There’s good articles out there

Here is an article that I meant to write about earlier, but it got pushed down my inbox and forgotten (you all email yourselves articles that you want to read later, right?). It’s a great article on linguistics. It’s short and sweet – about one seemingly simple linguistic topic – and the journalist talked to a linguist. Hooray!

The article is on the use of There’s before plurals, as in There’s three cars outside. According to (Standard) English grammar, that’s technically wrong. But as Prof. Andreaa Calude points out, everyone uses there’s before plurals*. And the phrase may be increasing. Prof. Calude also had this wonderful thing to say:

“We measure speech by the same yardstick as writing, even though speech is done differently and has a different function,” she said. “The grammar of speech is different to the grammar of writing.”

“We’re not clued up with what happens in speech. We think it must be bad because it’s not like writing, but that’s not the case.”

I love seeing that kind of stuff in a news article.

So it’s not all bad linguistics press out there. You’d think it was if you read enough of this blog, but I wanted to mention that there are good articles out there too. Go give their writers a click for their good work: https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/education/102419351/theres-a-reason-were-bending-the-rules-on-speech-grammar

*Side note: the article says that what comes after there’s is the subject of the sentence. I know some grammars have described it like this, but I would argue that there is the real subject of the sentence and what comes after it is a displaced or notional subject, which then gets analyzed as the subject complement (also sometimes called the predicate nominative, I think). It’s a minor point. I’m sure most people reading the article were taught that there isn’t the subject in sentences that start with there is/was/are/were.

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The Tornado Twins Merger

The Flash’s kids have the same name if you have the Don-Dawn merger.

Over on the tumblr The Chronological Superman, “Calamity” Jon Morris says

Some genuinely weird stories appear in the catalog, such as “Superman’s Lost Century,” the epic Mordru arc beginning in Adventure Comics vol.1 No.369, and the debut of Barry Allen’s immediate offspring Don and Dawn Allen a.k.a. The Tornado Twins in Adventure Comics vol 1 No.373 (Oct 1968). Who in the world would give their twins a homophone for a pair of names? I mean, the answer is Barry Allen and his wife Iris, but I pose the question rhetorically.

He’s right – the Mordru arc is a genuinely weird Superman story. No, I kid. He’s also right that the names Don and Dawn are pronounced the same by many speakers. It’s called the low back merger and it’s also what makes people pronounce the words cot and caught the same. Without the merger, the word Don is pronounced /dɑn/, while the word dawn is pronounced /dɔn/. So it’s only the vowel that distinguishes them, with the first vowel being more open and farther back in the mouth than the second vowel. But in the merger, the vowel in the word dawn shifts down to the vowel in Don and they become homophones.

Adventure_Comics_373_Tornado_Twins
First appearance of the Tornado Twins in Adventure Comics #373 by Jim Shooter and Win Mortimer (1968).

So who has this merger? Well, according to the Atlas of North American English, the merger is “is characteristic of a very large part of the geographic terrain of North America” (Lobov, Ash & Boberg 2005: 60). The Atlas gives this map, where people who are inside the green line have the merger and the green dots represent people who both hear and speak the words Don and dawn identically.

low_back_merger_map_9_1_Atlas
Map 9.1 from the Atlas of North American English by Labov, Ash & Boberg (2005).

It makes sense that the names of the Flash’s kids could be Dawn and Don. Barry Allen, aka the Flash, is from Iowa, which falls outside of the merger boundary in the image above. And he operates as the Flash in Central City, Missouri, another place outside of the low back merger area. The only thing is that the Tornado Twins Don and Dawn were born in the 30th century, which proves that the low back merger will never fully sweep across North America. Even 10 centuries from now there are places where Don and dawn are pronounced differently. Now you know.

Book Review: Junk English by Ken Smith

Junk English is the Arby’s of style guides.

Junk English is a garbage book

I read a lot of bad articles and books about language. By “bad,” I mean “writing by people who make nonsense claims about language”. Ken Smith’s book Junk English is one of the worst ones I’ve read. I can’t decide if it’s too preachy or too uninformed. But who cares? It’s just bad. Let’s see why. Continue reading “Book Review: Junk English by Ken Smith”

Michelle Wolf on Fresh Air speaking about her voice

Comedian Michelle Wolf was on NPR’s Fresh Air recently and the host, Terry Gross, asked her about her voice (at around 12:30 in this interview):

Let’s talk about your voice. I wasn’t sure how you’d sound as yourself, not on stage but just, like, talking to me. And I’d say your voice sounds, you know, sounds a little different when you’re just talking to me. Does your voice change on stage naturally? Do you emphasize certain qualities in it when you’re on stage?

I bring this up because things could have gone very bad at this moment… but they didn’t! I was bracing for some bad linguistics that thankfully never came. Wolf talks about how she wants to sound better in the interview because she respects Gross’s voice and Gross stresses that she thinks Wolf’s voice is fine and that her own voice changes when she tries to speak louder.

But this is interesting because the interview plays a clip of Wolf making jokes about people complaining about Hillary Clinton’s supposedly shrill voice. The term shrill is only applied to women and it’s some dog-whistling misogyny. As Gross and Wolf discuss in the interview, people’s voices change when they are speaking on stage – and that’s fine! Think about how Chris Rock speaks in his comedy specials. I don’t remember anyone ever asking him about his bombastic tone. Or how Jerry Seinfeld’s whining delivery (dare I say his “shrill tone”?) is endearing. No one sees that as a problem.

So it was nice to see the Fresh Air interview not go down a language-shaming rabbit hole. I wish more discussions between non-linguists on women’s voices were like this.

Word Fails Me #4: What Word must say

This is an entry in a series of posts I’m calling Word Fails Me, in which I highlight the strange ideas that Microsoft Word has about English grammar. Each post will be a screenshot with little or no comment. The intention of this series is to amuse you and make you wonder where Word is getting its ideas. I’m not trying to be condescending to Word’s grammar checker or the people behind it. Word is a fascinating program and the grammar checker can be a lifesaver, even if it leans prescriptivist sometimes. If I come across interesting research into MS Word’s grammar checker, I’ll share it here. You can find all of the entries under the Word Fails Me tag. Enjoy!

Welcome back to Word Fails Me! Here’s an example of Word getting a bit confused with modal verbs. I guess it’s neat that Word thinks have is a modal and can be made more precise by using must or should. Have is a plain ol’ lexical verb here. Sometimes must can replace have to, but not in this case.

MS Word - what they have to say

Dictionary.com is picking up their slack

Credit where credit’s due, Dictionary.com has been putting out better blog posts on language these days. A few months ago, I went hard on them for whining about millennials in a listicle. And a few months before that I raged on them for their uninformed listicle about words you shouldn’t use. But recently they’ve written interesting posts about the Northern Cities Vowel Shift and the changing nature of taboo words. They even had a listicle of quotes about the importance of net neutrality. I don’t care what kind of ad space they may be selling with these posts. That’s the name of the game online. I’d rather they get those clicks with posts on legit linguistic topics than with nonsense language shaming posts.

Dictionary.com also tweeted this and it is 🔥

So hats off to Dictionary.com for stepping up their game. I knew they had it in ‘em.

Fluency and linguistics in the news

There was some press recently about a new study which seems to claim that you can’t become fluent in a second language if you start learning it after age 10. In fact, the study* did not talk about fluency at all. As this article in the Conversation UK by Prof. Monika Schmid points out, the media misinterpreted what the study showed. I’m glad Schmid wrote this piece, which not only clears up the media’s confusion with the study, but also explains some other things about fluency in linguistics. I read the study in question and it seemed pretty legit. I have some misgivings about the idea of nativeness in language learning and about how the questionnaire says that India isn’t a “traditional English speaking country”. And also how the quiz said that “Canadians, Irish, and Scottish accept I’m finished my homework instead of with my homework,” when this is also very common in and around Philadelphia**.

games_with_words_done_my_homework

But all in all, it seems to be an interesting linguistics study that got blown out of proportion by the media. File it with the rest.

* The title of the study is “A critical period for second language acquisition: Evidence from 2/3 million English speakers”. Does anyone else find “2/3 million English speakers” ungrammatical?

**It might just be me, but the phrase “Canadians, Irish, and Scottish accept X” also seems ungrammatical. “Canadians accept X” is ok, but “Irish accept X” and “Scottish accept X” are not, at least not in my variety of English. The latter two need articles before them or the word people after them: “The Irish accept X”, “Scottish people accept X”. I don’t know of any variety where “Canadians, Irish, and Scottish accept X” is correct. This is just a bit of irony in a quiz about the grammaticality of different clauses.