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I was recently blindsided by one of the lesser dangers of the quarter system: that everyone else seems to be back in school. Because UC San Diego has three quarters instead of two semesters, I’ll remain out of school for another couple weeks, a benefit I pay for with classes extending into mid-June, a Faustian bargain if ever one were.

Of course, many of you have entered into an even more Faustian bargain, trading your summers off for silly baubles like “good pay” or “dental insurance”. In light of that, I thought maybe you’d want to relive your wild university days, the excitement of seeing your schoolchums again, and the heady rush of a new school year laid out before your feet for the taking.

I can’t quite offer that, but what I can give you is a reading list — a syllabus, if you will — of back-to-school books that I’ve enjoyed and that I think you might enjoy as well, to trick your brain into thinking it’s back in school. Here goes:

[Reading a book on the beach]

In the Land of Invented Languages, Arika Okrent. This book arrived in y mailbox as a free addition to Origins of the Specious, and I didn’t expect much of it. I’d never been fond of invented languages, as they struck me as the work of utopian prescriptivists — a better sort of person than a haughty prescriptivist, but still not my cup of tea.

But the book looks at the differing motivations for constructed languages, from the squaring-the-circle task of creating perfectly precise languages to the pragmatic task of creating simplified languages that help people with communication problems. There were two significant realizations I got out of this book. One was simply that constructed languages were more than mere flights of hobbyist fancy. The second is best summarized by Okrent: “This is a story about why language refuses to be cured and why it succeeds, not in spite of, but because of, the very qualities that the language inventors have tried to engineer away.”

Okrent threads through the book her attempt at learning Klingon, making the book into a kind of travelogue through the land of invented languages, not just an sterile discussion of them. It’s a fun read, and very informative, especially if invented languages are your thing. If not, it’s still a worthwhile read, because Okrent manages to use invented languages as an investigative tool into the nature of natural languages.

The Fight for English, David Crystal. First off, David Crystal is a master. He writes books, blog posts, articles, everything, with a prodigiousness that would make rabbits blush. And somehow everything he writes is good! But, if I’m being honest, I’d never read any of his books until I was back in Pittsburgh and found this one at Half Price Books.

In it, Crystal details the history of English, the history of English usage, and the history of English usage advice. He discusses the various historical influences on our bastard tongue, the desire and need for standardized English, and attempts to create and teach it. Famous thinkers and writers pass by, each trying their hand at fixing English. Times change, and the grammatical becomes ungrammatical. Times change more, and the ungrammatical becomes grammatical again. Through it all, Crystal provides calm guidance through the tempest, offering a much-needed antidote to the shrill complaints thrown by English’s “defenders” and the lackadaisical unconcern shown by others, all wrapped in a persistently amusing package.

My dad actually read the book before I could, and reported back to me that he thoroughly enjoyed it and that now he understood what I talk about on this blog. Can I offer much more than that in way of praise?

Language Myths, ed. Laurie Bauer & Peter Trudgill. Another used bookstore find, this one from only a week or two ago, when I found a Japanese store with an entire aisle of $1 used books. (I bought 10.) This is a bit more academic than the other books above, but it’s well worth it. It’s a collection of short essays, 8-9 pages each, investigating and debunking various language myths.

Unlike the smaller myths I tend to talk about, this book hits the more general ones — among others, that women talk too much, that some languages are strictly better than others, that everyone has an accent but me — and coolly analyzes them. Some are revealed as complete myths, others as grains of truth in a wheat-field of misinterpretation. I’m only halfway through, so maybe the end is terrible, but so far it’s exceeded my expectations. Try this on for size if you’re in the mood for something a little more academic, to really get back to the college vibe.

Lies My Teacher Told Me, James W. Loewen. This last one isn’t about language, but it is about learning, and it’s one of my all-time favorite books. Loewen studies the most commonly used American history textbooks and examines how they systemically distort our (and our children’s) understanding of both history and our modern world. From unthinking American exceptionalism to hero worship to the belittling of those whose views don’t fit the mainstream, Loewen shows the ways that our young minds were filled with bad information.

The book is especially relevant now, as a large swath of the populace garbs itself in the clothing of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution and the early days of the Republic. We must be careful not to simplify the past, nor to think of it as a preordained battle between the good guys (who invariably won) and the bad (who never seem to have compelling arguments). Historical times are not qualitatively different from the modern day, but you’d never know it from how we’re taught history. This is a book that can make you mad, but in that good I-want-to-change-the-world way.

I jest about the uselessness of Twitter, but I find myself more and more defending it to the people in my daily life, a sure sign that I am crossing over into some sort of addiction that I ought to be fighting. One of the agents of this addiction is the Fake AP Stylebook, which offers one- and two-liners in the style of, well, a stylebook. For instance:

Thorough research is the key to quality reporting. Read the ENTIRE Wikipedia article before writing your story.

Mentally ill people should be treated with sensitivity and respect, unless they’re hilarious celebrities. Then: Game on!

Use English measurement units to avoid confusing readers: “The suspect was four cubits, eight barleycorns in height.”

The folks behind the Fake AP Stylebook (who call themselves The Bureau Chiefs) followed up on this with a book, Write More Good, which I received a copy of recently. I was looking forward to reading it, because I enjoy the stylebook entry parody format, but I was also a bit concerned that it wouldn’t translate well to a book. As it turns out, The Bureau Chiefs felt the same; the book breaks out of the 140-character Twitter restrictions and places its jokes into paragraphs, maintaining a quick-fire approach to the joke delivery, but also giving the jokes a bit more chance to develop, like the slow-aged bourbons that The Chiefs prefer.

[Cover of Write More Good]

The book, like the Twitter feed, is all about writing and journalism, and it presents a surprisingly honest look at the field — the sort of harsh yet good-natured honesty that only good Horatian satire can provide.* Shots are taken at the shortcomings of contemporary journalism, be them “Give the readers what they want”, “Every story has two equal sides”, or “Armageddon waits around every corner”. The chapter on science reporting was full of stuff like this:

“When it comes to the possibility that global warming is caused by human behavior, the opinion of a man with an MBA who does consulting work for oil companies is just as valid as the opinion of a man with multiple doctorates in climatology […] The opinions of the former may even be more useful, as he is less likely to be prejudiced by spending too much time on the subject.”

Or:

“Replacing FIVE NEW EXTRASOLAR PLANETS DISCOVERED with HAVE ASTRONOMERS FOUND THE REAL PLANET PANDORA? could mean the difference between another night of instant ramen and a string of filet mignon dinners at five-star restaurants.” [BTW, This really happens.]

The writers are not out for blood. They mock, but they mock lovingly. Sure, journalists might not be living up to the standards we’d desire, but a lot of that is due to the readers, and they are not spared:

“[…] don’t try too hard to make the math portions of your writing understandable. If someone with a nontechnical background reads it and realizes they can actually follow what you’re saying, the result will not be a lightbulb going off and the realization that maybe math isn’t so scary. They will instead make sure no one saw them doing math and, if if anyone was watching, they’ll explain that, ha ha, they just happened to open up the newspaper to some math: Oh, man, what was THAT doing there? I must have picked up someone else’s paper because, no sir, not me—math is gay.”

At first it seems like a silly little book, but in the end it makes a number of good points. Journalists are falling short of their ideal. Owners care about cash more than journalism. And — the one that really resonated with me — even as we non-journalists bemoan the state of modern journalism, we’re all complicit in its downfall.

At the same time, the book is positively hilarious. Even as I winced, even as I regretted the times I’ve read an article about a puppy parade and skipped the one about a political debate, I kept on laughing. It’s Horatian satire at its best, funny and a bit admonishing. The Chiefs have put up Chapter 3 of the book online for you to judge for yourself whether it’s worth reading. I recommend it heartily.

*: Another good thing about the book is that it got me to look into the history of satire a bit. Apparently, there are two schools of satire: the Horatian school, which views the satirized subject as folly and criticizes it with light-hearted humor, and the Juvenalian school, which views the satirized subject as evil and ridicules it scathingly. The things one doesn’t know that one doesn’t know!

A few days ago, John McGrath, Wordnik’s Director of Product Development, sent me a link to the preview version of Wordnik’s new thesaurus feature.  Wordnik, if you’re not familiar with it, is an online dictionary that integrates information from traditional dictionaries and online usage to give a more complete picture of a word’s meaning.  Merging these supervised and unsupervised data sources is of course a brilliant idea, and I think within a few years it will become a necessary part of any online dictionary.

I decided to test the Wordnik thesaurus with two types of words that often aren’t adequately represented in traditional thesauruses: colloquial phrasal verbs and insults.  The particular colloquial verb I tested was flesh out, which tends to pop into my head when I’m writing academically, as I want to first give an overview of the point I’m arguing, and then flesh it out.  Sadly, I’ve never found a synonym for flesh out that befits the tone of academic writing. Many thesauruses, even online ones, don’t list flesh out, and those that do haven’t given me enough alternatives to find a good one.  So I tried looking up flesh out on Wordnik, and I have to say it performed better than I expected.  It offered a few words that were pretty good equivalents (detail, fill in, round out, exposit), and, as would be expected from a semisupervised method, a few that were somewhat off (instance, set forth).  Still nothing that really fits my needs, but I’m not sure the word I’d be looking for even exists. (If you have any suggestions for a flesh out equivalent, let me know.)

The second test word was a common insult I employ in writing: imbecile.  The problem is that it’s so general; I often have situations where I want to make a quite specific insult, not merely to point out that someone is an imbecile, but also to specify the type of their imbecility (conscious ignorance, malicious misinformation, insufficient expertise, etc.).  Ever since I realized that “The Big Book of Being Rude” that I purchased on clearance at Half Price Books was woefully lacking in specific insults, I’ve been looking for a new source. I was hoping the thesaurus would suggest some more specific insults that I could record for later use in particular situations.

It seemed like this was a task that a thesaurus that monitored online usage would be preternaturally good at; after all, what does one do on the internet other than call people idiots?  Alas, this search didn’t go as well as flesh out, although the thesaurus still made a good effort.  Strangely, most of the responses were for imbecile as an adjective (which strikes me as comparatively rare) rather than a noun.  My main source of sadness was that it didn’t generate anywhere near the range of possibilities I’d expect in insults, offering mostly run-of-the-mill words like buffoon, dullard, or fool.  But it did offer two interesting ones with which I was unfamiliar. One was nidget, a now-forgotten word that lacked a single usage example.  The other was anile, which led me to uncover what I like to call the Great Anile Conspiracy — a strange and almost exciting phenomenon that I hope to detail in an upcoming post.  While the Wordnik thesaurus didn’t really give me a more specific insult, at least it tipped me off to two interesting words, so that’s something.

I realized, though, that expecting more specific insults from imbecile may have been an unfair query. I decided to try again with a more specific insult: blowhard.  The results were hit-and-miss.  The synonyms were spot-on: big mouth, blusterer, boaster, braggart, line-shooter, loudmouth, and — my personal favorite — vaunter.  The “words used in the same context” results weren’t, offering such words as Parker, valetudinarian, and book-review. How those occur in similar contexts to blowhard is opaque to me. However, I found rather hilarious and surprisingly accurate its choice of ex-governor as a contextual neighbor of blowhard — are there better examples of blowhards than Sarah Palin and Rod Blagojevich?

So all in all, the Wordnik thesaurus was worth checking out. It takes advantage of the capabilities of the Internet to offer both solid synonyms and noisy possibly related words. Its algorithms aren’t perfect, of course, but the mistakes are mostly pretty reasonable and/or enjoyable. It hasn’t replaced thesaurus.com as my primary online thesaurus*, but it’s already interesting, and I’m looking forward to future developments that could make it supplant Roget’s in my heart.

*: I certainly hope that Wordnik hurries up and replaces thesaurus.com as my thesaurus of choice, now that I’ve read the Wall Street Journal’s blog post noting that it (well, its parent site, reference.com) has the highest number of trackers on its site of any of the top 50 most popular domains.

A few months ago, I received John McWhorter’s new book, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, in the mail and I rapidly and rapaciously read through it, enjoying myself all the while. The best part of the book is not, as you might think, that it has a “dirty” word in the title. Yes, that’s a lot of fun if you’re secretly immature like I am, but what’s better about the book is McWhorter’s proposal about what led to our modern English. (The language, not the band.)

McWhorter’s main observation in the book is that English is very strange: it’s a Germanic language that doesn’t look like any other Germanic language. You probably already knew that, especially if you’ve ever known or looked at German. If you’re up on the basic history of English, you might even offer an explanation for this, noting that the Norman Invasion in 1066 resulted in England being a temporarily bilingual country, with English the language of the commoners, but French the language of the government. As always happens in these situations, the languages influenced each other, and English underwent a few changes. And to illustrate that point, you might offer the example of Latinate words in English, which often exist almost as fancier versions to their Germanic counterparts (for instance, eat and consume). That’s what I always used to do.

But McWhorter offers a somewhat different view of the strangeness of English. Sure, he notes, there are these differences in words, but it’s not just words that take English away from its Germanic roots; it’s syntax as well. For instance, Germanic languages ask questions like Sprechen Sie Deutsch?, which transliterates to Speak you German?, whereas English asks questions like Do you speak German?, with a meaningless do tossed in for good measure. Similarly, Germanic languages have hardy case systems with lots of suffixes. English only has case-marking on pronouns (I vs. me vs. my), and even there it is slowly being lost from the language (as in the protracted death of whom).

McWhorter’s proposal is that Modern English is in some sense a creole, that invasions of England by the Danish and the Norwegians, along with a significant number of remaining Celts, resulted in a substantial proportion of Old English speakers being non-native speakers of Old English. That allowed for the loss of the Old English case system, along with the adoption of certain Celtic syntactic structures (such as the meaningless do in Do you speak German?). Yet written Old English stayed much the same, because written language is very resistant to change (witness the spelling of knight) Then the Normans took over, and that led to a century and a half where French was the written language of England. When English regained its post as the written language of England, there was no longer such a strong adherence to its old ways, and so the new written language was more like the new (spoken) Middle English, the semi-creolized and weakly simplified version of Old English. So the change the Normans wrought was far more substantial than adding a few ten-dollar words to the lexicon; it also led to the debut of a syntactically different version of English.

Not knowing much about historical linguistics myself, I’m not qualified to fully assess McWhorter’s arguments, but I didn’t see any glaring holes. However, I’m a bit concerned that he’s given short shrift to the competing theories about the history of English. The counter-proposals, which McWhorter insists are held by most historical linguists, seem like strawmen. For instance, McWhorter proposes that meaningless do spread into English by contact with Welsh, which is one of only a handful of languages in the world with meaningless do, and he claims that the opposing theory is that meaningless do just appeared in English purely coincidentally. Well, given those two options, I’d obviously take the former, as I would assume most everyone would. Yet McWhorter insists that almost all historical linguists studying English hold the opposing viewpoint, so they almost certainly have a better reason to do so than what he’s telling us. But again, historical linguistics is not an area of any expertise for me, so maybe the opposing argument is as flimsy as he portrays it.

The second half of the book is an interesting corollary to McWhorter’s “English is a bastard” proposal; since the English we revere today is the result of having essentially incompetent speakers mangle it thoroughly a millennium ago, why would we protect it now? It’s a strange twist when suddenly the book starts talking about grammar rules after discussing the details of language change, and it’s not entirely fluid. But he makes a good point, and I think it’s an argument worth having in battles against prescriptivists; language is much more resilient than it is given credit for.

So, on the whole, a pretty good book, if occasionally a bit too insistent for my taste. It’s worth a read, especially if you’re into this kind of stuff.

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About The Blog

A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.



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