Book Week 2019: Gretchen McCulloch's Because Internet


Welcome to the final review post of Book Week 2019. In the intro to Book Week 2019, I explain what I'm doing. The 'week' has turned out to be eight days. If you're perturbed about that, I'm happy to offer you a full refund on your subscription fees for this blog.

On with the show. Today's book is:


Because Internet

Understanding the new rules of language (US subtitle)
Understanding how language is changing (UK subtitle)

by Gretchen McCulloch
Riverhead, 2019 (N America)
Harvill Secker, 2019 (UK)


Gretchen McCulloch describes herself as an internet linguist: writing about internet language for people on the internet. She actually does a lot more than that, with daily blogging at All Things Linguistic for years and being one half of the Lingthusiasm podcast team and writing on all sorts of linguistic themes for all sorts of publications. So, I expect many readers of this blog will already know her and have heard about this book. 

US Cover
I expected Because Internet to be good, knowing Gretchen's work, but I also probably (in my grumpy, middle-aged, oh-do-we-have-to-talk-about-emojis-again? way) expected it to be faddish. There have been too many just-plain-bad, (orig. AmE) jumping-on-the-bandwagon books about emojis, and I've got(ten) a bit sour on the topic. 

This book is so much more than I expected it to be. 

I should have known better. Having read and heard much of her work, I should have expected that this would be a truly sophisticated approach to language and to general-audience linguistics writing. So far in Book Week 2019, I've recommended the books as gifts for A-level students/teachers, science lovers, and language curmudgeons. This book is good for all those groups and more. 

UK cover
The key is in the subtitle(s).* This is not just a book about emojis and autocomplete (and, actually, autocomplete isn't even in the index). This is a book about the relationship between speech and writing and how that's changed with technology. It seamlessly introduces theories of why language changes, how change spreads and how communication works in a time when the potential for change is high and the potential for changes to spread is unprecedented. 

That seamless introduction of linguistic concepts is the reason I've started this book from the beginning and not skipped around (unlike for other books in Book Week—where the rule is that I don't have to read the whole book before I start writing about it). In most books about language for non-linguists, I'm able to skim or skip the bit where they talk about the basics of how language works and the classic studies on the topic and the ideas springing from them. McCulloch covers those issues and those studies (the Labovs, the Milroys, the Eckerts), but since this is intertwined with looking at how language is changing in the 21st century—because (of the) internet—it was worth my while to read straight through. The great thing about the language of the internet is: even when it looks really different from non-internet language, it's still illustrating general principles about how language, communication, and society work. But it also shows how society is changing because of technology, particularly in changing who we are likely to interact with or hear from, In the process, it gives a history of the internet that's enlightening even for those of us who've lived through it all. (I've just flipped open to a section about  PLATO at the University of Illinois. One of my student jobs was working in a PLATO lab, playing Bugs-n-Drugs [aka Medcenter] while signing people in and out. That game was not good for my hypochondria, but I have awfully fond memories of PLATO.)


Another thing to appreciate about McCulloch's book is how unreactionary it is. She doesn't set up her discussion as "You've heard people say these stupid things about the internet, but here's the TRUTH." (A style of writing that I can be very, very guilty of.) She mostly just makes her case gracefully, based on what the language is doing, rather than reacting to what other people say the language is doing. Rather than 'This, that and the other person say emoji are a new language, but they're not', she just gets on with explaining how emoji fulfil(l) our communicative need to gesture. It's a positive approach that academic linguists will have had trained out of them by the requirements of academic publishing.

This is a bit of a nerdview 'review'. Usually reviews tell you some fun facts from the book they're reviewing, whereas I'm telling you what I've noticed about its information structure. That's because that's what I really look for in books as I prepare to write a new one. In terms of information, in this book you'll learn, among other things:
  • which "internet generation" you belong to and how your language is likely to be different from other generations'.
  • what punctuation communicates in texting/chat and how that differs from formal writing
  • how language change can be traced through studying strong and weak social links and geographic tagging on Twitter
Inevitably, the book is mainly about English, in no small part because English rules the internet. But it does make its way to other languages and cultures—for instance, how Arabic chat users adapted their spelling to the roman alphabet and how emojis are interpreted differently around the world.  In the end, she briefly considers whether space is being made for other languages on the internet.

It's a galloping read and you'll learn all sorts of things.


So, on that happy review, I declare Book Week 2019 FINISHED.


* I love the transatlantic change in subtitles, since it completely illustrates the point of chapter 8 of The Prodigal Tongue: that Americans like to talk about language in terms of rules, and Britons in terms of history/tradition. I've also written a shorter piece about my personal experience of it for Zócalo Public Square.
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Book Week 2019: David Shariatmadari's Don't Believe a Word

Welcome to the third review post of Book Week 2019. In the intro to Book Week 2019, I explain what I'm doing this week. In the end, there will be four posts. I thought there would be five, but one of the books has (orig. BrE) gone missing. Having had a day off yesterday, I will also have a day off tomorrow, so the final review will appear during the weekend. Probably.

Anyhow, today's book is:

Don't believe a word
the surprising truth about language

by David Shariatmadari
Norton, 2019 (N America)
W&N, 2019 (UK/RoW)


David Shariatmadari writes for the Guardian, often about language, and is one of the sensible journalists on the topic. The number of sensible journalists writing about language has really shot up in the past decade, and judging from reading their books, this is in part because of increasingly clear, public-facing work by academic linguists. (Yay, academic linguists!) But in Shariatmadari's case, the journalist is a linguist: he has a BA and MA in the subject. And it shows—in the best possible way. 

The book is a familiar genre: busting widely held language myths. If you've read books in this genre before, you probably don't need these myths busted. You probably know that linguistic change is natural, that the border between language and dialect is unfindable, that apes haven't really learned sign languages, and that no form of language is inherently superior to another. Nevertheless, you may learn something new, since Shariatmadari's tastes for linguistic research and theories is not always on the same wavelength as some other books directed at such a general audience.

Once again, I'm reviewing with a partial view of the book (this is the practical law of Book Week 2019). In this case, I've read chapters 1, 5, and 9 and skimmed through other bits. The introductory chapter gives us a bit of insight into Shariatmadari's conversion to full-blown linguist, as a reluctant student of Arabic who was quickly converted to admiration for the language and to the study of language as an insight into humanity. "It's not hyperbole to say that linguistics is the universal social science", he writes. "It intrudes into almost every area of knowledge."
UK cover

I chose to read chapter 5 because I'd had the pleasure of hearing him talk about its topic at a student conference recently: the popularity of "untranslatable word" lists. Goodness knows, I've contributed to them. What I liked about the talk was his detective work on the words themselves—some of the words and definitions presented in lists of 'untranslatables' are practically fictional. And yet, those of us who don't speak the language in question often eat up these lists because of our ethnocentric need to exotici{s/z}e others. This leads inevitably to discussion of linguistic relativism—the notion that the language you speak affects the way you think—and the bad, old (so-called) evidence for it and the newer evidence for something much subtler. The chapter then goes in a direction I wasn't expecting: introducing Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM), an interesting (but far from universally taught) approach to meaning that uses about 65 semantic building blocks to represent and compare meanings across languages. NSM adherents make the case that few, if any, words are truly equivalent across languages. But while any word in one language may have no single-word equivalent in another language, that doesn't mean those words are untranslatable. It just means that translating them can be a delicate and complicated thing.

US cover
The final chapter (9) takes the opposite view to David Adger's Language Unlimited (in my last review), and argues that the hierarchical (and human-specific) nature of linguistic structure need not be the product of an innate Universal Grammar, but instead could arise from the complexity of the system involved and humans' advanced social cognition. While Adger had a whole book for his argument, Shariatmadari has 30-odd pages, and so it's not really fair to compare them in terms of the depth of their argumentation, but still worth reading the latter to get a sense of how linguists and psychologists are arguing about these things.

Shariatmadari is a clear and engaging writer, and includes a good range of references and a glossary of linguistic terminology. If you know someone who still believes some language myths, this might be a good present for them. (Though in my experience, people don't actually like getting presents that threaten their worldview. I still do it, because I care more about myth-busting writers earning royalties than I care about linguistic chauvinists getting presents they want.) It would also make an excellent gift for A-level English and language students (and teachers) and others who might be future linguists. After they read it, send them my way. I love having myth-busted students.
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Book week 2019: David Adger's Language Unlimited

Welcome to the second review post of Book Week 2019. See the intro to Book Week 2019 to understand more about what I'm doing this week. Next up we have:

Language unlimited
the science behind our most creative power

by David Adger
Oxford University Press, 2019


This is a book for people who like to think about HOW THINGS WORK. It's a serious work of popular science writing, which carefully spells out the mysteries of syntax. And by mysteries, I mean things you've probably never even noticed about language. But once they're pointed out, you have to sit back and say "Whoa." Because even though you hadn't noticed these things, you know them. Remember a few years ago, when the internet was hopping with posts about how we subconsciously know which order to put adjectives in? That's kid's play compared with the stuff that Adger'll teach you about the things you know but don't know about.

Adger (who is Professor of Linguistics at Queen Mary University, London) describes the situation carefully, clearly, and engagingly, using copious examples and analogies to communicate some really subtle points. (I particularly liked the explanation of form versus function in language, which drew on the form versus the function of alcohol. Chin-chin!) He draws in evidence from neurology, psychology, and computer science to both corroborate his points and to introduce further questions about how language works.

As I said in the intro to Book week, I have not read all the books I'm reviewing absolutely cover-to-cover. In this case, of the ten chapters, I read 1–3, 7, and 10—and skimmed through the other chapters. The early chapters make the case that there's more to linguistic structure than meets the eye and that human linguistic abilities must consist of something special—they must be qualitatively different from the types of cognition that other animals use and that humans use in non-linguistic communication. Later ones cover issues like how children experience and acquire their first language and what happens when computers try to learn human language. Throughout, the examples feature Adger's partner Anson and his cat Lilly.  I almost feel like I know them now. Hi Anson and Lilly!

Adger makes clear from the start that his book makes a particular argument in favo(u)r of a particular way of explaining language's mysteries—and that particular way is a Chomskyan way. This means that he makes the case for a Universal Grammar that underlies all human language. I was struck by his willingness and ability to take this all the way for a lay audience. By chapter 9, he is explaining Merge, the key tool of Chomsky's Minimalist Program

Now, here I have to say: this is not the kind of linguistics I do. It's not just that I'm not a syntactician—though I have, from time to time, dipped my toe into theories grammatical. It's also that I lost faith in theoretical monotheism when I moved from a very Chomskyan undergraduate degree to a more ecumenical linguistics department for my (post)graduate studies. When I arrived for my PhD studies, the department wanted to know which syntactic theories I'd studied, so they could determine which courses I needed to take. I could not tell them. After four years of studying Chomskyan linguistics, I thought I had spent four undergraduate years studying "Syntax". No one had told me that I was studying a theory of syntax, just one among several theories.

Ever since, I have tended to agnosticism and s{c/k}epticism when it comes to syntactic theory. (This is probably how I ended up as not-a-syntactician; I don't know that it's possible to have a career in grammatical studies without adhering to one theoretical church or another.) Being a lexicologist has meant that I don't have to take sides on these things. And so I play around with different theories and see how they deal with the phenomena I study. When I listen to the evangelists, I listen warily. I tend to find that they oversimplify the approaches of competitor theories, and don't learn as much from them as they could (or, at least, sometimes don't give them credit for their contributions). This is all a very long explanation of why I skipped to chapter 7—the chapter where Adger responds to some non-Chomskyan ideas (mostly personified in the chapter by Joan Bybee).

So (mostly BrE*) all credit to Adger for spending a chapter on this, and for citing recent work in it. I generally thought his points were fair, but I did what I usually do in response to such theoretical take-downs: I thought "ok, but what about..." I do think he's right that some facts point to the existence of a Universal Grammar, but I also think it's not the only interesting part of the story, and that it's premature to discount arguments that explore the possibility that much of what happens in language learning is based in experience of language and general cognitive abilities. But then, I would think that.

I definitely recommend the book for people who are interested in the scientific approach to language, but I'd skip the final chapter (10). It is an oddly tacked-on bit about sociolinguistic phenomena, precisely the kinds of things that are not even approached in the theory the rest of the book has been arguing for.

I congratulate Adger on this strong work that makes extraordinarily abstract concepts clear.





P.S. Since I'm not doing Differences of the Day on Twitter this week, here's little chart of use of all credit to (frequency per million words) in the Corpus of Global Web-Based English, for good measure.


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Book week 2019: Jane Setter's Your Voice Speaks Volumes

Welcome to the first review post of Book Week 2019. See the intro to Book Week 2019 to understand more about what I'm doing this week.

I'm starting with the most recent book in the ol' pile of books from publishers:

Your voice speaks volumes
it's not what you say, but how you say it

by Jane Setter
Oxford University Press, 2019


Jane is Professor of Phonetics at the University of Reading (UK) and a recipient of the prestigious National Teaching Fellowship. (As you can see, we are on a first-name basis, as we travel some of the same Public Linguist circles.) I mention the teaching fellowship because it is relevant: Jane is excellent at making linguistics, particularly phonetics, crystal clear for the uninitiated. She uses that talent to great effect in her first book for the general public. 

This book speaks squarely to a general British audience — and to those who want to know more about English-language issues and attitudes in this country. I'm writing this on a day when my social media feed has given me (a) the story of a man wrongly arrested for public drunkenness in Brighton—because the police had mistaken his Liverpool accent for slurring and (b) a misreading of the relevance of accent in the US (as a means to say something about how accents are read in the UK). But I'd have at least two such things to tell you about on any other day when I might have written this post. Accents make the news in Britain because they matter inordinately. Differences that might not be discernible to those from other countries are imbued with layers and layers of meaning and subjected to piles and piles of prejudice. 

As I warned in the intro to Book Week, I have not been able to read the whole book. But I was able to get through much more than I thought I'd be able to in a single evening (four of the seven chapters: 1, 2, 3, 7). Part of my speed was because I could skim the bits that were explaining linguistic facts that I already knew. (That's not to say that the facts here are too basic. I've just had a helluva lotta linguistics education.) But it is a zippy read throughout. Setter uses personal and celebrity stories to demonstrate the everyday relevance of the phonetic and sociolinguistic facts that she's explaining. (Hey look, I seem to revert to last-name basis when I'm reviewing someone's book.) 

The chapters I haven't yet read are those that I'd probably learn the most from: on the use of linguistics in forensic investigations, on voices in performance (including accent training for actors and why singers' accents change in song—which she should know, since she's also a singer in a rock band), and on transgender and synthesized voices. I started with the chapter that relates most to my work ('English voices, global voices') and then went back to the beginning where I was most likely to run into things I already know. That's good from a reviewing perspective, because I can say with confidence that Setter covers well the things that I know need to be covered for her audience. But as I got further into the book, the more unexpected things I learned. I ended in the chapter on women's and men's voices, and I will tell you: I learned some things! To give an example, I liked her interpretation of a study in which women and men were asked to count to ten using various kinds of voices, including 'confident' and 'sexy'. It turns out men generally don't have a 'sexy voice' to put on, while women do, and this might tell us something about what we're sociali{s/z}ed to find sexy—and why.

It's hard to write about sound —and especially about linguistic sounds for a general audience. Writing for linguists is easy, because we have a lot of practice in using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). But you don't want to fill a book for non-linguists with letters that don't make the same sound as they make in English spelling, or letters they've never even seen before. Setter mostly talks about accents without having to get into the kind of phonetic minutiae that excite linguists and make laypeople glaze over. Where she does need technical terms (e.g. lexical sets), she explains them carefully and clearly. But happily for all of us, Setter wrote this book in the internet age. Throughout the book, there are scannable QR codes by which one can hear the sounds she's talking about. (You can get there without a QR reader too, the web URLs are provided.)

For readers of this blog with an interest in US/UK issues, there is plenty of comparison between UK and US and discussion of "Americani{s/z}ation". These are discussed with an assumed familiarity with British Englishes and less with American Englishes.

This book is an important instrument for fighting accentism and other linguistic prejudice in the UK. It might make a nice gift for that person in your life who says they "care deeply about the English language", but really what they mean is "I like to judge other people's use of the English language". 

But more than that, it is a great demonstration of what the study of phonetics can do. I really, really recommend it for A-level students in English (language) and their teachers, as it touches on many of the areas of linguistics taught at that level and would surely inspire many doable research projects. 

Let me just end with: congratulations on this book, Jane!
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Book week 2019: the prologue

My new year's resolution for 2019 was: Finish the books I start. 

Now, it must be said, I don't read enough books. I do a lot of reading for research, which does not usually involve reading books from cover to cover. (It involves reading journal articles, reading chapters, using the indices of books to find the bits I need.) Since so much of my working life is reading (including multiple books' worth of student writing each term), after work I tend to do other things. But I still want to be reading books, because there are so many good books out there and I have great respect for the writers of books and the books they write.

I find it's very easy to start (reading) books. Rarely do I start reading a book and then lose interest in it. I have every intention and desire to finish most books that I start. But then some other book comes along and I just want to start that one too.

(It must be said here that these days I mostly read non-fiction—and it's relatively easy to leave non-fiction unfinished. If there is a story to a non-fiction book, I generally know how the story ends, so it doesn't have that page-turner vibe that fiction can have.)

At the start of 2019, there were four books that I had started months before, and had been really enjoying, yet instead of finishing them, I started other books. But thanks to my resolution, they are finished. Yay! 

So that was going well. Until I started starting books again. As of last week, I had seven books on the go (not counting a couple that made me say "Life's too short to spend it on this sub-par book"). And thanks to what I'm about to do, I will probably soon have 12 unfinished books heading into the LAST MONTH of 2019. So: made a resolution to reduce the number of unfinished books I have, and I am ending the year with THREE TIMES AS MANY unfinished books. What a failure!

But the reason I'm starting even more books is that people send me books. Publishers send me books. I get a lot of books. They send me the books because I have a blog and they want me to help publici{s/z}e the books. I like getting the books, and I want to help authors of good books. And it helps them if I tell you about the books in a timely way.

So this week, I am going to write about some of the books I've been sent this year and which I may not have read from cover to cover. For each book, I plan to read at least two chapters before telling you about it. So, I'm going to have a feel for the book, which I can tell you about, even if I haven't read the whole book.

Why do this now? Two reasons:
  1. I can assuage my guilt about not writing about these books sooner by pretending that I was waiting to give you a seasonal list of books that would make great gifts for the holiday season!
  2. I have the time.
I have the time because my union is about to go on strike for eight days. During this time, I am not engaging in the activities that the university pays me for. (And indeed, I will not be paid by the university for those days.) So, I'm catching up on things I want/like to do that are not within my job description. And apparently starting books and not finishing them is one of the things I like to do best.

I'm only going to tell you about books I like. I'm channel(l)ing my mother: "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." I'm also listening to the adage "There's no such thing as bad publicity." I've decided not to give any publicity to sub-par books. I could be scathing about them (and witty—scathing and witty go hand-in-hand). And that might be a lot of fun. But I'd just rather not shine my light on sub-par books, since that takes space and attention away from the good books. 

Some of the books I'll write about are by people I like. It's not that I know them well, just that I've had enough interactions with them to know we're on the same wavelength—so it's not quite nepotism (just tribalism?). And I'm going to try my best to have five posts for five days, but life happens and I might have to interpret "week" very loosely.

So: stay tuned, and we'll get this book week going.

Oh, and: I'm taking nominations for US-to-UK and UK-to-US Words of the Year. Are there any US-to-UK or UK-to-US borrowings that are particularly 2019-ish? They don't have to have first come to the other country this year, but they should have had particular attention or relevance in the other country this year. Please nominate them in the comments below.
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grammar is relationships


This is not a post about American versus British English. I hope you’ll indulge me. It's come out of some Twitter conversations this afternoon.

It started when I read this sentence in James Pennebaker’s book The Secret Life of Pronouns:
Function words require social skills to use properly.

And I wondered how it had got(ten) past a copyeditor. So I did a Twitter poll to see if other people were happy with the sentence. The poll looked like this: 


So, 25% of more than 300 people thought it sounded fine. 75% felt there was something weird about it. Given how I phrased the question, it's possible that the 75% had 100 different reasons for thinking it weird. But considering some of the tweet-replies I had, I know that at least some people had the same reaction that I did. 

The problem with the sentence for me is that there is no reasonable subject for the verb to use. Compare it to this sentence with the same kinds of parts in the same order:  
 The law requires every driver to drive safely.

In that case, the subject of the infinitive to drive is every driver—every driver is to drive safely. So, what you've got is:
  • Main verb: requires
  • Subject of main verb: the law
  • Object of main verb = infinitive clause: every driver to drive safely

But that doesn't work for Pennebaker's sentence. Social skills to use properly is not a complete clause because (a) there's no object of the verb to use (to use what properly?), and (b) social skills is in a position where it could be the subject of to use (as in the driving example), but it's not.  The sentence could be "fixed" in a number of ways that involve making it clearer that function words are the things being used.
  1. Make the infinitive into a passive, so it's clear that function words is the object of use: Function words require social skills to be used properly.
  2. Move use closer to function words so that it's clear how they relate to each other: To use function words properly requires social skills. (Or Using function words properly requires social skills.)
  3. Move function words closer to useIt takes social skills to use function words properly.
Number 1 is a little ambiguous (it sounds a bit like function words are bossing social skills around), so I'd prefer 2 or 3, where it's really clear that function words is the object of use

But there are sentences with require that do work more like Pennebaker's sentence:
Crops require water to grow.

Here, it's not the water that's growing, it's the crops. So it doesn't work like the driving sentence—the object of require is not water to grow. In both sentences, I've put the object of require in blue, so you can see that the sentences have different structures. Another way that you can tell they're different structures is that you can replace to with in order to in one and not the other and can rephrase one with that and no to, but not the other.
The law requires every passenger in order to drive safely.
Crops require water in order to grow.
 The law requires that every driver drive safely. [or drives if you're not a subjunctive user]

Crops require that water grow.

So one of the reasons I wanted to write this post is to make this big point:
Grammar isn't just where words go in a sentence, it's how they relate to each other.
The fact that the crops sentence is the same shape as Pennebaker's sentence doesn't mean that Pennebaker's sentence is grammatical, because it still has the problem that there is no subject for to use. Notice that it can't be rephrased in either of the ways that the other two can:
Function words require social skills in order to use properly
Function words require that social skills use properly
The last possibility is to interpret use as being in middle voice (as opposed to active or passive voice). This is when the verb acts kind of like a passive (where what would have been the active object becomes the subject), but doesn't get the passive be +past participle form. English has some verbs that work this way.
I cut the bread easily. (active voice: subject is the cutter)
The bread is cut easily. (passive voice: subject is what's cut)
The bread cuts easily. (middle voice: subject is what's cut)
Grammar Girl has a podcast and post on middle voice in English if you're interested. English has more of a 'middlish' voice than a 'middle', as we're really limited in how we can use it and it doesn't have a special verb form, as it does in some other languages. As Grammar Girl notes:
[English] middle-voice sentences usually include some adverbial meaning, negation, or a modal verb, or a combination of the three. “The spearheads didn’t cast very well” has both negation (“didn’t”) and an adverb phrase (“very well”). “The screw screwed in more easily than I thought it would” has the adverb phrase “more easily than I thought it would.”
While Pennebaker's sentence does have an adverb, properly, it's not one that I'm super-comfortable using with a middle construction (?The bread cuts properly), but maybe some people would like it better than I do. (Proper is used more as an adjective and adverb of intensity in some colloquial BrEs than in my AmE.)

So, are the 25% who like the sentence reading it as having middle voice? I'm not totally convinced, because I think that the English middle doesn't do well with fancier sentence constructions as with require:
?That bread requires a good knife to cut easily.
?That bread requires a steady hand to cut easily.
Putting an object between requires and to makes it confusing—is it the bread or the knife/hand that is cutting easily? If it's the knife or hand, then the sentence would usually require an it to stand for the bread: The bread requires a good knife to cut it easily. 

So, anyhow, when I put the Pennebaker sentence up, some people wondered if it was like this dialect phenomenon, found in some parts of the US (particularly western Pennsylvania) and some parts of the UK (particularly Scotland):
The car needs washed.
It was natural for them to make that connection because both Pennebaker's sentence and the needs washed sentence would work in other dialects if the final verb were made passive. But note that what needs to be added to the sentences to create a passive is different in the two cases. In needs washed, the washed is in the past participle needed for a passive. But in Pennebaker's sentence the infinitive verb is not in any way in passive form.
The car needs to be washed.
The function words require social skills to be used properly.

So, I asked the 25% who accepted the sentence to write back and tell me where they were from. And it turns out they're from anywhere.... New Jersey, California, New England, southeastern US, eastern and western Canada, up and down the UK, the Caribbean. That makes it look like it's not a dialect feature. 

An interesting thing about the 25%, though, was that a few got in touch to say: "I clicked that the sentence was fine for me, but once I started thinking about it, I was less sure."

After the dialect idea didn't pan out, I joked that the next step was to give personality tests to people who didn't like the sentence. And while it was a joke, I think there is probably something to the idea  that some people read for meaning and don't get the grammatical 'clang' that I got because getting the meaning is good enough. If they can get the meaning without a deep look at the grammar, the grammar is irrelevant. I'd wonder if people who get a 'clang' with this sentence are also more likely to also notice misplaced modifiers and dangling participles. A lot of us who notice these things notice them because we've been trained in looking at language analytically, or we're just very literal readers. Had I heard Pennebaker's sentence, I probably wouldn't have noticed that there was no workable subject for the verb use. I would have just understood it and gone merrily on my way. But in reading, CLANG.


Anyhow, the main reason I wanted to blog this was to make that point that Grammar is how words relate to each other. That two sentences with the same shape can be working in very different ways. And on that note, I'll leave you with an experiment that Carol Chomsky did way back when. She gave children a doll with a blindfold over its eyes and asked them if this sentence was true—and if not, to make the sentence true.
The doll is easy to see. 
Notice how that sentence doesn't work like this sentence:
The doll is eager to see.
In the first, the doll is being seen. We can paraphrase it as The doll is easy for me to see. In the second, the doll is who will do the seeing. We can't paraphrase it as The doll is eager for me to see, because it means The doll is eager for the doll to see. The words easy and eager determine how we interpret the relations of the other words in the sentence. In linguistic terms, they license different relationships in the sentence. (In these sentences it's adjectives doing that relationship-determining, but in most sentences, it's the verbs. In our requires sentences above, we can see that require licenses a range of possible sentence structures—words do that too.)

Understanding that a blindfolded doll is easy to see is something that most kids don't master till they're into their school years. When asked to make the doll easy to see, the younger kids take off the doll's blindfold. This shows us that kids take a while to fully take account of the grammar, not just the words, in sentences.

Hope you didn't mind my little grammatical foray...
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Review: Linguistics: why it matters by Geoffrey Pullum

It's National Writing Day (for another 48 minutes) and I've reali{s/z}ed that I haven't written anything but emails and tweets today. So a blog post is needed. But a short one. Luckily, I have a very short book to review.

The book is the linguistic installation of Polity Press's 'why it matters' series, and it's by the exceptionally clear Geoff Pullum. Here come the full disclosures: I know Geoff and I got this book for free. But I wouldn't say nice things about the book if I didn't mean them. (I'd just save myself the trouble of writing a blog post about it.)

So, since it's by the exceptionally clear Geoff Pullum, this is an exceptionally clear book. It's just 120-something pages, divided into five themed chapters on why linguistics matters: for what it tells us about what makes us human, about how sentences work, how meaning, thought and language intertwine, how it uncovers social relations, and how it might help machines understand humans. I particularly admire Geoff's ability to write short sentences about complex topics. (That's lesson 1 in making things exceptionally clear—complex topics aren't helped by grammatically complex sentences!) The real value of the book is in the examples that show how linguistics does matter—for expanding human understanding, for uncovering and undoing prejudices, and in applications that can help people.

Here's the bit that I most enthusiastically underlined:
[T]o a large extent the importance of linguistics has turned out to lie not so much in the results it has achieved (those evolve over time and are often overturned or contradicted) but in the change in the general view of what's important enough to study. It lies in our moral evolution of our perception of what we should be looking at and what we should value. 
That leads into a discussion of the shift from thinking of signed languages as gesticulations to their recognition as complex languages that are as languagey as any other human languages. But I think it could have introduced many of the sections. I do believe that linguistics has done a lot of good in the world in the past 50 or so years, and a lot of that is about valuing people and their languages. Though the book is only long enough for a few examples of that, they're great examples.

The ideal audience for this book? I think it would make an excellent present from any students studying (or planning to study) linguistics to their parents. When your parents' friends ask them "What's your kid up to?" and they say "Studying Linguistics", the conversation usually DIES. Give them the gift of knowing how to talk up your fascinating studies! It'd also be great for anyone considering studying linguistics, or who just thinks: "That sounds like an interesting subject, but I don't quite know what it's for." (It's mostly not about translation or language teaching, by the way.)

Geoff blogged about writing the book, which you can read here.
Here's a link to the publisher's site. It's only giving me the UK buying links, but I hope that if you approach it from another country you'll get the appropriate page!
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practice and practise

I now do not remember where I took this photo of a museum label. Some museum I've been to in the UK in the last couple of years.  It's been sitting on my computer desktop to remind me to blog about practice and practise. Maybe it's for the best that I don't remember, as to mention them would feel like naming and shaming, since practise there is spel{led/t} wrong.



Let's start with the spelling facts:
  • In standard British spelling, the noun is practice and the verb is practise (in that picture it's a noun, and therefore should have a 'c'). If you need to remember which is which, think of advice and advise: the noun has 'c' and the verb has 's'. What's different, of course, is that advice and advise are pronounced differently. The letter 'c' usually doesn't represent the /z/ sound that you get in 'advise' (but the letter 's' often does). Practi{c/s}e is confusing because they're both pronounced the same, even though they're spel{led/t} differently. That is to say, they're homophones.
    Historical aside from the OED:
    The word was originally stressed on the second syllable [...], and this is still the case in some regional varieties, especially in Scots (hence such spellings as practize, practeeze, practeese). The stress was subsequently shifted to the first syllable, with devoicing of the final consonant, probably by association with practice n.
  • In standard American spelling, they're both practice. Noah Webster promoted dropping practise in his 1828 dictionary (and probably elsewhere), arguing that "[t]he orthography of the verb ought to be the same as of the noun; as in notice and to notice.]" But, like most of Webster's spellings, it didn't really take off in the US until after he was gone—in the late 19th century. 
Now, the reason I wanted to write about this is that the UK spelling seems to be going a bit buggy [orig. AmE]. People claim to me that American spellcheckers are making everyone write practice. But what I tend to see is a lot of practise where BrE should have practice, as in the photo above and this request from a UK-based copy editor's client::
Hi Lynne  I hope you're well. I wondered if you could verify something for me.  A client has asked for a "US spelling" of "community of practice" to be "community of practise".  I think this is incorrect, and I'd love to know what you think.
These kinds of experiences have led me to suspect that instead of American spelling taking over, we have another case like -ize/-ise (which, if you want to read some interesting facts about those, I have a book to sell you). That is, because one of the spellings (and not the other) is known by British people to be unacceptable in American English, that spelling is now perceived as"the British spelling" and then applied willy-nilly. In the case of practice/practise, this means that errors are introduced into the British spelling, while Americans (BrE) tootle along with one spelling. 

So, to test what's happening, I looked, as I like to do, for objective evidence—not filtered through my (or anyone else's) biased attention for one type of error or the other in everyday life. To do that, I looked up practice and practise in the British portion of the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWBE), asked it to give me a random sample of 200 passages with each spelling, and then read each and identified any spelling errors (using the British rules). That is, I looked for nouns in the practise data and verbs in the practice data.

The result:

Of 200 British cases of the spelling practise, 65 were misspelled nouns.
Of 200 British cases of the spelling practice, 23 were misspelled verbs.

At the bottom of this post, I'll stick in screenshots of the data so you can see some examples.

Now, I am not convinced that people were ever good at keeping these spellings straight. Some people were, sure, but homonyms have given people trouble since people started standardi{s/z}ing spelling. We'd need some more historical data to see if this is the pattern of error has always been this way. But at least now, at least in this web-based data, there's less evidence of Americani{s/z}ation of British spelling and more evidence of counter-Americani{s/z}ation—people using the spelling they perceive as not-American, even though it's not the right spelling for standard British English.

Before I go: Some people say to me "I didn't know you were in my town! I would have come to see you talk if I'd known!" I keep my talk schedule posted here. If you're in Brighton or London (UK) in the next few weeks or the DC/Maryland area in August, have/take a look at the schedule and see if you can join us! 


Some noun practises on UK websites (click to enlarge)

Some verb practices on UK websites (click to enlarge)

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sadly (and a bit on hopefully)

Those of us who've relocated from our "home English" acquire many new turns of phrase, and we get used to even more. But for most of us, some phrasings just never sit right. We cringe at them. We resist them. We gripe (oh, how we gripe!) about them. And it's one of those things that I'm writing about today. Followers on Twitter will have heard aspects of this before because oh how we gripe!



The object of my gripe? It's not a word. It's a word in a certain context—the word sadly in British newspaper reports like these:

A selection of sadly died in UK news reports, from GloWBE


Besides sadly died, there's sadly passed away, sadly lost, and so forth.

Now, I have a certain sensitivity to death-writing because of my funeral-home upbringing (as you've seen before). I have little patience for euphemism and cliché when it comes to talking about the fact that people have died. But the heart of why it bothers me has to do with the tone I expect from newspapers, having grown up with American ones (I've also mentioned that before, here). I expect a newspaper report to tell me that there was an accident or a murder and someone died. That a celebrity or statesperson died. That is the news. They died. The sadly is inappropriate (orig. AmE)  editoriali{s/z}ing.

British newspapers put their hearts on their sleeves more than American ones do in reporting, not just in terms of expressing sadness at deaths, but in their reporting of everything. (I know this sometimes surprises non-Americans because they think of Fox News. But that's not a newspaper.) I recall my mother objecting "they can't say that!" to a front-page news story when she first visited me in the UK. I can't remember what the story was, but to her the writing clearly indicated that the reported thing  was a bad thing (or maybe a good thing). American newspapers are only supposed to take a sides in pieces that are clearly marked as 'opinion'. So sadly is off-tone for me in an factual report.

But also I bristle at the sadly because it's such a pathetic word, given the situations it's used to describe. Last month, I read a story about a man being stabbed by a stranger on a train which included the phrase "he was sadly killed". Sadly doesn't cut it. It was horrific. It was shocking. It was angering. Sadly is mere platitude.

And then there's another reason why it grates: the old sentential adverb problem. You might know this from hopefully. There are all sorts of pedants out there who claim that a sentence like
She'll arrive soon, hopefully.
has to mean that she'll arrive full of hope. That's actually a silly thing to claim, because there are so many other adverbs that one could make the same argument about and no one's making that argument or interpreting those adverbs that way. If I say
She'll arrive soon, unfortunately.
I'm not saying that she'll arrive in an unfortunate state or in an unfortunate manner. It means that I find it unfortunate that she'll arrive, just as the hopefully in the previous example is describing the mental state of the speaker, rather than the state of the subject of the sentence.

Having said that, one has to admit that these sentences are ambiguous: you could interpret them with the hopeful or the unfortunate applying to the she.

Sadly is another case where the adverb is usually used to attribute a feeling to the speaker (or writer) rather than to the subject of the sentence. He sadly died is not intended to convey 'he died while sad', but 'We are sad about him dying'. The people who complain about hopefully never seem to notice sadly doing what they say an adverb shouldn't do. That seems hypocritical, but I don't think they're really hypocrites. I think they're people who just like to parrot things they've heard about linguistic usage without really understanding them. (Is that better or worse than being a hypocrite? Since I'm a hypocrite on so many things, I'm going to say it's worse.)

While I can see that it is perfectly ok to use sadly in that way, the ambiguity of sadly is very apparent to me when I hear or read the sadly-died statements: for two reasons. First, AmE uses a lot more commas than BrE does, and the lack of commas in He has sadly died also adds to the 'clang' factor for me. If it were  
He has, sadly, died.
then it would have to be interpreted as 'I am sad that he has died'. Without the commas, to my American eye, the ambiguity (is it sad that he died, or was he sad when he died?) punches me in the brain.

And second is the problem of where the adverb is placed (though this is not relevant to all of the above examples): AmE would prefer not to put the adverb between has and died, whereas that's where BrE likes its sentential adverbs. We've seen that before for adverbs like certainly and probably. So, he has sadly died sounds a tad unnatural to me as an AmE speaker anyway. He sadly has died sounds better. And He, sadly, has died looks like how I'd want to pronounce it.

I mostly read sadly-died phrasings because I get most of my news in typed form, but one hears it in British radio and televsion too. There are not great comma pauses when it's said. Sometimes it almost sounds like it's a one-word journalistic synonym for passed away. He sadlydied.

So that's me and my creeped-out, nails-on-chalkboard feelings about BrE journalistic sadly. I can do my descriptive linguist thing and say: Isn't that interesting? What function does it have? Here's why it might sound weird to Americans. But sometimes it's hard for the linguistic training to silence the cultural training and the near-lifetime's worth of experience of proofreading the super-factual American obituaries my dad has written. Though, I suppose, the upside is that the cringey feeling has led me to do a bit of linguistic analysis. And write a blog post!

A late addition (19 Feb): I think I'm a little  unfair here in calling it 'journalistic'. A lot of the examples in newspapers are quoting the police, and it does seem to be a staple of UK police press engagement. Another one today in our local news: a man was stabbed and then he "sadly died early on Sunday morning after being taken to the Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton following the incident in Elm Grove", according to the police statement. 

And while I'm here...
The UK paperback of The Prodigal Tongue  has a publication date: 7th of March. If you've been waiting for that format, there are links for buying it here. It's nicer than the hardcover because it's got blurbs from all the great reviews on it, including that "The Economist Books of the Year" on the cover!

I'll be launching that edition on the 7th at the Leeds Literary Festival, and I'm giving more talks in different parts of the US and UK in the coming months—more details here. I'm always happy to give more, so do get in touch if you have a speaker series or festival that you think needs a lynneguist.

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2018 UK-to-US Word of the Year: whilst

Yesterday I announced the US-to-UK Word of the Year (click for details!), and so today is the turn of the UK-to-US WotY.

The 2018 US-to-UK WotY has been moving to the US for quite a while—but Nancy Friedman (@Fritinancy) makes the case for us recogni{s/z}ing it in 2018. And the word is:

whilst


...that is, a longer version of the conjunction while. Whilst was probably one of the things that led Ben Yagoda to start his Not One-Off Britishisms blog. In a 2011 Lingua Franca post (Lingua Franca, RIP!), he mentions American students using whilst in their writing, then a few months later he started NOOB, with whilst as one of the early entries. I wrote about whilst earlier—though not about it as an import to the US, but as something that was annoying me in my British students' writing (I've been coming to terms with it ever since).

What this year's two WotYs have in common is that the people who nominated them had researched and made good cases for them, rather than just "it sounds American/British to me and I don't like it".  Here's Nancy's nomination for whilst:
While standard dictionaries still mark it as "chiefly British," it's on the rise among Smart Young Things here in the U.S. who think it sounds "cool" or "refined." Here's an example from The Baffler (published in New York), April 6, 2018: "You see, while the violence of financial capitalism and the ever-widening chasm of economic inequality might have something to do with why poor folks get themselves into a tizzy and take to the streets, the true catalyst is that they don’t feel respected whilst being systematically eliminated by the police state, they don’t feel respected whilst performing wage slavery." This humor piece in McSweeney's (based in San Francisco), from April 2017, is egalitarian: it uses "while" and "whilst" twice each. And here's the singer Lana Del Rey— born in Los Angeles, residing in Lake Placid, New York — writing on Instagram in May 2017: "I had complex feelings about spending the weekend dancing whilst watching tensions w North Korea mount.” (Quoted in Rolling Stone)

More "whilst"s from Americans:
Lisa Franklin, writer and comedian from New York
: "people keep commenting on those comics whilst happily ignoring my jokes about The Flash."
Halle Kiefer, "comedy writer out of Astoria, New York": "a surreally long, minutely detailed anecdote about a young Madonna auditioning with the Queen of Soul’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” whilst living in a crack den"

Now, this one isn't a Britishism in the sense of 'invented after the British–American divide' when people started talking about Britishisms and British English (as opposed to just English). It went over to America. But it practically died there before the word Britishism had even been invented (1853, if the OED's info is complete), as this chart from the Corpus of Historical American English shows:

Click to embiggen
What I'm interested in knowing is how the young Americans using it are saying it. Before I started hearing it in British English, I would have read it aloud as 'willst'. (Dictionaries would have told me otherwise, but I don't tend to look up pronunciations when I'm reading.) It is pronounced like while with a st on the end. In the US, it seems to mostly have a life in print (does anyone have any nice clips of audio clips of it in American mouths?), whereas in the UK, you hear it too.

I'll repeat what I quoted the first time I wrote about whilst:
Paul Brian's Common Errors in English Usage says: 'Although “whilst” is a perfectly good traditional synonym of “while,” in American usage it is considered pretentious and old-fashioned.'
A lot of people commenting on it in American English these days feel the same way about it. But I suspect that's less true for younger Americans, raised on a diet of Harry Potter. Nevertheless, I'm still not saying it!  Thanks, Nancy for your nomination. Your prize will follow next month!

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Abbr.

AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)