Miracles of Human Language

We are excited to announce the new online linguistics course offered by Prof. Marc van Oostendorp from Leiden University. The course is designed as an introduction for anyone interested in how language works and how it gives insight into the human mind. It features interviews with well-known linguists, such as Noam Chomsky, and speakers of many different languages.

One of our collaborators, the project’s former student assistant, Inge Otto will be taking part in the teaching and moderating activities.

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Well done – the course seems very interesting and it will even enable the participants to experience linguistic fieldwork first-hand.

For more information look up the course page on Coursera and sign up!

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Fresh from the English Today press: The dangling participle – a language myth?

The December issue of  English Today contains the latest feature article from our project in which I am discussing the acceptability of the dangling participle. Here are some of the main points addressed in the article The dangling participle – a language myth?:

  • Are usage problems always straightforward and problematic?
  • Can  context compensate for the lack of a suitable subject in the participle clause?
  • Has the acceptability of the dangler compared to Mittins et al.’s study (1970) increased or declined?
  • And last, but not least, what do you think about the dangler and its acceptability?

Read the English Today feature to receive some answers to these questions and help us answer the last question by completing the Proper English Usage online survey.

Note: You can read the full article on the English Today page of this website, or if you have access, download the original pdf from the website Cambridge Journals Online.

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Washington Post review Pinker

On November 7, The Washington Post published my review of Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style. You can read it on their website here. It also appeared in the print newspaper on the same day under the title ‘The Sense of Style,’ milestone on road to better writing.

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Railway station or train station?

One of the pet peeves of the British English-speaking language pedants has traditionally been the usage of Americanisms, which we have written and surveyed our readers about in our previous posts. In my research of the complaints about language use, I can safely say that criticism of Americanisms constitutes one of the major complaint trends among those who speak or model their speech on British English. “Fall” is replacing “autumn”, “bus” ran over “omnibus”, “Mother’s Day” is celebrated instead of “Mothering Sunday”. Another phrase which seems to be on its way out is “railway station” soon to be replaced by “train station”. The BBC style editor Ian Jolly gives an account here of the BBC’s (accepted) usage of “train station” and the audience’s predominantly negative response to it. “Railway station” predates “train station” and it has been used almost exclusively in both American and British English prior to the 1930s when according to the data taken from the Corpus of Historical American English “train station” first started to occur in wider usage in American English. The increase in frequency of “train station” in American English seems slightly more delayed in the chart taken from the Google Ngram Viewer, but it clearly shows that in 1986 the frequency of “train station” matched “railway station” and its use has been soaring ever since. Ngram railway and train station American English The same phenomenon seems to be now reflected in British English. In the British National Corpus, covering the period between 1980s and 1993, “train station” is used mostly in spoken language, which is the door through which change usually enters language. According to the Google Ngram Viewer, the situation has dramatically changed since then. Those who are opposing the American invasion will be glad to see that “railway station” is still in the lead, however, only by very few instances. Ngram railway and train station One complaint from The Times about the usage of the phrase says:marple

I recently heard Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple instruct a taxi driver to take her to the ‘train station’. Not in 1950s England, I think.

With BBC on board and corpus evidence, I wonder if it will survive in wider usage until 2050.

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An 18th-century Garner?

Within this project, we take Robert Baker’s Reflections on the English Language (1770) to be the first English usage guide. But was it?

In the introduction to the Merriam Webster Dictionary of English Usage (1989: 8a)) we are able to read that Baker may have been preceded by the anonymous Observations upon the English Language, published in London for Edward Withers, probably in 1752. The 25-page pamphlet, which can be found in ECCO, was written by a certain George Harris, and is addressed to “a Friend” (title-page). Harris has an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, where he is described as a lawyer, who was born around 1721 and died in 1796, leaving an enormous amount of money. The title of the pamphlet is mentioned, though nothing more about it is said.

Google books, but no full text available

S.A. Leonard, in the Doctrine of Correctness (1926:313), claims that the pamphlet was “the source or first record of many objections and prescriptions by Lowth and others”. But was it? The pamphlet makes another plea for an English Academy, though mainly to fix spelling. Apart from spelling it deals with pronunciation, and as for other linguistic aspects that usage guides tend to express their views the author writes:

but lest you should think that I would indeavor to force Men by Law to write with Propriety and Correctness of Style, I must declare, that I mean only to force them to spell with Uniformity according to certain given Patterns, and without Elisions (p. 13)

The pamphlet ends with seven pages on “some few Words and Phrases in the English Language which I think ought to be avoided by every correct Writer” (p. 19):

  • that for who
  • whose
  • one
  • like to have
  • Constituents referring to persons
  • now a days, as how, withal, whereof, hereof, wherewith, howsoever, whatsoever
  • Relation, Council to refer to persons
  • ado
  • a few
  • genitival s spelled as his (the longest section)
  • as for which or such as
  • exprest, opprest (and others) for expressed and oppressed
  • knowed, falled, teached, writed, spelled, keeped, rised
  • French words are to be avoided
  • mistaken for misapprehended
  • of after a participle (e.g. becoming of)
  • asso

… and “many more very exceptionable Words and Expressions [which] might still be enumerated, such as, never a one, many a Time, methinks, every five years, whilst the Stream was a running, whilst the Book was a printing — but I grow tired of my Task”(p. 25).

Some of these do indeed occur in Lowth’s grammar, but I think Leonard is rather overstating the case. What I particularly like about the pamphlet is that it was written by a lawyer, not a linguist (even avant la lettre). In this respect it neatly fits into the category. But is this an early usage guide?

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We are on YouTube!

We have expanded our social media presence with a brand new Bridging the Unbridgeable YouTube channel! In the very first video we’ve uploaded Robin Straaijer gives a very short introduction to the project and the HUGE database. You can watch it below, or go to the project’s channel on YouTube. Under the ‘channels’ tab on our YouTube page, you’ll find some of our favourite YouTube channels.

There will be more videos. If you want to keep up to date with our videos, please subscribe to our channel.

 

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Steven Pinker’s Sense of Usage

9780670025855MLast month, Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style was published in Britain and the US. As a specialist on books of usage advice, and as someone who needs to write for a living, I find The Sense of Style interesting because it is partly a book about writing and partly a book with straight-forward usage advice. I also think it’s very important that linguists get more involved in this business of usage advice, and reclaim some authority as it were, from prescriptivists who are underinformed about linguistics.

I have to admit that I wasn’t overwhelmed by Pinker’s writing advice, which despite much solid guidance, based in linguistics and cognitive science, isn’t always as concrete as I would like it to be. But perhaps this is because as a linguist, some of his insights on how sentences and texts are constructed did not strike me as particularly new or controversial. It probably will for someone without a background in linguistics.

photo by Max Gerber

“I love style manuals. Ever since I was assigned Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style in an introductory psychology course, the writing genre has been among my favourite literary genres.”

However, this is not the part of the book that I want to address here. Right now I’m mostly interested in the last – and longest – chapter of the book. “Telling right from wrong” takes up almost a third of the book, and is more or less a usage guide on its own. What I like about this chapter and – the book in general – is the linguistic arguments Pinker uses and the language myths he debunks with them.

photo Max Gerber

“The idea that there are exactly two approaches to usage—all the traditional rules must be followed, or else anything goes—is the sticklers’ founding myth.”

Pinker tackles old chestnuts such as the use of flat adverbs (such as in “drive fast”), and those about the distinction between two and more than two. This category is represented by usage problems such as the use of alternative for more than two choices, the choice between between and among, and each other and one another, and whether or not it is okay to use a superlative in an “X of two”-type phrase (“may the best of the two win”).

Pinker says he loves style manuals. I have a different relationship with them: I think they’re interesting, but I don’t necessarily feel the need to take them home with me. Nevertheless, The Sense of Style will end up on my bookshelf.

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