Monday, April 30, 2007

Grammaring around

Grammarians divide quite neatly into two types. Prescriptivists focus on how language should be spoken or more usually written; descriptivists on how it is written. Descriptivists have the advantage that time proves them right: languages shift in usage because people use words in different ways; prescriptivists have the advantage of being (a little) useful, in that they can help bring clarity to communication. Words are negotiations between speaker and listener, writer and reader. I encode a message and you decode it. The meaning you derive may or may not coincide with the one I intended. Fixing meaning -- fixing usage -- can aid that process of negotiation, in an obvious way.

I am a descriptivist, as are most people with training in linguistics but few editors, who tend to mistake house style guides for commandments from above rather than the prejudgements of difficult-to-negotiate words that they really are. However, descriptivists might be permissive, but they still have a notion of right and wrong. "Correctness" in usage surely means -- if it means anything -- broadness of use. If most people mean a certain thing when they say a word, that's what that word means. It's possible to frame notions such as agreement in number by this metric (although it's a lot easier simply to say that it's mandatory in English without discussing why). Plural nouns agree with plural verbs in English because most people make them agree. Language is pretty much "democratic" in this sense: if you are in a minority, you are wrong, and the smaller the minority, the wronger you are. It's clear, or should be, that there will be a spectrum of "wrongness" (or spectra, because what is wrong in one context or for one group is often correct for another: so it is "wrong" to write "color" in English but correct to do so in American English). There are reasons to weight the "votes", of course, so that if the usages favoured by the better educated, or newspapers, or similar sources that use language in particular ways, are not more correct, they are felt to be by most speakers. An example of this spectrum: using "thus" to mean "because of this" is only slightly wrong (probably a minority of writers use the "correct" usage and it's only the weightedness that pushes it into "correctness"); but using "the dog are barking" is as wrong as you can get in standard English, spelling errors aside.

I don't think that an extreme descriptivism works. In
this post, a descriptivist misanalyses a speech act. Let's deal first with the misanalysis.


If you look to the right, Treasure Island's having their show right now.

"their" is not used because "Treasure Island" has indeterminate gender but because collective entities are often used with a plural verb by English speakers. This happens even in sentences that have already displayed correct agreement. It's a simple outcome of confusion over whether entities that are aggregations of people should be treated as plurals or singulars. (I noted this in a previous post, which I can't find, but "Treasure Island" can be compared with "the crowd" or "the committee".)

Even if this analysis were correct though, I do not see how finding one example of a usage makes that usage correct. If every other speaker of a language denies it as a correct usage, how can one person's usage be elevated to the status of the other billion's?

In any case, for inanimates, there is a readymade alternative to he and she where gender is not known, and the speaker would, by this analysis, be considered wrong by nearly all speakers of English not to have used it. It's it.

I use the singular they, and in my view it's the best candidate for the nongender-specific pronoun. But is it a good substitute for "it"? No, I don't think so.

Friday, April 20, 2007

The company are using teh PDF

Nothing is worse than a clueless author who thinks he knows grammar. In this sentence:

"Swire made a commitment to adopt PDF as their preferred format"

I changed "their" to "its". This is routine stuff, because a/ the house style of my publisher is to use the singular for companies and the like and b/ it's the most common usage by far.

But the author was outraged. He said:

Their is grammatically correct but frowned on by purists because it can not be translated directly in Latin

Leaving aside that you learn that "cannot" is one word in third grade, what can we say about this nonsense?

"Their is grammatically correct"

"Their" is grammatically correct if you consider that companies are plural in person and incorrect if you don't. Given that my publisher doesn't, and I don't, it's simply not. Why don't we? Because a company is a single thing. That's pretty simple. There are times when single things that are collections of other things are considered as collections of things rather than composites, and then one uses the plural. "The staff each receive a lollipop" is an example. "The crowd left their seats one by one" is another. (The latter can also take the singular.) An exception for me is football teams, which by convention take the plural. I note though that if I was editing a book on football for this publisher, football teams would take the singular, because the convention is different in Australia.

But can't "Swire" be taken to be the collection of people within it? I challenge you to find an example in which that reading would make more sense than the single-thing one. Go on. Give it a go.

"but frowned on by purists because it can not be translated directly in Latin"

What teh eff? This comment left me dumbfounded, and that doesn't often happen. Which bit can't be translated into Latin? "Its"? I think you'll find it can. Does he mean that Latin is stricter in agreeing for number, and that insisting on those fuddyduddy Latiny rules is cramping his style, man?

Well, who knows? I can't think of anything in Latin that would have much bearing on this kind of construction. We use the singular with companies because they are unitary. "I sent it to Swire" does mean "I sent it to somebody who works for Swire" because ultimately there is someone at Swire who opens the mail, or picks it up or whatever, but I think that arguing that Swire is a metonym for all its employees is perverse here. (Cf "Washington", in which the name of the capital is a metonym for the government of the United States; in Australia, these metonyms strictly take the singular, whereas they sometimes take the plural in the UK: "Washington has taken the hard line with Teheran/Washington have taken the hard line with Teheran". The latter is slightly awkward for me, but possible.) I think it should be compared with "the United Kingdom" or "Australia". These are single entities that have constituents, but are always considered as composites. Conceptually, the difference is easy. A crowd is coextensive with its constituents. If I say "crowd", I mean all the people in the crowd. (If I say "Arsenal", I can be taken to mean "all the players of Arsenal" or similar, I suppose.) But the UK is not coextensive with its citizens. It is something that contains its population. A crowd cannot be considered separately from the people in it; it just is those people (and note that one does not write "they" in that sentence!).

Have I captured the difference correctly? Can you analyse it differently? Answers on a postcard. Or in the comments.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Bad company

I could not remember the word "accompany". I knew it existed but couldn't think what it was. It wasn't on the tip of my tongue. It felt like a hole, not like something just out of reach. Somehow it didn't, and still doesn't, feel right.

(Something accompanies something else when it goes with it but is different, complementary. But does heads accompany tails?)

Anyway, I took the idea of "companion piece" and sprinted off with it. Somehow, a companion piece seems more connected with its companion than an accompaniment. It might share a mood, a theme, an idea, or it might be the mirror image: the concerto for oboes and shoehorns to go with the concerto for shoehorns and oboes.

It's worrying though because editors are not supposed to stare dumbfounded at words, trying to figure out why they are wrong. They're supposed to strike out "companions" and put in "accompanies" without thinking. I rely on being able to do that reflexively. It's a bit scary to feel that age will rob me of my skills in this area, and leave me actually having to work at what I do.

Thursday, April 12, 2007


Why am I getting all these messages telling me I need a bigger dick?

What is wrong with my dick? Who's been talking? I want to know. Because surely my dick is private, between me and you, not something you just talk about? Tell me you don't! Ladies, please, tell me you don't. And if you are, what exactly are you saying? Who's been saying it's not big enough? I need to know, because that's someone who needs putting straight on a few things. I don't remember anyone's complaining at the time. What kind of low hypocrite says to your face that your dick is all the dick they need, but then behind your back tells everyone that yeah, it could have been a bit bigger?

And anyway, would I get more chicks if I had a bigger dick? Why? How would they know? Do women have dicksize sensors? When they see us in the street, do they go "hmmm, six inches" and "oh my lord, a tenner"?

Are they even that keen on bigness? Has someone done a study, proving a correlation between size of dick and number of chicks pulled?

I asked Mrs Zen whether I'd get more sex if I had a bigger dick, and she flat denied it. Is she lying? Would she put out more if I had another inch?

What exactly is the proportion? I want to know the chicks-per-inch figure, because the guys who are promising me a bigger dick want money. I want to know the value per chick of the pills they're offering. I have a figure in mind per chick that I would pay. Not per inch, because I don't want the inches in and of themselves. I have enough cock for my own purposes. Any more would just be, like, extra skin and stuff. Only if they bring me more chicks.

You know what worries me? I've been reading that soy makes your dick shrink. I may have lost half an inch given all the tofu, TVP and other soy products I've got through in recent years.

How much sex has that cost me!?

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

The ends of freedom

This is frightening. Anyone who has the least belief in "freedom" should refuse to vote for anyone who does not answer Crane's question "absolutely not". That these men are not smart enough to understand the question or understand it but are willing to make any reply than "absolutely not" should scare Americans, and the rest of us, because where America goes, Australia follows.

Our freedom -- our physical liberty -- begins with habeas corpus. It is absolutely nonnegotiable. We should never empower our representatives to abridge it: that way lies disappearances, dictatorship, the dissolution of freedom.

I am frightened. There are a million surveillance cameras in my homeland, and a government that knows best on every score, but as we've discussed, ignores the facts when it's knowing best. We have governments that believe violence is the answer to almost everything; violence, coercion, repression. We have rightists who enable them, and in the UK, we have chickenhawks like Cohen and Aaronovitch who are attempting to shift the left sharply rightwards, urging support for warmongering and antimulticulturalism (which is all too often plain racism in a coat of reasonableness).

We now bear a striking resemblance to the final days of the Roman republic. Radicals on the left have simply faded away (in Rome, they were undercut by rightist populism, just as they were in the West: Reagan and Thatcher pushed a heavily corporate, antimiddle-class agenda while propagandising it as popular and bourgeois; like Rome, they appealed directly to greed, by offering small sops to the masses). The political scene is a contest for power between different factions of the business parties. Most people probably don't know that Julius Caesar posed as a populist of the left while being supported by Crassus, the richest man in Rome. None of the people involved had any true political alignment except to their own ambition, with a few exceptions, such as the scalding Cato, who gives the impression of not quite being clued in to what was going on.

Of course, dictatorship and empire were good for the Roman masses. When a man like Sulla liquidated his enemies, he was mostly killing aristocrats and businessmen. He did not murder the headcount. (His proscriptions had two functions: to eliminate political opposition and to raise funds with which to reward his supporters; the citizenry did not pose a political threat to him because he represented the popular faction and had the sense to pay them off, and they did not have enough money for him to think them worth killing for it.) The masses gained materially and somewhat in status and politically. They were entirely disempowered but the Roman economy thrived for a time (although the inflation after a successful conquest must have been painful) and the Romans used successful methods to keep them quiescent: food doles and state-supplied entertainments.

Justice, then as now, depended on the fatness of your wallet. The idea that a business should have any other end than making gobs of money would have struck a Roman as quite odd, as it does Americans today.

A major difference between then and now is that some of the aristocracy fought against the end of the republic, while some facilitated it. It may even be too cynical to suggest that those who fought for it only did so because they believed it to be the best structure to preserve their interests. Now, of course, no one in the elites has much problem with the extension of executive power. They expect to be wielding that power themselves some time soon, after all. If America elects Hillary Clinton, I would not expect her to be quick to roll back Bush's assertions of executive power; and David Cameron will probably only add to Blair's. One great disappointment with Blair himself was that he did not repeal any of Thatcher's repressive legislation. He just quietly let it lie, and in time built on it. If anything, Blair has been more authoritarian than even Thatcher, his party even keener to worship the market and his military quicker to become involved in expressions of power overseas. He has been able to pass himself off as a centrist because Britain's Overton window was so radically shifted by Thatcher's extremism. There is no one on the left who has the balls or energy to shift it back, and no one in politics who has the desire. Increases in power, it seems to me, are bound to appeal to those who contest for power. They are not going to fight to have less!