Wednesday, 24 June 2015
Not long ago, someone on Facebook posted that they had "babysatted" a friend's new baby. This isn't standard English, but it's not hard to find instances:
I'm the oldest of 9 and have babysatted for years. [source
I not only remember a few things I did when I was babysatted. [source
I have babysatted ever since i was 13 years old [source
In effect, babysatted is a double past. In standard English, the past tense of to babysit is babysat, since the past tense of sit is sat. There's a relatively small (tho common) set of verbs that form the past tense "irregularly" like this—that is, by changing the stem vowel. Other examples are sing/sang/sung, speak/spoke/spoken, and fly/flew/flown. (Note -n on the end of two of the participles; it will come up again in a moment.)
The far more common way to form the past, and the way we do so for new verbs, is to whack -ed (sometimes -t) onto the end of the stem, as in talk/talked. The term babysatted incorporates both ways to create a past tense, thus it's a double past.
Another example is grounded as the past tense of to grind, where ground would be the standard past tense. A web search for "fine grounded" turns up references to "fine grounded coffee" and "fine grounded rice."
These examples are evidence of how strong the tendency is to add regular (i.e., -ed) past endings onto verbs. You can start with a verb (sat) that most people are unlikely to get wrong in its basic state; probably no one except toddlers says sitted or satted. But when you add bits and bobs to the verb—for example, when sit becomes babysit—the irregularity of this base verb starts becoming wobbly, and people start wanting to add the overwhelmingly more common -ed marker for past.
Even speakers who enjoy hewing to standard English might find themselves pausing when they need to form the past of some less-common verbs. Me, I stumble when I need to form the past of to troubleshoot, and I'm not alone:
Another example of a verb that might slow people down is to cheerlead. You might have to think through whether it should be cheerled based on lead/led, or whether it should be cheerleaded. Lots of people have used the latter.
An even trickier one is to greenlight in the sense of "to approve." If you approved a project yesterday, do you say "I greenlighted it" or "I greenlit it"? You can make a case for either (both lit and lighted are listed as past forms for to light), but my point here is that unless it's a term you use every day, you might have to stop and give that one a think.
So: forming the past tense of neologisms based on irregular verbs is an interesting business.
I'll leave you with another wacky past form, and one of my personal favorites: boughten. This is also a double past, like babysatted, but kind of in reverse. It takes a verb that already has a regular past-tense ending (-t) and adds the -en ending that you sometimes find on the participle of irregular verbs, like the aforementioned spoken and flown. I'm not sure, but I think this is again an instance where in its naked state (buy/bought) people are unlikely to use the non-standard form, but once you decorate it up with prefixes and such, it gets weird. The canonical example, at least as far as I'm concerned, is store-boughten.
I'd sure love to see more examples if you have them!
Wednesday, 20 May 2015
I forget how I found this, but a couple of days ago I ended up on a blog dedicated to writing fiction. Name? The Fictorians. That's a nice play on Victorian, and it's a clever use of the combining form -(t)arian (or a version of that), which Merriam-Webster defines as "believer" or "advocate" (vegetarian) or "producer" (disciplinarian).
And earlier this week I was at a conference for technical writers, where I discovered that we seem now to be calling ourselves by a new name: documentarians. Here's a slide that was presented at the conference.
I asked around about this term, because it was new to me. People noted that it was a known term for someone who creates documentary films. It seems that this new sense— documentation + -(t)arian in its "producer" sense—arose about a year ago, perhaps at last year's edition of the very conference that I was attending. Or so I interpret a thread on a tech-writing list.
One of the people I asked was Ben Zimmer, word guru. He wondered whether documentarian had been inspired by the cluster of words that was spun off from vegatarian: pescetarian (fish), fruitarian, nutatarian, flexitarian, etc. A quick peek into the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) for *tarian also got me pastatarian, pollotarian (chicken), and pizzatarian.
These would fall under the "believer/advocate" use of the –arian particle, I suppose. Even so, new terms like this might be helping the –(t)arian particle become a more widely used cranberry morpheme or libfix (as Arnold Zwicky might call it), and helping along new and imaginative uses for it.
Update (May 24, 2015): Nancy Friedman noted to me today that the A.Word.A.Day site listed futilitarian as its word for May 7—"Devoted to futile pursuits" or "Holding the belief that human striving is useless."
Thursday, 7 May 2015
Now and again I'll get a request from an engineer that says, essentially, "We need to update the documentation, because there's this additional way to do the task." For example, I got a request not long ago that we were missing documentation for some alternative ways to specify parameters for a command. The command goes like this:
DoSomething.exe --filename <somefilename>
The engineer wanted us to add that you could also do this:
DoSomething.exe -f <somefilename>
In other words, the
-f option was a shortcut/alternative for the
Similarly, I was recently asked to add a note that told users that under some specific circumstances, they could exclude the filename extension (.pdf or .txt or whatever) from a filename parameter. But leaving off the extension was optional.
When faced with a request like this, the writer might want to take a step back and ask whether the update is really that helpful from the user's perspective: does the reader benefit from this additional information, or does it just add noise? Is this essential information, or is just a nice-to-know?
It's not that these alternative approaches are not useful to users. But does every user have to know every option for every command? Is the benefit worth the extra effort to add them to the docs, and the users' extra effort to sort through the options? What if the alternatives are really just artifacts of the previous version of a command—do we still need to document them?
People who document procedures that involve UI might be familiar with a similar issue. When you're telling the user how to do something, does each step of your procedure describe the menu command, and the right-click context menu, and the keyboard shortcut? This can quickly become cumbersome.
Here's an example of a step from the MadCap Flare documentation that provides an exhaustive inventory of every way to accomplish the step:
Should every procedure step get this treatment? I argue not only that it isn't helpful, but it actually noises up the procedure substantially.
The goal of documentation—particularly reference docs and procedures—is to get the user to the solution as efficiently as possible. If you do get requests to include options for commands or gestures, consider pushing back and asking just how necessary these additional options really are.
Sunday, 12 April 2015
I'm not one of those people who will carefully note new and unfamiliar terms, look them up, and diligently add them to my vocabulary. (Well, sometimes I am, but only when I make a special effort.) But now and then I'll encounter a word or phrase that piques my curiosity—it seems clever or apt, it describes something new to me, or perhaps it just sounds like a fun term.
Here's a list of such terms, with definitions and a little context. Most of these, I now realize, are linguistics-y.
liquid dissimilation. I wrote about this recently; it's a term from linguistics (phonology) for the phenomenon whereby people drop the R or L sound from a word.
lalochezia. This is a medical term, defined as "emotional relief gained by using indecent or vulgar language." I'm not able to find much context here, but I imagine that you if you hit your thumb with a hammer, lalochezia often results. I actually heard this from Mike Vuolo (I think it was) on one of the excellent Lexicon Valley podcasts.
negative polarity item (NPI). Another linguistics term, referring to terms or expressions that (per Gretchen McCullough) "tend to be found in the scope of negation and serve to emphasize that negation." Examples include give a hoot and lift a finger, which are both actions that are really only expressed in the negative, i.e., using don't. The NPI-ness of an expression tends to become evident when it's contrasted with a hypothetical positive version: *I give many hoots! This all was brought to my attention by a slew of articles and posts (example, example, example—none are for the easily offended) that address the playful use of NPIs in positive constructions: Look at all the damns [or other--M.] I give! etc.
criterion of embarrassment. A means of gauging veracity: a story seems true because it makes the storyteller look bad, since why would the teller recount an embarrassing story if it weren't true? Apparently this has theological implications; per Wikipedia, "Some Biblical scholars have used this criterion in assessing whether the New Testament's accounts of Jesus' actions and words are historically probable."
critique drift. This term was invented by Fredrik deBoer to describe "the phenomenon in which a particular critical political lens that correctly identifies a problem gets generalized and used less and less specifically over time." His examples include mansplaining, tone policing, and gaslighting, which he claims have specific meanings that however can be "employed in a sloppy, unhelpful, or dishonest way" to shut down debate. The idea is interesting, if controversial.
malaphors. Also known as the somewhat less colorful idiom blend, this describes an idiom mashup—keep your finger on the ball, that's a breath of relief, it's not rocket surgery. I got this term from Arnold Zwicky, but it goes back to the 1970s, apparently, and was used by Douglas Hofstadter.
That's the current crop. If you like these, I published a list of amusing (to me) corporate phrases (dogs not barking, keep the lights on) not long ago on the Vocabulary.com site.
And now on to a new list ...
Sunday, 5 April 2015
A linguistic nugget for those celebrating Easter today. In the KJV, Matthew 28:6 says: "He is not here: for he is risen." If you think about the latter part ("he is risen"), you might think, correctly, that today we would say "He has risen." So why "is risen"?
In modern English, the auxiliary for the perfect is have—he has gone, we have eaten, they had seen, etc. However, up through Early Modern English (and thus into the age of Shakespeare and King James), English still had two auxiliaries for the perfect: have and be. This was another trace of the roots of English as a Germanic language.
The auxiliary be was used for verbs that represent movement or a change in state, like to go, to come, to be, and to become. Here's a list of examples I'm swiping from Wikipedia:
These days, using be as an auxiliary (assuming you do it correctly, like Tennyson and Conrad did) can instantly add a touch of the archaic to what you're saying, for literary effect.
- Madam, the Lady Valeria is come to visit you. (The Tragedy of Coriolanus, Shakespeare)
- Vext the dim sea: I am become a name... (Ulysses, Tennyson)
- I am become Shiva, destroyer of worlds. (Baghavad Gita)
- Pillars are fallen at thy feet... (Marius amid the Ruins of Carthage, Lydia Maria Child)
- I am come in sorrow. (Lord Jim, Conrad)
Your assignment for the week is to practice this and spring it on unsuspecting friends during conversation. Let me know how that goes.
Wednesday, 11 February 2015
I am all for writing that conveys factual information and that’s written in an informal style. But some rigor is still required, even then, to keep thoughts and facts on track.
Here’s an example, one complete paragraph, from the book Countdown by Alan Weisman, which (as here) sometimes reads like a novel.
It exasperates him to think of agriculture’s driving incentive being not to feed, but to profit. Reynolds rises and stalks to the window. Both these men have made their careers here, working alongside Dr. Borlaug, authoring papers with him. A Nobel Peace laureate, and yet money to continue his work on the veritable staff of life that launched human civilization, and on which it still depends, is so damned scarce.So, two moments of potential confusion. First, who does “A Nobel Peace laureate” refer to here? Choices seem to include:
Second, what exactly is the relationship between the Nobel Prize and, well, anything in the rest of the sentence that the term appears in?
- Dr. Borlaug
- Someone who does not otherwise appear in this paragraph.
As I say, informal style is ok with me for a book like this. But if a sentence gets to the point where the reader has to stop and think, even informal writing needs some tightening up.
Wednesday, 4 February 2015
Another in the annals of singular they—I found this poster on Netflix recently:
I won't blather on about epicene pronouns my own self (I already did that), but for reference, I'll include some links to discussions about it, courtesy of an FB post by Katharine O'Moore-Klopf:
Thursday, 22 January 2015
My wife came home the other day and said, “I have a language thing for you.” (This is always an excellent way to get my attention.) Her story: “I noticed that a person I work with says fustrasting for frustrating.” In other words, they leave off that first R in fru-.
That sounded interesting. I tried some web searches, but this proved, um, somewhat frustrating, because search engines overwhelmingly want to auto-correct your fat-fingered entry. (Did you mean...?) But I managed to get some hits, including Urban Dictionary, the Grammarphobia blog, the amusingly named Ottawa Valley to English Dictionary, and some cites on the Wordnik site. I didn’t get a lot of insight, but these hits did tell me that the pronunciation of my wife’s colleague was not an idiosyncrasy and that a fair number of people say (and apparently even write) this.
When you encounter a pronunciation that’s “wrong” but is nonetheless often attested, it’s a good bet that there’s a linguistic basis for the pronunciation. For example, the (in)famous variation ask-aks/ax reflects dialectal variations in English that go back 1200 years. As another example, people often “add letters” when they pronounce words, like mason-a-ry and ath-e-lete. This turns out to be a well-understood phenomenon that goes by the name epenthesis. (Some words that are perfectly standard today, like thunder, reflect historical epenthesis.)
I had a hunch that the fustrating pronunciation had some phonological basis, so I sent a query to a couple of actual linguists. One of them directed me to an entry on the Phonoblog, where I learned that R-less fustrating is an example of the delightfully named liquid dissimilation. (“Liquid” here is used here to refer to the “liquid” consonants: in English, R and L.) The exact mechanism isn’t nailed down, but Nancy Hall, the blog post author, mentions another linguist’s observation that the dropped R is in words that have another R in them next to a schwa sound, and a theory is that, to put it generally, the existence of one of the R’s is causing speakers to drop the other.
What made this vivid for me, and not just a weird thing that people with some other dialect do, was to see the long list of words in which this can occur. It’s very easy for me to hear, including possibly from myself, the dropped Rs in words like these:
As Hall points out, this can also occur with L—her specific example is Pache[l]bel’s Canon; there’s even a lovely example of this on Amazon.
- prost[r]ate (not to be confused with prostate [cancer])
- … and many more. (See the blog entry for her list.)
This is just another example of one of the wonderful things about learning linguistics—you go from “Why do people say this wrong?” to just “Why do people say this?” And the latter is actually a much more interesting question.
Tuesday, 20 January 2015
Apropos of the most recent post, I was using my phone to access the Dictionary.com site and found the following. I don't see this on the web-based site.
Monday, 19 January 2015
I haven't put a lot of thought into this yet, so this is a, you know, thought in process. Consider the following utterances:
I saw it on my Facebook.
I've posted a blog about that.
I read this great Tumblr ...
There's a Wikipedia about it.
I think it's clear that these are synecdoches of one sort or another, but there is some subtlety to their usage.
Let's start with Facebook. Many times I've heard people refer to my Facebook:
A guy on my facebook just proposed ... [source
An Open Letter To The Women On My Facebook Whose Husbands are Policemen [source
What you might expect here is something like my Facebook wall or feed or page or timeline. But there are other usages where people might be eliding account.
So by logging into my Spotify, my Facebook was reactivated without my knowledge.I've heard this usage ("my facebook") from my own kids (mid-20s).
I still haven't logged on to my Facebook [source]
Since I’ve had a Facebook, I think I got one in 2007, that’s a total of 1,274 hours, or 53 DAYS. [source]
I've had my Facebook since third grade. [source]
Comment (on FB): My Facebook is basically all about life's small dramas.
Next comment: Everyone's facebook is.
It's not hard at all to find instances of people using blog to mean something like blog entry:
I posted a blog today [source]I like the second example because the writer uses uses blog in a meronymic way, but doesn't do the same for MySpace. It wouldn't be unreasonable to expect to see I have a MySpace here, but we don't.
I have a MYSPACE account where I posted a blog [source]
Update: I found an example of this in a surprising place, namely on the mobile page for Dictionary.com.Tumblr
Probably the most common example of a synecdoche that I hear these days is my Tumblr, representing (mostly) my Tumblr blog:
just added a music playlist on my tumblr :D
Finally! I added music to my tumblr.
I was actually inspired to post this because I overheard someone at work say There's a Wikipedia about that. It was the first time that I recalled hearing an example of this elision with Wikipedia specifically.
So, more another time when I've thought about this further and have more examples. And btw, I go back and forth on whether these are examples of synecdoche or whether it's some other phenomenon besides simple elision.