Friday, 29 April 2016

Antidisestablishmentarianism is a very long word

There's a really great post at Merriam-Webster about why the word antidisestablishmentarianism isn't in the dictionary. Basically, it's because it isn't a word in common usage. This raises interesting questions about the nature of lexicography, what 'in common usage' means, meta-linguistic mention vs. use, and compositionality of meaning.

The word clearly does have a meaning. Merriam-Webster say it's this:
opposition to depriving a legally established state church of its status
I thought it was something like the movement against the separation of church and state, but maybe that's the same thing - I'm not at all clear about what that actually means. But the point is that the meaning arises directly as a sum of its parts: it's compositional. Well, this isn't strictly true: there is some idiomatic meaning to do with the church and the law as well. But the length of it comes from attaching affixes with strictly compositional meanings. When you have compositionality, you can theoretically create longer and longer words, up to the limit of your cognitive capacity. I could add a morpheme and create antidisestablishmentarianismation, for instance. Some long words in quite common use aren't in the dictionary simply because they're made by standard suffixation processes, and that suffix is in the dictionary so you can work out the meaning for yourself.

So antidisestablishmentariansim is a real word, in the sense that people recognise it and can understand its meaning and it's made with proper word-formation processes. But for M-W, it's not a word in common usage. They have only three quotations for this word which use the meaning they give above, and dictionaries rely on written uses of words. This is why they can seem slow: words only get in when they've achieved plenty of use in print materials.

They do have plenty of quotations of the word with reference to it being a long word, however. It is in the OED, and their quotations refer to this:
1984   T. Augarde Oxf. Guide Word Games xxvi. 216   The longest words that most people know are antidisestablishmentarianism..and supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
This is metalinguistic mention of the word, not an actual use of the word. We're stepping outside language and talking about the word itself, not using the word to say something. This is sort of difficult to get your head round because we have to use language to talk about language, a long-recognised philosophical problem in linguistics.

Interestingly, M-W say at the end of their piece that it might be considered a viable entry 'simply because it's a well-known word'. The meaning is not well-known, however, so it would be an entry whose definition read something like 'famous long word', and the definition as a secondary bit of information. That would be quite cool and very meta.

Irrelevant postscript: There's a really stupid joke that goes like this: 'Antidisestablishmentarianism is a very long word. How do you spell it?' and the answer is, of course, 'I, T'. I sometimes try that out on my students and some of them groan but a lot of them simply don't understand the joke. Maybe it's the way I tell 'em. 

Monday, 18 April 2016

You and your family's best interests

There's been a leaflet sent round lately about the EU referendum happening in the UK. The government has sent this leaflet to all households, setting out the case for remaining in the European Union. Here's how it puts it:
The Government believes it is in you and your family's best interests that the UK remains in the European Union.
A friend mentioned on facebook that he was disappointed that despite the £9m spent on this leaflet, it contained this grammatical error. I begged to differ: this is stylistic variation, not a mistake.

He argued that it should be your and your family's best interests, as both conjuncts should be possessive. This is right, as you should be able to leave either out and it still be grammatical.

But there's two complicating factors here. The first is that the possessive your is kind of already a combination of you plus 's, so perhaps the 's is redundant. I don't actually think this is the case, because I think there's another reason why it's OK to say you. 

It's to do with the nature of 's. This is what we call a clitic, which means that it's phonologically dependent (has to attach to) another word, but is not as tightly linked to the word as a suffix like the plural s. While the plural suffix can only attach to countable nouns, the possessive can attach to a much wider range of things. The only requirement is that the noun it refers to be within the phrase it attaches to. This means that we can have phrases like the following, where the possessive attaches to something other than the possessor, and sometimes not even a noun:
The woman with the long hair's dog
The guy I was talking to's friend
The girl dressed in blue's mother
It's a little more complicated with coordination, of course, as we have to have the 's referring to both conjuncts. But I think that's OK. Language Log have discussed this before, and examples like this are all right:
I and my friend's work (a bit clumsy in my opinion, but not bad)
Me and my friend's work (perfectly well-formed)
So, unusually, I'm with the government on this one, both in terms of their grammar in in staying in the EU.

Friday, 8 April 2016

(At) home

It's a well-known fact that home has no preposition when it occurs with go:
I went (*to) home
(The asterisk inside the brackets means that it's ungrammatical if you include to.)

And it has to have one if it's an adverbial phrase (optional extra information about the event):
I worked *(at) home today
(The asterisk outside the brackets means it's ungrammatical without at.)

There are some verbs where the preposition is optional, such as stay:
I stayed (at) home.
I think there might be some regional variation on that one, though I'm not sure.

But when it's with be, omitting or including the preposition gives a meaning difference. I ran a twitter poll to make sure I wasn't alone in this, and found overwhelming agreement with my judgements. In a context in which I've been for a night out and want to tell my friend that I've arrived back at my house safely, I would say I'm home. If my friend had rung my and wanted to know where I was, I would say I'm at home. I could use either in either context, but both I and those who responded to my twitter poll felt that the distinction above was right. So that preposition at being pronounced has a kind of locative meaning - location in a place - while omitting it has some sort of directional meaning - movement to (or arrival at) a place.

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Kisses at work

A friend drew my attention to this story about a judge who ruled that an MP was representing a constituent as a friend, not an MP, based on 'familiarity of the wording' and a kiss at the end of an email.

MP Jess Phillips was acting on behalf of a woman described as 'frail' and who is having her PIP (disability benefit) stopped by this brutal government. Her appeal had gone to a tribunal and Jess wrote to the constituent to update her with what was going on, and this email was the one that the judge based the decision on.
Hi [name redacted]
Hope you are well and are keeping smiling. Below is the email trail with the DWP, I will let you know as soon as I hear anything.
Jess
X
The 'familiar wording' is presumably the use of Hi, the constituent's first name, the cheery greeting, and the sign-off with her own first name. More on the kiss later.

Emails are not formal letters, or at least not usually (they can be). They don't need to begin with Dear Madam, or even Dear anyone: Hi is perfectly acceptable. If I'm writing to someone I don't know, I'll always used Dear the first time, but I'll usually switch to Hi once we've established a connection, which is to say fairly quickly. I'll almost always use first names right from the off; only with very senior people would I use a title. But then that's academia, where things are pretty chilled. What about this, where the MP has a professional duty to the member of the public? I think that given they've probably met several times, and had many conversations about this matter, it would be strange to stick to the formality of a title and surname. Similarly with Jess's own first name: they're on first name terms. I generally prefer the use of my first name with anyone I'm interacting with regularly: when my bank person who sorted my mortgage kept calling me Dr Bailey, I had to make him stop because I was calling him Jamie and there was a weird sort of mismatched power thing.

A cheery greeting is nice: as Jess has said, she was acting in a compassionate way towards her constituent, and included a little message to show that she was thinking of her. The rest of the email is entirely formal language (there's a comma splice, but that's a punctuation error rather than an inappropriate register).

And then that kiss. Kiss etiquette is hard. Another friend of mine, from Germany, was talking about just this the other day. How many, and when to use them? I had a more or less accurate rule of none for work friends, lots for family, and other friends somewhere in between. Then it gets messy, though. I use them in text messages but not chat conversations, except for sometimes when I do. Male friends get them less often than female friends just in case it seems inappropriate, except that some male friends do because that's just what we do. Some female friends don't because we send short and frequent messages. Sometimes I include kisses for first and last messages but not for the bulk of the conversation. I think I tend to mirror what other people do, just as in real life (in real life, my preference would be for hugs for all greetings with friends, but in practice some people get hugs, some kisses and some nothing because I am bad at initiating hugs). Lynne Cahill from Sussex University is preparing an article on this very matter, which I'm looking forward to reading.

That's my complicated system, though. Jess might be someone who always puts kisses on her emails and texts. Many people do, especially if they're young, which she is - she's 34 and 34 is definitely still young (I am telling myself this). In addition, she is old enough to have gone through school before email was really a thing, and therefore, like everyone my age, not been taught how to write an email in an appropriate register. We learnt how to write a formal letter, but we hadn't yet realised we were going to need to do something different for emails. We've made it up as we go along, getting less formal along the way - even a few years ago I always included a salutation and sign-off in emails, but now I often don't, even at work. It's not necessary. It's like putting your name on a text message.

What I'm saying is, it's a minefield. The judge was mean.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Rotate, but don't turn

I've been looking at mattresses lately. It's bewildering. Not least is the instruction that some of them have:
No-turn mattress. Rotate regularly. 
Rotate and turn are one of many pairs of words that English has that are more or less synonymous but come from different sources. Typically, the one that we get from Romance (French or Latin) is used in more formal contexts or has a technical sense: here, that word is rotate. The Germanic counterpart (here, turn) is usually used in a more everyday sense.

That works for this pair. The OED has examples like The whole stage rotates concentrically and the kid turns on the spit, where each could be substituted for the other. The definitions are also more or less identical:
Turn (intrans): to move round on an axis or about a centre
Rotate (intrans): to turn about a centre or axis
We actually have the transitive senses here, as there is an implied object the mattress, but the transitive definitions are based on the intransitive ones.

The above discussion implies that it ought to be contradictory to say no-turn; rotate regularly, as how can you rotate something that can't or needn't be turned? Of course they mean it doesn't need to be flipped over, but you should turn it 180 degrees about its vertical axis (is that what I mean?? the thing stays flat, anyway) now and then to make sure it wears evenly. Here's an example of a pair of synonyms getting put to use in a situation where two different words meaning turn are needed. If one were so inclined, one could check whether the specific meanings each has (turn = flip over and rotate = stays flat) were generally consistent or if it's random which is used for which. That'll have to wait for another day, though, unless one of my readers wants to do it.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Do you yourself say themself?

The other day, I used the word themself during a lecture and on the spur of the moment, conducted a brief poll of whether the class would use it or themselves to refer to a singular individual.

Here's an example of themself with a singular referent:


I always use themself because it is singular to match the semantic singular of the referent, and also because I like to upset Word's spellchecker whenever possible. But themselves is plural to match the grammatical plural number of the pronoun: we always use plural agreement on the verb, too, never singular. Spellcheckers disagree with me on the use of themself and give it a red squiggly.

The results from my class were overwhelmingly in favour of themselves, with only one of the group saying they'd use themself, but then English Language and Linguistics students are a fairly linguistically conservative lot (this changes if they grow up to be linguists, but many of them are in it to be writers or teachers). I followed this poll up with a twitter poll:


As you can see, it was pretty equal with themself ahead by a narrow margin. I predict full matching to logical number before much longer. Here's Stan Carey's post which is more detailed on the history and usage patterns of this word.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Mandarins and oranges, tortoises and turtles, rolls and sandwiches

Recently, a story appeared in the news about some plastic-wrapped peeled mandarins for sale in Whole Foods. Whole Foods swiftly removed them and said 'our mistake'.

Here's the tweet that the BBC story used in its report:


Nathalie uses the term 'oranges' to refer to these fruits, which the story refers to as 'mandarins'. In my own native dialect, orange refers to something different from mandarin as well, with oranges being bigger, harder to peel, full of pips and generally a nuisance to eat. Clementines and satsumas are smaller but similar tasting, easier to peel and a much more pleasant experience. Mandarins are something I hardly ever eat, but they have a sharper, almost sour taste which is quite nice but very different again.

Many of the dialect differences I've experienced come from the time when we moved from Shrewsbury to Newcastle when I was 11, and this is one of them, although I don't think it's really a regional difference: I think that it just emerged through mixing with a different peer group. Plenty of my friends did call all these orange citrus fruits oranges, and I assimilated (though I still do make the distinction myself).

This kind of variation in the semantic coverage of a term is one that often causes great debate. A surprising one was tortoise/turtle. To my mind, it's easy: tortoises live on land and turtles live in the water. Americans (I thought) simply call all of them turtles. It turns out that not only is my classification of chelonians not quite accurate, neither is my classification of Americans (they vary! who knew?). I'm yet to work this one out fully, but it sparked a full-on twitter row last time I tried.

The most bitterly-fought battle is probably the one over what different kinds of bread should be called (buns, rolls, baps, etc.) but a related one is what counts as a sandwich. An effect of moving south a couple of years ago was that I would sometimes order a bacon sandwich in a takeaway place and get bacon between two slices of bread. Now stay with me, this is complicated. At home, or in a place where I'm sitting down to order a bacon sandwich, I expect this. But in a takeaway place, I expect it to come in a bun (bap, roll, whatever). In places round here, it seems that sandwich is more restricted in meaning, and covers only those made with sliced bread. You can have a roll, but you have to ask for it specifically. A bacon roll is a taxonomic sister of a bacon sandwich, not a hyponym of it (in other words, bacon rolls and sandwiches are two different examples of bacon-in-bread items, rather than a bacon roll being a sub-type of bacon sandwich).