There’s a new article out that uses faulty methods to study the linguistic complexity of politicians’ speech. It makes many of the same mistakes that I criticized Schoonvelde et al. (2019) for – and even references that article. But it somehow comes to the right conclusion… for the wrong reasons. I know, it’s strange. Let’s check it out. Continue reading “More political scientists doing bad linguistics”
Category: English language
Dictionary.com with some good advice
I don’t know what’s going on over at Dictionary.com, but I like it. They’ve been stepping up their blogging game recently. Gone are the days of word hating (I hope)! Instead, they recently published a post about the problematic nature of some words that get casually thrown around. If you don’t know why it might be harmful to use words like Sherpa, Nazi, and hysterical, you might want to check this one out.
“Stop Using These Phrases in 2020 (Use These Synonyms Instead)” on Dictionary.com
Good job, Dictionary.com. Keep it up!
Is “nerd” still an insult?
On the one hand nerd can definitely still be an insult. Consider this clip of the Philadelphia Flyers player Travis Konecny chirping the Pittsburgh Penguins player Evgeni Malkin last year (the relevant bit comes around 38 seconds in):
(I can neither confirm nor deny whether I like watching Penguins players getting chirped)
Konecny clearly uses nerd as an insult. Yes, he qualifies it by saying “ya fucking nerd,” but he also calls Malkin just “you nerd”. Now, despite what you may think of Penguins players, Malkin is probably the opposite of the traditional definition of a “nerd” – he’s an elite athlete. (But maybe he’s a hockey nerd???)
On the other hand, might not be using nerd to be an insult much anymore. Earlier this year, Dr. Lisa Davidson tweeted about whether geek and nerd are humblebrags.
This led to some discussion which you should check out. The idea is that maybe the word nerd has changed from something that is definitely negative into something that is maybe positive. Before you confirm your intuitions, keep reading. I thought checking a corpus would be good to answer this question (you know, because I’m a corpus linguist). I decided to check the iWeb corpus because it is unedited and so should give us an idea of how nerd is used “in the wild”. The iWeb corpus is very large (14 billion words) and contains language from websites in 6 English-speaking countries (US, Canada, Ireland, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand) from 2017. There are 38,554 instances of nerd in the corpus. So I took a random sample of 500. Go here to automatically search for “nerd” on the iWeb corpus, and here for an overview of the corpus (PDF).
Here is my sample of nerd instances in the iWeb corpus as an .xlsx file. (The corpus sample only gave me 499 for some reason, so I went and grabbed the first result in the listings to make my list 500.)
1 Idea You Are Literally Beating to Death
Look! Up in the sky! It’s bird shit… It’s acid rain… It’s another garbage article about Words You Shouldn’t Use™!
Ok, so this one’s from way back in 2013. Excuses? Maybe. But it was linked to by an article from 2019, so maybe it’s still relevant? I don’t know. Thick as thieves, these bad linguistics posts, I guess.
The article is called “9 Words You’re Literally Beating to Death” and so you already know it’s going to be the worst. It’s by
renowned linguist esteemed language scholar revered language expert some dude named Rob Ashgar. Let’s have a little look see at Rob’s linguistic brain farts, shall we? (Scroll down for why all this is important)
Right off the bat, we’re deep in La La Land:
A few people can shift from a chatty and casual tone to a formal and professional one. But most of us can’t. We import our worst habits from everyday chattage to a formal job interview, a sales presentation or a eulogy.
“A few people”? What, like 3? Maybe four or five? You got any evidence to back this up, Robbo? Remember there are over 500 million L1 English speakers. If only a few of them can shift from a chatty and casual tone to a formal and professional one, why don’t you tell us their names? Oh right, because you’re making this up. Continue reading “1 Idea You Are Literally Beating to Death”
Book review: Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer
Dreyer’s English is not a style guide like the MLA or Chicago Manual. It’s more in the vein of the Elements of Style and Gwynne’s Grammar. Unlike those books, however, Dreyer’s English is fun to read and (for the most part) correct in its language proclamations. One of the reasons this book is good is because Dreyer knows what a style guide is and what it should be. He explains in this quote:
This book, then, is the next conversation. It’s my chance to share with you, for your own use, some of what I do, from the nuts-and-bolts stuff that even skilled writers stumble over to some of the fancy little tricks I’ve come across or devised that can make even skilled writing better.
Or perhaps you’re simply interested in what one more person has to say about the series comma.
Let’s get started.
No. Wait. Before we get started:
The reason this book is not called The Last Style Manual You’ll Ever Need, or something equally ghastly, is because it’s not. No single stylebook can ever tell you everything you want to know about writing – no two stylebooks, I might add, can ever agree on everything you want to know about writing […] (p. xvii)
Sounds good to me. This passage also gives you an idea of Dreyer’s writing style, the conversational nature of it. I’ve broken this review up into the Good, the Bad and the Other. This may seem like there are three equal parts, but really there’s much more good in this book than anything else.Continue reading “Book review: Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer”
Good Writers Use “Thought” Verbs and So Can You
In a post about Words You Should Avoid™, the website ProWritingAid gives some advice about which words you shouldn’t use in your creative writing. The words that they single out are think, know, understand, realize, believe, want, remember, imagine, and desire. They quote Chuck Palahniuk as evidence of a successful writer who also thinks you shouldn’t use these words:
Thinking is abstract. Knowing and believing are intangible. Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing. And loving and hating.
The idea is that these words are used to describe what is going on in a character’s mind, but good writers instead describe their characters thoughts in other ways… or something. Chuck Palahniuk says “Instead of characters knowing anything, you must now present the details that allow the reader to know them. Instead of a character wanting something, you must now describe the thing so that the reader wants it.”
But does Chuck really avoid using these words? And how common are they really? Let’s have a look.Continue reading “Good Writers Use “Thought” Verbs and So Can You”
Another day, another wild ride on the wheel-o-language opinions
So the New York Times has another opinion piece about language and (surprise!) it’s a stinker. Not as bad as it could’ve been, but still not good. Let’s take a walk through it, shall we?
The hundreds of thousands of Americans descending on Paris during this year’s tourist season are in for a shock: The city’s waiters, bakers and taxi drivers — and practically anyone else they encounter — will mostly speak to them in eager, serviceable and occasionally even near-perfect English.
What is “near-perfect English”? English that this writer can understand? This is a shot across the bow at Europeans – some of them may sometimes speak as good as moi, but usually their language would best be described as “serviceable”. It’s also a slight to linguists, or the group of people who study language for a living and would never describe instances of it as “near-perfect”. I think we’re in for a ride full of hot takes. Continue reading “Another day, another wild ride on the wheel-o-language opinions”
Book review: The Happiness Dictionary by Dr. Tim Lomas
This post sort of continues on from my earlier post about “untranslatable” words.
The Happiness Dictionary (2018, Piatkus) by Tim Lomas is a book which has good intentions, but it makes some startling and incorrect claims about language. My main contentions with Lomas’ claims are:
- He plays fast and loose with semantics. Describing the meaning of a word with other words does not give the meaning of that word, but Lomas seems to claim it does.
- You can’t check his sources because they’re not there.
- He misrepresents some linguistic terms.
- He uses research on one language to make claims about a family of unrelated languages.
- He fails to see the logical conclusions of his claims about language.
Continue reading “Book review: The Happiness Dictionary by Dr. Tim Lomas”
Tom Freeman on Lionel Shriver on semantic drift
Over on the Stroppy Editor blog, Tom Freeman has written a response to Lionel Shriver’s article in Harper’s complaining about semantic drift. You should go check Freeman’s article out here.
I want to point out two especially great part’s in Freeman’s post. First, Freeman starts his post by boiling down what these language complaints are really about:
The remarkable thing about language change is that it only started happening when I started noticing it. For centuries, English was constant and true, but as soon as I was old enough to have an appreciation of good standards of usage, people around me started falling short. Since then, there has been an alarming, unprecedented surge in rule-breaking.
Neither I nor anyone else really believes any such thing, of course, but some of us sometimes talk as if we do. One such person is Lionel Shriver.
I tell my students something similar. The people who complain about language change are often the same people who are no longer in their 30s with their lives ahead of them. They’re in their 50s or 60s now and they’re recognizing that they are being replaced whether they like it or not. Life in your 20s and 30s seems great – you don’t have as many responsibilities, you still have your youth – of course the world and everything in it should stay the same, including the language rules that you learned. But it doesn’t. You get older. The world changes. And language changes. How dare they?
Freeman also gives the idea that dictionaries should be thought of as guidebooks, not gospels:
For Shriver, a dictionary should be a rulebook of almost scriptural immutability. She wants usage to adhere to the rules that she spent time and effort internalising; any deviation, whether by the ignorant masses, by trendy literati or by dictionaries themselves, is to be fought.
The better way to view a dictionary is as a guidebook. It describes the features of the language as you’re likely to encounter it, and it thereby helps you find your way around. To do this, a dictionary needs to record differences in usage and it needs to be able to change.
That’s a very good point. Go read the rest of Freeman’s article here: https://stroppyeditor.wordpress.com/2019/07/31/how-do-you-cope-when-everyones-usage-is-wrong/
The Y’all-Star Movement and the politics of y’all
There was a recent episode of the Trillbilly Worker’s Party podcast (ok, not so recent, but I’m getting caught up) where they talk about y’all. Not y’all reading this, but the use of the pronoun y’all. The episode featured journalist Brendan O’Connor, who asked what hosts Tarence Ray and Tom Sexton thought of the word. Specifically, O’Connor wanted to know what the hosts thought of his use of the word since it was not part of his dialect growing up, whereas it was for both of the hosts (who are from Kentucky and Texas). O’Connor feels that the word is great because it’s gender-neutral, it rolls off the tongue and it’s fun to say. The hosts agree.
In this discussion, however, co-host Tom Sexton lays down some sociolinguistics about the word y’all:
What I’m saying is, yeah, you’re right: I think in terms of gender neutrality and all that stuff, [y’all is] good. There’s a phenomenon in this sort of, like – you know, me and Tarence refer to it as the Y’all-Star Movement, but it’s sort of this, like, this New South thing where all these James Beard Award-winning restaurants that pay their dishwashers $2 an hour and, you know, they’re reviving the cuisine of the Geechee peoples of South Carolina that were brought here to work the rice and sugar cane fields and all this shit. And those people do something I call the Gratuitous Y’all, where they’ll just try to inject it as much as they can in a sentence. And it just sounds so jarring to me. Like, to me a good y’all should be like the intrusive R that English people use – it just helps the sentence flow better, you know?
After that, Tarence discusses how some people naturally use it, but there are people and businesses in the US South that try to use it to sound more authentically southern. And when they do, it comes off as the opposite – like they’re trying to be something they’re not. It seems obvious that the spread of y’all is (or would be) a bottom-up change, but I’ve never thought about that politics of bottom-up linguistic changes in this way. That is, the upper classes are being immediately recognized and critiqued for adopting y’all into their planned/edited language (their marketing, etc.) – at least by some of the people who use y’all spontaneously.
Check out the discussion of y’all at minute 1:11:06 here: https://soundcloud.com/user-972848621-463073718/episode-81-rich-people-are-deeply-diseased-w-special-guest-brendan-oconnor#t=1:11:06.