Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Two wrongs don't make a right

I saw this cartoon tweeted recently:

It's the old chestnut that a double negative actually makes a positive, and if you say the non-standard phrase 'I didn't do nothing' you are in fact saying that you did something. It's used to try to shame or humiliate people into using the Standard English single negative: 'I didn't do anything'.

This is quite silly. Generally, linguists point out that lots and lots of other languages have double negatives as the standard form, and so it's ridiculous to suggest that it's somehow illogical. Italian is yer go-to example here, and for some reason it's always about telephoning: 'non ha telefonato nessuno', or 's/he hasn't telephoned nobody'. Jack Chambers has pointed out that as most non-standard English varieties have double negation (more technically called negative concord), perhaps it is in some way more 'natural' than the artificial standard of single negation that is imposed on us.

But even more than this, it's not even true that a double negative will be interpreted as a positive. It can be, if you give it the right intonation. But it's a very specific intonation with a pretty strong emphasis on the 'nothing'. Without that, there's simply no way that it can possibly mean 'I did something'. Anyone at all would interpret it was meaning what it's meant to mean. They might be a pedant about it and pretend not to understand, but they definitely would. And even in a criminal trial, where testimony has to be unambiguous, I don't think that they would try to hang the crime on the guy for using this syntactic construction.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Coloured people and People of Colour

Might as well join in with the Cumberbashing, as I've got nowt else better to do.

So today Benedict Cumberbatch is all over the news for a relatively innocuous slip up. I say innocuous, because it wasn't as bad as various other much worse things people have been saying recently (and say in real life every day), but it is of course still important to point out when people in the public eye use terminology that is offensive or inappropriate.

In this case, it can't be that offensive because all the newspapers have repeated the word he used: 'coloured', to refer to black actors who aren't getting the jobs they ought to. For context, this was until relatively recently the correct term to use, and grandparents are still apt to use it thinking it's the right word. However, either it was never right and now we know better, or else language has changed, because now it sounds really inappropriate and not at all the right word to use.

But ANYWAY even though clearly Cumberbatch was being a good person and pointing out racial inequality and calling for change, the media has stirred up a great big fuss over it (which I'm now contributing to, sorry) and people have got their knickers in a twist over 'political correctness gone mad'.


Firstly, this is not PC language. Or rather, it is, but only in the sense that PC means 'not being a dick'. It's really basic courtesy to not offend people more than you absolutely have to. If it's a simple matter of using a different word, that's not such a hardship. Secondly, it's not about deliberately finding new PC terms to use to deliberately make bigots' life harder. Language changes. Deal with it.

But I was wondering about the people complaining about overly-sensitive people getting offended by what they perceive as such a little thing. Probably some people were offended, but most do not appear to have been. There are not lots of people on the internet talking about boycotting his films, or even criticising him beyond a gentle reprimand. These people who are whinging about sensitive souls are saying we should consider his intentions, which were clearly good. This is true, we should do, but it doesn't mean that we shouldn't also politely point out that he should not use that language. After all, no matter that the word is not as offensive as 'the n-word'; the unnoticed undermining of a person's identity by the almost unnoticed use of language by lots of generally right-thinking people is as important as the idiots using obviously offensive slurs. If it goes under the radar, it's more likely to go unchallenged and become part of the way we think about things.

Anyway I don't know what my point was, really, beyond a general moan that PC language ought to be a good thing but is only ever used in a negative way.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Dogs shall be carried

I was in London recently, and while I was at King's Cross station I noticed that the escalators, which bear the usual safety warnings, now say among other things that 'Dogs shall be carried'. Maybe they've always said that, but it's more common to see the warning as 'Dogs must be carried'. This has given rise to the well-known joke, also seen in the recent Paddington film, in which a child is late for school and when asked why, he says that the sign said dogs must be carried and it took him ages to find a dog.

So my question is, does using 'shall' instead of 'must' remove this comedy interpretation or improve the sign in any way? No one really uses 'shall' any more, but it indicates future and apparently has some sense of being a command. 'Must' also expresses a command ('deontic necessity' - it can also express 'epistemic necessity' as in 'It must be cold outside'). Does 'shall' seem politer? Does a warning sign need to be polite? Unknown. Some more good suggestions here.

(photo credit not known; it's all over the internet)

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Spelling reformers get wrong end of stick shocker

Crikey. This Guardian article seems designed to elicit spluttering apoplexy. I think the author must be trolling. Nevertheless, I shall content myself here with pointing out a few minor quibbles. Throughout, letters within <pointy brackets> refer to orthography (spelling) and letters within /slash brackets/ refer to sounds and are in the IPA. My statements apply to English only unless otherwise specified. 

Monday, 8 December 2014

Eric Pickles' personal taxpayer has funded a limo... oh wait

I'm aware that it's been far too long since I blogged. Life and work have both been a bit busy; I'll be blogging about our Genius of Language events soon. For now, I thought I'd share this crash blossom with you. This news story has now got a new headline, but when I saw it it looked like this:

Eric Pickles' Taxpayer Funded Limo Bill Passes Major Milestone

A crash blossom is a syntactically ambiguous headline that is either humorous or misleading or simply confusing, usually due to the telegraphic style of headlinese. In this case, it sounds like Eric Pickles has his own personal taxpayer. 

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Money for old rope

Pragmatics showed up again on this week's The Apprentice. (Pragmatics shows up in all communication but you know what I mean.)

The contestants were asked to find a one-metre length of old rope. One team found a length that was 1.7m long, and were given a right good telling-off for it. Now, whether that fits the bill depends on what you want it for. Suppose you want to lower something down a one-metre drop. Then, you might ask if someone has a metre-long rope and if they have a 1.7m-long one, they'll say yes. It's enough that the rope is at least one metre long for it to be true that it is one metre long. Lord Sugar is a literal chappie, though, and if he says one metre he means one metre, no more, no less, and they were not permitted to have it.

We saw this literalness again: the teams had to find an anatomical, full-size skeleton. One team found a full-size paper skeleton, which I thought was pretty clever, but it was also disqualified, on the grounds that it made Lord Sugar look stupid I think. I suppose that a completely flat skeleton is not technically anatomically accurate.

*The title of this post is not accurate either: the team got the old rope for free so no money changed hands.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Subgenres of autogenerated text?


I was checking my spam folder earlier today, and it seems that on the 2nd of November I got a bit of an email flood, all somewhat missing what is presumably their target market:

Seems to be some text scooping going on - note the incorrect spacing and capitalisation of my name. Obviously I didn't open any of these, but gmail shows you a little preview of the text, and it's very odd. Here's a close-up:

Looks automated, as it doesn't make any sense. 'Nodded as you with some clothes', 'Mean anything else that long and ricky', 'Family was still on but as connie'? Strangely compelling. I wondered whether the text might not have been autogenerated from some kind of 'romance' novel because of the names, and certain phrases. You'd be able to check, probably, whether such words and phrases occur disproportionately often in certain genres and in conjunction with each other, and given a large enough sample of emails you could answer that question. I won't, though. I'll just be happy the way I am.