Category Archives: Grammar

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Robots Gossiping in a Secret Language?

tworobots

I returned from Konstanz to find a whole slew of newspapers, websites, and news magazines had revived a language technology story from two months ago (Adrienne LaFrance discussed it in The Atlantic in June). Facebook, they reported, had been trying to get two chatbots (“Bob” and “Alice”) in an “adversarial network” to learn negotiation by reading a stash of transcribed negotiations between humans and imitating them. But as the chatbots purported to negotiate over the pricing of balls, hats, and…

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Back to the Real World

konstanz

I spent last week in Konstanz, Germany, on the shores of Lake Constance, at a small conference devoted to a theory of syntax called lexical-functional grammar (LFG). Among the attendees were two language engineers who attend almost every year: Ron Kaplan, co-developer of LFG (with the Stanford syntactician Joan Bresnan) and an industrial computational linguist since the 1980s, and Tracy Holloway King, a 1993 Stanford linguistics Ph.D. who also has a long career in Silicon Valley industrial rese…

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Past Not-So-Perfect

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James Garfield

Sometimes I get tense about tenses. In the past, I’ve vented about writers’ overuse or abuse of the present tense, in general, and the historical present, in particular. (That’s the one where a historian interviewed on NPR says something like, “FDR is inaugurated on March 4 and almost immediately starts to enact the New Deal.”)

My new pet peeve is the past perfect, sometimes called the pluperfect. It’s used when referring to events that took place before past events that are under…

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Being a Determinative

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The determinatives of English are the little words that occur at the beginning of many noun phrases, often as a matter of grammatical necessity: words like the indefinite article a and its prevowel alter ego an, the definite article the (notoriously the most frequent word in English running text, as every cryptanalyst knows), and a bunch of other words like all, enough, every, few, little, many, much, no, some, and the demonstratives this and that. And in addition, all of the numerals. (The wor…

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‘The Americans Have No Adverbs’

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I still remember the awful woman I met at a reception during an English Speaking Union meeting on George Street, Edinburgh, in 2008 (I mentioned her here once before). She told me loudly and confidently, as if playing Lady Bracknell on stage, that English was rapidly degrading; for example, “The Americans have no adverbs. Absolutely none. They’ve just got rid of them.”

I wanted to explain about my American citizenship and quarter-century of living and teaching linguistics in California, and the…

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The Much-Needed Gap

kindofwoman

A few mornings ago I was half-listening to a radio piece that I think may have been about women’s kick-boxing in Jordan. (Forgive me for the vagueness, but it was way before 6 a.m., and I was half dozing to the early morning sound of my bedside clock radio playing the BBC World Service magazine program Boston Calling.) As my mind slowly rebooted, I heard someone quote an inspirational saying:

[1]   Be the kind of woman that when you get up in the morning the devil says, “Oh crap, she’s up.”
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Nina in Siberia

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Elif Batuman and her new book

 

Elif Batuman’s novel The Idiot, published earlier this year, has as its protagonist young Selin who, at the book’s beginning, is starting her freshman year at Harvard. We are in the fall semester of 1995. Selin is more or less a stand-in for her creator: Not only does she want to be a writer, she also has some of the same experiences that Batuman has written about in earlier memoir-essays. The book is self-conscious about the uncertainties immanent in language:…

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English Grammar Day

propriety

This Monday, July 3, I’m an invited speaker at English Grammar Day, an annual event involving nonspecialist talks and discussion on aspects of English, held at the British Library in London, and people have been warning me against full-scale frontal assaults on the general public’s beliefs, or polemics against authorities they respect. Be positive and nonconfrontational, they advise. They want me all soft and kind, as if it’s National Brotherhood Week.

Well, I’ve tried that. My article “50 Yea…

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Worst Sentence Ever Seen in Academic Prose

Fitzedward Hall

Fitzedward Hall

Linguists are often accused of ignoring the difference between good writing and bad. But I’m not one of E. B. White’s Happiness Boys: “the modern liberal of the English Department, the anything-goes fellow.”

Just today I was shocked by perhaps the most ill-structured sentence I’ve ever seen in academic prose (not ungrammatical, just hideously clumsy):

Our infinitive, where to precedes it, having been generally, of old, dativo-gerundial, it is pertinent, at the outset, to note…

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A Story of Grammar

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Those of us — poets, fiction writers, literary essayists — who consider our work with language to amount to art often have a strange relationship with discussions of language. It’s hard to find a parallel in other forms of art. We who are not painters have little to offer on the subjects of paints and canvases; we who are not composers generally have few opinions about the qualities of various key or tempo signatures, much less about the composition of the orchestra. We have the right to …