December 29, 2014

Who's bench?

I see pluralized family names misspelled all the time. People just love to put an apostrophe in front of the plural -s: they sign their letters as coming from "the Miller's" rather than "the Millers." It is much rarer, though, to see a family  name misspelled on a donor plaque like this one.

The rules are very simple, actually: An apostrophe is used mainly in one of the following two situations:

  1. reduction: when a letter is omitted (I have not --> I haven't) 
  2. genitive case (possessive -s): when the concept of possession is expressed (Harry --> Harry's bench)

Unlike the possessive -s the plural -s is added without an apostrophe (one cat, two dogs). The only exception (apart from set expressions like o'clock) are words that are a abbreviations or just letters, especially if they are spelled with uppercase letters (she holds two Ph.D.'s, I got four A's), but not using an apostrophe is also acceptable in these cases (she holds two Ph.D.s).

When both concepts are combined (possession and plual), the plural ending is added first. Since the noun then ends on -s (the Millers), the genitive is typically marked with just an apostrophe (the Millers' house), however, adding another -s is also acceptable, resulting in the sequence -s's (the Millers's). What is not acceptable is what you see in the picture above: using just -s to express plurality and possession.

  • Harry Miller has a house --> Harry Miller's house
  • The Miller family has a house (The Millers have a house) -->  the Millers' house OR the Millers's house, NOT the Miller's house
Final note: When the plural of a noun does not end on an -s (children), the genitive -s is added in the same manner as in the singular (the children's house). Oh, and while we're at it, the genitive interrogative pronoun is spelled whose, never who's (whose house). Who's is a contracted form (who is), not a genitive.

For more fun with apostrophes, see the blog Apostrophe Abuse.

December 20, 2014

December 10, 2014

Linguistic-y holiday gifts

I was asked by a student if I had any recommendations for linguistic-y holiday gifts. Here they are:

1. For your English major friends who would never knowingly split an infinitive:

The cause of most bad writing, Pinker thinks, is not laziness or sloppiness or overexposure to the Internet and video games, but what he calls the curse of knowledge: the writer’s inability to put himself in the reader’s shoes or to imagine that the reader might not know all that the writer knows — the jargon, the shorthand, the slang, the received wisdom.” (The New York Times)

2. For your linguist friends who recently had a baby: 

Michael Bernstein: An ABC for Baby Linguists. Cascadilla Press.

(I couldn't find a good review of the book, but when I showed it in class today, there was a lot of "ooh"-ing and "aah"-ing. I haven't managed to part with my copy yet.)

Throw in two tickets to "Still Alice," a movie starring Julianne Moore as a linguistics professor who is experiencing the onset of Alzheimer's Disease, and your friends will be even more delighted. Promise to babysit their little one while they enjoy their night out, and they will love you forever.

3. For your foodie friends who occasionally read Nate Silver:

Dan Jurafsky: The Language of Food. Norton.


In his hugely entertaining book..  Jurafsky explains that every increase of one letter in the average length of words describing a dish is associated with an increase of 69 cents (42p) in the price of that dish. In a study of 6,500 menus, Jurafsky found that the words "exotic" and "spices" also raise the price of a dish. But "linguistic fillers" like "mouth-watering", "sublime" and "crispy", tend to feature more often on cheap menus. "At the expensive restaurant, you're supposed to assume that the crispy food will be crispy," Jurafsky said in a telephone interview. "The cheaper restaurants are a little worried that you might not know. It's a kind of status anxiety." (The Independent)

4. For your parents, who still wonder what exactly it is that linguists are doing:

Dictionary of American Regional English digital subscription (currently on sale for $75/year).

The Dictionary of American Regional English, which for the last 30 years has been the authoritative source on American colloquialisms and local slang, is now online. As a result, you don’t need to consult the five-volume print edition to drop some fresh folk sayings at parties… The website features a map that lets you browse entries by state (Massachusetts’ page features ‘two-toilet Irish,’ ‘pinkletink’—a young frog on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket—and ‘joe flogger’) and original audio recordings, thick with twang and drawl, made during the initial round of data collection in the late 1960s.” (Boston Globe)
If your parents live in Wisconsin, also get them this book, edited by three of my esteemed colleagues:

Thomas Purnell, Eric Raimy, and Joe Salmons: Wisconsin Talk. Linguistic Diversity in the Badger State. Univ. of Wisconsin Press.

Beginning with a helpful crash course in linguistics terminology, this collection of essays explores Wisconsin-specific words, local linguistic quirks and the state's Hmong- and Spanish-language groups. (The Isthmus)

For dog-related gifts, consider a portrait by the talented Adriana Willsie. For everyone else, there are caramels.

November 14, 2014

My kind of senior portrait

My dog B., also known as 'Schnauf," 14 years old. Painting by Adriana Willsie.

October 05, 2014

Is Pluto is getting unplutoed?

8 years ago, Pluto was demoted to "dwarf planet." The American Dialect Society even voted the participle "plutoed" as the 2006 word of the year.

Unfortunately, the expression didn't really catch on. And now its basis is being challenged. Members of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics presented three different viewpoints to the public and the audience could vote on which viewpoint they liked best. The result? Pluto should be called a planet, since "a planet is a culturally defined word."
Eight years later, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics decided to revisit the question of "what is a planet?" On September 18th, we hosted a debate among three leading experts in planetary science, each of whom presented their case as to what a planet is or isn't. The goal: to find a definition that the eager public audience could agree on! Science historian Dr. Owen Gingerich, who chaired the IAU planet definition committee, presented the historical viewpoint. Dr. Gareth Williams, associate director of the Minor Planet Center, presented the IAU's viewpoint. And Dr. Dimitar Sasselov, director of the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative, presented the exoplanet scientist's viewpoint. Gingerich argued that "a planet is a culturally defined word that changes over time," and that Pluto is a planet. Williams defended the IAU definition, which declares that Pluto is not a planet. And Sasselov defined a planet as "the smallest spherical lump of matter that formed around stars or stellar remnants," which means Pluto is a planet. After these experts made their best case, the audience got to vote on what a planet is or isn't and whether Pluto is in or out. The results are in, with no hanging chads in sight. According to the audience, Sasselov's definition won the day, and Pluto IS a planet.
Alas, I have my doubts that a public vote will move the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to reconsider its decision that Pluto not be considered a planet. Their introducing the term "dwarf planet" (which is to be considered distinct from, not a subclass of "planet") doesn't exactly indicate that cultural awareness of linguistic terms is something they care about a lot.

October 03, 2014

Everything sells better with a dog...

...especially as we get closer to the holiday season.

However, not many companies are as forward about this strategy as J. Crew:

April 20, 2014

"First Position" -- Where are they now?

This post has got nothing to do with language or dogs. But since the post I wrote about the Spellbound kids ("Where are they now?") is the most popular post on this blog, I thought I might do the same for the kids from the 2011 ballet documentary "First Position," which shares many of the characteristics of Spellbound.

Of the six dancers portrayed in the documentary, 3 (Michaela DePrince, Joan Sebastian Zamora, Rebecca Houseknecht) were old enough to be awarded a scholarship with a prestigious ballet school, the dream prize of every dancer in the competition. 2 of them are still professional dancers.

Michaela DePrince, the dancer from Sierra Leone with the poignant life story, is probably the most established of the dancers. In the 2010 YAGP competition, she won a scholarship with American Ballet Theatre and afterwards received offers from both ABT and the Dance Theatre of Harlem for the 2012-13 season. She picked the latter and had her professional debut in 2012. She became known to a wide audience through a guest appearance in the TV show Dancing with the Stars. According to Wikipedia, she joined the Junior Company Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam in 2013. In 2014 she moved to the regular company. She also has her own website. And did you know that she used to be a competitive swimmer? Read an interview (and see beautiful pictures) with her here.
Edited to add (Oct. 2014): Her biography, Taking Flight, is coming out this month.
Edited to add (Nov. 2014): NY Times review of 'Taking Flight' here. There is also a version of this book for beginning readers, Ballerina Dreams. I will give both books as Christmas gifts this year, also the 2015 "Dancers among us" calendar, which has a picture of Michaela on the title page.

Joan  Sebastian Zamora, from Colombia, whose picture is on the cover of the First Position DVD, won a scholarship with the School of the Royal Ballet in London and joined the English National Ballet, Britain's foremost touring dance company, in 2013.
See a short video of his recent work here.
Edited to add: In 2015, Joan joined Joffrey Ballet in Chicago.

Rebecca Houseknecht, the all-American princess, did not win a prize at the YAGP, but she was offered a position with Washington Ballet's Studio Company shortly after the competition (the invitation came from one of the judges), which she happily accepted. However, she found that she "didn't like having to dance for my job, as weird as it sounds." After a year, she left the company. According to this article in the Washington Post, she is now studying speech pathology at Towson University, where she also joined the dance squad.

The three younger dancers went on to compete at the YAGP again -- and won awards again. As of 2013, they are still too young to be members of a professional company, but for at least two of them, dancing still pretty much seems to be their career destination.

Miko Fogarty, the determined sister of a less determined brother (and daughter of a very determined mother), has quite a media presence, see her tweets here and her YouTube videos here . (There's quite a bit of fan art about her. ) In 2012, ABC Nightline reported on her third YAGP and in 2013 she won an award in the prestigious Prix de Lausanne and was awarded full scholarships from ballet schools in the US and overseas. In 2013, she was training with the Indiana Ballet Conservatory and with Kaoru Jinushi in Japan. Edited to add: In 2015, Miko joined the Birmingham Royal Ballet as an artist on a one-year contract.

Aran Bell, the gravity-defying 11-year old from Italy, was the winner of the Hope Award in the 2010 YAGP competition (the award for children who are too young to compete for the Grand Prix). A year later, he won the Junior Grand Prix.  He has attended prestigious summer programs and festivals. In 2013, at the age of 15, he performed as part of the dance troupe Intermezzo in New York.According to one source, he has standing offers from four world-class ballet schools: Paris Opera, Royal Ballet, Stuttgart Ballet, and ABT's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. When will he accept one of them?
Edited to add (Sep. 2014): Aran Bell is now dancing with ABT's studio company, which trains young dancers that are likely to become part of ABT.

Gaya Bommer Yemini, the spirited comtemporary dancer from Israel (who bonded with Aran Bell), went on to win the first prize in the contemporary category at the 2011 YAGP. In 2012-13 she was a scholarship student at the Princess Grace Academy in Monaco. Here's a picture of her from the Academy's Facebook page (dated Oct. 2013 and, sweetly, with a comment by Aran Bell):

April 13, 2014

"for moral behaviors, nouns work better than verbs"

What do nouns and verbs have got to do with "Raising a Moral Child" (the title of an op-ed piece in the Times today)? This: Sometimes, it's the right thing to praise behavior in a child, i.e. an action ("I loved it that you shared your toy"), sometimes it's more effective to praise the child, i.e. a character trait ("I love it that you are a generous person").
Many parents believe it’s important to compliment the behavior, not the child — that way, the child learns to repeat the behavior. Indeed, I know one couple who are careful to say, “That was such a helpful thing to do,” instead of, “You’re a helpful person.” But is that the right approach? In a clever experiment, the researchers Joan E. Grusec and Erica Redler set out to investigate what happens when we commend generous behavior versus generous character. After 7- and 8-year-olds won marbles and donated some to poor children, the experimenter remarked, “Gee, you shared quite a bit.” The researchers randomly assigned the children to receive different types of praise. For some of the children, they praised the action: “It was good that you gave some of your marbles to those poor children. Yes, that was a nice and helpful thing to do.” For others, they praised the character behind the action: “I guess you’re the kind of person who likes to help others whenever you can. Yes, you are a very nice and helpful person.” A couple of weeks later, when faced with more opportunities to give and share, the children were much more generous after their character had been praised than after their actions had been. Praising their character helped them internalize it as part of their identities. The children learned who they were from observing their own actions: I am a helpful person. This dovetails with new research led by the psychologist Christopher J. Bryan, who finds that for moral behaviors, nouns work better than verbsTo get 3- to 6-year-olds to help with a task, rather than inviting them “to help,” it was 22 to 29 percent more effective to encourage them to “be a helper.” Cheating was cut in half when instead of, “Please don’t cheat,” participants were told, “Please don’t be a cheater.” When our actions become a reflection of our character, we lean more heavily toward the moral and generous choices. Over time it can become part of us.
Modelling good behavior also helps. No verbs or nouns needed.
Children learn generosity not by listening to what their role models say, but by observing what they do.

April 08, 2014

The benefits of dog ownership -- let me count the ways

NY Times science columnist Jane Brody got herself a dog -- and finds that she is a happier, more connected person:
"there is no question that I am thrilled by his antics, endearing personality, unconditional love (even when I yell no), and the many connections he’s fostered with both acquaintances and strangers."
Not exactly news for dog owners, but perhaps helpful for those on the fence.

March 14, 2014

Calling all Scrabblers

In my classes, I discuss the question "What is a word?" from a theoretical perspective. We have lively discussions, but they are never really passionate. If you want heated discussions about whether or not a squence of sounds or letters is a word, you have to talk to Scrabblers (I don't play Scrabble).

For the first time since 2005, Merriam Webster is updating its official Scrabble players dictionary. What a game changer that will be! There will potentially be thousands of additions to the dictionary and one of these words will be selected by Scrabble players. Fans can nominate a word hereon the Hasbro Facebook page..

Among the suggestions: embiggen, cromulent, emotypo (mistyped emoticon), onesie, Zen ("10 points from Z's never hurt"), ew, Qwirkle (the game), texting, bling, lifehack, bromance, injera (the bread), yolo (the acronym), Jedi, unstaged, emo, photobomb, amazeballs, nowish, craycray...

March 03, 2014

The wickedly talented Adele Dazeem

I don't believe in Freudian slips. Usually, speech errors are either retrieval problems (one aims at "knife" and out comes "fork," a word that often collocates with the target word) or indicators of the speech planning process (one aims at saying "silence is golden" and out comes "gilence is solden"), but what on Earth was going on when John Travolta introduced performer Idina Menzel as "Adele
Dazeem" at the Oscars?

You can travoltify your own name with the Adele Dazeem name generator provided by Slate Magazine.

And you can listen to Idina Menzel's performance here:

January 23, 2014

My WOTY (Word of the Year) vote: doxx

So, I have been thinking about what would have been my WOTY (word of the year) choice. I felt rather meh about the ADS choice, "because," because it is neither a word nor particularly zeitgeisty.
Selfie" (which I wrote about here) seems a better choice, but it is also a tad trivial. But when I read the cover story in the New York Times Magazine this weekend ("The Online Avengers: Are antibullying activists the saviors of the Internet — or just a different kind of curse?"), there it was: my WOTY, the verb "to doxx." You've never heard of doxxing? Here's what it means:
Expose someone's true identity, usually a name or address. It's one of the scummiest things someone can do on the internet. (Urban Dictionary)
The article is about "OpAntiBully," a group of activists who consider themselves a resource for victims of bullying. Their activism reaches from offering informal counseling to victims to exposing the identity of the supposed perpetrators on the Internet. From the article:
This kind of outing, known as doxxing, involves scouring the Internet for personal data (or documents, the source of the word “doxx”) — like a person’s name, address, occupation, Twitter or Facebook profile — and then publicly linking that information to the perpetrator’s transgression. The process can be as simple as following a trail the target has left behind or it can involve tricking someone into revealing the password to a personal account or hacking into a website to obtain private information.
Not every case of doxxing involves public shaming (for example, there was nothing particularly shameful about Michelle Obama's credit card statements, which got posted online), but the ones they do seem rather zeitgeisty to me.

Edited to add: Can I change my mind to binge-watch?

January 14, 2014

"You're supes gorge."

Looking for cool valentines? Old school letterpress meets new school (clipped) adjectives: The result is totally adorbs. (Not sure I would actually use double clipping, as pictured.)

Get them from farewellpaperie.

January 05, 2014

Because: Linguists

The American Dialect Society chose "because" or rather the elliptic construction "because + N/A" (as in "He failed the test, because: grammar") as its Word of the Year 2013.

“This past year, the very old word because exploded with new grammatical possibilities in informal online use,” Zimmer [=linguist Ben Zimmer, chair of the ADS New Words Committee] said. “No longer does because have to be followed by of or a full clause. Now one often sees tersely worded rationales like ‘because science’ or ‘because reasons.’ You might not go to a party ‘because tired.’ As one supporter put it, because should be Word of the Year ‘because useful!’”
I'm feeling rather "meh" about this choice. On the one hand, I understand that linguists are excited about new constructions, especially those that seem to challenge linguistic norms, on the other hand, I think this choice is stretching the meaning of the word "word" (as in Word of the Year) quite far. I think I would rather have voted for "slash," as in "come and visit slash stay," because I think it's a great example of a linguistic innovation that started in written language and then found its way into spoken language (even if there isn't anything particularly 2013 about it). Also, new conjunctions don't exactly emerge every day (nor do new prepositions, granted, but "because" is not a new preposition, see below).

The new because construction has received quite a lot of attention in the media this year, see, for example, this recent article in the Atlantic, which claims that "because" has become a preposition. Alas, this doesn't seem to be true. On the one hand, "because" has been a preposition for some time, albeit one that has to be followed by a prepositional phrase ("because of the weather"), rather than a simple noun phrase (*"because the weather"). [I just saw that Geoffrey Pullum makes the same argument on Language Log.]

On the other hand, "because" in this new construction doesn't seem to behave like a preposition at all. First, it is typically NOT followed by a noun phrase (the hallmark behavior of a preposition) -- "He couldn't come because the weather" sounds quite awful, which is why, as early as July 2012, the construction was labeled "because NOUN" on Language Log. However, that label may be too restrictive as well. There are examples in which "because" is followed by an adjective ("because..tired") or by an interjection ("I hate shaving because...ouch"), examples taken from Language Log. Second, it seems that the construction is not limited to "because." When I discussed it in class with my students, quite a few contributed examples that included "but" instead of "because." 

So, instead of a new preposition we may have a new construction on our hands, which is just as exciting (if not more exciting), but does it give us a Word of the Year? I don't know.

In any case, it would help to get a more solid data base of acceptable uses of because NOUN. You can contribute by taking this survey created by linguist Laura Bailey.

*On Language Log, one user points out that in German, the equivalent of "because," "weil," can easily be used in this way ("Ich hasse rasieren, weil schmerzhaft" -- I hate shaving, because painful), while bare nouns seem to be awkward.