I cannot wholeheartedly recommend Steven Pinker’s style-guide / usage manual, but it does have a couple of important things to say about written English.
Respect Your Tools
Language has its own internal logic. Good writing respects that logic. Writers should study grammar explicitly rather than rely on intuition in order to communicate clearly, show respect for their readers, and inspire confidence in their work. Good writers are those who read widely enough to absorb good practices from a longstanding written English tradition. They know the rules but also when to break them.
Break the Rules
The Ancient and Venerable English Teachers’ Code—beloved by Grammar Nazis, Prescriptivists, Fussbudgets and Curmudgeons—is more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules, and some of the guidelines will lead you astray because (a) Some were written by people who didn’t understand English and (b) Thanks to natural and inevitable language change, the English we use today differs from the English of the past.
See below for more details about what I liked and what I didn’t like about Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style.
Continue reading The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker
When and Why I Read The Sense of Style
I bought this a while back. Finally getting around to it.
Date started / date finished: 22-Nov-20 to 01-Dec-20
Length: 368 pages
Originally published in: 2015
Amazon link: The Sense of Style
This book was printed in 1950. It’s in decent condition, although the pages are a little brownish. It has a pleasant smell, like an old library. The content as well as the paper, the fonts, and the typesetting make for a kind of armchair time-traveling experience.
Continue reading 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary
When and Why I Read 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary
My dad dug this book up out of a box in the house. The text was first was published in 1942; my copy is apparently the eighteenth printing (October 1950). I am not the least bit worried about the strength of my vocabulary, but when I opened the book at random and landed on "Seventh Day: Words About Theories", a chapter which defined and explained atheism, agnosticism, fatalism, egoism, altruism, stoicism, chauvinism, jingoism, liberalism, conservatism, and epicureanism, I decided this was perhaps not just another dime-a-dozen book about words. That the book stayed in print until at least the 1970s says something about its enduring appeal.
Genre: Reference (Language)
Date started / date finished: 23-Mar-20 to 29-Mar-20
Length: 242 pages
Originally published in: 1942/1950
Amazon link: 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary
I know where the book came from, but not how it ended up where it did, in the West Elm home furnishings store in Ponce City Market in Atlanta, Georgia, where along with two other books it was resignedly decorating a console table.
Continue reading Preliminaries to Linguistic Phonetics by Peter Ladefoged
When and Why I Read Preliminaries to Linguistic Phonetics
If you have ever doubted the forces of coincidence, doubt no more, for they conspired to an almost inconceivable degree to ensure that I came into the possession of this particular book.
Date started / date finished: 08-Mar-20 to 21-Mar-20
Length: 111 pages
Originally published in: 1971
Amazon link: Preliminaries to Linguistic Phonetics
Carousell is a fantastic classified ad platform. It embodies one of my favorite proverbs, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
However, to find the treasure, you have to hunt. There are clues, but sometimes the clues are misleading.
In particular, I’ve noticed that people use words for different kinds of furniture in surprising ways.
There are people who use the word cabinet to describe a piece of furniture when it is clearly a shelf—and vice versa!
Deciding what to call something is hard. Especially if you’ve got more than one language rattling around in your brain.
See below for proof.
Continue reading I don’t think it means what you think it means.
Oral language is a blur. We don’t notice, unless we try to sing karaoke and realize we have no idea what the words to our favorite songs actually are, or—worse—that we’ve been singing them wrong with utter conviction for decades.
Eggcorns (plausible malapropisms) are words or phrases that exist thanks to this kind of ambiguity. Wrong song lyrics, in case you’re curious, are called mondegreens.
On classified ad sites like Carousell, language assumptions that pass unnoticed in speech are made visible. You can learn a lot about the local dialect by cataloging the unintentionally hilarious mistakes that local native English speakers make.
See below for examples.
Continue reading Carouspell: A collection of spelling mistakes in Carousell classified ads
Today I met a kid named Marvin. It was a pleasure and a privilege and a truly strange experience.
Continue reading Brain the size of a planet
The first-person singular pronouns of English are ‘I’, ‘me’, and ‘myself’. Although in daily speech people have been known to use them somewhat interchangeably, IMO it’s worth knowing which roles those different words are supposed to play in a sentence.
Give yourself a quiz. Read each of the sentences below and decide whether it is grammatically correct.
Me/Myself/I Usage Quiz
- The horses were trained by Sylvia and myself.
- Me and Sylvia sold the horses to a riding school.
- The boss split the profit between Sylvia and I.
Answers and explanations after the jump.
Continue reading English grammar: How to use pronouns ‘I’, ‘me’, and ‘myself’
Imagine you are reading 1984 by George Orwell, and you come across this passage:
The voice came from an oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror which formed part of the surface of the right-hand wall. Winston turned a switch and the voice sank somewhat, though the words were still distinguishable. The instrument (the telescreen, it was called) could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely.
So. What shape is the telescreen? Does “oblong” mean “rectangle”?
Continue reading Does “oblong” mean “rectangle”?
This box set contains three folk tales told in Singlish style: The Three Little Pigs Lah, The Red Riding Hood Lah, and The Goldilocks Lah.
The plots are not very different from other adaptations of these familiar tales. The characters are not very different, except that the bears in the story of Goldilocks are not bears but wolves, a change presumably made to connect the third book with the first two. The setting for the stories is Singapore. The illustrations are a mix of drawings and photos of objects and places, and each book’s drawings are by a different artist.
The appeal of these books (in general and for me specifically) is that they use and teach Singlish dialect and slang expressions. The target audience includes both those who want to see their own dialect used for humorous effect and those who are unfamiliar with Singlish and interested in increasing their understanding of it.
See below for more details about these books.
Continue reading Threelogy Lah by Casey Chen
See below for discussion of the following questions related to my recent Funzing talk on language:
- How do people like the Hopi whose language does not have words for left and right keep track of the cardinal directions?
- The Hopi have a less egocentric idea of the locations of things. Does that correlate with a less egocentric kind of worldview or ethics?
- Since language has a biological basis, doesn’t that mean that linguistic relativity is a myth?
- What’s the difference between studying a language and using it?
- How does using sign language differ from using a spoken language?
- How do memes (macro images), smileys (aka emoticons or emojis), text-speak and other digital innovations relate to more traditional forms of communication?
- Why might reading something in two different languages produce two different impressions?
- Do there exist languages (like a fictitious Star Trek alien one) that are extremely difficult or impossible to translate because they rely noticeably more on metaphors and allusions?
- What are some other properties of language that might make one language appear strange compared to another?
Continue reading Does your language control you? Lingering questions.