Thursday, 2 July 2015

Some cheeky findings

[This relates to my recent post about 'cheeky Nando's'. If you want to take the survey, do so here. We'd be really grateful!]

Do you call a misbehaving child a cheeky monkey? Do you ever go for a cheeky beer after work? Would you take your Significant Other out for a cheeky Valentine's Day dinner at a nice Italian restaurant? Chances are you said no to the last question, not because you wouldn't make such a romantic gesture, but because cheeky doesn't sound right in that sentence. What's more, if you're from the United States, you probably aren't as keen on the word cheeky in the first place. At least that’s what we thought when the cheeky Nando’s meme went viral a few weeks ago. 

The cheeky Nando’s meme  involved British internet users coming up with ever more incomprehensible (to Americans) explanations of what a cheeky Nando's means. But how come Americans don't know what it means? And, actually, what does it mean? We tried to find out by sciencing.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Gove's random writing style rules

Michael Gove has been the subject of this blog in the past. These days, he's no longer Education bod and is now Lord Chancellor, if you can believe that. Because this job apparently doesn't involve much actual work, he's got a lot of time on his hands and is spending it complaining about the way people write and making lists of things his people should do or not do when they respond to letters.

His list of things is a mixture of surprisingly sensible advice on general style (don't be repetitive, don't be pompous, be nice and thank people for their letters), content (refer to the inherited economic situation at every opportunity) and really random concerns about punctuation and grammar.

He also seems to have been influenced by Strunk and White, as his advice also includes 'if in doubt, cut it out' (which is good advice if you are writing formal documents), and 'in letters, adjectives add little, adverbs even less'. (There is a point here, although it cannot be taken too literally, as 'little', 'even' and 'less' are all adjectives or adverbs.)

According to the Independent article I linked above, his 'rules' include the following:

Use active voice and present tense. 
This is a well-worn rule. It's good advice in some ways, because people do sometimes use passive sentences to 'pad out' their writing, but there's so much nonsense written about it and people are so demonstrably unable to tell what's active and passive anyway (scroll down to section 3 at that link for examples), it's not actually very helpful advice.
Don't use 'impact' as a verb.
Lots of people have peeves about words that were originally nouns being used as verbs. That's fine. It's illogical, because so many of our verbs were originally nouns it seems silly to pick out just one or two, but whatever. I think it's because this particular one is perceived as a 'management-speak' buzzword, which is indeed annoying.
Don't use contractions.
Fair enough. Formal writing does usually avoid contractions (so 'don't' should be 'do not', for example). I used to enforce this quite strictly in student essays, but these days I let it go, as I recently noted, because I'm on a mission to discourage the lumpen, clumsy, underconfident writing style I see too much of. I don't know what kind of letters these civil servants write; if it's very formal then they should follow Gove's rule, but if they want to adopt the 'warm tone' he elsewhere encourages, I'd use contractions.
While 'best-placed' and 'high-quality' are joined with a dash, very few others are. 
Bit of a weird thing to say. There are well-established rules about when you use a hyphen. There are some that are a matter of preference, such as with prefixes (so some newspapers prefer to hyphenate 're-think' while others prefer 'rethink'), and these are (or should be) flexible enough to allow for violations in cases of potential ambiguity. If we turn to examples of the type Gove cites, there is a rule: 'best-placed' and 'high-quality' are spelt with a hyphen if they are used attributively (which basically means before a noun, like I used 'well-established' just now) and not if they are used predicatively (which basically means after a verb like 'to be', as in 'the rules are well established'). You would not write 'the food is very high-quality', for instance. So it's daft to pick out two random examples and incorrectly state that they always have a hyphen and incorrectly state that others don't, when you could just follow the correct way we're all already doing it. But hey - what do I know.
Don't use 'unnecessary' capitalisations.
Agree. Some people like to use capitals to make words seem more important, I think. Capitalisation rules are pretty arbitrary (compare English with German, which capitalises nouns) and it has changed even since I was at school (when I was taught to capitalise seasons), but there are rules and not following them makes you look like you don't know them.
Replace 'ensure' with 'make sure'.
OK. Random, but I guess it seems simpler.
Don't start a sentence with 'however'. 
As I recently wrote, 'however' is tricky. Sometimes people introduce a silly rule in order to rule out a genuinely incorrect usage without having to explain its complexity, but in the process rule out a lot of other correct usages. 'Don't end a sentence with a preposition' used to be one of these. I have a strong suspicion that the common ban on first person pronouns in essays is one too - if students can't write 'I', they can't write stupid waffly phrases like 'I believe that'. Likewise, banning sentence-initial 'however' would also rule out some incorrect used of 'however'. But it would not catch those I complained about in my post linked above, and it would rule out a lot of perfectly fine ones. So I think this another Strunk & White rule, who apparently allow uses like 'However much you complain, I'm not going to stop doing it' but dislike it when it's used with a comma: 'However, we were unable to change her habits'. This is silly, out-of-date advice which will lead to old-fashioned, distant writing. I'm saying nothing about whether that says anything about Gove's character.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Overly specific signage

It's been a while since I mocked some signage. Let's do that today. Sorry about the poor quality photo:

'Please do not store items under these stairs for fire safety reasons'
You can store items under these stairs for other reasons though.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Monday, 8 June 2015

Undergraduate conference 2015

Our undergraduates had their conference on Thursday last week. Only a few students were able to present this year, but they did some excellent work and it was a really nice day. Here's a Storify of the tweets from the day (mostly by me, but not all).

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

A cheeky survey

You may have noticed the 'cheeky nandos' meme that was travelling the internet recently.

Me and my colleague Mercedes Durham at Cardiff University are interested in how people do (or don't) use 'cheeky'. If you want, you could help us out by completing our survey.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Metaphysicians and metaphysicists

I spent a couple of days this week at a philosophy conference. It was really interesting, especially as some of the talks were about the philosophy of language. On the first evening, I went to the pub with some of the philosophers and we talked about things I didn't understand all night. One of those things was metaphysics, which I had of course heard of, but didn't know what it was. We talked about it and its relation to physics, and I think I kind of now know vaguely what sort of a thing it is.

At some point I used the word 'metaphysicist' to describe someone who studies metaphysics, and was told that it is actually 'metaphysician'. This surprised me, because I formed the word without really thinking about it (which indicates that the word-formation process I used is highly productive), but probably on the basis of 'physicist' - someone who studies physics. 'Physician' is a word as well, of course, but it means basically the same as 'doctor'. The suffixes -ian and -ist are both used to form nouns meaning 'someone who does X'. Someone on Stack Exchange suggests -ian is more general and -ist more specialist, and this article by Laurie Bauer notes that -ician gained a 'trivialising' effect at some point around a century ago (though it's since lost that negative connotation).

I suspect it might be an effort on the part of metaphysicians to distance themselves from physicists. Or maybe there are people who, like me, enjoy being contrary and using the other one (I frequently refer to myself as a linguistician).