Glimpsed 01

Pas de V.F., désolée.

  1. The awesomest eye-chart ever.


  2. In other news, it has come to our attention that fungi (pl.: fungi) has joined the ranks of countable singular nouns. Congratulations.

    It sounds like something out of a comic book, although scientists already know that fungi will eat asbestos, jet fuel, and plastic. It has also been shown to decompose hot graphite in the ruins of the Chernobyl power plant, which melted down in 1986. The plant’s release of large amounts of radiation appears to have attracted black hordes of fungi. But how does it work?

    According to Ekaterina Dadachova and her colleagues at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in New York City, the fungi Cryptococcus neoformans and two other species use melanin, also a pigment found in human skin, to transform radiation into energy to use as food for growth.

    (Technology Review, via apostropher.)

  3. The Guardian, or rather, Angelique Chrisafis on this Monday’s Guardian Newsdesk podcast, has some strange ideas about adjectives:

    (Note: neither tsunami nor tidal wave counts. The full mp3 can be downloaded here)

[a]: The line I just read looks like this: Ⴊ ⇠ ਐ ῼ இ ╁ ଠ ୭ ⅙ ㈣ — got all your Unicode fonts installed?

Et tu, Grauniad?

Quand on donne des leçons de grammaire, il vaut mieux savoir ce qu’on entend par grammaire. Et quand on parle en tant que journaliste, est-il acceptable de faire de la pub pour ses cours d’expression écrite ?

  • 2007-06-02
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On the front page of this Saturday’s Guardian’s “Work” section, an article of a familiar genre: Under the heading Bad education, Emma-Jayne Jones and Robert Ashton bemoan the decline of spelling, punctuation and “grammar” skills, and the disastrous effect this has on the employment prospects of young people:

Recruiters say grammatical sloppiness is depressingly common among young job seekers - but could you do any better? […]

Around half of all CVs received by recruitment consultants, says the Recruitment and Employment Commission, contain spelling or grammatical errors, and these are most likely to be made by those aged between 21 and 25. In this age group, graduates are twice as likely to make mistakes as those who did not go on to university.

Attaching moral judgements no conventions of writing isn’t helpful. The topic belongs to the realm of skills and employability, which the Guardian often has useful non-judgemental information about. And yes, I am in favour of this stuff being taught to all youngsters. There’s an interesting nugget of information in the excerpt, though: Apparently the rules of written English are still so much of a social differentiator that, if the REC is right, those going to university for 3 or 4 years have less of an incentive to improve or maintain these skills than those who enter employment right after finishing secondary school.

Be that as it may, the article goes on to present a text and invites readers to “spot the grammar, punctuation and spelling mistakes”. This is where things start to go awry. I am not convinced the authors are themselves all that clear on what grammar is.

Here is the first paragraph of the example passage — for the rest see the original article:

Management wants to introduce new measures to combat the noticable increase in sick leave. The average annual number of sick days has risen from five to 10 which is seen as a considerable embarassment to the new HR director. But I wonder if the responsibility should lay solely with her? And even if management does agree who’s responsibility the problem is they also have a seperate - and justified concern that any action taken should be carefully-considered. […]

Now no one will call this an example of brilliant writing. But what are the errors Jones and Ashton “find” in their 211-word fake business communication?

First of all, the authors distinguish between “misspellings” and “grammar and punctuation”. Why this grouping? I have no idea.

As for the first category, they only list five misspelled words. All of them (noticable, embarassment, seperate, arguement, accelarate) are easily caught by a spell-checker, and for most, a knowledge of word origins might help memorizing the correct form.

Under “grammar and punctuation”, we have 23 errors. Out of these, ten are purely about punctuation#[1], and most of the corrections are helpful. Not all the explanations pass muster, though. The admonition “The comma […] should not be used, as there is no natural pause” (”People have become more lethargic, since we started paying them more.”) is misleading. The problem isn’t the absence of a “natural pause”, but the risk of misinterpreting the temporal adjunct “since we started paying them more” as a causal addition. Worse, the criticism of the hyphen in “should be carefully-considered” is accompanied by the note: “never use a hyphen after adverbs ending in -ly” — sez who? Ever heard of adverbs ending in -ly as parts of compound adjectives, as in “the shoddily-written article”? Some reject these, too, but the adverb qualifies different things in the two cases.

We are left with 13 errors, which must belong in the category “grammar”. Three are, however, about spelling: principle vs principal and (twice) affect vs effect. Apparently, the authors believe that misspelling a word so that it coincides with a different word is a matter of grammar. Next, we are presented with the lie vs lay problem, which is not only not a matter of grammar but, as developed by Geoffrey Pullum, more complex than just a confusion between two related verbs.

Six “grammar” errors deal with the correct spelling (and punctuation, if you count apostrophes) of grammatical function words — there’s vs theirs vs their’s, whose vs who’s — and one more is about not leaving out the apostrophe in the possessive CEO’s: still nothing to do with grammar in the linguistic sense, but fair enough. And the remaining two?

Well, one is about less vs fewer — another word choice controversy only loosely related to grammar and less clear-cut than it looks. Though I agree that “less people than expected” is jarring. The last one is about the number agreement in the sentece (fixing other problems): “And even if management does agree whose responsibility the problem is they also have a separate […] concern that any action taken should be carefully considered.” The change from the singular “management does agree” to the plural “they have a … concern”, sounds quite acceptable to me. “Management” in its “agreeing” is apprehended as a unit, but as a collective of individuals in the second part of the sentence. Aren’t we here faced with stylistic advice masquerading as grammar lessons? And if we’re talking style, I’d rewrite a bit more of the text while I’m at it.

All in all, disappointing. The usual confusion about what grammar actually is, and an absence of any sensibility for aspects of style and variations of register. That knowing the conventions of business writing is useful for most is not under dispute. Robert Ashton, by the way, can help you there. He is chief executive of the business writing consultancy Emphasis (link in the Guardian article), and his one-day courses cost £495 + VAT (well over $1000). Information or infomercial?

[1]: That is, counting hyphenation as punctuation. Hyphens and apostrophes are strictly speaking better considered as orthographic markers, unlike sentence-level signs such as the period/full stop, comma, dash or semicolon.

Overnegation … or not?

La surnégation, ça fait tourner la tête.

From Alternet (emphasis mine):

When the U.S. State Department released its annual report on human rights on Wednesday, countries like Iran, Pakistan and Zimbabwe scored very poorly, as they have for many years past.

But trumpeting these countries’ shoddy rights’ records was apparently no disincentive to prevent the United States from joining up with them earlier this year to ban two pioneering gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights groups from participating in human rights discussions at the United Nations.

I vote “yes”, but this kind of heaped-on negations always makes me want to take a slip of paper and start multiplying (-1)’s.

Confusing hedges

… ou : comment (ne pas) atténuer ses propos. Là où on emploie le conditionnel en français, l’anglais a des adverbes à sa disposition. On appelle cela un hedge. Mais parfois, signaler qu’il y a un doute sur ce qui est affirmé peut embrouiller la syntaxe.

  • 2006-02-17
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Imagine A (male) shot and killed B. In addition, some days earlier, A tried to pull off an Internet scam. This situation could be bundled into one sentence like this: A tried to pull off an Internet scam just days before he shot and killed B. But as long as A isn’t convicted and sentenced, the […]

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  • 2006-02-03
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Yes, yes, I know I’ve been bad — this blog is hibernating, or in fact preparing to crawl back out of its cave better and more beautiful than ever before. Things are going on behind the scenes, I assure you. This cartoon, though, made me giggle so hard that I’m breaking the silence to put […]

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Dangling relative clause

Mes excuses pour le manque de billets. En attendant, une pauvre phrase relative en rade, piquée sur un site homophobe…

First my apologies for being such a spotty blogger lately. Offline life is intruding even more than it used to and makes sustained online activities a bit hard at the moment. But I will be back: with everything on my to-blog list, there is no lack of topics. In the meantime, let me just quickly point […]

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Mellifluous punctuation and somebody else’s umbrella

«The Elements of Style» de William Strunk et E.B. White est, en plus court, à l’anglais américain ce qui est le Grevisse au français. Toute une frange des anglophones instruits, dont un certain nombre de profs, ne jurent que par ce manuel de style et de grammaire.

Malheureusement, les auteurs ont poussé le stalinisme grammatical au point de proscrire des tournures utilisées par les plus grands écrivains depuis des siècles, et s’avèrent occasionnellement incapables de suivre leurs propres conseils. Certains donc, et pas les moindres, vouent le livre aux gémonies et n’ont qu’un désir : qu’il n’eusse jamais été écrit.

Maintenant, une version illustrée par une dessinatrice et auteure de livres pour enfants et un cycle de chants par un jeune compositeur néo-dadaiste font leur apparence sur ce champs de bataille grammaticale et stylistique.

I imagine Geoffrey Pullum has a file on his computer named “Strunk and White adjectives”, and every time he posts about The Elements of Style he chooses a new one and ticks it off as “used”. He’s called the opus a horrid little notebook of nonsense, a stupid little book, a poisonous little collection of […]

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Appel aux francophones

A small, informal grammar-judgement survey in French. Results and objective will be posted in a future entry.

J’ai besoin de votre jugement grammatical. Voici six phrases : J’en ai parlé avec quelqu’un, mais je ne me rappelle plus qui. Jacques a discuté du problème avec un de ses supérieurs, mais je ne sais pas avec qui. J’ai parlé de quelque chose avec Marie, mais je ne me rappelle plus quoi. Pierre a fait ce travail pour un […]

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A relative clause there’ll have to be some thinking over

Des problèmes avec une phrase relative en anglais.

So I was reading about the sad and horrifying loyalist#[1] riots that took place in Belfast over the weekend. Until I stumbled over a sentence, a quote of Ian Paisley. In the Guardian, the construction that puzzled me looks like this (emphasis mine): Then tension hit a higher notch when Ian Paisley, the now undisputed leader of […]

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Nouns and verbs on #wordpress

Les habitués du salon IRC #wordpress aiment bien parler langue et langage. La conversation reprise ici est en anglais, mais le salon est en général ouvert aux autres langues, et bon nombre des participants en parlent plusieurs.

In our ongoing series Language topics on the #wordpress IRC channel, we present the latest instalment. This morning’s discussions mainly dealt with nouns and verbs, and the purity of English. The participants were spread out between Lausanne and Tokyo, and most but not all of them are native speakers of English (at least two are […]

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