Likert and .gif

On my favourite podcast recently the host Steve Novella picked up another hosts  pronunciation of ‘often’. He noted that the ‘t’ should be silent and strictly speaking he’s correct. ‘Often’ is a funny word as the t fell out of use but then made a come back probably due to an increase in literate people who could see the t and assume it had to be said. 

Another contentious pronunciation also mentioned on the SGU is the word ‘nuclear‘. Many Americans seem to go crazy if you get this ‘wrong’ but if I’m honest, I’m not really sure which way is right. I think I say both. 

All of this got me thinking more about description versus prescription. People will often say authoritatively that ‘this is the correct pronunciation’ and variants are laughable or stupid but where does that authority come from? Is it the same authority that tells us not to use passives or that split infinitives are inelegant? I imagine it is, but it seems to me whereas people are willing, when it comes to grammar rules, to swim against the tide of ‘usage’ and proclaim that they are right and that (for example -the word ‘hopefully‘) everyone else is wrong, necks are less likely to be stuck out where pronunciation is concerned. 

Sure there are the odd few who will demand foreign words are pronounced in a suitably foreign way but the ‘latte’ crowd are almost always inconsistent and limited to prestigious European languages. Requesting authentic pronunciations of words would be a hell of a task for a language like English.

So if people like to use language carefully why are the words ‘gif’ and ‘likert’ mispronounced by almost everyone and why is almost no one demanding their correction? If we want authoritative pronunciations we can go no better than to talk to the actually creators of these terms. In the case of ‘.gif’ the guy who invented ‘.gifs’ has said categorically that he intended it to be pronounced ‘jif’ as in ‘see you in a jiffy’. Even more compelling the creator of the Likert scale, was a guy called Rensis Likert. His name is categorically pronounced ‘lick-ert’. It’s his name, you can’t really argue with that.

If you are a hardcore prescriptivist, I hope you’ll pronounce these words ‘properly’ from now on. Don’t worry that no one understands you -you’ll be in the right, and that’s all that matters.

My final post on language articles in newspapers (probably)

I’ve written a few posts about the (mis)treatment of linguistics and language in many newspaper articles. In short, it’s bad. But then what should we expect? Journalism is largely page filling these day (for more about churnalism read this excellent book) So I’ve decided this is my last article about bad linguistic journalism. Whatever I write and no matter how much evidence can be brought to bear on these kinds of wrong-headed articles, history shows that they will continue to proliferate. However, as I will hopefully show, the tide of history is almost always on the side of usage.
 
The author of the today’s article “There are lots of bacteria, but there is only one genetic codeDr Dixon, is a scientist and unsurprisingly also an editor (like grammargirl). Many journalists have a seemingly fetishistic obsession with prescriptivism regardless of  the mountain of evidence against it. An example from an earlier post is Bill Bryson describing all the reasons why “whom” could be allowed to die a natural death but then stating “I, for one, would not like to see it go”.  This is pretty much the way with many writers. Scientists who would question almost any claim about their field and demand evidence have seemingly no problem swallowing linguistic rules without the slightest curiosity as to their validity. 
 
Ironically, Dixon penned an piece complaining about the press’ lousy coverage of science, yet he, -a non-linguist, has set himself up as an arbiter of proper language usage. And what particular idiosyncrasies does he have a problem with? Before I dissect the article in detail I would quickly like to go over the mistaken argument from linguistic regularity which, in short, is the assumption that languages are regular and logical. Like organisms, languages evolve and as with organisms this doesn’t lead to perfectly functioning “designed” languages but rather languages with a lot of inherent waste.
 
In animals, an example Dixon might understand is the recurrent laryngeal nerve. the nerve especially in animals like giraffes is massively wasteful looping down then back up the neck when in reality, it only needs to travel a few inches. This is the result of evolution applying an “if it aint broke” approach.  Languages too have massive amounts of waste because they weren’t designed either, though people like Dixon act as if they were. Phrases like “the reason why“, “the end result” and “over-exaggerate” are redundant. So are things like the third person ‘s’ on verbs, the word “whom” the word “fewer“, the bizarre conjugations of the “be” verb and “do support” which only a handful of languages possess at all. As this chaos swirls around them the Dixons of this world accept 95% of the disorder but vehemently oppose the last 5% like victims of the titanic complaining that their shoes are getting wet.

So let’s examine the article in a little more detail.

She’s developed something called anorexia.”

“I was reading about that in the newspaper. It’s quite serious, isn’t it?”

“Yes, and more young women are getting anorexia these days.”

A simple enough conversation. What the speakers did not realise is that they were not talking about anorexia at all. Anorexia means loss of appetite. That is its definition in both medical and general dictionaries. There is, however, also a condition called anorexia nervosa – a psychological illness, commonest among female adolescents, in people who deliberately starve or use other methods, such as vomiting, to lose weight. But relatively suddenly, anorexia has lost its original meaning. In the media and in everyday conversation, anorexia now means anorexia nervosa


This reminds me of “Frankenstein’s monster” bores who insist on pedantically telling everyone and anyone who’ll listen that Frankenstein is not the monster! anorexia is understood by most speakers as shorthand for anorexia nervosa as “Frankenstein” is for his monster. Who cares about this? The good doctor apparently. He goes on:

Language and the connotations of words and expressions evolve over time – helpfully so, when new distinctions and subtleties arise. But meanings also change simply as a result of ignorance or error. So when, some years ago, more and more people began to say “disinterested” when they meant “uninterested”, the misuse gradually became a normal meaning of that word

Dixon thus is quite happy for language to change, -so long as it changes in ways he likes. The short sighted nature of his rant can be illustrated be looking at some of the words he uses. “error” for example means to “to wander” originally, the misuse seems to have gradually become the normal meaning. More interesting is that Dixon is actually wrong as his potted history falls a little short of the truth. Etymologically speaking:

Disinterested and uninterested share a confused and confusing history. Disinterested was originally used to mean “not interested, indifferent”; uninterested in its earliest use meant “impartial.” By various developmental twists, disinterested is now used in both senses. Uninterested is used mainly in the sense “not interested, indifferent.” It is occasionally used to mean “not having a personal or property interest.”


So rather than switching, it’s perhaps more accurate to say that they switched back to their original meanings. But don’t let facts get in the way of a good old language rant Doc!

What seems to be happening today is that such shifts are occurring more and more quickly. Consider the word “issue”. I heard a cricket commentator saying that an Indian batsman was “having issues with” an opponent’s spin bowling. As recently as five years ago, he would have said the batsman was confused by the spinning ball, which he was failing to hit in the way he intended. “Issue” then meant something quite different. Since then, however, it has come to mean “problem”.

Dixon offers (as all news articles it should be said) no evidence for his (amazing if true) suggestion that the pace and amount of language change is increasing in English. He seems to have issues with the use of “have issues with” (hohoho) and actually Google Ngram does show an increase in its use between 1990-2008. That said, if the alternative to “having issues with” really is “confused by the spinning ball, which he was failing to hit in the way he intended” then forgive me for calling it a welcome addition to English.

What is especially surprising nowadays is that misuses of words can increasingly be found even in specialised communications – as in my own particular field of science. Long ago, when I was a microbiology student, I learned that the singular of bacteria was bacterium. Then, towards the end of the 20th century, print and broadcast journalists began to say “this bacteria”. And the alteration did not stop there. It is now affecting professional discourse too. In the past three months, I have seen “a bacteria” or “this bacteria” six times in research journals. I have even heard a speaker making the same mistake throughout his conference presentation.


Most of what is described here I have dealt with in detail in this post and so won’t rehash suffice to say that what Dixon describes as a “mistake” is a change in usage and also that it is altogether unreasonable to expect foreign words to retain their foreign morphemes in a host language. Note that Dixon admits that it was not evidence of usage that led to his knowledge about “bacteria” but rather that that is what he was taught -and what he unquestioningly accepted. When his friends tell him that “this spaghetti is delicious” does he, I wonder correct them “THESE spaghetti ARE delicious!” Shoddy stuff for a scientist.

Sports commentators appear to be culpable in another area – the demise of the adverb. Within the past 10 years, firstly snooker commentators and then those in other sports began to tell us that “he hit that one strong”, that “she’s playing confident”, and that “he’s bowling accurate”. The habit is now spreading more widely.

This is a pretty old chestnut. This type of inflexible thinking is what leads to people avoiding saying “I am good” (I am well!) and “This food is healthy” (This food is healthful!) A basic question to be asked when people talk about “bad” grammar is whether communication is actually breaking down. As with the pedantic parental chide “two negatives make a positive” (they don’t) the listener understands perfectly what they speaker is saying but just insists that language must, for some unknown reason, stand still at this moment in time and stop changing. Really quite a bizarre position for someone presumably well versed in evolutionary theory. The good Dr. seems to be suffering from a linguistic form of the “golden age fallacy” namely that there was a time when the English language was perfect. Perhaps a little after Shakespeare and a bit before the Bronte sisters. Ever since then it’s just been on the decline and will eventually reach a state where morlock-esque yoof roam the streets of Neo-England burbling an incomprehensible text-like patois to each other as society collapses.

In many cases, although it is impossible to pinpoint the initial change
 

And of course this is true though as a biologist such a statement should have him holding his head in shame. He’s basically asking for a missing link which could never exist. Just as no old world monkey gave birth to a human, no linguistic change can really ever be pinpointed. As McWhorter notes, Latin didn’t die, it turned into French, Spanish and Italian, but there wasn’t a day when people woke up saying “OK, now we’re speaking French”.

the reason why people begin to adopt erroneous usages so quickly is probably one of fashion and a desire to demonstrate familiarity with the modish vernacular. Consider “fantastic”, which is now a universal expression of hyperbole. Anyone interviewed in the media about anything that impresses or excites them will repeatedly call it “fantastic”. Over recent weeks, I have heard a celebrity chef describe a particular dish as fantastic (when he meant unusually succulent), a drama critic call an actor’s performance fantastic (when she meant disturbingly realistic) and a politician describe a party conference speech as fantastic (when he meant inspiring).
 

Reading this I’m almost tempted to think Dixon is pulling our collective legs. The idea that language use is something like wearing hipster jeans and not related to a complex set of social and psychological factors is quite staggeringly simplistic. Also does he really have a problem with the word ‘fantastic’? Does he really expect people only to use the word only for “characteristic of fantasy”? He goes on to talk about ‘literally’ which I dealt with here and so won’t go into nor will I again deal with what he calls the “important differences between ‘who and whom‘” (tl;dr = It isn’t an important difference.)

At the end he wonders “why are even the editors of scientific journals adopting fashionable but incorrect usages?” and this is where I would like return to the point I made in the first paragraph. The reason that editors are (sensibly) adopting “fashionable” usages is because those usages will almost certainly, triumph. And for the second part of this (rather long!) blog I’d like to take you and Dixon on an Dickensian tour of the ghosts of pedants past. I’m hopeful there is still time for the good Doctor to have a change of heart. So here it is, a list of complaining prescriptivists throughout the ages:


George Fox (1624-1691) wrote in his Epistle:


If you’re not getting that then Fox was complaining that only a ruddy great idiot would say “you” to one person, when as any fule kno the right word was “thou”.

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) disliked past tense ‘ed’ being pronounced softly, (i.e. as we pronounce it now) he wanted it pronounced as the ‘aed’ in ‘dead’. He also didn’t like the words “sham, banter, bully, bubble, cutting and shuffling”.

Robert Lowth (1710-1787) thought that (formal) sentences shouldn’t end in prepositions. Somehow this opinion became accepted as a ‘rule’ by editor types at some point although almost everyone ignores it. Lowth also argued for “My wife and I” over “me and my wife”.

William Cobbet (1763-1835) wrote “A grammar of the English language” and complained about the use of the following as past tenses “Awoke, built, dealt, threw, swam and meant” (among many others) arguing instead for the more ‘proper’ “awaked, builded, dealed, throwed, swimmed and meaned”. (McWhorter)

Strunk and White, authors of a famous style guide loved by the likes of Dixon and first published in 1919, proscribed against the use of “hopefully”, the verbs “host” and “chair” and the passive voice. Rather amusingly (or at least, this passes for amusing to sad folks like me) of the four examples they give of mistaken use of the passive voice, only one of them is actually passive. And this isn’t their only mistake. As Pullum notes, they “The book’s contempt for it’s own grammatical dictates seems almost wilful.” The awful situation therefore is that we have know-nothings telling others how they should be writing and incredibly being listened to.

Steven Pinker notes that the verbs parent, input, showcase, impact, and contact “have all been denounced in this century” (1994:379)


So, if we examine the broad sweep of history we can see that most of the things that have been railed against have become normal and natural. Dr. Dixon and people like him can get upset about usage but his views about the word “fantastic” will, if they don’t already, eventually be seen as preposterous to future generations. I might be losing the battles against this type of newspaper article buthistory shows that the war is already won.






 




 

I couldn’t care fewer*

I got told off by a guy at work once for saying “We have less students this year”.



“for god’s sake” he said “fewer!”

Especially shameful, supposedly because I’m an English teacher and so should know better. But doesn’t the fact I had lived a good thirty years without knowing better, not perhaps tell us something about this word?  In fact, it’s completely possible that  large numbers of people will live and die in English without knowing that they are getting it ‘wrong’. And the people they are talking to  often don’t know that they are also getting it ‘wrong’. In fact the only people who are bothered seem to be the ones getting it right.
 
Yeah Jane Moore!  You idiot!

And my god are they bothered. People actually get very worked up about this (check the tweets, right). You can read blogs about just how bothered here, here, here and here. Or here, here, or here. And some more here and here. People really hate this.


So what are the rules?

GrammarGirl, (who I talked about here) gives us this handy guide and it’s actually fairly straightforward. Countable nouns use “fewer” and uncountable nouns use “less”. If that isn’t clear then look at this table:

Less
Time, money, bread
Fewer
Students, problems potatoes


Simply put, things that you can count, (1 monkey, 2 squirrels, 3 turnips, etc) should be used with ‘fewer’, with other things, like money, (moneys) you should use ‘less’. Simple really, -so why can’t thick thickos like me (and supermarkets) get this into their thick thicko skulls?

Well when we examine GrammarGirl’s advice we find this interesting note:

There are exceptions to these rules
 

Oh yes?….do go on!

for example, it is customary to use the word less to describe time, money, and distance (2, 3). For example, you could say, “That wedding reception lasted less than two hours. I hope they paid the band less than $400.” So keep in mind that time, money, and distance are different, but if you stick with the quick and dirty tip that less is for mass nouns and fewer is for count nouns, you’ll be right most of the time

Ah-ha! so things are not actually that straight-forward. I don’t want to be right “most” of the time dammit, I want to right all of the time! OK, so just use “fewer” with count nouns, except for time money and distance…right? right, I’ve got it!

But what about weight?  Can I say “I weigh 5kg less than last year” or should it be “I weigh 5kg fewer?” The latter sounds ugly so I’m going to go ahead and add weight to those exceptions.  OK so, time money, distance and weight, got it!

Well not quite, it also seems that you can’t use “fewer” with singular count nouns. For example “that’s one less thing to worry about.” should be wrong but no one say “one fewer thing to worry about”. So is this another exception or do we have to make some ugly compromise like “Now I don’t have so much to worry about”

And what about “less” in the phrases “more or less”? Surely regardless of what number was being referred to  a person would always say less, like “I ate 10 of those cakes, more or less”, but they would never say “more or fewer”. So set phrases seem to be exempt as well. (This is turning out to be as useful as the I before E rule.)
 
“Illiterate” signs? Hmm

Don’t even get me started on the mind-boggling world of “least number/amount, fewest number/amount”. I’ve never heard anyone get upset about this, but a Google search shows a huge state of disarray. If you’re going to get upset at supermarket signs, then don’t go anywhere near this one. workers in the UK take the least number of paid holidays” says the daily mail, noting later in the same article that they take the fewest. If ‘holidays’ are countable then it should be “fewest”, no? And least number? Shouldn’t it be ‘least amount’ and ‘fewest number’? or just fewest? (head asplodes)

 
An important question that the people who get angry about this never seem to ask is, -why does  English even need two words for things being smaller in number/amount when we manage to get by fine with one word for things being larger in number? No one has a problem saying “more money, more friends, more time and more stupid grammar rules.” No one gets confused and feels the need to invent a word to fill that gap. So why do people get so upset about this? Why the mindless observance of this useless rule?
 
Some people might say that we need to retain the historically correct rules of English. That’s a nice idea but as the Motivated Grammar blog notes, this so-called rule has only been around for a few hundred years:

As it turns out, this whole notion that fewer is countable and less is uncountable has been traced back to 1770 by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage. And it wasn’t a rule back then, but rather a preference of a single author, Robert Baker.

That’s right, if you’re insisting on this in 2012 then you’re basically peddling the preferences of some eighteenth century dude. You’re getting angry over something someone 200 years ago didn’t like the sound of. You might imagine yourself the arbiter of “good grammar” but you might as well be running around shouting “don’t use the word bully, Jonathan Swift didn’t like it!”

The earliest example of someone getting it “wrong” was Alfred from Batman the Great who in 888ad wrote Swa mid læs worda swa mid ma, swæðer we hit yereccan mayon” or “with less words or with more, whether we may prove it.”. However I don’t think that people are concerned with historical value at all, they are concerned, as always where language is involved, with showing that they are more educated, more discerning and thus better than those oiks who get it wrong. Thus, like so much maven prescriptivism, this is yet another foundationless linguistic Shibboleth.

 
If we listen to these kinds of people we’ll end up with supermarket signs saying “10 items or fewer”, teachers saying “Write an essay of five-hundred words or fewer” and people being forced to say “that’s one fewer thing to worry about” and let’s be honest, that just sounds crap. Ignore these pedants, and if they insist then tell them that you couldn’t care fewer.




* Thanks to Florentina Taylor for pointing out that there is a difference between the adverbial use of “less” and the adjectival use.