We need YOU …

… to help us get enough data by filling in the survey on flat adverbs (as in go slow rather than slowly). Our target is to have over 100 respondents, and we are not nearly half way there. So please fill in our very brief survey! (Update: numbers are slowly rising, and we are at 58 now. So keep at it please!)

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Who is Kay Sayce? Who is Ann Batko?

I’m trying to find out who Kay Sayce is. I know she (he?) is the author of a usage guide called What not to write: A guide to the dos and dont’s of good English (2006). The book is included in the HUGE database. But I’d like to know more, such as what made her write the book? What else does she do besides writing a book this?

WorldCat lists a book called The Zimbabwe Student’s Handbook (1989) and some other publications. So it appears that she used to be a university lecturer in Zimbabwe. Some other books suggest an agricultural background.

And I have the same question for Ann Batko, who wrote When bad grammar happens to good people  (2004). She appears to be an American writer, but I haven’t come across any other books by her or indeed any information at all. What I did find (in WorldCat) is that the book was translated into Chinese: yet another English usage guide! But this time a more modern one than Bryson’s. (See my post on Bryson in Hungary and China.)

So who are these writers, what makes them experts at the topic they write about? Can anyone help?

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Bryson in Hungary and China

WorldCat is a wonderful resource for our kind of work (though not always entirely reliable …). I looked up Bryson’s Troublesome Words (1984), one of “our” usage guides, to find out how popular the book was. I was trying to follow up a comment made by Deborah Cameron in Verbal Hygiene (1995) about Bryson: “… that while [his] travel books did poorly in the US, an earlier book on language had ‘sold rather well'” (p. viii). This earlier book was Troublesome Words.

But WorldCat only lists three other editions or reprints besides the first, published in 1987, 2002 and 2009. BUT it also lists the following three editions:

Bryson in China and Hungary

Apologies for the poor quality of the image: perhaps this may be an incentive to try and access WorldCat yourself … (or click on this link). WorldCat notes that the first two titles are in Chinese, and the third in Hungarian: how wonderful, Bryson translated (twice, in 2008 and 2012) into Chinese, and once into Hungarian, as recently as 2013.

I assume these translations are from the 1984 edition, so this means that an older norm of correctness is actually presented here. Perhaps it doesn’t matter (does it?). But what I’d also like to know is whether anyone knows whether the book came out in other languages as well. I’ve never seen the book translated into Dutch, but what about other languages?

Bill Bryson, can you help us here perhaps?

(Thanks Anikó, for your help.)

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Sitcoms and language humour

Those who are familiar with Frasier would certainly recall that language was one of the things Frasier and Niles were nitpicky about. In one episode, Frasier manages to irritate a caller by commenting on his inappropriate use of literally: “I’m sorry Doug, can we just go back a second? You said your mother literally hangs around the house. Well, I suppose it’s a pet peeve of mine but I suppose what you mean is that she figuratively “hangs around” the house. To literally hang around the house you’d have to be a bat or spider monkey”. (You can read the entire dialogue here.) This does not end well as Doug gets annoyed and hangs up on Frasier after calling him ‘an intellectual pinhead with a superiority complex’.

The use of language jokes is not new in film and television productions. Nonstandard language, dialectal features, particular intonation patterns or peculiar ways of saying things are resources writers and actors tap into in order to depict a particular character or quality. Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady is a very good example. This is not a recent practice; playwrights and novelists have always made use of dialectal features for various effects, including humour. In the case of Frasier, for instance, his language nitpicking goes hand in hand with his pretentious demeanour. The use of nonstandard forms in literary productions is actually one way in which historical sociolinguists can study language variation in the past.

What I find particularly interesting in the scene from Frasier, however, is that the nonliteral use of literally is just one part of the reference to current language use. What is referred to here is also the practice of correcting other people’s grammar and the social value assigned to it. We see an instance of what Anne Curzan calls prescriptivist metadiscourses, or ‘conversations about the conversations about language’. In one episode of Friends, for instance, Ross and Chandler try to help Joey learn how to repel women; the advice Ross (a paleontology PhD) gives Joey, based on his personal experience, is that girls don’t like it when guys correct their grammar (which, in the context of Friends, is very much a ‘Ross’ thing to do).

It is also peculiar that other situations in which such jokes are made mostly involve the same examples: literally and whom seem to be the favourites. Parks and Recreation made the nonliteral, and exaggerated, use of literally one of Chris Traeger’s traits as an extreme optimist. In Archer, for instance, one of the running jokes is the confusion over literally and figuratively, where characters are constantly correcting their uses of literally to a point of comical confusion about what exactly is being said.

What we can learn from looking at these examples is not only how the use of literally is changing, but also how speakers react to it. Sitcoms, very much like literary productions, provide insights into the shared language norms of a community and the social value of particular language variants.

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Just out: the A2P articles on Prescriptivism

I’m very proud to be able to announce the first substantial publication from the Bridging the Unbridgeable project: the papers from the workshop that preceded the Leiden Prescription conference, called Attitudes to Prescriptivism (A2P), organised by Robin Straaijer, Carmen Ebner, Viktorija Kostadinova and Morana Lukač.

Though not quite a special issue on the subject, the most recent issue of the Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development includes a substantial number of papers as a set devoted to “our” topic, all of them edited by Robin Straaijer:

Attitudes to prescriptivism: an introduction – Robin Straaijer

The role of linguists in metalinguistic discourse in modern Lithuania – Giedrius Tamaševičius

Prescriptivism and French L2 instruction – Suzie Beaulieu

The relationship between use and perception: the case of Catalan variants of a subject coreferential with an antecedent – Joan Costa Carreras

Folk linguistics and language teaching education. A case study in an Italian secondary school – Matteo Santipolo

Language guardian BBC? Investigating the BBC’s language advice in its 2003 News Styleguide – Carmen Ebner

Linguistic prescriptivism in letters to the editor – Morana Lukač

Congratulations all, and especially Robin (as well as Emily, who contributed to the final stages of this editorial project). And read them all!

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Linguistic Girl Power

We have dealt with numerous language issues such as the oddly misplaced apostrophe, the dangling participle and the new “like” on our blog, but what interests me in particular are the social factors that may or may not pull the strings behind the scene. Does education influence your attitudes towards the acceptability of the often preceived misuse of literally? Do younger people, described by Naomi S. Baron as the Whatever Generation, really accept anything when it comes to language usage? What role does gender play?

Gretchen McCulloch wrote an interesting piece on the role of the latter in language change arguing that young women “are the real language disruptors”. Sociolinguistics studies, such as the ones conducted by William Labov, have shown that women are the driving force behind linguistic innovation. Be it uptalk or the use of like. Women have often been blamed for these language disruptions; a term which I would like to see replaced by the more positively connotated innovations.

Rosie the Riveter

In her article, McCulloch indicates the role young women play in language innovation. What strikes me as intriguing, however, is that women, as opposed to men, have also been found to prefer standard language forms over non-standard forms, as shown by Trudgill (1974) in his study of English in Norwich. It seems as if women play a crucial linguistic role, not only when it comes to language innovation, but also to language maintenance. Read McCulloch’s article and let us have your thoughts on this subject.

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Jack Lynch on (correct) usage

Reading Jack Lynch’s The Lexicographer’s Dilemma (2009), I (re)discovered his usage guide, called The English Language: A User’s Guide, originally published in 2008. I then also found his very useful alphabetically arranged website (called Guide to Grammar and Style), filled with usage advice: a wonderful online resource. I checked it for the split infinitive of course, and found that it also lists “the new like” (so yes, I suppose that means this really is a usage problem).

But I also noticed that the website was “last revised 28 January 2011”. Jack, haven’t you heard about the HUGE database yet?

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Muphry’s Law and other mistakes prescriptivists make

Linguists often debunk language prescriptions on the basis of their inaccuracy and their authors’ misunderstandings of linguistic concepts (see our comments on Heffer’s Strictly English). One of the most commonly confused and wrongly exemplified prescriptions is the one against passive constructions, the so-called passivophobia. Language Log’s Geoff Pullum, Mark Lieberman and Arnold Zwicky have diligently recorded and discussed many instances of the wrongly defined and exemplified passive constructions in the period between 2003 and 2013 in 72 blog entries (and counting). Pullum (2014) went on to publish a full-length article Fear and Loathing of the English Passive in the journal Language and Communication. Examples of passivophobia gone wrong include Michael Gove’s memo on letter writing:

Use the active, not the passive voice. Ministers have decided to increase spending on the poorest children. Poorer children are not having a harder time under this Government.

The BBC’s News Styleguide (2003):

There were riots in several towns in Northern England last night, in which police clashed with stone-throwing youths. Youths throwing stones clashed with police during riots in several towns in Northern England last night.

and the fourth edition of the Elements of Style (2000):

There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground. Dead leaves covered the ground.

None of the underlined sentences includes a passive construction. Existential clauses (There were riots…) in particular seem to be subject to wrong analyses.

Another type of an error found in prescriptive corrections runs even closer to the surface – the incorrection – a correction that includes a mistake itself.  To explain how incorrections work John Bangsund (1992) of the Victorian Society of Editors in Australia introduced Muphry’s Law, the editorial application of the better-known Murphy’s law, which he defines in four points:

  • if you write anything criticising editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written,
  • if an author thanks you in a book for your editing or proofreading, there will be mistakes in the book,
  • the stronger the sentiment expressed in (a) and (b), the greater the fault,
  • any book devoted to editing or style will be internally inconsistent.

Here is an example taken from the recently published Style manual for amendments to bills of the UK’s Office of the Parliamentary Counsel and Cabinet Office spotted by a Twitter user:

Example Muphry

Many more examples are available if you look up #MuphrysLaw on Twitter.

chalkboard MuphryFor more instances of prescriptive fallacies, you can tune into British Council’s YouTube channel and listen to the talk by Michael Rundell, editor-in-chief of the Macmillan Dictionary. He discusses the extreme prescriptivists’ lack of consideration for register variation, introduction of etymological and logical fallacies, and made up rules (including further discussion on passivophobia).

What are your favourite examples of prescriptive advice gone wrong?

Tell us in the comment section below!

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