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Passive Voice

November 8, 2011 Leave a comment

I am a regular reader of Language Log, and have written often about posts there. Last December, I wrote my own post about a language usage issue, inspired by a WSJ article that bugged me so much I wrote to Language Log co-founder Geoff Pullum about it. To my surprise, he responded to my note by building his own post around the WSJ article.

Today, once again, I am the source of a Pullum post. An on-going Pullum theme is the never-ending warnings by supposed language authorities to avoid “passive voice.” Invariably, he points out that the warnings come in articles in which the authors (a) use the passive themselves, and (b) mis-identify its occurrences in the examples they provide. Having stumbled on such a piece at the Harper’s blog over a week ago, I brought it to Pullum’s attention, and he has now done a better job than I can at dissecting its inanity. Have a look.

My own pet peeve regarding passive voice is Microsoft’s insistence on warning me whenever I use it while writing a Word document. Word’s presumption that it can write better than I can is a continuing annoyance. But specifically, can anyone possibly believe that every use of passive voice is a stylistic error in need of editing? Really? Stick to the layout. Let me do the writing. (Mind you, I only use Word for documents to be shared with others who insist on using Word. For myself, I never use it.)

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Categories: Language, Writing

Sentence of the Week

August 28, 2011 Leave a comment

I know language changes, and I know that when it does, I’m one of the last to know. I try not to be surprised when I discover that it has. But boy, this sure caught be my surprise yesterday.

Background first. Local football hero Jake Locker was selected eighth overall in the NFL draft last April by the Tennessee Titans, the second quarterback selected. A year earlier, had he chosen to declare for the draft with a season of college eligibility remaining, there was talk that he might have been the first pick of the draft. But an injury-marred senior season in which weaknesses in his passing game were brought to light dropped his stock. For a while, talk was that he would be a second-round pick. Then, in the various combines and individual team workouts that players participate in to show off their talents, his stock rose again and the best guess was that he might be a late first-round selection. None of the major draft prognosticators figured him for the second quarterback of the draft. But Tennessee did, and that’s what matters.

None of this is really to the point, except as explanation of why I would bother looking at an article posted online at Sports Illustrated yesterday about Locker’s situation. In it, Chris Burke raised the issue of how much playing time Locker will get this season in the context of the continuing holdout of the Titans’ great running back Chris Johnson. Just a few weeks ago, after the new NFL collective bargaining agreement was approved the Titans picked up long-time Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, presumably with the plan of starting him and allowing Locker to learn from him. As Burke explains:

The Titans did go out and sign veteran QB Matt Hasselbeck to start for them as Locker eases his way into the NFL. But should Locker’s status on the depth chart be tied to Johnson’s holdout?

Without Johnson, an average Tennessee team becomes a mediocre one. If picking Locker didn’t set off a full-scale rebuilding plan, losing Johnson may.

Finally, I get to the point of this post. See the bolded sentence? Has it come to this? Is mediocre now a synonym for bad? Is it?

I didn’t know. I was still under the impression that ‘mediocre’, as its very root suggests, is in the middle. Median. Average. Yes, sure, median and average are different, but forget the mathematical details. The point is, there’s nothing bad about being average. We can’t all be above average, Lake Wobegon notwithstanding. And if you’re mediocre, you’re not above average, but you’re not below either. You’re just, you know, average. That’s the meaning of the word. Isn’t it?

Oh well. I won’t fight it. Live and learn.

Categories: Language

Chit-spuh

July 14, 2011 Leave a comment

This has made the rounds today, so you’ve probably seen it, the clip in which Michele Bachmann demonstrates the meaning of chutzpah by totally mispronouncing the word in accusing Obama of it. Is this interesting? Can anything still be interesting that shows how outrageous Bachmann is, or how outrageous any number of fellow Republican leaders and presidential candidates are? Maybe not.

A few years back, I wasted a lot of time writing posts about Palin. I have made it a point since the 2008 election not to waste blog time on her and her ilk. (Instead, of course, I attack Obama, who is at least sane. And intelligent. He just has this nasty habit of doing all the things he said he would bring to an end and giving the finger to his erstwhile supporters.) But for some reason, this video pushed me over the edge. It made me wonder if she has ever met a Jew besides an ultra-orthodox right-winger or AIPAC leader.

Well, here’s something I just found, from two Marches ago, the first link to show up in a google search on “bachmann jews”. It has the following quote of Bachmann:

I have been a long time supporter of Israel. The first time I went to Israel was the day I graduated from high school. I spent a summer working on Kibbutz Be’eri near Beer Sheva in 1974. I’ve been 4 times in Israel – 3 times as a Member of Congress. I loved Israel – from the moment I first landed.

As a young girl from Anoka, I was shocked at the level of security in Israel.

We worked on the kibbutz from 4 am to noon. We were always accompanied by soldiers with machine guns. While we were working, the soldiers were walking around looking for land mines. I really learned a lot in Israel.

I was delighted to go back as a Member of Congress, and see all the changes. To see how it has developed – it is nothing short of a miracle! To see a rose bloom in the desert. In 60 years, Israel has achieved first world, or nearly first world, status.

I am honored to be in a position where I can help Israel. I have a tremendous love for Israel, and great admiration for the Israeli people. I am a Christian, but I consider my heritage Jewish, because it is the foundation, the roots of my faith as a Christian.

How about that? She considers herself Jewish. It’s great to see these right-wing Christianists embrace Jewish heritage and culture while having the most narrow, simplistic view of what it is. They love appropriating our holidays. I bet she hosted a Seder this year, one in which the Haggadah was re-interpreted from a Christian perspective. Such respect for our traditions. How about respecting our language? If you can’t pronounce the word, leave it alone.

Categories: Language, Politics

One with Everything

June 15, 2011 Leave a comment

I saw the video above first thing this morning and intended to write a post around it, but by now I’m a little late. The video has been picked up on Andrew Sullivan’s blog, and I suppose on just about every other major aggregating site in the English-speaking world by now. So you’ve probably seen it already. But in case you haven’t, click on the play button above to watch host Karl Stefanovic of Australia’s Today show tell the Dalai Lama a joke. Stefanovic’s willingness to make a complete fool of himself is adorable.

I initially stumbled on the video in a Language Log post by linguist Geoffrey Pullum, who uses it as an opportunity to reflect on the nature of humor:

Stefanovic is surely not the only person who has discovered to his cost how easy it is to underestimate the quantity of cultural and linguistic background needed if you are to reliably get the jokes that people tell. For this one, (i) you must have encountered the Buddhist idea of merging or unifying with the universe, expressed using the idiom become one with (which in other contexts is not common); and (ii) you must have encountered pizza in the American style, with loads of different topping choices, ordered using a preposition phrase headed by with (as in with pepperoni and mushroom); and (iii) you must have been in a pizzeria that has as one of the choices on its menu the indecisive glutton’s non-choice consisting of a megacombo of all available toppings (by no means all pizza restaurants give you that option), so that everything is a possible topping choice.

When you put it that way, no wonder the Dalai Lama was so clueless. As Pullum concludes, “it’s a wonder most jokes don’t [die a quietly horrible public death], considering the complex web of previously encountered phrases and cultural references that jokes typically rely on.”

Sentence of the Week, 7

June 8, 2011 Leave a comment

My favorite source of sentences of the week has been the NYT’s weekly Vows column, which is so good at glorifying the mundane. (See this post for example.) Yesterday, the glorifying was being performed on the NYT sports pages, where Richard Sandomir and Ken Belson’s puff piece on hedge fund manager and potential Mets buyer David Einhorn appeared. Sandomir is usually a hard-nosed writer on the business of sports and sports broadcasting. Yesterday he adopted a breezier, less critical style.

The background, as you may know, is that Mets principal owner Fred Wilpon has become ensnared in the Bernie Madoff scandal. He is being sued for a billion dollars by Irving Picard, the trustee for the victims of Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, and has been under pressure to sell some of his stake in the Mets to prepare for a settlement. (See Jeffrey Toobin’s recent New Yorker article for details.) Einhorn has stepped in and offered to buy one-third of the team for $200 million.

What’s my choice for sentence of the week? It’s hard. Here, have a look at this passage from yesterday’s Sandomir-Benson article and see what you think.

Einhorn’s father, Stephen, a banker who specializes in mergers, and his mother, Nancy, a bookkeeper, have been active in the arts and charities. Through the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust, they donate to educational, religious, medical, youth service and antibigotry causes; the trust also provided money to produce “The Bully Project,” a documentary.

Stephen Einhorn, who spent six years on the board of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, paid to overhaul its Web site so customers could pick the seats they want. “They make sure their dollars are being used well,” said Annie Jansen Jurczyk, the theater’s development director.

She added, “It puts them in a different category of donor, and they do it without any fanfare.”

David Einhorn, whose grandfather had Parkinson’s disease, is on the board of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, and the Robin Hood Foundation, which fights poverty.

“He’s modestly and quietly trying to make a difference in the world, with the simple thread of trying to help people get along, whether it’s in Jerusalem or downtown New York,” said Mary Gordon, the president of Roots of Empathy, a charity that tries to imbue children with kindness and acceptance of others.

Einhorn, who was a co-founder of the hedge fund known as Greenlight Capital when he was 27 and who declined to speak for this article, quickly built a reputation as a thoughtful and astute investor.

Tom Zucosky, the chief executive of Discovery Capital Management, remembers interviewing Einhorn in the late 1990s when his company invested in Greenlight. Einhorn’s presentations, he said, were lucid and inventive and the hallmarks of a rising star.

Zucosky said that Einhorn could read deeply into balance sheets to understand what makes companies — and teams — tick. “If you’re a hedge fund manager, you understand how to manage risk,” Zucosky said, and added: “He’s not stupid. He’s not going to flush his money down the toilet.”

My favorites are the quotes rather than the Sandomir-Benson writing itself. But they chose the quotes, so I want them to share in the credit. There are some gems. I think I have to go with this: “He’s modestly and quietly trying to make a difference in the world, with the simple thread of trying to help people get along, whether it’s in Jerusalem or downtown New York.” What would the world do without New York hedge fund managers? They aren’t just smart. And wealthy. They are generous and modest beyond compare.

As for the smartness of hedge fund managers, that would appear to be a given. And here I thought mathematicians are the smartest people in the world. I suppose the fact that we make so little money is proof that we aren’t, whereas the fact that hedge fund managers make so much is proof that they are. (Then there’s the example of Jim Simons.) I love the observation that “If you’re a hedge fund manager, you understand how to manage risk. He’s not stupid. He’s not going to flush his money down the toilet.” I’m guessing there are a few exceptions to this assertion.

Categories: Journalism, Language

Pull = Latin America

May 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Victor Mair, a professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, is also a regular contributor to the Language Log blog. A recurring theme in his posts is his unraveling of the possible sequence of events leading to a particularly bizarre occurrence of Chinglish, especially as found in printed English translations of Chinese on signs.

Today’s example, the first in a Mair post in some time, is as good as they come. Look closely at the sign above and you’ll see the English words Latin America on the hotel shower door.

What in the world is going on here? One big Chinese character and all those Roman letters beneath it:

Latin
America

All right, let’s go through this methodically. La 拉 simply means “pull,” and that is what the sign is telling the person who is about to enter the shower. If you want to get into the shower, PULL the door. Simple enough.

So how did the injunction to “Latin America” come into the picture? Some oaf who was charged with making the sign managed to find lā 拉 in their dictionary and must have been overwhelmed by the plethora of English glosses: pull, drag, draw, haul, help out, implicate, play (a stringed instrument), chat, a verbal suffix, and so forth. Bewildered, they would have spotted near the end of the entry for lā 拉 that it is also an abbreviation for Lāměi 拉美, which is in turn a short form of Lādīng měizhōu 拉丁美洲, which means “Latin America”.

Why didn’t the oaf choose the first and simplest definition, “pull”? I suppose that they thought that the English (Roman letter) part of the sign is for foreigners, so it might be smart (!!) to use the only obviously foreign definition in the dictionary: Latin America. That’s the best defense I can give on behalf of the individual who made this sign. Actually, it’s not really a defense, merely one possible explanation for this mind-boggling choice. I suppose it’s also possible that they didn’t understand any of the English glosses, and simply felt that the longest one must be the most informative.

Be sure to look at past Mair posts on Chinglish. They are always fascinating. For instance, here’s another one.

Categories: Language, Translation

Sentence of the Week, 5

April 28, 2011 Leave a comment

I haven’t run this feature for a while, but I knew the time had come for a return appearance when I couldn’t parse a sentence in the NYT this morning after several attempts. The sentence was from a short AP piece, with no author attribution, following up on an incident at the San Francisco Giants ballpark last Saturday involving a fan and the pitching coach of the Atlanta Braves, former pitcher Roger McDowell. The gist of the article was that McDowell apologized yesterday for his actions. Here is the one-sentence review of the incident:

A fan, Justin Quinn of Fresno, Calif, said McDowell made homophobic comments and crude sexual gestures and threatened to knock out his teeth with a bat when he complained about them during batting practice.

Quinn complained about his teeth, eliciting McDowell’s threat to knock them out? That doesn’t make sense. Or maybe the teeth are McDowell’s, not that that makes any more sense.

This was in this morning’s print edition. Looking online now, I see that the text has been revised:

A California man said Wednesday that Atlanta’s pitching coach, Roger McDowell, spewed homophobic comments, made crude sexual gestures and threatened to knock out his teeth with a bat before the Braves played the San Francisco Giants over the weekend.

McDowell apologized Wednesday in a statement released by the Braves: “I am deeply sorry that I responded to the heckling fans in San Francisco on Saturday. I apologize to everyone for my actions.”

Justin Quinn, 33, of Fresno said he was in the stands at AT&T Park during pregame batting practice with his wife and 9-year-old twin daughters when he noticed McDowell hectoring three men and making crude sexual gestures with his hips and a bat. Quinn shouted, “Hey there are kids out here,” he said at a news conference at the Los Angeles office of the lawyer Gloria Allred. Quinn said McDowell replied that children do not belong at a baseball park, picked up a bat, walked up to Quinn and asked him, “How much are your teeth worth?”

That makes sense, though it replaces one puzzle by another — what’s up with McDowell? Maybe he should find another line of work.

Categories: Language