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
  • Comments Off

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.

  1. Who are you callin’ ungrammatical? — a good article by Jan Freeman in the Boston Globe. The topic is, you guessed it, whom.
  2. American Accent Undergoing Great Vowel Shift — an interview with the linguist William Labov by Robert Siegel on (US) National Public Radio. Via Mark Liberman at Language Log; he also reports on the sad news concerning the public access to Prof. Labov’s research, though.
  3. Le mot de la fin — this is a four-times-a-week radio editorial by the lexicographer Alain Rey. (His is the name on most of the Robert dictionaries.) About 3 min each, and available as a podcast.
  4. Speaking in Minor and Major Keys [.pdf] — via Argonaut, a research paper by Maartje Schreuder, Laura van Eerten and Dicky Gilbers, who have found a correlation between musical minor/major keys and sad/happy emotional speech: “In order to investigate emotional intonation, we recorded and analyzed the performances of five professional readers reading passages from A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh in Dutch. In pitch contours of all speakers we found intervals between tones indicating minor modality in passages in which the sad character Eeyore is speaking and intervals indicating major modality in passages in which the happy, energetic Tigger is speaking.” A similar study had apparently been done already for Japanese.

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 […]

 read the post »

Commercial ties

J’ai reçu du spam d’un important éditeur qui m’a demandé de publier des liens vers des articles publiés sur son site. Il se trouve que ces articles sont sans aucun doute d’un grand intérêt pour les amateurs de la linguistique. Or, leur propositon de faire de la pub gratuite pour eux me semble rien d’autre qu’une campagne de spam ciblée, vaguement insultante d’ailleurs.

From Anggarrgoon: I was contacted today [on a recipients suppressed list] by email by a fairly large publisher who was drawing my attention to some articles with a linguistic theme on their site. They were suggesting that I post links to their site. It’s an interesting type of product placement. I will be intrigued […]

 read the post »
  • 2005-09-26
  • Comments Off

It is reassuring to know that the Paris police Préfecture has been making plans in the event of terrorists attacking several places at once, like in Madrid or London. According to a Libération article, the first step would be to get everyone out of the public transport network: Si un jour, un attentat […]

 read the post »
  • 2005-09-19
  • Comments Off

From Le Monde: Afghanistan : succès relatif de la journée électorale, un soldat français tué [Afghanistan: Moderate succes of the election day, one French solider killed] All right, they used a comma and not a colon, but still …

 read the post »

theguardian …

Le Guardian… d’accord, on évitera le cliché « fait peau neuve ». Il a changé de formule. Assez radicalement, car il passe du format (très large) « broadsheet » au Berlinois, c-à-d le même que Le Monde.

Suivez les liens pour accéder à l’édition numérique (en entier, encore pour deux semaines) et faites-vous une idée, si cela vous branche.

… is all shiny and new and blue as of today. With a lowercasenospaces masthead. On the Editors’ Blog, several commenters call it “thegrauniad” already. Seriously, I rather like it. The new (”Berliner”) format is the same as Le Monde’s, which I’ve always found the most pleasant newspaper to handle, with only a minimum of […]

 read the post »

About that other Superdome

Une pub d’une chaîne de télévision spécialisée dans l’histoire. Trouvée à côté d’un article sur l’aide aux victimes de l’inondation à La Nouvelle Orléans.

On peut s’interroger sur le bon goût, mais aussi sur la justesse historique pratiqués par The History Channel.

When I read the AFP wire US declines Swedish water sanitation aid on Yahoo! News#[1], the ad I’ve reproduced here was shown next to the article. (You’ll probably see a different ad if you click on the link; the original file is here (gif file).) So what’s wrong with it? I don’t know how many other US […]

 read the post »

Interview with New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, uncensored

Plusieurs liens vers un entretien donné par le maire de la Nouvelle Orléans, Ray Nagin, hier sur une radio locale. C’est la version non-censurée, sans les « beep » que CNN a insérés pour camoufler les gros mots. Un document extraordinaire.

Debi Jones Joan Touzet, who blogs at An Atypical Life, has put up an uncensored recording (mp3 file, 3.2 MB) of the interview that the mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, gave to the radio station WWL-AM yesterday. I am locally mirroring the file here; another mirror is here. Via Debi Jones, who links to more […]

 read the post »