Tuesday, 28 June 2016

English Grammar Day

I seem to do nothing but livetweet linguistics events these days. Here's the tweeting from the English Grammar Day at the British Library yesterday, organised by UCL.

Monday, 27 June 2016

ELL research day 2016

We held our annual department research day on Thursday, and I storified the livetweeting (as usual, mostly from me and Christina):

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Lies and lying by implication

The UK voted (by a narrow majority) to leave the EU this week. I am furious about this and terrified about what it says about us as a country and what it means for our future, both as a country and for me personally. Nevertheless, life goes on, so here's an EU referendum-themed blog post on lies and lying by implicature (meaning beyond what is said).

A lot of the debate raged around the figure of £350million, which was claimed by the Leave campaign to be the weekly amount the UK spends on the EU. This figure is itself not actually accurate, and it was quoted even more inaccurately (I heard it mentioned as the daily amount, for instance), but the main deception here was the idea that this £350million a week would be spent on the NHS if we voted to leave the EU. Immediately after the result was announced, Nigel Farage said that this promise would not be kept and that if you voted for Leave on that basis it was 'a mistake'. This was no surprise to those of us who knew that there was no £350million a week, or to people like me who assume that Farage is lying every time he says anything, but a large proportion of the 17million Leave voters did apparently believe this promise from a politician with no ability to enact anything.

After the result and subsequent backtracking, people said things like 'no one ever promised that £350million would be spent on the NHS'. Other people responded like this:

This makes that point that they did indeed say that they would do exactly this. Here, it's absolutely impossible for it to be read any other way:


Pronouns are notoriously slippery little buggers and their meaning is entirely context dependent. They refer back to something in the discourse, and what that referent is depends partly on some syntactic constraints but mostly on whatever is the most recent possible referent. Here, it's more or less impossible to interpret 'it' as referring to anything other than the £350million:


(It could do, if that ellipsis included some other referent. Imagine: 'Every week we send £350m to Brussels. I only get £5 pocket money per week, but I would spend it on the NHS.')

Here, the Leavers have some wriggle room: nowhere do they actually state they'll spend the £350m on the NHS:

They merely make the point that we spend £350million on the EU, and that we should spend some unspecified amount on the NHS instead. If we put an extra fiver into the NHS, that would technically be fulfilling this. Not only that, they don't even promise to do it (which they can't anyway): they say Let's, which is a suggestion (a 'hortative'). A hortative has no truth conditions, which means it can't be true or false, and it certainly isn't equivalent in truth conditions to 'We will spend £350million a week on the NHS'.

However, this is a sticky legalese way of getting out of it. If you write two sentences on the side of your battle bus (actually, they're one sentence, but an ungrammatical one - they need some punctuation in there), it's entirely reasonable for people to assume that they're related. It would be disingenuous and misleading to say that the 'fund' in the second clause does not have any relation to the '£350million' in the first, and I would consider that lying by implicature.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Warning: extra care has been taken

Asda's smoked salmon trimmings have this warning on the packet:
Warning: Extra care has been taken to remove bones, although some may remain. 
If you scroll down a bit at the link, you can see it there. For most of the time it took me to make smoked salmon crostini this morning, I was trying to work out why I didn't like this phrasing. Eventually, I worked it out, and I think it's a real-life example of the misunderstanding that conjunctions and subordination work in different ways that I'm constantly correcting in my students' work.

Our online marking software allows you to create comments that you can use whenever you need them. Here's the one I created for this:
Whereas: introduces a subordinate clause (usually before the main clause). It is not followed by a comma, but the clause it introduces is. It therefore looks like this, where X and Y are complete sentences:
1. Whereas X, Y.
2. X, whereas Y.
And it does not look like this:
3. X. Whereas Y.
Although: works exactly like 'whereas'.
However: Unlike 'whereas' or 'although', when followed by a comma, it can introduce a sentence. Also unlike them, it cannot join two sentences unless you also use a semi-colon. If you're trying to do this with 'however', you probably want 'but'.
It looks like this:
1. X. However, Y.
2. X; however, Y. [but I would recommend 'X but Y' instead]
It does NOT look like this:
3. X, however Y.
4. X however, Y.
Therefore: works exactly like 'however'.
The substitution of however for but is the one that annoys me the most: it's pure 'big word syndrome', and sounds clunky.

Back to the salmon, they've used although when but would have been better. That would have given them the precise meaning they wanted to convey, namely that even though they've been totally diligent, there might even so be some bones in the salmon. That would work because but coordinates two clauses, so neither clause 1 (extra care has been taken to remove bones) nor clause 2 (some may remain) has more importance than the other and the whole of clause 1 and clause 2 together is interpreted as the warning.

The problem with although here is that it subordinates the clause that it introduces. In their formulation that's clause 2 (some may remain). This clause, because it's subordinated, can't be the main bit of that sentence and therefore can't be the warning. Only the main clause can be the warning, and the main clause is the one that's not subordinated, namely extra care has been taken to remove bones. They're warning me that they've taken extra care to remove bones, and as some extra information they note that some may remain. That's not right! If they really wanted to use although, they could have: they just need to make the warning be the main clause and although subordinate the real extra information (their claim of diligence):
[Although extra care has been taken to remove bones,] some may remain.  

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Doing Public Linguistics

I was at the brilliant 'Doing Public Linguistics' symposium yesterday, organised by Lynne Murphy at the University of Sussex (thanks again, Lynne!). There was an absolute ton of livetweeting, partly because some very active twitterers were in attendance including Superlinguo's Lauren, who I was so excited to meet irl for the first time. I met some other people who I previously only knew through twitter as well, and some new people, and plenty of old friends too. The talks were excellent and the livetweeting added an extra dimension of discussion to the day, so thanks to all who joined in. Here's the full set of tweets, as they appeared at the time.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Using Twitter for linguistic research: Benefits and difficulties

We held our workshop on twitter yesterday (funded by the Faculty of Humanities and the Centre for Language and Linguistics). It was great! All the talks were really interesting and we all learnt some cool things. Here's a Storified version of the livetweeting, and you can find slides and summaries of the talks on our website once we've got them (give us a bit of time).

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

The ones I could see



I'm reading The City and the City by China Mi√©ville at the moment. I'm only about 60 pages in but I already really like it, partly for its clever ideas which are currently just emerging, but also for its languages. Mi√©ville has a linguistics background and this shows in the plot of some books (Embassytown, for example) and the writing in all of them: he's creative and clever and does really unusual things with words. Not that you need to have a linguistics background to be able to do that, but it seems like he really knows what he's doing with language. I don't know, I know nothing about literature, so I can only waffle in an uninformed way on that point. But his sentence structure is so clever sometimes, and in this book the characters are from somewhere in central Europe, so the names are all made up but completely believable, and things like that. I think there was even some zeugma at one point and I really love zeugma. 

[Very slight spoilers follow, maybe? Not sure, I haven't read enough of it myself to know.] 

One thing that made me stop and admire it today was a clever use of could. There are parts of the city that the main character can't see. The sentence that caught my eye was describing some railway arches. He says (my bolding):
Not all of them were foreign at their bases. The ones I could see contained little shops and squats decorated in art graffiti.
At this point in the story, the reader doesn't know what the concept is here. Is it that he was able to see the arches, or that he was permitted to see them? This latter idea is what other events have hinted towards, but so far it could be either. 

This is because can and could (present and past tense respectively) can mean two different things. The first meaning, where he was able to see the arches, illustrates logical modality, or the possibility of him seeing them. The second, where he was permitted to see them, illustrates deontic modality: what is possible within the rules. This is an absolutely lovely use of this ambiguity which allows him not to reveal too much of this conceptual device this early in the story. I'm pretty sure he knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote it that way. 

This ambiguity is also, by the way, why you get smartarses responding to a question like 'Can I go to the toilet?' with 'I don't know, can you?'.