather there has been terrible and floody lately, so there is no doubt an epidemic of wet socks everywhere (and it’s not like the odd pair of drying socks will make Subway bread cooking smell any weirder). Given the fact that Subway has glass-front ovens that they just stick out in front of God and everybody, it seems like it would be wise to set aside special sock ovens, at least in flood-prone areas. Or the employee in question could have used the cheese-melting oven, which is not only lacks the glass front, but is designed to cook, and dry socks, very quickly indeed – she would have had a good chance to get the socks out before anyone noticed. Except never mind – she was “caught” because she took a picture of the socks and posted it to Instagram – very little can be done to shield such a person from the consequences of her actions.
Anyway, I’m not here to post about floods, or socks, or social media. My focus is language. Specifically, what’s up with Subway restaurants in the UK? Shouldn’t they be called “Tubes”? Actually, it’s odd enough to have a Subway in Worchester, MA, much less the original Worchester, because they call subs “grinders” in Massachusetts. Of course, that brings up the fact that “sub”, as in sandwiches, reference submarines, not subways, which are totally different types of transportation.
We’re through the looking glass here, people – none of this makes any sense.