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Mary Norris’s book Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (2015, Norton) is part autobiography, part style guide. Norris has been an editor at The New Yorker magazine for many years and her voice can be heard through the text, which makes parts of this book an enjoyment to read, especially when she tells stories about her life. She says in the intro that her book is “for all of you who want to feel better about your grammar” (p. 14), which is an unfortunate dedication since the book goes off the rails when Norris discusses grammar and linguistics. In these sections, Norris doesn’t just make herself look bad, but she also ropes in the rest of the editorial staff at The New Yorker.

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris (2015, Norton)

Early on, Norris discusses the importance of dictionaries to editing. She also, however, walks right into a mine field when she discusses her and The New Yorker’s preference for a dictionary published in the 1930s over nearly all others:

If we cannot find something in the Little Red Web [Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 2003], our next resort is Webster’s New International Dictionary (Unabridged), Second Edition, which we call Web II. First published in 1934, it was the Great American Dictionary and is still an object of desire: 3,194 pages long, with leisurely definitions and detailed illustrations. It was supplanted in 1961 by Webster’s Third, whose editors, led by Philip Gove, caused a huge ruckus in the dictionary world by including commonly used words without warning people about which ones would betray their vulgar origins. (p. 18)

Norris is selling Gove and the other editors of Merriam-Webster’s short here. Gove actually wrote that “We must see to it that a mid-twentieth-century dictionary gives evidence of having been written by editors who lived in the twentieth century” (quote from The Story of Ain’t by David Skinner, p. 205) and what Gove did (besides dropping sick burns) was help systematize the way that dictionaries qualified words for their “vulgar” natures. Gove also saw to it that the quotes used to illustrate the meanings of words were neither archaic nor unnatural, i.e. contemporary quotes rather than contrived sentences written by the dictionary makers. But Gove’s actions caused a lot of uptight social commentators to get their knickers in a bunch, as Norris briefly explains:

On the publication of this dictionary, which we call Web 3, a seismic shift occurred between prescriptivists (who tell you what to do) and descriptivists (who describe what people say, without judging it). In March of 1962, The New Yorker, a bastion of prescriptivism, published an essay by Dwight MacDonald [who was not a linguist, nor a language scholar – JM] that attacked the dictionary and its linguistic principles: ‘The objection is not to recording the facts of actual usage. It is to failing to give the information that would enable the reader to decide which usage he wants to adopt.’ (p. 18)

It is no more surprising that Norris sticks by MacDonald’s essay than it is that MacDonald went to The New Yorker to voice his complaint. But romanticizing the fact that Norris and her fellow editors use a dictionary from the 1930s (Webster’s Second) over more modern ones doesn’t look prescriptivist, it looks downright foolish. Norris drives the point home:

Since the great dictionary war of the early sixties, there has been an institutional distrust of Web 3. It’s good for some scientific terms, we say, patronizingly. Its look is a lot cleaner than that of Web II. Lexicology aside, it is just not as beautiful. I would not haul a Web 3 home. You can even tell by the way it is abbreviated in our offices that it is less distinguished: Webster’s Second gets the Roman numeral, as if it were royalty, but Webster’s Third must make do with a plain old Arabic numeral. (p. 19)

This is nonsense. The editors at The New Yorker are prioritizing a dictionary from 1934 because it “enables the reader to decide which usage he wants to adopt”. Think about that for a second. Who in their right mind wants their writing to sound like it was published in 1934? The New Yorker is not a “bastion of prescriptivism”, it is an ancient ruin of unfounded notions about language.

MacDonald can maybe be excused for the incorrect ideas in his article. They were, after all, popular at the time. But Norris doesn’t get off so easy. She wrote her book in the 2010s, well after the ideas in MacDonald and W2 were shown to be incorrect. Think about what she is doing here. She using a 50-year-old article with incorrect ideas about language to defend her use of an 80-year-old dictionary. If your doctor recommended that you start smoking Camels because a commercial in the 1950s said they activate your T-zone, you would find another doctor.

Later in the book, Norris visits the offices of Merriam-Webster and says “These people are having far too much fun to be lexicographers” (p. 29). This is perhaps true, and she might even believe it, but I doubt she likes any of the advice that the MW editors give online or in their videos.

Bad Grammar

Every chapter in Norris’s book starts with a personal story and moves into a topic of English grammar or style. In Chapter 2, titled “That witch!”, Norris discusses relative clauses. She gives some OK advice about how to distinguish whether the clause is restrictive or non-restrictive, but then makes some major mistakes on what to do after that:

If the phrase or clause introduced by a relative pronoun – “that” or “which” – is essential to the meaning of the sentence, “that” is preferred, and it is not separated from its antecedent by a comma. (p. 40)

I suppose Norris means that that is preferred in The New Yorker, but it sounds like she means that is preferred across the English language, which simply isn’t true. Anyone who has spent any time hanging out with the English language would know this. Perhaps she means that that is preferred by people (such as editors at The New Yorker?) who wish they could dictate which relative pronoun should be used in all cases across the English language. Norris then gives us a half-baked explanation of what’s going with that and which in relative clauses:

If people are nervous, they sometimes use “which” when “that” would do. Politicians often say “which” instead of “that”, to sound important. A writer may say “which” instead of “that” – it’s no big deal. It would be much worse to say “that” instead of “which.” Apparently the British use “which” more and do not see anything wrong with it. Americans have agreed to use “that” when the clause is restrictive and to use “which,” set off with commas, when the clause is nonrestrictive. It works pretty well. (p. 41)

What? No. There is so much wrong with this paragraph. First, what the hell does Norris mean by the first two sentences? Is she a professional on spoken English now? The third sentence gives it away – writers don’t “say” things, they write things. But Norris doesn’t realize that she has blurred the line between spoken and written language so much that she’s erased it. This paragraph means that an admittedly prescriptivist editor of written language – who prefers a dictionary from 1934 – can’t tell the obvious difference between spoken and written English and that we are supposed to take for granted her claims about ALL spoken English, based on… something. Another thing that is wrong with this paragraph is that it is demonstrably wrong that Americans have “agreed to use ‘that’” with restrictive relative clauses. This was dictated by copy editors in the beginning of the 20th century! This hope/wish/desire to separate which and that comes from Fowler (1926), who wrote “The two kinds of relative clauses, to one of which that and the other to which which is appropriate, are the defining [restrictive] and the non-defining [non-restrictive]; and if writers would agree to regard that as the defining relative pronoun, and which as the non-defining, there would be much gain both in lucidity and in ease. Some there are who follow this principle now; but it would be idle to pretend that it is practice either of most or of the best writers.” (Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 4th ed., 2015, edited by J. Butterfield, p. 809) Even Fowler gave up on this that/which nonsense. You would think Norris would recognize this because of her preference for early 20th century English reference works. No one cares about this that/which distinction anymore, if they ever did. It wasn’t just the British who saw nothing wrong with using which in nonrestrictive relative clauses. Americans have also never cared about this when they were speaking naturally*.

Norris also has a chapter on pronouns, in which she wastes four pages (pp. 60-63) blabbering about pronouns before we get to the point of the chapter, i.e. the (supposed) problem of English’s (supposed) lack of a gender-neutral third person singular pronoun. The chapter ends with a heartfelt and well written personal story about Norris having to switch the pronouns she used for a family member who transitioned. Norris quite deftly shows how personal our pronouns can be and this part of the chapter is definitely worth reading. What comes before it, however, are a bunch of pronoun howlers.

One of the stranger ones is when Norris claims that “There is only one documented instance of a gender-neutral pronoun springing from actual speech, and that is “yo,” which ‘spontaneously appeared in Baltimore city schools in the early-to-mid 2000s.’ (p. 66) What? Does Norris actually believe this? The research cited on yo is from Stotko and Troyer, but they do not claim that yo is the only documented instance of a gender-neutral pronoun springing from actual speech (Stotko, Elaine M. and Margaret Troyer. 2007. “A New gender-neutral pronoun in Baltimore, Maryland: A preliminary study”. American Speech 82(3): 262–279. https://dx.doi.org/10.1215/00031283-2007-012).

Then Norris drops the bomb:

I hate to say it, but the colloquial use of “their” when you mean “his or her” is just wrong. (p. 69)

Ugh, where to start? Literally right before this sentence, Norris said that having singular you and plural you is fine. But then she says that singular they is not because… reasons? Norris actually tries to claim that the epicene he would be invisible if we didn’t “make such a fuss” about it. Guess what? It isn’t and we do. Does Norris really think that the epicene he is only visible because people complain about it? She has it backwards. The epicene he is complained about because it is so damn visible. And are we really to believe that he would be invisible to Norris? She devoted an entire chapter in her book to pronouns. Also, singular they isn’t colloquial (although I’m willing to bet that the editors of The New Yorker have a different definition of the term “colloquial” – one from the 1930s perhaps). It has been used across all types of texts and registers and first appeared 800 years ago. (Wait, is it possible that singular they SPINGS FROM ACTUAL SPEECH?! Omg you guys!!1!) Basically, if you have a problem with singular they, maybe it’s time to get over it. Or, if you’re going to complain about singular they, maybe you shouldn’t use it in your writing. That’s right, Norris uses singular they in this book:

A notice from the editor, William Shawn, went up on the bulletin board, saying that anyone whose work was not “essential” could go home. Nobody wanted to think they were not essential. (p. 11)

smh

The discussion of pronoun usage gets more convoluted after this. On the very next page (p. 70), after telling us that a writer was wrong for not using the epicene he, Norris says that a The New Yorker staff writer was correct in using singular they. So what the hell is going on here? I don’t know and I’m starting to not care.

Chapter 4 – “Between you and me”

This might be the most confusing chapter in terms of grammar. Norris writes:

The most important verb is the verb “to be” in all its glory: am, are, is, were, will be, has been. (p. 84)

So will be and has been are part of the verb BE? Uhh… how? And why isn’t being in that list, or (by Norris’ logic) have been? No one knows.

The rest of this chapter goes from bad to worse. Immediately after this quote, Norris discusses nouns, rather than nouns phrases, even though she uses noun phrases rather than single-word nouns (such as copy editor and my plumber). In a later admission that there are several copulative verbs, Norris says that “It is because these verbs are copulative and not merely transitive that we say something ‘tastes good’ (an adjective), not ‘well’ (an adverb): the verb is throwing the meaning back onto the noun”. What does this mean? Norris is also incorrect when she says that “nouns are modified by adjectives, not adverbs”. Noun phrases are modified by other noun phrases (a no-frills airline, sign language) as well as adverb phrases (the then President, a through road). Those examples from Downing & Locke (2006: 436), but from The New Yorker we have “Danny Hartzell backed a Budget rental truck up to a no-frills apartment building…” from a piece called “Empty Wallets” by George Packer in the July 25, 2011 issue, perhaps edited by Norris. But this isn’t even a matter of modification. In Norris’s example (“Something tastes good”), the adjective phrase good does not modify the noun phrase something, but rather functions as a complement in the sentence. Essentially, the subject (which may be a noun phrase or may be something else) requires a complement when a copulative verb is used. And there is no reason that adverb phrases cannot act as complements after copulative verbs (They’re off!, I am through with you, That is quite all right).

In the following paragraph, Norris writes “One might reasonably ask, if we can use the objective for the subjective, as in ‘It’s me again,’ why can’t we use the subjective for the objective?” But again this is confusing and it’s hard to tell whether Norris believes that me is the subject in her example sentence (hint: it’s not, it’s what some grammars call an extraposed subject, but I can see how Norris would be confused – The New Yorker has proven its ineptitude when it comes to describing sentences of this type. See Downing & Locke 2006: 47–48, 261).

In discussing grammar, Norris also tells stories about working at The New Yorker. It’s hard to describe how shocking some of these are, so I’ll let Norris tell it:

Lu Burke once ridiculed a new copy editor who had come from another publication for taking the hyphen out of “pan-fry.” “But it’s in [Webster’s dictionary],” the novice chirped. “What are you even looking in the dictionary for?” Lu said, and I wish there were a way of styling that sentence so that you could see it getting louder and more incredulous toward the end. She spoke it in a crescendo, like Ralph Kramden, on The Honeymooners, saying, “Because I’ve got a BIG MOUTH!” Without the hyphen, “panfry” looks like “pantry.” “Panfree!” Lu guffawed, and said it again. “Panfree!” The copy editor was just following the rules, but Lu said she had no “word sense.” Lu was especially scornful of unnecessary hyphens in adverbs like “feet first” and “head on.” Of course, “head on” is hyphenated as an adjective in front of a noun – “The editors met in a head-on collision” – but in context there is no way of misreading “The editors clashed head on in the hall.” The novice argued that “head on” was ambiguous without the hyphen. Lu was incredulous. “Head on what?” she howled, over and over, as if it were an uproarious punch line. Eventually, that copy editor went back to where she had come from. “It’s as if I tried to become a nun and failed,” she confided. It did sometimes feel as if we belonged to some strange cloistered order, the Sisters of the Holy Humility of Hyphens. (p. 116)

Some strange cloistered order? Jesus Christ, working at The New Yorker sounds fucking miserable. “Pan-fry” needs a hyphen because, what, the readers of The New Yorker are so fucking dumb that they would think it means “panfree”? Probably not, but what a great excuse for one of the editors to be a total dick to an employee, huh? Hahaha, good times!

Here is the sentence in question, from a 1977 issue of The New Yorker:

“It’s heartening to see that a restaurant in a national park is going to take the time to pan-fry some chicken,” I told Tom.

Whoa! Good thing that hyphen was there or I would’ve thought this guy was taking time to panfree some chicken and WHAT THE FUCK WHY WOULD I THINK THAT.

Incredibly, the hits keep on coming in the next paragraph:

The writer-editor Veronica Geng once physically restrained me from looking in the dictionary for the word “hairpiece,” because she was afraid that the dictionary would make it two words and that I would follow it blindly. As soon as she left the office, I did look it up, and it was two words, but I respected her word sense and left it alone. (p. 117)

Ok, now respect the word sense of writers who use(d) singular they.

And if you’re wondering why The New Yorker still writes “teen-ager”:

Not everyone at The New Yorker is devoted to the diaeresis [the two little dots that The New Yorker – and only The New Yorker – places over the word cooperate]. Some have wondered why it’s still hanging around. Style does change sometimes. […]

Lu Burke used to pester the style editor Hobie Weekes, who had been at the magazine since 1928, to get rid of the diaeresis. Like Mr. Hyphen, Lu was a modern independent-minded reader, and she didn’t need to have her vowels micromanaged. Once, in the elevator, Weekes seemed to be weakening. He told her he was on the verge of changing that style and would be sending out a memo soon. And then he died.

This was in 1978. No one has had the nerve to raise the subject since. (pp. 123–124)

Kee-rist, I’m surprised they don’t write “base-ball” and “to-morrow” and “bull-shit”.

A chapter about pencil sharpening. Seriously.

Chapter 10 (“Ballad of a Pencil Junkie”) is some sort of dime store pencil porn as Norris describes pencils in such detail that only an actual pencil would find it interesting. I kept thinking that I would rather have pencils in my eyes, but then I came across the best line in the entire book:

David Rees specializes in the artisanal sharpening of No. 2 pencils: for a fee (at first, it was fifteen dollars, but like everything else, the price of sharpening pencils has gone up), he will hand-sharpen your pencil and return it to you (along with the shavings), its point sheathed in vinyl tubing. (p. 182)

Dafuq?

Conclusion

The New Yorker hardly needs help in showing people that it has a very tenuous grasp of English grammar [links to LangLog and Arnold Zwicky]. They demonstrate that in their pages whenever the topic of grammar comes up). Apparently, decades of publishing some of the greatest writers has not helped anyone at the magazine to learn how English grammar works. Unfortunately, Norris’s book does nothing to help The New Yorker’s reputation when it comes to grammar. On top of that, some of the stories she tells about working at The New Yorker are pretty horrifying. If you are able to separate or skip over the discussions of grammar, this book may be enjoyable for you. It’s an easy read, but I couldn’t force myself to like it.

 

Footnotes:

* Not to mention Norris doesn’t even follow her own advice –

p. 15: “It is one of those words which defy the old “i before e except after c” rule”

p. 54: “The piece also had numbers in it – that is, numerals – which I instinctively didn’t touch”

And she quotes A. A. Milne doing it: “If the English language had been properly organized … there would be a word which meant both ‘he’ and ‘she’” (p. 64)

And Henry James: “Poor Catherine was conscious of her freshness; it gave her a feeling about the future which rather added to the weight upon her mind.” (p. 143)

And Mark Twain: “It was what I thought when I stood before ‘The Last Supper’ and heard men apostrophizing wonders and beauties and perfections which had faded out of the picture and gone a hundred years before they were born.” (pp. 147-48)

You could argue that these are all old/dead writers and that no one should write like that anymore, but again, The New Yorker magazine, as well as the author of Between You & Me, prefers to use a dictionary from 193fucking4.

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As a dictionary of English vocabulary and phrases, the American English Compendium by Marv Rubinstein is satisfactory. It is 500 pages long so it covers a lot of ground. As a book of American English or Americanisms, this book is not what it seems. A brief glance at any of the pages will make you question if the entries really are words or phrases that are exclusive to American English. And a comparison to another source will most likely show that they are not. As a commentary on language, however, this book is terrible.

American English Compendium

Cover of American English Compendium by Marv Rubinstein. Published by Rowman & Littlefield. Cover design by Neil Cotterill.


The problems start on the first page of Chapter 1. The author defends the use of the term American English by proclaiming it is better than British English:

Dynamic. Versatile. Imaginative. Capable of capturing fine nuances. All these terms can truthfully be used to describe the American language. “Don’t you mean the ‘English language’?” some readers may ask. No, I mean the American language. Over many years, American English has vastly expanded and changed, a transmutation that has left it only loosely connected to its mother tongue, British English. (p. 3)

Although no one would (or should) argue that American English is a term that needs to be defended, the imaginary readers in this passage come off as more knowledgeable about language than the author. Are we really to believe American English is the only variation of English that is “dynamic” or “imaginative” or “capable of capturing fine nuances”? The problem gets compounded when the author recognizes the influence of American English in England, but seems to suggest that the reverse is not happening:

[W]hile there are numerous localisms [in countries where English is the primary language], more and more the terminology, idioms, slang, and colloquialisms smack of American English. Even in England this is slowly but surely happening. (p. 3)

And it only get stranger from there. On the next page we are told:

Things have changed so much, and the use of American English in international communications has grown so much, one can now safely say that most English speakers use (to a greater or lesser degree) Americanized English – that is, the American language. And rightly so. The American language is so much richer and more adventurous. British English neve stood a chance. (p. 4, emphasis mine)

Excuse me, Mr. Rubinstein, but H. G. Wells, J. K. Rowling, Grant Morrison, Agatha Christie and a thousand other British writers would like a word.

After this “proof” that ‘Murican English is better than British English, readers are given a “microcosm of what is happening” (p. 4) in the world. Rubinstein relates a story from an article by New York Times columnist and economist Thomas Friedman about how a senior Moroccan official is sending his kids to an American school even though he was educated in a French school. Rubinstein uses this story to claim that

There are now several American schools in Casablanca, each with a long waiting list. In addition, English (primarily American English) courses are springing up all over that country. If this is happening in Morocco, a country with long-lasting French connections and traditions, it is undoubtedly happening everywhere. The American language is becoming ubiquitous. (p. 5)

But it needs to be noted that Friedman does not claim that these English-language schools which are supposedly popping up all over Casablanca are teaching American English. Nor are readers given any proof that Casablanca is an example of what is happening around the world. I am very hesitant to believe it is. While it’s a cute story, this kind of claim needs to be backed up with evidence. How do we know that the English being taught in these schools is strictly British or American or some variation of English as an international language? We have to take the Rubinstein’s word for it, but as we have seen with his dismissal of British English, he is not to be trusted when it comes to linguistics commentary.

Further down the page, in a section titled The Richness of the American Language, Rubinstein claims that “much of the richness of the American language lies in the fact that it has absorbed words and expressions from at least fifty other languages.” (p. 5) He lists some examples, but completely fails to acknowledge the fact that many of them, such as brogue and orangutan and typhoon, were originally borrowed into British English and then used by Americans.

Rubinstein then presumes readers will ask how the American language differs from other languages, which obviously also use foreign words and phrases. But the answer given is just as confused as the question. The author states that “there is no question that American English has been like a sponge absorbing and modifying words from many other languages” (p. 7) without realizing (or reporting) that this is true of English in general, not American English in particular. This is actually true of languages in general, although English does appear to be particularly greedy when it comes to borrowing words from other languages.

Later, there is a fairly reasonable, but short and undefinitive, discussion of “Black English” (African American Vernacular English). The section unfortunately ends with this quote: “Educated African Americans, of course, use standard American English” (pp. 11–12). Well, good for them.
Things get really bonkers in the section on compounding, which includes this howler:

Compound words exist in almost all languages, but never anywhere near the extent that they do in American English. […] during the last few decades, compounding has reached epidemic proportions. The vast majority of compound words are of relatively recent origin languagewise (p. 15)

This is nonsense. Does the author know how any other languages work? Finnish compounds words much more than English does. In fact, the syntax of Finnish demands it, unlike in English where compounding is very often a matter of style. And how do we know that the “vast majority” of compound words are not old? Let’s say “the last few decades” goes back to 1960. Do you really think words such as outcast, outdoors, outlook, output, overcome, overdoes, overdue, oversee, oddball, goofball, downfall, and downhill (all words supplied by the author) were made compound words after 1960?

Here are some other WTFs in this book along with the thoughts I had after reading them:

In general [the English speakers of Australia, Canada, Guyana, India, Ireland, New Zealand, and South Africa] all understand each other, but, as you have seen in the previous chapter on American and British English, there are substantial differences. The same can be said of the English used in the other countries listed above. With a few exceptions, Canadian English consists of a blending of American and British English, but the other English-speaking countries have all developed their own unique and distinctive expressions (including slang and colloquialisms). (p. 267)

Hahahahaha! Fuck you, Canada! Get your own expressions, eh!

 

English is an Anglo-Saxon language with roots in Latin, the Romance Languages, and German. [No.] This means that most, if not all, English words are variations of foreign words, and such words have legitimately entered the language. (p. 281)

WHAT THE FUCK DOES THIS MEAN?!

 

The Oxford English Dictionary prides itself on keeping up to date, and it does pretty well (but not perfect) with including new words in its latest editions. Unfortunately, libraries with limited budgets these days do not always have the most recent revisions. Your best bet for researching neologisms is probably the Internet – for example, Google. (p. 403)

Because the OED is the only dictionary in the world. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: In linguistics research there is only the OED and Google. It’s a wonder we get anything done.

 

Chairman has become chairperson and has been further reduced to chair. But many gender-based terms remain unresolved. While, for example, policeman easily becomes police officer, other words and phrases resist change. One almost invariably hears expressions such as “Everyone to their own taste. [What? Who invariably hears this?] Grammatically incorrect [Nope!] but why risk offending potential female customers of advertised products? [Bitches be trippin’, amiright?] However, when a woman mans the controls of an aircraft, should the term be changed even though it denotes action, not identity? What should we now call a “manhole cover”? [Serious questions, you guys.] Note that we no longer have actresses; they all insist on being called actors. [How dare they?!] (p. 13)

Based on the claims about language alone, I would not recommend this book. I don’t know how someone writes a book about language and gets so much wrong. The word and phrase entries may be useful, but any online dictionary will have most if not all of them. Go there instead or get a proper reference book from a respected dictionary.

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Dan Zarrella, the “social media scientist” at HubSpot, has an infographic on his website called “How to: Get More Clicks on Twitter”. In it he analyzes 200,000 link-containing tweets to find out which ones had the highest clickthrough rates (CTRs), which is another way of saying which tweets got the most people to click on the link in the tweet. Now, you probably already know that infographics are not the best form of advice, but Mr. Zarrella did a bit of linguistic analysis and I want to point out where he went wrong so that you won’t be misled. It may sound like I’m picking on Mr. Zarrella, but I’m really not. He’s not a linguist, so any mistakes he made are simply due to the fact that he doesn’t know how to analyze language. And nor should he be expected to – he’s not a linguist.

But there’s the rub. Since analyzing the language of your tweets, your marketing, your copy, and your emails, is extremely important to know what language works better for you, it is extremely important that you do the analysis right. To use a bad analogy, I could tell you that teams wearing the color red have won six out of the last ten World Series, but that’s probably not information you want if you’re placing your bets in Vegas. You’d probably rather know who the players are, wouldn’t you?

Here’s a section of Mr. Zarrella’s infographic called “Use action words: more verbs, fewer nouns”:

Copyright Dan Zarrella

Copyright Dan Zarrella

That’s it? Just adverbs, verbs, nouns, and adjectives? That’s only four parts of speech. Your average linguistic analysis is going to be able to differentiate between at least 60 parts of speech. But there’s another reason why this analysis really tells us nothing. The word less is an adjective, adverb, noun, and preposition; run is a verb, noun, and adjective; and check, a word which Mr. Zarrella found to be correlated with higher CTRs, is a verb and a noun.

I don’t really know what to draw from his oversimplified picture. He says, “I found that tweets that contained more adverbs and verbs had higher CTRs than noun and adjective heavy tweets”. The image seems to show that tweets that “contained more adverbs” had 4% higher CTRs than noun heavy tweets and 5-6% higher CTRs than adjective heavy tweets. Tweets that “contained more verbs” seem to have slightly lower CTRs in comparison. But what does this mean? How did the tweets contain more adverbs? More adverbs than what? More than tweets which contained no adverbs? This doesn’t make any sense.

The thing is that it’s impossible to write a tweet that has more adverbs and verbs than adjectives and nouns. I mean that. Go ahead and try to write a complete sentence that has more verbs in it than nouns. You can’t do it because that’s not how language works. You just can’t have more verbs than nouns in a sentence (with the exception of some one- and two-word-phrases). In any type of writing – academic articles, fiction novels, whatever – about 37% of the words are going to be nouns (Hudson 1994). Some percentage (about 5-10%) of the words you say and write are going to be adjectives and adverbs. Think about it. If you try to remove adjectives from your language, you will sound like a Martian. You will also not be able to tell people how many more clickthroughs you’re getting from Twitter or the color of all the money you’re making.

I know it’s easy to think of Twitter as one entity, but we all know it’s not. Twitter is made up of all kinds of people, who tweet about all kinds of things. While anyone is able to follow anyone else, people of similar backgrounds and/or professions tend to group together. Take a look at the people you follow and the people who follow you. How many of them do you know on personally and how many are in a similar business as you? These people probably make up the majority of your Twitter world. So what we need to know from Mr. Zarrella is which Twitter accounts he analyzed. Who are these people? Are they on Twitter for professional or personal reasons? What were they tweeting about and where did the links in their tweets go – to news stories or to dancing cat videos? And who are their followers (the people who clicked on the links)? This is essential information to put the analysis of language in context.

Finally, What Mr. Zarrella’s analysis should be telling us is which kinds of verbs and adverbs equal higher CTRs. As I mentioned in a previous post, marketers would presumably favor some verbs over others. They want to say that their product “produces results” and not that it “produced results”. What we need is a type of analysis can tell shit (noun and verb) from Shinola (just a noun). And this is what I can do – it’s what I invented Econolinguistics for. Marketers need to be able to empirically study the language that they are using, whether it be in their blog posts, their tweets, or their copy. That’s what Econolinguistics can do. With my analysis, you can forget about meaningless phrases like “use action words”. Econolinguistics will allow you to rely on a comprehensive linguistic analysis of your copy to know what works with your audience. If this sounds interesting, get in touch and let’s do some real language analysis (joseph.mcveigh (at) gmail.com).

 

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How Linguistics can Improve your Marketing by Joe McVeigh

Adjectives just can’t get a break by Joe McVeigh

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Everyone loves verbs, or so you would be led to believe by writing guides. Zack Rutherford, a professional freelance copywriter, posted an article on .eduGuru about how to write better marketing copy. In it he says:

Verbs work better than adjectives. A product can be quick, easy, and powerful. But it’s a bit more impressive if the product speeds through tasks, relieves stress, and produces results. Adjectives describe, while verbs do. People want a product or service that does. So make sure you provide them with one. [Emphasis his – JM]

If you’re a copy writer or marketer, chances are that you’ve heard this piece of advice. It sort of makes sense, right? Well as a linguist who studies marketing (and a former copy writer who was given this advice), I want to explain to you why it is misleading at best and flat out wrong at worst. These days it is very easy to check whether verbs actually work better than adjectives in copy. You simply take many pieces of copy (texts) and use computer programs to tag each word for the part of speech it is. Then you can see whether the better, i.e. more successful, pieces of copy use more verbs than adjectives. This type of analysis is what I’m writing my PhD on (marketers and copy writers, you should get in touch).

Don’t heed your own advice

So being the corpus linguist that I am, I decided to check whether Mr. Rutherford follows his own advice. His article has the following frequencies of usage for nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs:

Nouns Verbs Adjectives Adverbs Word count
Total 275 208 135 90 1195
% of all words 23.01% 17.41% 11.30% 7.53%

Hooray! He uses more verbs than adjectives. The only thing is that those frequencies don’t tell the whole story. They would if all verbs are equal, but those of us who study language know that some verbs are more equal than others. Look at Mr. Rutherford’s advice again. He singles out the verbs speeds through, relieves, and produces as being better than the adjectives quick, easy, and powerful. Disregarding the fact that the first verb in there is a phrasal verb, what his examples have in common is that the verbs are all -s forms of lexical verbs (gives, takes, etc.) and the adjectives are all general adjectives (according to CLAWS, the part-of-speech tagger I used). This is important because a good copy writer would obviously want to say that their product produces results and not that it produced results. Or as Mr. Rutherford says “People want a product or service that does” and not presumably one that did. So what do the numbers look like if we compare his use of -s form lexical verbs to general adjectives?

-s form of lexical verbs General adjectives
Total 24 135
% of all words 2.01% 11.30%

Uh oh. Things aren’t looking so good. Those frequencies exclude all forms of the verbs BE, HAVE, and DO, as well as modals and past tense verbs. So maybe this is being a bit unfair. What would happen if we included the base forms of lexical verbs (relieve, produce), the -ing participles (relieving, producing) and verbs in the infinitive (to relieve, it will produce)? The idea is that there would be positive ways for marketers to write their copy using these forms of the verbs. Here are the frequencies:

Verbs (base, -ing part.,
Infin., and -s forms)
General adjectives
Total 127 135
% of all words 10.63% 11.30%

Again, things don’t look so good. The verbs are still less frequent than the general adjectives. So is there something to writing good copy other than just “use verbs instead of adjectives”? I thought you’d never ask.

Some good advice on copy writing

I wrote this post because the empirical research of marketing copy is exactly what I study. I call it Econolinguistics. Using this type of analysis, I have found that using more verbs or more adjectives does not relate to selling more products. Take a look at these numbers.

Copy text Performance Verbs – Adjectives
1 42.04 3.94%
2 11.82 0.63%
3 11.81 6.22%
4 10.75 -0.40%
5 2.39 3.21%
6 2.23 -0.78%
7 2.23 4.01%
8 1.88 1.14%
9 5.46%

These are the frequencies of verbs and adjectives in marketing texts ordered by how well they performed. The ninth text is the worst and the rest are ranked based on how much better they performed than this ninth text. The third column shows the difference between the verb frequency and adjective frequency for each text (verb % minus adjective %). If it looks like a mess, that’s because it is. There is not much to say about using more verbs than adjectives in your copy. You shouldn’t worry about it.

There is, however, something to say about the combination of nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, pronouns, etc., etc. in your copy. The ways that these kinds of words come together (and the frequencies at which they are used) will spell success or failure for your copy. Trust me. It’s what Econolinguistics was invented for. If you want to know more, I suggest you get in touch with me, especially if you’d like to check your copy before you send it out (email: joseph.mcveigh(at)gmail.com).

In order to really drive the point home, think about this: if you couldn’t use adjectives to describe your product, how would you tell people what color it is? Or how big it is? Or how long it lasts? You need adjectives. Don’t give up on them. They really do matter. And so do all the other words.

 

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How Linguistics can Improve your Marketing by Joe McVeigh

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This post is a response to a corpus search done on another blog. Over on What You’re Doing Is Rather Desperate, Neil Saunders wanted to research how adverbs are used in academic articles, specifically the sentence adverb, or as he says, adverbs which are used “with a comma to make a point at the start of a sentence”. I’m not trying to pick on Mr. Saunders (because what he did was pretty great for a non-linguist), but I think his post, and the media reports on it, makes a great excuse to write about the really, really awesome corpus linguistics resources available to the public. I’ll go through what Mr. Saunders did, and list what he could have done had he known about corpus linguistics.

Mr. Saunders wanted to know about sentence adverbs in academic texts so he wrote a script to download abstracts from PubMed Central. Right off the bat, he could have gone looking for either (1) articles on sentence adverbs or (2) already available corpora. As I pointed out in a comment on his post (which has mysteriously disappeared, probably due to the URLs I in it), there are corpora with science texts from as far back as the 1375 AD. There are also modern alternatives, such as the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) and the British National Corpus (BNC), both of which (and much, much more) are available through Mark Davies’ awesome site.

I bring this up because there are several benefits of using these corpora instead of compiling your own, especially if you’re not a linguist. The first is time and space. Saunders says that his uncompressed corpus of abstracts is 47 GB (!) and that it took “overnight” (double !) for his script to comb through the abstracts. Using an online corpus drops the space required on your home machine down to 0 GB. And running searches on COCA, which contains 450 million words, takes a matter of seconds.

The second benefit is a pretty major one for linguists. After noting that his search only looks for words ending in -ly, Saunders says:

There will of course be false positives – words ending with “ly,” that are not adverbs. Some of these include: the month of July, the country of Italy, surnames such as Whitely, medical conditions such as renomegaly and typographical errors such as “Findingsinitially“. These examples are uncommon and I just ignore them where they occur.

This is a big deal. First of all, the idea of using “ly” as a way to search for adverbs is profoundly misguided. Saunders seems to realize this, since he notes that not all words that end in -ly are adverbs. But where he really goes wrong, as we’ll soon see, is in disregarding all of the adverbs that do not end in -ly. If Saunders had used a corpus that already had each word tagged for its part of speech (POS), or if he had ran a POS-tagger on his own corpus, he could have had an accurate measurement of the use of adverbs in academic articles. This is because POS-tagging allows researchers to find adverbs, adjectives, nouns, etc., as well as searching for words that end in -ly – or even just adverbs that end in -ly. And remember, it can all be done in a matter of moments (even the POS tagging). You won’t even have time to make a cup of coffee, although consumption of caffeinated beverages is highly recommended when doing linguistics (unless you’re at a conference, in which case you should substitute alcohol for caffeine).

Here is where I break from following Saunders’ method. I want like to show you what’s possible with some of the publicly available corpora online, or how a linguist would conduct an inquiry into the use of adverbs in academia.

Looking for sentence-initial adverbs in academic texts, I went to COCA. I know the COCA interface can seem a bit daunting to the uninitiated, but there are very clear instructions (with examples) of how to do everything. Just remember: if confusion persists for more than four hours, consult your local linguist.

On the COCA page, I searched for adverbs coming after a period, or sentence initial adverbs, in the Medical and Science/Technology texts in the Academic section (Click here to rerun my exact search on COCA. Just hit “Search” on the left when you get there). Here’s what I came up with:

Click to embiggen

Top ten sentence initial adverbs in medical and science academic texts in COCA.

You’ll notice that only one of the adverbs on this list (“finally”) ends in “ly”. That word is also coincidentally the top word on Saunders’ list. Notice also that the list above includes the kind of sentence adverbs that Saunders’ search deliberately does not, or those not ending in -ly, such as “for” and “in”, despite the examples of such given on the Wikipedia page that Saunders linked to in his post. (For those wondering, the POS-tagger treated these as parts of adverbial phrases, hence the “REX21” and “RR21” tags)

Searching for only those sentence initial adverbs that end in -ly, we find a list similar to Saunders’, but with only five of the same words on it. (Saunders’ top ten are: finally, additionally, interestingly, recently, importantly, similarly, surprisingly, specifically, conversely, consequentially)

Click to embiggen

Top ten sentence initial adverbs ending in -ly in medical and science academic texts in COCA.

So what does this tell us? Well, for starters, my shooting-from-the-hip research is insufficient to draw any great conclusions from, even if it is more systematic than Saunders’. Seeing what adverbs are used to start sentences doesn’t really tell us much about, for example, what the journals, authors, or results of the papers are like. This is the mistake that Mr. Saunders makes in his conclusions. After ranking the usage frequencies of surprising by journal, he writes:

The message seems clear: go with a Nature or specialist PLoS journal if your results are surprising.

Unfortunately for Mr. Saunders, a linguist would find the message anything but clear. For starters, the realtive use of surprising in a journal does not tell us that the results in the articles are actually surprising, but rather that the authors wish to present their results as surprising. That is, if the word surprising in the articles is not preceded by Our results are not. This is another problem with Mr. Saunders’ conclusions – not placing his results in context – and it is something that linguists would research, perhaps by scrolling through the concordances using corpus linguistics software, or software designed exactly for the type of research that Mr. Saunders wished to do.

The second thing to notice about my results is that they probably look a whole lot more boring than Saunders’. Such is the nature of researching things that people think matter (like those nasty little adverbs), but professionals know really don’t. So it goes.

Finally, what we really should be looking at is how scientists use adverbs in comparison to other writers. I chose to contrast the frequencies of sentence-initial adverbs in the medical and science/technology articles with the frequencies found in academic articles from the (oft-disparaged) humanities. (Here is the link to that search.)

Click to embiggen

Top ten sentence initial adverbs in humanities academic texts in COCA.

Six of the top ten sentence initial adverbs in the humanities texts are also on the list for the (hard) science texts. What does this tell us? Again, not much. But we can get an idea that either the styles in the two subjects are not that different, or that sentence initial adverbs might be similar across other genres as well (since the words on these lists look rather pedestrian). We won’t know, of course, until we do more research. And if you really want to know, I suggest you do some corpus searches of your own because the end of this blog post is long overdue.

I also think I’ve picked on Mr. Saunders enough. After all, it’s not really his fault if he didn’t do as I have suggested. How was he supposed to know all these corpora are available? He’s a bioinformatician, not a corpus linguist. And yet, sadly, he’s the one who gets written up in the Smithsonian’s blog, even though linguists have been publishing about these matters since at least the late 1980s.

Before I end, though, I want to offer a word of warning. Although I said that anyone who knows where to look can and should do their own corpus linguistic research, and although I tried to keep my searches as simple as possible, I couldn’t have done them without my background in linguistics. Doing linguistic research on Big Data is tempting. But doing linguistic research on a corpora, especially one that you compiled, can be misleading at best and flat out wrong at worst if you don’t know what you’re doing. The problem is that Mr. Saunders isn’t alone. I’ve seen other non-linguists try this type of research. My message here is similar to the one in my previous post, which was directed to marketers: linguistic research is interesting and it can tell you a lot about the subject of your interest, but only if you do it right. So get a linguist to do it or see if a linguist has already done it. If either of these is not possible, then feel free to do your own research, but tread lightly, young padawans.

If you’re wondering whether academia overuses adverbs (hint: it doesn’t) or just how much adverbs get tossed into academic articles, I recommend reading papers written by Douglas Biber and/or Susan Conrad. They have published extensively on the linguistic nature of many different writing genres. Here’s a link to a Google Scholar search to get you started. You can also have a look at the Longman Grammar, which is probably available at your library.

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This post is intended to show what linguistics can offer marketing. I’ll be using corpus linguistics tools to analyze a few pieces of advice about how to write better marketing copy. The idea is to empirically test the ideas of what makes for more profitable marketing. But first, a quick note to the marketers. Linguists, please leave the room.

Note to marketers: Corpus linguistics works by annotating texts according to the linguistic features that one wishes to study. One of the most common ways is to tag each word for its part of speech (noun, verb, etc.) and that is what I’ve done here. Corpus linguistics generally works better on longer texts or larger banks of texts, since the results of the analysis become more accurate with more data. In this post I’m going to do a surface analysis of email marketing texts, which are each 250-300 words long, using corpus linguistic methods. If you’re interested in knowing more, please feel free to contact me (joseph.mcveigh@gmail.com). In fact, I really hope you’ll get in touch because I’ve tried again and again to get email marketers to work with me and come up with bupkis. I’m writing this post to show you exactly what I have to offer, which is something you won’t find anywhere else.

Welcome back, linguists. So what I’ve done is gathered ten email marketing texts and ranked them based on how well they performed. That means I divided the number of units sold by the number of emails sent. I then ran each text through a part-of-speech tagger (CLAWS7). Now we’re ready for action.

Let’s start with a few pieces of advice about how to write good marketing copy. I want to see if the successful and unsuccessful marketing texts show whether the advice really translates into better sales.

1. Don’t BE yourself

The first piece of advice goes like this: Don’t use BE verbs in your writing. This means copywriters should avoid is, are, was, were, etc. because it apparently promotes insanity (test results pending) and because “we never can reduce ourselves to single concepts”. If it sounds crazy, that’s because it is. And even the people who promote this advice can’t follow it (three guesses as to what the fourth word in the section on that page introducing this advice is). But let’s see what the marketing texts tell us. Who knows, maybe “to be or not to be” is actually the most memorable literary phrase in English because it’s actually really, really bad writing.

In the chart below, the percentage of BE verbs used in each texts are listed (1 = most successful text). The differences seem pretty staggering, right?

Chart showing the percentage of be verbs in the marketing texts

Well, they would be staggering if I didn’t tell you that each horizontal axis line represents a half of a percentage point, or 0.5%. Now we can see that the differences between the texts, and especially between the best and worst texts, is practically non-existent. So much for being BE-free.

2. You can’t keep a good part of speech down

The second piece of advice is about the misuse of adjectives. According to some marketing/writing experts, copywriters should avoid using adjectives at all because “They are, in fact one of the worst [sic] elements of speech and even make a listener or reader lose trust”. Sounds serious. Except for the fact that linguists have long known that avoiding adjectives is not only bad advice but impossible to do, especially in marketing. How’s that? Well, first, this is another piece of advice which is given by people who can’t seem to follow it. But let’s say you’re trying to sell a t-shirt (or a car or a sofa or whatever). Now try to tell me what color it is without using an adjective. The fact is that different writing styles (sometimes called genres or text types), such as academic writing, fiction, or journalism, use adjectives to a different extent. Some styles use more adjectives, some use less, but all of them use adjectives because (and I can’t stress this enough) adjectives are a natural and necessary part of language. So writers should use neither too many or too few adjectives, depending on the style they are writing in.

But we’re here to run some tests. Let’s take the advice at face value and see if using less (or no) adjectives really means sales will increase.

Chart showing the percentage of adjectives in the marketing texts

Again, the differences in the results look drastic and again looks can be deceiving. In this case, the horizontal axis lines represents two percentage points (2%). The percentage of adjectives used in the three most successful and three least successful marketing texts are nearly identical. In fact, they are within two percentage points of each other. Another one bites the dust.

UPDATE August 22, 2013 – I’d like to mention that the use of modifiers, such as adjectives, is a good way of showing the depth of my research and what it can really offer marketers. While we saw that adjectives in general, or as a class, do not tell us much about which marketing texts will perform better, there are other ways to look into this. For example, there may be certain types of adjectives common to the successful marketing texts, but not found in the unsuccessful ones. Likewise, the placement of an adjective and whether it is preceded by, say, a determiner (the, an, etc.), may also be indicitave of more successful texts. And in a similar fashion, texts which use nouns as modifiers instead of adjectives may be more successful than those that do not. The important thing for marketers reading this to know is that I can research all of these aspects and more. It’s what I do.

3. It’s not all about you, you, you

The final piece of advice concerns the use of the word you, which is apparently one of the most persuasive words in the English language (see #24 on that page). Forget about the details on this one because I don’t feel like getting into why this is shady advice. Let’s just get right to the results.

Chart showing the percentage of the word you in the marketing texts

Does this chart look familiar? This time the horizontal axis lines once again represent a half of a percentage point. And once again, less than two percentage points separate the best and the worst marketing texts. In fact, the largest difference in the use of you between texts is 1.5%. That means that each one of the marketing texts I looked at – the good, the bad, and the in between – uses the word you practically the same as the others. It would behoove you to disregard this piece of advice.

So what?

I’ll admit that I picked some low hanging fruit for this post. But the point was not to shoot down marketing tips. The point was to show email marketers what corpus linguists (like me!) have to offer. Looking for specific words or adjectives is not the only thing that corpus linguistics can do. What if I could analyze your marketing and find a pattern among your more successful texts? Wouldn’t you like to know what it was so you could apply when creating copy in the future? On the other hand, what if there wasn’t any specific pattern among the more successful (or less successful) texts? What if something besides your copy predicted your sales? Wouldn’t you like to know that as well so you could save time poring over your copy in the future?

Really, if you’re an email marketer, I think you should get in touch with me (joseph.mcveigh@gmail.com). I’m about to start my PhD studies, which means that all my knowledge and all that corpus linguistics has to offer could be yours.

How about letting me analyze – and probably finding an innovative way to improve – your marketing? Sound like a good deal? If so, contact me here: joseph.mcveigh@gmail.com.

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In the last paragraph of the first chapter of The Secret Life of Pronouns, James Pennebaker makes a confusing statement: “If you are a serious linguist, this book may disappoint or infuriate you.” This sounds discouraging, especially in these days of pop pseudoscience books, which are all theories and no facts. If Pennebaker is already throwing in the towel to “serious” readers, is it really worth reading on?

The statement is all the more confusing because of what precedes it in the preface. In an explanation of the purpose of his book, Pennebaker says that it is

organized around some of my favorite topics in psychology and the social sciences – personality, gender, deception, leadership, love, history, politics, and groups. The goal is to show how the analysis of function words [like pronouns, articles, and prepositions] can lead to new insights in each of these topics. At the same time, I want you to appreciate ways of thinking about and analyzing language. No matter what your personal or professional interest, I hope you come to see the world differently and can use this knowledge to better understand yourself and others […] Although the analysis of language is the focus of this book, it is really a work of psychology. Whereas linguists are primarily interested in language for its own sake, I’m interested in what people’s words say about their psychological states.

That’s what makes the part about infuriating serious linguists all the more confusing. You might think that Pennebaker is saying linguists can only be interested in language for its own sake (whatever that is), his very next sentences state

Words, then, can be thought of as powerful tools to excavate people’s thoughts, feelings, motivations, and connections with others. With advancements in computer technologies, this approach is informing a wide range of scholars across many disciplines – linguists, neuroscientists, psycholinguists, developmentalists, computer scientists, computational linguists, and others.

So I’m guessing that Pennebaker is trying to guard his book against criticism from serious linguists, but while that may be the case, I think his worry is unfounded. It’s true that there are non-fiction books out there that should do themselves a favor and ask not to be read critically, but it is also true that there are some very interesting linguistics books that can be enjoyed by both the general public and serious linguists alike. Pennebaker’s book falls into the latter category. Even if I feel that some of his analyses called for more detail or data, The Secret Life of Pronouns is after all a book aimed at the general public, not a scholarly article. I would recommend this book to anyone, even serious linguists.

(As a side note, the more I use the term “serious linguist” the more I like it. It’s definitely going in the act, but I’m going to write it Serious Linguist.)

A final interesting thing about The Secret Life of Pronouns is that the accompanying website lets you take a few exercises to see what your words “reveal about you.” Most of them tell you what your own writing says about your personality, but you can also run an email conversation through the machine to see how in sync the people are check the personality behind a Twitter account. The results will straight up tell you not to take them too seriously, but had the crystal ball check Rick Santorum’s Twitter account. It said he rated low in every area of thinking style, but high in the “arrogant/distant” area of social style. Coincidence? You would think Rick Santorum could have hired someone to handle his Twitter account…

 

 

 

Up next: The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker, which is the first post in a series about this topic.

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