Thursday, September 28, 2006

Early verbing

In browsing through the journals of the Royal Society, dating from 1665 and now available to all and sundry for FREE online, I came across an article entitled, "An Accompt of D. Paulus Biornonius, Residing in Iceland, Given to Some Philosophical Inquiries Concerning That Country, Formerly Recommended to Him from Hence: The Narrative being in Latine, 'tis Thus English'd by the Publisher"

So there you have it, English as a verb, and from 1674, nonetheless.

And the classic Calvin and Hobbes strip is here.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Synesis synchronicity

In a happy coincidence, I randomly opened Garner's usage (which I borrowed from the library to follow up on the existential question of woken up) and found myself looking at the entry for handful (which came up in discussing "treeful of starling"). Garner explains why a handful of (plural noun) commonly takes plural verb agreement even though the subject, handful, is singular, and refers the reader to synesis.

This was a new word for me, but it was a concept that came up back in August, when we looked at there's vs. there are.

So there you go, three posts linked with one word.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

New grammar column in the Globe and Mail

Last Thursday, novelist, fashion writer, and host of CBC Radio's summer language show, "And Sometimes Y", Russell Smith began a new column in the Globe and Mail called On Grammar. In the first week, he takes a pragmatic view on comma usage.
"Fewer commas are being used in contemporary writing. (In technical terms, there has long been a schism between "open punctuation," which uses punctuation only as necessary to prevent misinterpretation, and the more traditional "closed punctuation," which is meticulous in matching every grammatical situation with its appropriate markings. Most magazines use open punctuation now.) This, again, is just a question of modern tastes -- once again, it comes down to aesthetics."
(Thanks to Joe Aversa for pointing this out to me.)

[added Jan 12, 2007: The column has turned out to be rather poor. See here.]

Friday, September 22, 2006

Waked up again

In my gobsmacked amazement at the inaccuracy of the claim that "there is no woken up", it seems that I have misconstrued June Casagrande's intention. She wrote to tell me that the article was not in earnest and that her own feeling about the past participle of wake up is the same as mine. The fault, it seems, lies with Garner's Modern American Usage. Garner writes,
"The following are the preferred declensions:
wake > woke > waked (or woken)
awake > awoke > awaked (or awoken)
awaken > awakened > awakened
wake up > woke up > waked up
...For the past participle, AmE prefers waked; BrE prefers woken."
In his list of irregular verbs, however, he has the order reversed with "wake woke woken (or waked)".

So there it is: it's Garner who gets it wrong, athough not nearly as emphatically as all that.

June also pointed out that I was lax in my own homework. She hasn't started writing a column; the column is established. It is the book that is new. Mea culpa.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

She hasn't waked up

June Casagrande, is author of, Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies, has started writing and a column in the Burbank Leader. In the most recent, she makes the bizarre claim that the past participle of wake up is waked up and that woken up is wrong. [See clarification here.]
"Yes, you heard me right. Today I wake up. Yesterday I woke up. In the past I have waked up. There is no "woken up." There's a "woken," but it doesn't take an up...What's more, "woken" is really more of a British thing. "Woken," in British English, is the past participle not of "wake up" but of just plain old "wake." But American English prefers "waked.""
Of course, she doesn't explain what she bases this wild claim on (though she implies it's Garner's Modern American Usage), but we can easily check it out. It will be difficult to distinguish between past tense and past participle uses, but since there's "no woken up" at all, that shouldn't matter much. In fact, in the first stop on our data-gathering ex-po-tition, we find that the British National Corpus has 141 instances of woken up and only 1 of waked up. Moving on, the LCD American English Spoken Lexicon (you can get a guest account) has 1 woken up and 0 waked up. That's not a lot of data, but... Finally we come to Google, which is unequivocal: 2,930,000 for woken up versus a mere 170,000 for waked up. Yes, Virginia, there is a woken up after all. Surprise, surprise!

Finally, from The American Heritage Dictionary,
"Regional American dialects vary in the way that certain verbs form their principal parts. Northern dialects seem to favor forms that change the internal vowel in the verb—hence dove for the past tense of dive, and woke for wake: They woke up with a start. Southern dialects, on the other hand, tend to prefer forms that add an –ed to form the past tense and the past participle of these same verbs: The children dived into the swimming hole. The baby waked up early."
In other words, this is just one more mendacious claim by another grammar snob who hasn't done her homework. How predictable!

Monday, September 18, 2006

Word classily

Jan Freeman has a good article explaining that adverbs (e.g. "Think different") aren't turning into adjectives as a result of losing their -ly suffix; many aren't even really losing their -ly endings. They're simply reverting to (or continuing) their prior -lyless life as "flat" (or uninflected) adverbs.

In explaining that adverbs come in many guises, Freeman gives a few examples: soon, indubitably, almost, down, Sunday. It's only here where I would disagree. As the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language explains, there are good reasons for saying that two of these words are not like the others; two of these words just don't belong. Instead down should be in the preposition camp, while Sunday should go with its fellow nouns.

The CGEL sets out a framework in which words generally belong to a given word class but may have a variety of functions in phrase and clause structure (an approach that is widely used in linguistics). Under such a framework, nouns do not become adjectives simply because they are modifying other nouns (e.g., world war, interest rates, subject area), nor do they become adverbs simply by virtue of the fact that they tell us when something happened (e.g., We have a soccer game Sunday at 2:00 [a common usage in North American English]). In the first case, we have a noun functioning as a modifier. In the second, it is functioning as a temporal adjunct. In other words, Sunday is never an adverb, even in the above example.

The argument for down as a preposition, never an adverb, is somewhat different. In English, words in most classes come in flavours that require a complement and those that don't. Transitive verbs take an object (internal complement), intransitives don't. Adjectives may license prepositional complements (e.g., He's interested in...), or not (e.g., He's tall). Among all the word classes, prepositions alone have traditionally been bumped into another class simply based on the complements that they allow. That is, prepositions licensing noun phrase complements (e.g., She stood before the door) are held to be the one true race of prepositions, while those licensing clausal complements (e.g., She stood before she walked) sublimate into "conjunctions" and the poor buggers with no complement at all (e.g., She had stood before) get assigned to the adverb ghetto.

This is quite unfair and there's no real justification for it; the definition of preposition that has it always followed by a noun is simply begging the question. Far from being the monogamists they've been protrayed as, prepositions are more like grammatical sluts, going out with everything from other prepositions (e.g., out from under...) and adjectives (e.g., on high, for free), to adverbs (e.g., until recently) and interrogative clauses (e.g., we can't agree on whether to have children or not).

In the end, regardless of how classily it conducts itself or who it's hanging with, down is a preposition is a preposition is a preposition.

Talk Like a Pirate Day

This year, along with their traditional posting of the ergonomic keyboard for pirates, Language Log is celebrating Talk Like a Pirate Day with an instructional video from YouTube about how to speak Pirate

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Misunderstanding Tulving

Endel Tulving is featured in an article by Barbara Turnbull in today's Toronto Star. He's a memory reasercher whose studies have had quite an impact on how language teachers teach vocabulary. One of his early findings was that people are more successful at recalling a previously-learned list of words if they could organise them in some way. This has led many language teachers (and materials writers) to conclude that vocabulary should be taught in organised groups of words. That is, rather than learn the words: sector • available • financial • process • specific • principle • estimate at one time, they believe that it is more fruitful to learn, say: research • study • examine • theory • proof • results • conclusion.

The problem with this idea is that it confuses learning a list of known words with learning new words. When you are learning a list, the organisation helps you eliminate many unrelated possibilites and the words can cue each other. Vocabulary learning in a foreign language, however, isn't about learning lists. The purpose is not to recall the set of words that were studied on Tuesday (as opposed to Wednesday's set), but to be able recall an individual word when the situation requires it.

The thing that makes this misunderstanding particularly problematic is that when you bring together ideas that have some kind of categorical connection and try to learn new words for them, the semantic connections can cause the individual concepts to lose distinctness, leading the learner to confuse which word stood for which concept.

Of course, none of this can be blamed on Tulving, who has done much to advance our understanding of memory. Turnbull does overplay things a little. She writes, "little was known about how memory functions when Tulving's first breakthrough came in 1956, with the publication of his paper explaining why repetition helps memory." In fact, Hermann Ebbinghaus published a classic paper on this topic back in 1885. (Actually, I can't find a 1956 paper by Tulving. Can anybody point me to it?)

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Plagiarism: where to draw the line

Both teachers and students run into problems identifying plagiarism. When citing someone else, you must either use quotation marks or significantly alter the phrasing of the idea. The problem is with that word, significantly. What does that mean?

Here's an original paragraph followed by a number of hypothetical uses by students extracted from the middle of an essay. The extremes are quite easy to identify, but where do you draw the line between legitimate use and copying?

"There is a good deal of evidence that job opportunities in the United States are polarizing, and that, as a result, the country's future as a middle-class society is in jeopardy. What the decline of the middle class would mean to the country can only be guessed at, but it presumably would be unwelcome to the millions of parents who hope that their children can move up the economic ladder; to American business, which needs a middle class to consume its products; and to everyone who is concerned about fairness and social harmony."
by Bob Kuttner, The Atlantic Monthly, July 1983

Sample A (limited lexical substitution)
Kuttner (1983) argues that there is a lot of evidence that job chances in the United States are polarizing, so the country's future as a middle-class society may be hurt. What the decrease of the middle class would mean to the country is unclear, but it probably would be unwelcome to the millions of adults who hope that their children can move up economically; to American business, which needs a middle class to buy its products; and to everyone who is worried about fairness and social harmony.
Sample B (increasing lexical substitution; limited deletion)
Kuttner (1983) argues that there is a lot of support for the idea that jobs in the United States are splitting into high-paying and low-paying jobs, so its future as a middle-class country may be hurt. What the decrease of the middle class would mean is unclear, but it probably would not be welcome to American adults who want their children to have a good job; to companies, which need a middle class to buy what they make; and to people who want justice and no social problems.
Sample C (extensive lexical substitution; limited deletion; limited structural change)
Kuttner (1983) argues that jobs in the United States are splitting into high-paying and low-paying jobs. Consequently, the country may lose its middle-class. The result of this is unclear, but most American adults who want their children to have a good job would be unhappy about it, as would companies, who would lose customers, and people who want justice and no social problems.
Sample D (extensive lexical and structural changes, limited quotation)
Claiming that there is good reason to believe that the difference between high- and low-paying U.S. jobs is increasing, Kuttner (1983) argues, “the country's future as a middle-class society is in jeopardy.” We can only imagine what effect this will have, but concerned groups would likely include parents, worried about their children’s future careers, businesses, worried about loss of customers, and others worried about loss of social equity.
Sample E (extensive deletion and lexical substitution; some structural change)
Kuttner (1983) argues that America is losing its middle class and claims that although we don’t know what the effect of this will be, it seems likely to be negative for everyone from business to low-income parents.

Microsoft to patent verb conjugation

John Sowa, on the Corpora mailing list writes, "If anybody has been deriving the infinitive of a verb from a finite form, you may be violating a recent patent application by Microsoft. (However, I suspect that there may be prior art.)"

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Exercise type and L2 vocabulary retention

Keith Folse has published a tidy study in the most recent TESOL Quarterly. Here's the abstract:
The present study used a within-subjects design to examine the effect of the type of written exercise on L2 vocabulary retention. Using input for the meaning and usage of the new words from a specially prepared minidictionary, university intensive English program students (n = 154) practiced target vocabulary in three types of written exercises conditions: one fill-in-the-blank exercise, three fill-in-the-blank exercises, and one original-sentence-writing exercise. An unannounced posttest using a modified version of the vocabulary knowledge scale tested the meaning of the word (L1 translation or L2 synonym) and usage of the word in a student-written sentence. A repeated measures ANOVA revealed that mean scores for the three exercise types were significantly different from each other, with words practiced under the three fill-in-the-blank exercises condition retained much better than those practiced under either of the other two exercise conditions. The findings suggest the important feature of a given L2 vocabulary exercise is not depth of word processing but number of word retrievals required. This result has implications for language teachers, curriculum designers, and, in particular, materials writers of traditional workbooks and CALL materials.
He's done a few things particularly nicely.
  1. He was very rigorous in the selection of target words. All were verbs; initial letters and syllable count were held constant across groups; cognates and known words were eliminated through pretesting; frequency was considered; and morphological affixes that might hint at meaning were avoided.
  2. He's been very clear in his procedure such that replication should be quite easy.
  3. He's controlled for time on task.
  4. He's gathered data on any out-of-class learning that might have happened beween the pre- and post-tests.
One minor quibble is the use of ANOVA with a non-linear scoring system. He used a system where students got 1 point for an accurate synonym, definition, or L1 translation, and two points if they could also use it correctly in a meaningful sentence. Under such a system, a student who could do the first part for two words is deemed to be equivalent to a student who can do the second part, but only for one word. However, the results are almost the same if you use a 0 or 1 scoring system.

More target words would have been nice; only 15 were used.

The major problem I see with the study is the lack of a delayed post-test. I would be surprised to see the effectiveness of sentence writing and blank filling flip flop a month down the road, but the differences seem likely to be smaller.

Despite that, given the relative ease of creating and checking blank-fill activities, this is a study I'll keep in mind, especially if I get to work on any computer-based vocabulary study software.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

treeful of starling

Hawksley Workman's new album title "Treeful of Starling" is interesting for a number of reasons. The first is the anarthrous use of treeful. Compare A Treeful of Pigs by Arnold Lobel.

The second is treeful itself. It's a lovely unit of measurement, quite vague but at the same time strangely intuitive, especially when applied to birds (as opposed to pigs). The -ful suffix is prolific in making adjectives, but rather unproductive when it comes to noun creation. We have handful, mouthful, spoonful, fistful, and armful. But then plateful, hatful, skinful, and houseful (all attested in the BNC) are stretching it a bit for me. Indeed, "handful of" is almost 70 times as common as "hand full of", while "houseful of" gets only 1/5th the hits that "house full of" gets.

Here, I think I expected "tree full of" rather than "treeful of", (compare, "a house empty of people" or "a sky void of stars"). But by selecting the unit of measurement, treeful, Workman has shifted attention to the next noun, starling. Appropriately, starling is treated here as an uncountable sense of the noun. Many nouns can be recruited into this role. Even for something as intuitively countable as pencil we can say, "with all this sharpening, I'm running out of pencil." This is especially common for food. It's appropriate here because when you measure the volume of something, it tends to be amorphous stuff rather than individual units. In other words, the tree is full of an undifferentiated mass of birdsong, fluttering wings, and dark metallic sheen rather than a bunch of individual starlings.

I did wonder if there could be a common uninflected plural of starling in the way that there is for fish, sheep or moose. Not according to any of the dictionaries I checked. The BNC also turns up only one instance of starling used this way. Notice, however, the plural s on the first instance, suggesting this is likely just a typo.
"bad spells are, every day, likely to be shorter. Blackbirds and starlings Where (sic) until two years ago, the scattering of currants near the door was eagerly awaited by a clamouring mix of blackbirds, starling, robins and a songthrush or two, lately there has been almost an indifference to the largesse. The birds are still around, but remain largely aloof in the bushes."
-The Alton Herald. Farnham, Surrey: Farnham Castle Newspapers Ltd, 1992,

Finally, *ful of x seems to be a fairly common frame for titles. We've already had Lobel's A Treeful of Pigs. There's also:
  • Hatful of Hollow, an album by the Smiths
  • Fistful of Dollars, a movie staring Clint Eastwood
  • A Treeful of Owls, a short story by Henry Beach Needham
  • A Saucerful of Secrets, an album by Pink Floyd
(The first two also with the anarthrous *ful.)

Monday, September 04, 2006

Giving however its due

In her book, Teaching Academic ESL Writing, Eli Hinkel arguest that teachers of English for academic purposes (EAP) often overemphasise the use of connectives, such as however in writing classes.

In fact, I think many writing teachers do spend some time talking about "linking words and expressions". This is a problem, according to Hinkel, because such expressions are actually relatively unusual in academic writing. On p. 293 she gets specific and, citing the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English, claims that however occurs at a rate of only 0.10% per million words (i.e., 1 per 100 million words) in academic text. This would be rather upsetting to many writing teachers if it were true.

Fortunately, Hinkel is simply wrong. In LGSWE on p. 887, there is a figure entitled, "most common linking adverbials in conversation and academic prose; occurrences per million words" which has however at a rate of over 1,100 times per million words in academic text. When I pointed this out to her, Hinkel refered me to a figure on p. 562, but this also contradicts her claims. According to a note on p. 561, it includes only those adverbs occurring at least 200 times per million words, and the legend shows that the mark beside however means "occurring over 1,000 times per million words". In fact, a quick check of the BNC academic sub-corpus (using VIEW) has however at 1,216.62 occurrences per million words, making it the 68th most common token in that section of the corpus. This is many orders of magnitude larger than Hinkel's claim of 0.10% per million words and stands in striking contrast to her assertion that "sentence transitions are actually not common at all."

When I pointed this out to her, her response was merely, "Biber's table could be more specific."

VIEWing lemmas (soon?)

In a recent e-mail, Mark Davies says that he might soon have time to implement search-by-lemma in his wonderful VIEW interface for the British National Corpus. (He's already implemented it for O CORPUS DO PORTUGUÊS). I asked him if he knew about Paul Nation's concept of "word families" and he said that he had actually done a fair bit of work with them and promised to add search-by-word-family to the wish list, too.

If you're at a university that has a linguistics department, you likely have local access to the BNC anyhow, but for college teachers and everyone else in the world, VIEW is by far the best tool I've found for BNC queries.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

The Limits of Language

Geoffrey Pullum recommended Limits of Language by Mikael Parkvall a few months ago and I'm passing on the recommendation. My own copy arrived safely directly from the publisher in Sri Lanka. It's a lot of fun, and, as the South Hanoi Evening Post might have said, "Â phâking gũđ rìđ."

It's "almost everything you didn't know you didn't know about language and languages." If you are ever in the position to teach a class on language or linguistics, this book will give you all the quirky facts you need to hook even the least interested student (well, maybe). Even if you're never in such a position, you can't help but be charmed by observations such as:
  • Languages with a small vowel inventory tend to be spoken more loudly than those with more vowels.
  • The Kipeá language of South America has a noun class that "is used for words denoting hills, dishes, stools and foreheads."
  • "The Peruvian language Capanahua uses multiple negators in an unusual way with demonstratives. While haa means 'he', haama, logically enough, means 'not he'. But Capanahua takes this even further, and so, haamama is 'not not he', that is, 'he indeed'. Finally, haamamama, or 'not not not he' referes to 'someone else'.
And, finally, since this is English, Jack, I'll point out the entry entitled "¿Habla usted Phrase-bookish?", which gives, as "the world's worst phrasebook" English as she is spoke (which, by the way, provides the inspiration for our tagline, Jack). This Portugese-English phrasebook instructs the naïve Brazilian on when to say:
  • Let us prick.
  • That which fell one's snotly blow blow one's nose.
  • I have mind to vomit.
Who could travel without it?

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Extensive Reading Foundation Awards

The Extensive Reading Foundation announced the winners of the 2006 Language Learner Literature Award a couple of days ago. Read more here.