Friday, December 26, 2008

A couple things

To be honest, I hadn't been aware of a couple + plural noun until Warren Clements complained about it. But where he simply said "ick!" and moved on, I got to wondering: how common is this form and what might be influencing it.

First things first: do people really use it? Apparently they do. In the COCA, the frequency distribution looks like this:
Note that there are even some instances in newspapers and academic writing. And the usage seems to be picking up steam. Here's the frequency over the last 18 years.

The OED's earliest citation is from 1925, so it does seem to be an innovation, but based on what?

The pattern that jumps first to mind is a few + plural noun. But it's not exactly the same, and here we have to back up a few steps.

Quantificational nouns such as a lot, a bunch, and a majority are often followed by a prepositional phrase, headed by of, that the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL) calls the oblique. For example, in the noun phrase a bunch of guys, the prepositional phrase of guys is the oblique. The oblique can be partitive or non-partitive. Where the reference is to a part of a larger group (e.g., a bunch of the guys) it is partitive but where the reference is to a whole group (e.g., a bunch of guys), it is non-partitive.

Here's how a few differs from a couple. You can have a few of the things (partitive) but not a few of things (non-partitive). Moreover, a few presents one more pattern: a few things (without of; a few is a dependent of things). This suggests that a few is not a quantificational noun at all, but rather a determinative (cf., many of the things, many things, & *many of things). To summarise:

Quantificational nounDeterminative
Partitivea bunch of the guys a few of the guys
Non-partitivea bunch of guys *a few of guys
Dependent (no of)*a bunch guys a few guys
Now, for most people (including me and Warren Clements), a couple is clearly a quantificational noun like a bunch. It can work in both partitive and non-partitive constructions, but you can't have a couple guys. For some people, though, we've seen that it can be a dependent of the following noun (i.e., a couple guys). For these people, then, it seems that a couple might be a determinative.

The question is, for those people, is the non-partitive construction also grammatical? It's so common that I imagine it must be, but I have no way of being sure.

Next, are there any other words that act like this? A dozen works very like few, as do numbers like hundred, thousand, million, etc. On the other hand, a myriad is exactly like a couple: for most people it's a quantificational noun, but for a few, it acts like a determinative. The following examples are from the OED.
1845 H. B. HIRST Poems 65 From every rocklet running, flow a myriad murmuring springs.
1886 W. W. STORY Fiammetta 189 The crickets were trilling a myriad infinitesimal bells in the grasses. 1915 St. Nicholas June 709/2 There are a myriad worlds. 1955 L. DE WOHL Spear (1957) III. vi. 220 There was a small thunderstorm..into which the people read a myriad signs and portents. 1981 Harvard Jrnl. Asiatic Stud. 41 355 She would make me miserable a thousand, a myriad times. 1992 N. STEPHENSON Snow Crash iii. 24 He is actually staring at the graphic representations..of a myriad different pieces of software.
Finally, I wonder what modifiers can work for each of these: a loud bunch of the guys, a very few of the words, a comparatively few people, a __ couple things, a __ myriad pieces of software.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The problems with video conferencing

Phil Smith believes that video conferencing will never work. In a letter to the editors of NewScientist magazine, dated 03 December 2008, he gives his reason: "We know that non-verbal communication is the majority of any communication in the flesh." Now Smith may be correct about the need for business partners to meet in the flesh. I really don't know. But he's certainly wrong about the importance of non-verbal communication in most situations.

Smith's misconception is likely based on research published by Albert Mehrabian in the 1950s. He found that messages about attitude are conveyed in the following proportions: Total Liking = 7% Verbal Liking + 38% Vocal Liking + 55% Facial Liking

On his website, Mehrabian says, "Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable."

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Another Peevologist

Warren Clements, a member of The Globe and Mail’s editorial board, had nothing better to write about this week, so he decided to whinge about expressions that irk him. How original! How charming!

Well, I'm afraid, Mr. Clements, that your column has problems, not issues.

You write, "The whole comprises the parts; the parts compose the whole." According to Merriam Webester's Online: "Although it has been in use since the late 18th century, sense 3 (the one you disagree with) is still attacked as wrong. Why it has been singled out is not clear, but until comparatively recent times it was found chiefly in scientific or technical writing rather than belles lettres. Our current evidence shows a slight shift in usage: sense 3 is somewhat more frequent in recent literary use than the earlier senses. You should be aware, however, that if you use sense 3 you may be subject to criticism for doing so, and you may want to choose a safer synonym such as compose or make up."

And that of disappearing from a couple of? Isn't one of your bugbears wordiness? Omit needless words and all that? If we can make do without the of, all the better, wouldn't you say?

Home in on indeed appears to predate hone in on, but only by nine years (the earliest home in on citation in the OED is 1956). Both are newish and both require a metaphorical leap, so it's hard to see how you can be so certain that one is right and one wrong.

Finally, you nominate win big as a bugbear, do you? Just what we need: another petty pet hate. So kind of you to share. Perhaps you might take a lesson from Jan Freeman over at the other Globe. Her columns are replete with research; they educate the reader.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


I recently coauthored a report for a project (CIITE) funded by Ontario's Ministry of Citizenship & Immigration through CON*NECT. We were assigned to benchmark one of the college's programs against the Canadian Language Benchmarks (CLB). In other words, we have been visiting classes, looking at textbooks, and talking to students and faculty to determine the level of English required to be successful in the program. The CLB are like a scale, if you will, that we've been using to weigh the language requirements.

The problem is that the scale has never been properly calibrated and that the program we're benchmarking doesn't fit on it anyhow. To quote from the materials that were provided to us by the project office,
"The Canadian Language Benchmarks 2000 was not intended to describe the language used in academic programs; rather it focuses on describing the skills and capabilities of the learner. This was problematic as researchers had to navigate through a document that was not designed for the direct purpose in which it was being used."
But it's not just an issue of focus on the learner versus focus on the language. Last month I attended a presentation by Larry Vandergrift which brought to my attention a report that he had written in 2006 comparing various language frameworks. According to him,
“Since they [the CLB] were created for adult immigrants who are developing language skills for entry into the Canadian workforce, the CLB are not suitable to school contexts without significant adaptation.”
Vandergrift further observes that, “the benchmarks (levels) have not been empirically validated to ensure the fit of each descriptor with its level”. This certainly reflects our experience in trying to interpret the documents.

And yet clearly, a common framework of reference for language is a good thing. Still from Vandergrift,
"A common framework of reference for languages could provide the provinces and territories with a transparent and coherent system for describing language proficiency. In addition to providing a measure for calibrating language proficiency for educational systems across Canada, a common framework of reference for languages could foster a common understanding of what functional proficiency means. It could facilitate cooperation among ministries of education, provide a basis for mutual recognition of language qualifications, and track learner progress over time and in different jurisdictions. Such a framework could be used by each province and territory as a point of reference for language teaching and assessment, without imposing a particular curriculum, teaching methodology or standard for achievement. A common framework could provide a bridge between formal education systems, employers and cultural institutions across Canada and beyond into the international arena. "
So what does he recommend? The Common European Framework of References for language, which is what I've been saying since I first saw the CLB. The heartening part of this is that a number of jurisdictions within Canada have already gone in that direction. Hopefully CIITE will see the wisdom of following suit.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Canadians so dumb we don't even use nouns

Luan Ngo had yesterday's Letter of the Day in the Toronto Star. Ngo berates Canadians for our ignorance of our parliamentary system, and I'm afraid I can't really disagree. But then things get weird:
"Rather than being articulate and passionate debaters, these callers sound like a bunch of bubbling baboons. What is more concerning than the lack of nouns and pronouns in their sentences is how many people believe that our political system mirrors that of the U.S."
Is this an utter lack or just a mild deficiency? Is it a mere application of William Strunk's exhortation to omit needless words, or have we gone beyond this to omitting needful words as well? Or perhaps we've used the nouns, but just not IN sentences, something like this:
The has no trying to usurp (coalition, right, power).
I couldn't turn up any transcripts of recent radio phone in shows, so I went to the Toronto Sun's Letters to the editor, but even there there seemed to be nouns in all the right places.