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.