Thursday, 17 July 2014

Word crimes

I knew that Weird Al Yankovic was a grammar snob, but this song is just insulting. People who use less with count nouns (like Shakespeare) were raised in a sewer. People who use figurative "literally" (like Dickens and Fitzgerald) are stupid. Use any words that Yankovic doesn't like and you're a "moron", "dumb mouth-breather", "spastic", haven't finished second grade.

I'd like to think he's aware of the irony, that he's being just as childish as he accuses others of being. 

Wednesday, 23 April 2014


From Snuff by Terry Pratchett:
'So Sybil's used to come along and talk to the hermit whenever they were faced with a philosophical conundrum, yes?” 
Willikins looked puzzled. “Good heavens, no, sir, I can't imagine at any of them would ever dream of doing that. They never had any truck with philosophical conundra.* They were aristocrats you see? Aristocrats don't notice philosophical conundra.” 
*Later on Vimes pondered Willikins’ accurate grasp of the plural noun in the circumstances, but there you were; if someone hung around in houses with lots of books in them, some of it rubbed off just as, come to think of it, it had on Vimes. 

But conundra isn't the plural of conundrum. It's not even Latin; the OED Online says

Etymology: Origin lost: in 1645 (sense 3) referred to as an Oxford term; possibly originating in some university joke, or as a parody of some Latin term of the schools, which would agree with its unfixed form in 17–18th cent.
It's been pluralized conundrums, conimbrumsquinombromsConuncrumsQuadundrumsCunnunders, and conundrums, but hardly ever conundra.

A little later on there is a bit of "no words for X, lots of words for Y":

Do you know that they [goblins] have only five names for colours? Even trolls have around sixty, and a lot more than that if they find a paint salesman! Does this mean goblins are stupid?No, they have a vast number of names that even poets haven't come up with, for things like the way colours shift and change, the melting of one hue into another. They have single words for the most complicated of feelings; I know about two hundred of them, I think, and I'm sure there are a lot more! What you may think are grunts and growls and snarls are in fact carrying vast amounts of information! They're like an iceberg, commander: most of them is where you can't see or understand, and I'm teaching Tears of the Mushroom and some of her friends so that they may be able to speak to people like you, who think goblins are dumb.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Annoy a Linguist Day

It's that time of year again. This time I want to write about the fetish for avoiding the passive voice. Recently I've spoken to writers who think it's their duty to avoid the passive at all costs. The irony is sweet when they proceed to misidentify the passive. Look at this article on passive avoidance where of all the examples the writer gives of the evil passive voice, only one is actually passive.

I'm baffled at this hostility towards a completely normal and useful grammatical structure. I like to blame Orwell, but it's older than that. Supposed grammar experts tell us that the passive voice is dull, it's sneaky, it's feeble, it's not used by good writers - and none of these things are true, as Geoff Pullum explains. I've been told it's hard to understand but I don't think that is true either.

I’ve also been told it is unclear, because it hides the agent (the person doing the action). The implication is that all we have to do is avoid the passive, and our writing will be automatically clearer. This seems like very bad advice. The agent can be hidden in the active voice, and it's possible to write passive sentences where the agent is expressed.

I’ll talk about the second point first. 1a is active, and 1b is passive, and the agent (me) is equally clear in both:

1a. I wrote a book.
1b. The book was written by me.

Yes, passive sentences can omit the agent, as in 2:

2a. We served dinner.
2b. Dinner was served.

If you want to focus on the dinner then you could argue that 2b is better, because it places the dinner at the beginning of the sentence, and omits unnecessary information. Clarity has nothing to do with expressing the agent, it's to do with making clear what you want to make clear.

And non-passive sentences can omit the agent as well. These sentences are all non-passive, but they have no agents:

3. The book fell off the table. (Who pushed it?)
4. The case took on racial overtones. (Whose fault was that?)
5. The beer pours easily. (Who's pouring it?)
6. I am afraid. (What’s scaring me?)

Many passive sentences can easily be made non-passive without changing the subject:

7a. The window is displayed.
7b. The window appears. (Who made it appear?)

8a. Mistakes were made.
8b. Mistakes happened. (Who made them?)

9a. I was given a gift.
9b. I received a gift. (Who gave it to me?)

The A sentences are passive, the B sentences are non-passive. I don't see how the non-passive sentences are clearer than the passive sentences. The agent is equally invisible in both.

Simply avoiding the passive voice doesn't help you write clearly. If your goal is to express the agent, then you need to think about what the agent is, and make sure you've expressed it, and you can do this with either a passive or non-passive sentence. And if you want to focus on something other than the agent, you can do this with either a passive or non-passive sentence.

Previously on Annoy a Linguist Day:
taking grammar seriously
What is grammar anyway?

Sunday, 2 March 2014

sorry and sorrow

are not related! Not etymologically related anyway. They were associated with each other phonologically and semantically in Middle English.

sorry and sore are from PIE *seh₂i- "suffering" (Old English sār "painful" and sārig "distressed, sad" (cognate with West Frisian searich "sore, spotty, scabby")).

sorrow is from PIE *swergh- "worry, be sick" (Old English sorg "anxiety, sorrow").