Saturday, September 25, 2010

"the written word"

I was interested to see the headline "LOL -- 'Webspeak' invades Oxford dictionary" on CNN this week. The article is little more than a blurb about some new additions to the Oxford American Dictionary, but I was struck by the first line: "Are years of e-mails, text messaging and status updates finally affecting the written word?" When I read that I did a bit of a double-take, as you might be doing right now. "Hold on a sec," you might think, "aren't ALL of those things written words?" This usage takes to the extreme the idea that "the written word" as a set phrase is somehow not compositional; it doesn't literally mean "a corpus of written materials in contemporary usage", but rather some lofty edifice culled from esteemed writers and curmudgeonly literary critics. While I acknowledge that "the written word" is a semi-idiom in many dialects of American English, I would never use it quite as idiomatically as in this article -- literally juxtaposing a huge corpus of written material with the ethereal ideal of "the written word".

Despite this opening line, the article isn't critical at all of this move by the OAD. The author in fact notes that "It is nice to see Oxford attempting to get with the times" by including expressions that many of us see every day. Lexicographers are often remarkably descriptive, despite the tendency for prescription among those who use their products regularly. However, the author does fear that this will make difficult times for English teachers, as students back up their usage of TTYL and LMAO in academic writing with dictionary citations. I can certainly see English teachers cowering in terror, even though this seems to me ridiculous. As long as we talk about what is appropriate rather than correct, there's no need to fear descriptivism. For instance, I rail against those who teach that it is "incorrect" to use "which" in restrictive relative clauses, or that it is "ungrammatical" to use double modals. On the other hand, in some contexts there are reasons for teaching that it is inappropriate to use these in academic papers (although frankly I'm always against the claim that "which" should be only used for nonrestrictive relative clauses).

The problem with the absolutist view of English is that it isn't absolute. If you try to teach students that "which" should only be used for nonrestrictive relative clauses, you don't have anywhere to turn. The dictionary won't tell you this, esteemed authors don't show this usage, even the venerable old Strunk didn't keep his whichs and thats complementary (though when White came along he added the rule and edited all of Strunk's examples to make them fit the rule). Too often what people think of as "correct" grammar is simply bits and pieces of inconsistent jargon they've internalized from many different, often conflicting, sources. What students need to be taught is that academic writing is a formal style with strict rules. It's not that double modals are wrong, it's that double modals are frowned upon in academic writing. And that's a reason not to use them in such contexts if you want to get a job.

Saturday, September 18, 2010


English is mildly notorious for its non-compositional compounds. In this case I don't necessarily mean that compound words or phrases have nothing to do semantically with their components, but rather that the relation between the components is somewhat unstructured: there is no strict relation between X and Y for a compound X-Y. One relatively well-used example of this is the difference in the semantic relation between the two components in "olive oil" and "baby oil". You make olive oil by squeezing olives until the oil runs out of them. This is not how you make baby oil. In fact, the first word in "baby oil" has a completely different relation than the first word in "olive oil". In "olive oil" the first word indicates the source of the primary component, the oil. (Compounds in English and some other languages are right-headed, meaning that the component on the right gives you the category and basic sense of the compound: "olive oil" is a type of oil, not a type of olive.) In "baby oil", on the other hand, the first word tells you something about how the oil is intended to be used. You can see the same difference in "spring water" and "holy water". Holy water may in fact be spring water (I'm not sure if churches typically use bottled water, tap water, or some specially sourced water for this), but "holy water" indicates something different because it indicates what the water is going to be used for, rather than where it came from.

One thing I hadn't thought much about until recently is that it's not just N+N compounds that behave in this peculiar way. For instance, there's good reason to be afraid of baseball-sized hail, but no real reason to fear a family-sized bag of candy. Like the N+N example above, these types of adjectival compounds can refer to completely different types of relations. Hail that is baseball-sized is the size of a baseball, but a bag of candy that is family-size is not the size of a family; rather, it's a bag that is a size appropriate for a family. English is not the only language that has these types of unpredicatable compounds. Blackfoot also has some unpredictable compounds. One of my favorite of these is the word for horse, ponokáómitaa literally means elk-dog, where ponoka is 'elk' and ómitaa is a bound form of the root for 'dog'. Presumably this stems from the association of horses, when they were first encountered a few hundred years ago, with the general ungulate form and size of an elk, and with the beast-of-burden function of a dog, which the Blackfeet used to carry travois and other equipment.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

double modals

Double modals are a feature of certain dialects of American English. For a long time I thought this construction was limited to the South, but I have since learned that there are other areas of the country featuring double modals, including Michigan. Some of the more common examples of double modals include "might could", as in "I might could do it" for "I might be able to do it", or "used to could", as in "I used to could do it" for "I used to be able to do it". Because these constructions are stigmatized in prescriptivist grammar (and perhaps because they don't occur in the Northeast or California), they haven't gotten a lot of attention in the linguistic literature. Given that current syntactic theory places modals in the T node, it's unclear how we should represent something like "might could".

One idea that non-speakers of the relevant dialects have is that double modals are redundant or unnecessary (in addition to of course being incorrect). However, to speakers of these dialects phrases like "might could" and "might be able to" are not in complementary distribution. In an example like "might should", the double modal indicates a very different information state than "should". A better translation would be "It might be the case that I should", expressing perhaps an irrealis deontic mood. A good example of non-speaker confusion can be found in one of the COCA hits for "might should", referring to a Southerner saying "he might should go" rather than "he might go". Of course, any person that speaks a double modal dialect knows that these two are not at all equivalent semantically or truth-conditionally. My point here is not to poke fun at those who don't know how to use double modals (although I might should poke fun at those who poke fun at those who use double modals). My point is simply that double modals enrich the English language, sometimes creating a shorter way to indicate an information state ("I might could" versus "I might be able to"), and sometimes conveying information that can't easily be conveyed any other way. It fills a niche in the same way that y'all or youse fills the want for a contrastive second person plural pronoun.