Monday, April 28, 2008

Well, Isn't That Interesting

This comes from Science Daily (ignore the British spellings, please):

Intuitive Grammar Develops By Age Six, Say Researchers

ScienceDaily (Apr. 29, 2008) — Psychologists at the University of Liverpool have discovered that children as young as six are as adept at recognising possible verbs and their past tenses as adults.

In a study conducted by the University's Child Language Study Centre, children aged between six and nine were given sentences containing made-up verbs such as 'the duck likes to spling' and were asked to judge the acceptability of possible past tense forms. The study focused on the process the children used to come to their conclusions rather than whether their answers were right or wrong.

They found that the children's judgements followed a virtually identical pattern to those of linguistics students who took part in a similar study at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the US.

University of Liverpool psychologist, Ben Ambridge, said: "Previous studies have concentrated on getting children to produce past tense forms for made-up words. This study is unique in that the children were asked to judge the acceptability of different forms that we gave them.

"One of the main questions raised when looking at children's ability to pick up their native language is whether abstract symbolic rules or the use of memory and comparison affect how a child attributes past tenses to words.


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Drudge Report

Slate today has a headline that says the Obama campaign won't "drudge" up old Clinton scandals.

To drudge means "to perform mean or servile tasks; to work hard or slavishly; to toil at laborious and distasteful work," the Oxford English Dictionary reports.

To dredge means "To collect and bring up (oysters, etc.) by means of a dredge; to bring up, fish up, or clear away or out (any object) from the bottom of a river, etc. Also fig."

They meant to use dredge in its figurative sense--to reach into the muck and pull up all that sordid old stuff.

We suspect the confusion comes from the popular "Drudge Report," a conservative blog that revels on the silty bottom of journalism and is considered a must-read by many in the business. How interesting that two words that sound alike are now being conflated elsewhere in the media.

It gives us a whole new word: "to drudge: v., to dig up unpleasant mud and sling it at a political opponent." It could be used by liberals and conservatives alike. Oh, joy.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Attention to "Derail"

We read this funny story about job applicants in Australia who can't spell to save their lives. Some even misspell the word "error."
Job seekers' spelling shockers
April 20, 2008 12:30am

THE alarming extent of Australia's literacy crisis has been revealed by job seekers who apply for a "roll" as a "manger" on covering letters that end with "C U later".

Some job seekers cannot even spell the word "error" correctly, the Sunday Mail has discovered.

Business and language experts say the stunning examples of poor spelling and grammar are indicative of a literary "laziness" that has become a "malaise" in society.
Experts have blamed a lack of classroom discipline for the crisis, with too many school leavers not equipped with basic English skills such as spelling. [SCHOOL LEAVERS? WE LOVE AUSTRALIAN IDIOMS.]

Adelaide recruitment firm Mps People Solutions discovered a host of horror spelling blunders in a study of thousands of job applications.

Poor spelling, incorrect use of apostrophes and mixing of Australian and American spelling were the most common errors found in applications, Mps operations manager Robert Godden said.


We "Can't" Get Enough

We admit it. We love it when people point out "unnecessary" quotation marks. Enjoy this blog, which is dedicated to them.

Monday, April 21, 2008

To Make Asses of Ourselves

Xavier D. found a funny typo in an AP story about the polygamist church full of French-braided women in Little-House-on-the-Prairie clothes.

The excerpt below describes how a public-relations specialist recommends spinning a crisis such as this:
Going public in the midst of a big crisis is always a risk, said Dick Amme, a public relations and crisis communications specialist from Winston-Salem, N.C. Amme said he advises clients to asses the situation, gather the facts, fix the central problem and then "get truth of the situation to the media as quickly as possible." (Read more...)
Um, that should be "assess." Asses are donkeys. As far as we know, these people only married humans.

Show Me the Grammar

From the Kansas City Star:

Hyphen missing from new Missouri license plates
By MARCUS KABELThe Associated Press

Missouri will not correct a grammatical error in new license plates because that's how voters want it to be, a state Department of Revenue spokesman said Friday.

The plates featuring a bluebird, the official state bird, are due out in June despite the fact that they're missing the hyphen in the state's nickname, "Show-Me State."
David Griffith, spokesman for the Missouri Department of Revenue, said they won't correct the mistake because that's how it looked when voters chose it in an online contest last year.

"If the people want it that way, that's what we're going to deliver for the people," Griffith said.

The rules of grammar require the hyphen, Missouri Southern State University English professor Dale Simpson said. "If you have a compound modifier before a noun, it would be hyphenated," he said.

About 2 million of the plates have been produced so far, but another 10 million have yet to be made to fulfill demand for the next two years, Griffith said. The department could reorder the remaining majority of plates to include the hyphen but does not plan to do so, he said.


The punchline? Fifty-six percent of the voters surveyed on the site said they didn't care about the hyphen. Oh, sadness!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

We'd Like Just Desserts

Ah, just desserts. It's what we'd eat if we could, but we like to stay in fighting shape.

This headline, however, should read "just deserts." That's how the expression should be spelled. Deserts are what you deserve. The words share the same root.

Desserts, on the other hand, are rarely handed out as punishments. We do know some people who try to pass sugar-free Jell-O off as dessert. That's pretty punishing in our book.
Iowa pranksters get just desserts: 3,000 forks in their yard

DUBUQUE, Iowa -- When known pranksters Rick and Marilyn Jones left town for a wedding, neighbors seeking payback eyed their property and decided to stick a fork in it - a few thousand forks, in fact.

Tom and Paula Tschudi planted 3,000 white plastic forks in the Jones' yard and dangled more from the roof, fence and garage.

"We just wanted to do something funny to them, because every time we leave, they pull some prank on us," said Paula Tschudi, who promised to help pick up the forks.

Over the years, the Joneses have strung beer cans like holiday lights around the Tschudis' home, put a for-sale sign in their yard and strung yellow crime-scene tape around chalk outlines of bodies on the sidewalk.

As the Tschudis, their two children and another neighborhood family planted the forks Sunday, one passer-by asked what they were doing.

"We told him we were aerating their lawn," Paula Tschudi said with a laugh.

A Day for Vizzinis

Shirley B-P found this howler while cruising the Internet Movie Database for quotations from "Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion." (No judging, please.)

Christie: Unbelievable! They're as diluted about their lives as they are about those
HIDEOUS clothes.
Clearly, the word here should be deluded.

Then we went to IMDB and found this description of the movie "ET." (No judging, please.)

It is a film experience that is indefeasible.

What did the writer mean? Indescribable? Indefensible? Indivisible? With liberty and justice for all? We have no idea...though he really liked the movie and gave it 10 out of 10 stars.

A Grammar Fable

Enjoy this dose of wit from the one and only Craig Conley.

The Grammarian and the Dingbat

One fine evening a strolling man heard a cry for help from the bottom of a deep well.

"What's the matter?" he called down.

"I am a grammarian," came the reply. "I've fallen and I can't get up."

"Hold on, professor, and I'll fetch up a rope," said the man.

"One moment, please!" called the grammarian. "Your grammar and diction are faulty; be good enough to amend them."

"In that case, I'll go for a long dash," said the man.

"It's a hyphen, you dingbat!" cried the grammarian, but the man was long gone, and for good.

(inspired by a Sufi tale told by Rumi, as collected in Tales of the Dervishes by Idries Shah)

Hail Mary, Full of Grapes

Isn't that how the prayer goes? Hail Mary, full of grapes, blessed is the fruit of thy womb?

That would sort of explain why these nuns are "clustered," instead of "cloistered."

Thanks to Hillary Caws-Elwitt for the screen shot.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Worth Noting

The pen is mightier than both the gun and the sword, apparently. In Michigan, 9 banks have been robbed by people wielding...notes. And apparently, they're not all grammatically correct. Shocking!
A serious note: Paper, not gun, is bank robber's weapon of choiceTHE FLINT JOURNAL FIRST EDITION
Sunday, April 13, 2008
By Bryn Mickle

GENESEE COUNTY - It's been happening a lot lately: A man walks into a bank with a hold-up note and leaves with a bag full of money.

No weapon. Not even the threat of one. Just a note.

Although experts say most bank robbers get caught and risk life in prison for a few hundred bucks, that message is lost on some crooks who see banks as easy money.

But the idea that someone can rob anything with just a note is a head scratcher for John Dombrowski, who owns a battery store just down the road from the Security Federal Credit Union branch in Burton, where a robber showing a note got $1,600 last month.

"I would take it, correct it for punctuation and laugh at it," said Dombrowski.
This reminds us of the San Francisco bank robber who filled out a deposit slip demanding that a teller "put the muny in a bag." He apparently worried that someone had seen him write his note, so he took it to the bank across the street.

The teller there, confident she was not dealing with a genius, told him she couldn't fill his request because it was written on another bank's deposit slip. The would-be robber returned to the first bank, where he was arrested by police summoned by the savvy teller.

Then last year in San Diego, we had the English Major Bandit, so named by the FBI for his appalling heist notes. He was caught and convicted, and now will have the rest of his life to study the prison library.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Matthew McConaughey: Haunted by Punctuation

From his MySpace blog:

Ghost’s Of Girlfriends Past
GOGP...began work in Boston 6 weeks ago...nice to be in a winter environment after 3 summers in a row, but that California sun gonna feel good in June....I am having a character, Conner Mead, really has a strong point of view on love, women, and family...he’s even funnier and more heartfelt than I thought he was on the page...its cool being in a very edgy comedy where the dialogue and situations skirt that "R" rated innuendo..its adult humor for the young at heart... (Read...more...)
He's obviously abusing the ellipsis [kids, don't smoke a lot of weed!], but his apostrophes--missing and present--are largely catastrophes. He's missing two and has one extra, meaning he only used the apostrophe correctly 25 percent of the time in this paragraph.

Just in case anyone else is dazed and confused, apostrophes are used:

1) in contractions. When two words collide and drop a letter, the apostrophe lets you know that's [short for "that has"] happened.

2) in possessives. The apostrophe tells you it's Matthew McConaughey's blog.

They are not used to make plurals, though we will politely look the other way if you mention the "A's" on your report card.

There is such a thing as a plural possessive, however. To make these, first find the plural form of the noun. Woman becomes women. Then, add the apostrophe+S. Women's.

This is really only tricky when your noun ends in S. He is Hank Jones. He is one of the Joneses. Keeping up with the Joneses' investments is difficult.

Grammar Spoof!

Police today revealed that a 27 year old English teacher has been beaten to death by the checkout staff at a supermarket in Guildford, Surrey. An eye witness said "It was horrible- the man simply pointed out that the sign reading 'ten items or less' should in fact read 'fewer than ten items' because less means 'not as much' and fewer means 'not as many'."


Bad Monkey

We saw the headline and naturally had to read the story that accompanied it:
Diaper-clad monkey escapes Fla. home

ORLANDO, Fla. -- A diaper-clad monkey who escaped from his Orlando home is in the custody of animal control. Orlando Police said the monkey escaped through a window Friday and was sitting on top of a wall near a condo building.

When passerby's tried to catch the monkey, he charged at them, forcing them to retreat to the street into oncoming traffic.

Authorities used a banana to lure the monkey into a cage where he was then taken to Orange County Animal Control.

Authorities were not able to locate the animal's owners.
Sorry, but the plural of passer-by is not passerby's. It's passers-by. Let this be a lesson to all you passers-by. Do not attempt to capture escaped monkeys in diapers, unless you have a banana. Anything else will be...fruitless.

To Market to Market...

Do you think the people at Bloomberg are riding Segway scooters to the U.S. market? Or did the editors mean "segue"?

Also, where in the world is Jaguar-Land? We're sort of scared to go there, even on a Segway. Of course, an en-dash instead of a hyphen would indicate it's a deal between Jaguar and Land Rover, but that's a decidedly less interesting proposition.

A hyphen is the narrow one, an en-dash is as wide as the capital N, and an em-dash is as wide as a capital M. Use en-dashes for date ranges and the like. Em-dashes separate chunks of sentences—like this.

- hyphen
– (— gives you an en-dash)
— (— gives you an em-dash) (thanks to the dashing Barry L. for assistance with the code)

Thanks to Craig Conley for the screenshot.

Friday, April 04, 2008

The Great Punctuation Debate

Here's something you probably wouldn't find in an American newspaper: a debate about punctuation.

From the "pro" side:
Both sides in the punctuation debate have an irritating tendency to miss the point.

Libertarians, who believe there is no point in instructing anyone in its uses, fail to acknowledge that there are certainly wrong ways to use any mark of punctuation.

Sticklers, who believe that there are simple right and wrong ways to apply these things, fail to acknowledge that many marks of punctuation don't have a single correct usage, and that different good writers find ways of exploiting the potential effects of, for instance, a colon or a dash.

Of the two, the libertarian is the more deplorable and irresponsible figure. No writer ever came to his own individual and effective usage of a piece of punctuation by being deprived of an explanation of how it is customarily used, and how it has, in the past, been used. To say that there are wrong usages is not incompatible with the understanding that there is also a range of right usages. An imposition of the libertarian model will only lead to confusion, or the disappearance of useful and sensitive markers.
From the "con" side:

Punctuation. Do we need it and what difference does it make to our ability to understand what people say? Well, judging by the first sentence that I wrote (and, indeed, this one) I would have to say – it depends. Punctuation is just one word, and a noun at that, and has no business forming a complete sentence, which is of course what I did.

But I have many more notable compatriots in my use of single-word sentences. Dickens for starters. And there I go again, a sentence without a verb – twice within one paragraph – as well as the use of "and" and "but" to begin two of them.

(Read the full debate.)

SPOGG is with the "pro" side all the way. The main argument made by Dr. Bethan Marshall, isn't really a case against following the rules of punctuation. Dr. Marshall punctuates her essay throughout--if she really thought punctuation didn't matter, she wouldn't have used it, or wouldn't have taken care to do it correctly.

What she argues for are incomplete sentences. Fine. Used well, those are a great artistic tool. You still can't end an incomplete sentence with a comma, a semicolon, an apostrophe or a hyphen. That's against the rules--and for good reason.

She mentions that punctuation was originally meant to tell readers where to breathe as they read texts out loud. True, but irrelevant. There are widely accepted rules that not only represent convention, they help us write clearly. The day most of our texts are meant to be read out loud is the day we can go back to this historical function.

Dr. Marshall at least doesn't argue that apostrophes are useless, as other professors of English have done. Anyone who thinks apostrophes don't make a difference in meaning is in denial. He'll and hell are entirely different concepts. Hell, to us, is a place without thoughtful punctuation.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

McKean's Law

We love Erin McKean of the Oxford English Dictionary. We love Verbatim, the language quarterly she edits. And we love her law. How true it is:
McKean's Law: Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling, or typographical error.

He Used to Waddle

Ah, friendship. We read a heartwarming story about a man who donated a kidney to his best friend, after losing 50 pounds so he'd be in shape for the procedure.

Unfortunately, the AP reporter convering the story used a sound-alike word for "wattle," that jiggly flesh that hangs below the neck of people of a certain age and girth.
Dressed in activewear and running sneakers at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis the day before the transplant surgery, Moore was down to 200 pounds from 250, and said he conquered both the "turkey waddle under his neck" and his former "man boobs."

Still, it is amusing to think of a turkey waddling beneath someone's chin. That would have to tickle.

Creating Editing in Government

Michael V. sends this along from the New York Times. It's about limiting the ability of a governor to modify a bill by crossing out words--or even parts of words--to change the meaning of the legislation:

"Seventy-one percent of voters favored a referendum that read to outsiders like some indecipherable grammar lesson, barring the governor from creating “a new sentence by combining parts of two or more sentences.”

They have fought (and laughed) over this before. Voters limited the veto once before, in 1990, rejecting what critics then called the “Vanna White veto,” allowing a governor to cross out letters inside words to make whole new words.

With the letter-flipping practice banned, critics, led by Republican legislators, this time re-named their target the “Frankenstein veto,” focusing on the governor’s ability to merge whole sentences through deletions, and thus, they said, cobble together weird bits of provisions to create whatever monster one cared to.

Read the whole story, if you'd like to. It's creative editing, in its Frankenstein-esque glory. Think of the other applications of this... that memo from your boss? Edit it to say what you want to hear. The prenuptial agreement you signed with your sixth husband? You can make it better...

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

A 'grave' Error

Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Smich, who wrote the famous "sunscreen" essay for college graduates, has another good one today, about the missing apostrophe in a statue outside Wrigley Field.

The 7-foot statue of Ernie Banks says "LETS PLAY TWO."

Many of the people Smich interviewed had no idea what was wrong with the inscription, though more than 80 percent of the people who've taken the survey view that apostrophe as "essential."

We take heart in that, at least.