Saturday, August 6, 2011

Some random August ramblings

In Britain, August is known in the media world as the silly season. Politicians and business people etc are away on holiday, but journalists still have to find something to write about. The result is that newspapers are full of silly stories which wouldn't see the light of day at other times of the year.
It's a bit the same in my teaching world. Most of my students are away on holiday, so I have a bit of time to fill this blog with 'silly stories'. Anyway, what's the point of having a blog if you can't spout off occasionally? Here are a few things I've noticed recently on the blogosphere.
There is a popular American website called Grammarphobia, where people send in questions and their resident experts, Pat and Stewart, answer their queries. There's a link to them on the right, in my blog roll.
Unlike many so-called grammar websites, Grammarphobia is refreshingly non-pedantic, and most of the time I more or less agree with them. Occasionally, however, I think they could add a little more, or I outright disagree. But although they call themselves a blog, they have a no comments policy, which can sometimes be rather frustrating.
My beef with Grammarphobia is not usually with their answers, however, but with the questions, some of which are not so refreshingly non-pedantic. Just to mention a couple of recent ones.

Misplaced modifiers - the placing of 'only'

The questioner was objecting to the sentence 'I only want to ask you one question', saying that this made the word only modify want, rather than modifying (I presume) one question. The traditional rule being that the modifier should go as close as possible to the word it's modifying. This is an issue I discussed at some length in my post Exploring misplaced and dangling modifiers (link below).
Look at these two sentences, and decide which you think sounds most natural:
  • I only want to ask you one question.
  • I want to ask you only one question.
For most of us, I think, the first sentence sounds more natural. Grammarphobia's argument as I understand it, is that the only reason for this rule about the placing of modifiers is to avoid misunderstanding. And as there is really no possibility of misunderstanding this sentence, there is basically no problem. An argument I totally agree with.
In fact this placing of the word only in particular, has long been the subject of heated debate amongst grammarians. (And it could equally as well apply to the word just)
But what caught my attention was that Pat quoted a sentence from Fowler:
For 'He only died a week ago' no better defence is perhaps possible than that it is the order that most people have always used & still use, & that, the risk of misunderstanding being chimerical, it is not worth while to depart from the natural.
OK, the English is a bit old-fashioned, but the message is clear:
  • There is no risk of misunderstanding
  • People have used this word order for such a long time that it sounds more natural than the 'correct' one.
That is not, however, how GrammarGirl feels. This is another top American grammar website, which again is usually fairly non-pedantic. She quotes a very similar sentence:
I only ate vegetables
And argues that it means I ate vegetables, and that's all I did, I didn't wash them, cook them etc. To paraphrase her somewhat for the He only died a week ago sentence, he didn't go wind-surfing, he didn't read any books, he didn't make love to his wife, he just died.
But that's not how most of us would read it - we would think something like: And to think, it was only last week that he died. There's more about this in my modifiers post. And a link to a quote by James Thurber on the subject.
I'm definitely with Grammarphobia on this one.

A lot of or many? (or much, for that matter)

Somebody else wrote in to say that he and his wife had been caused 'some consternation' by Pat's use of 'a lot of' in a discussion on the radio, arguing that she should have said 'many'.
Here's what Swan has to say on the matter:
In an informal style, we use much and many mostly in questions and negative clauses
And he gives this example:
He's got lots of men friends, but he doesn't know many women.
Which he says is more natural than:
He's got many men friends, ...
Note - lots of is slightly more informal than a lot of
And here's what Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary has to say about many:
used with plural nouns and verbs, especially in negative sentences or in more formal English ... Also used in questions.
So, we normally only use many and much as determiners in affirmative (positive) sentences when we are using formal English, which means mainly in writing, so this couple's consternation was rather misplaced, I think.
Note - there is an exception (there always is in English). We use many and much in positive sentences after so, as and too.
  • There were so many people at the party.
  • He's got as much money as I have.
  • Too many people take grammar too seriously.

Misplaced horror over a dangling modifier

Talking of talking on the radio, this next item concerns the 'spotting' of a dangling modifier by an unsuspecting member of the public on the radio. Perhaps the very first time that anybody has thought that this style guideline for written English should also be applied to people's unguarded informal conversation.
This one is from the blog Sentence Sleuth. A father whose daughter went blind at an early age was being interviewed on the radio and he said something like:
At the age of three, I noticed something was wrong.
So OK, there's a dangling modifier here, but the meaning is absolutely clear, and the context of the conversation (which we are never ever given on these occasions) would no doubt have made it even clearer.
This, in my opinion, is taking 'rules' too far. And what's more, it's not even a grammar rule, it's a style rule – for written English!
Dangling modifier? - The first clause has no obvious subject, and is therefore supposed to modify the next noun that comes after it. But as I obviously refers to the father, and at the age of three is about the daughter, the first clause is said to have nothing to attach itself to, and therefore dangles. (Strictly speaking that first clause is no doubt a phrase, but it's acting like a clause).
There are a couple of ways we can fix this, if we really feel we need to. We can make the first clause a full clause with subject and finite verb, or we can make the subjects of the two clauses agree.
  • When she was three, I noticed something was wrong
  • At the age of three, she began to show signs that was something wrong
But does it really matter? As I said, the meaning is clear enough. There is no danger of any misunderstanding. Personally I would have no problem with it even in written work, but to correct somebody's informal conversational use of a perfectly natural sounding sentence seems to me to be applying rules simply for the sake of applying rules.
More about this at my post Exploring misplaced and dangling modifiers (link below)

Is British English succumbing to 'barbarous Americanisms'?

The BBC recently published an article on the web where they invited people to write in with their favourite peeves about American English, and how it was invading British English.
This has got the linguistics blogosphere in particular really buzzing with indignation. Indignation sometimes as righteous as the original peeves (incidentally OALD lists pet peeve as AmE usage, so that's at least one that has stuck in BrE).
I'd like to make my position clear at the outset. I see nothing wrong with expressing your national identity (or any other identity for that matter) through your language. That's why we have different accents, dialects and so on. And some British newspapers, such as the Economist, have a style policy of trying to avoid Americanisms where possible, not because they are anti-American, but because they are British.
After all, it's not all one way. I've seen comments in US papers criticising the use of amongst and whilst as being effete British English, not suitable for manly US publications.
What's more, as I understand it Noah Webster didn't introduce spelling reforms into American English simply to make life easier for schoolchildren and ESL/EFL students. 'Webster dedicated his Speller and Dictionary to providing an intellectual foundation for American nationalism.' (Wikipedia). And good on him, I say.
As a Scot, I occasionally say outwith, to mean not part of. I might talk about doing the messages on a Saturday morning – nothing to do with SMS or taking a message to someone – it means to do the household shopping.
As a Brit, I '-ise' every verb I possibly can, and I never, never say 'I'm good' unless somebody asks me about my behaviour.
But the BBC piece had serious problems. First of all it basically invited a spate of raw anti-Americanism. Secondly, it never checked that people's hated expressions were actually Americanisms. Indeed the writer's own introductory examples of 'Americanisms' were 80% of British origin. And thirdly, there's a big difference between making your own language choices, and criticising other people because they haven't made the same choices as you.
And then there's the question of what actually constitutes an 'Americanism'. For me it is a word or expression that is in general use in North America, and which is different from its British equivalents - for example: pants (AmE) / trousers (BrE) or faucet (AmE) / tap (BrE).
But many things that are considered in the UK to be Americanisms, are more to do with the language of specific groups where the influence has been overwhelmingly American. For example:
  • Business jargon or buzzwords
  • Youth talk, especially the kind of language identified with 'Valley girls' (see link)
  • The language of the Internet
Very often these words and expressions receive just as much opprobrium from Americans as they do from the British. The two leading websites that I know of excoriating business buzzwrds are both American, for example. (Sorry about the long words, I've become addicted to the 'Test your vocabulary' quiz at Merriam-Webster Online – link below).
And much as I hate the degrading of the word awesome to meaning simply great, I don't see it so much as an Americanism as being part of Internet influenced youth culture. And adults always hate youth culture, except of course, their own youth culture.

What was that about I'm good?

One of my favourite linguistics blogs is Motivated Grammar, which I list in my blog roll on the right. The blogger, Gabe, quotes one of the BBC peeves:
16. “I’m good” for “I’m well”. That’ll do for a start.
And then fairly lays in to people who are unhappy about this use. All the points he makes are perfectly valid, but it's the ones that were missing from the discussion I'd like to address.
But first let's get the grammar thing out of the way. Some British people assume that this is grammatically incorrect, well being an adverb and good being an adjective. But we are using the verb to be here, which is a linking verb and so takes an adjective, not an adverb. In fact well can be an adjective as well as an adverb, as it is in 'I am well'. So the problem isn't grammatical.
The problem for people like me who don't particularly like this expression is that when we first heard it, it sounded as though the person was talking about their moral status, behaviour or general ability at something. It reminds me of a quote from American film star and sex symbol, Mae West:
When Im good, I'm very good, but when I'm bad, I'm better.
I'm now used to hearing I’m good being used by Americans, but it does sound to me strange when said in a British accent.
And there is nothing to say that the original peever was criticing the construction of I’m good per se, only its use in British English. The discussion was in an almost entirely American context, about the linguistic properties of the phrase, and at no time discussed the identity issue.
It seems that in America I'm well sounds stuffy, but I don't think it has that connotation in the UK. In any case we are very unlikely to say it exactly like that. The normal British answers to How are you? would probably be:
  • Fine, thanks. And you?
  • Very well, thanks. And you? (a little more formal)
  • I'm very well, thanks. And you? (a little more formal still, but not particularly stuffy)
And in fact Good, thanks. And you? sounds much better to me than I'm good. It's the combination of I am and good which I find strange.
And as I said earlier, the indignation of the linguistics blogs (again almost entirely American) has been almost more outraged than the original peeves. And again the issue of identity has been largely ignored. Which is strange coming from linguists.
As a matter of interest, Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary (they don't pay me, honest, it's just my favourite) list 'I'm good', as a reply to a general greeting, and don't say anything about its being US use. So it looks as though I'm just being an old fogey.
Now I've got that lot off my chest, I can get down to something more useful.

Testing your vocabulary

The Merriam-Webster Quiz

I should warn you that the Merriam-Webster quiz will be very difficult for non-native speakers; it's pretty difficult for native speakers! There is also a problem in that it seems to be computer generated at random, using as a definition one of the synonyms that appears in the word's dictionary entry. The one the computer selects is not always the first meaning that comes into your head, and can occasionally mean the same as one of the other words.

How big is your vocabulary?

How many English words do you know? 1000, 2000? There's now a website where you can find out, but you have to be honest with yourself. It only takes a couple of minutes, and by taking the test you will also be helping a project to build up a picture of the size of vocabulary different groups of people have.

Related posts


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