Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Adverbs up front

Here is another change, or reform even, of English that we are living through. You are possibly not aware of it because it is a question of punctuation and who cares about that?

I'm going to say from the start, this is something you cannot get wrong if you do it the old way. If you're worried about being "correct", use more commas rather than fewer in this instance. (And that's one of the few times you'll ever see me say that.)

You can think of English sentences in many ways but at their simplest they begin from the following idea.


Subject -- verb -- object

This is the "ur sentence shape". It's unambiguously the shape of an English sentence. It may interest you to know that many languages do not use the same shape. SOV is probably more common (an example is Japanese, and German dependent clauses show that it too is fundamentally SOV). VSO is more than possible (Celtic languages, for example Welsh). And a free order is common in languages that use strict case agreement.

Of course, not every English sentence has these elements. Any sentence with an intransitive verb will lack the "O" element and imperatives do not have explicit subjects. And many have adverbial phrases that are tacked on. They theoretically belong to the verb element but in English their basic position is sentence final.

To show what I mean:

I      eat     fish
S      V       O

I      eat     fish    on Tuesdays
S     V       O       A

The subject is me (of course). The thing I do is eat. The thing I eat is fish. The time I eat it is on Tuesdays.

I'm not going to delve in any great detail into what adverbial phrases are. We'll just say this: in the basic sentence adverbs generally describe the verb in greater detail, saying how, when, why, where, with whom or what, its action occurs. They also describe adjectives, just to be confusing, but we will not discuss that at all here. What we are concerned with is the "adverbial phrase" -- the word or words that give detail about the verb.

Now, of course, when looking at the English sentence, it's not really all that useful to analyse it in terms of subject and object. That's because English is no longer an inflectional language and identifying the class of words is uninteresting. What's more interesting is their function. So we would more generally see the sentence as topic-comment.

In the above sentence, I am the topic and what I do is the predicate. English isn't a strict topic-prominent language like Japanese or Turkish because at least in speech, it cannot promote objects to sentence topics. If I say "Fish I ate", I sound more like Yoda than DR. Some languages do in fact allow this kind of promotion.

What English does allow, and careful readers will note I have used the device very often in this piece, as I do, and most writers, good or bad, do in every piece, is fronting. Because English uses the front of the sentence to "mark" the sentence topic, it can "front" things whose basic position is elsewhere in the sentence to increase their salience.

So look at again at: I eat fish on Tuesdays.
One can instead write: On Tuesdays, I eat fish.

This is called "adverbial fronting" and I have "fronted" the adverbial phrase "on Tuesdays.

I eat fish sometimes.
Sometimes, I eat fish.

I don't really want to get into a discussion of what can and what can't be fronted, since even if the rules are reasonably complex, you will have a very decent grasp of them. So you know you can write "With a glad heart, I send you five pounds" but not really "?With a pen, I wrote him a long letter", and readily "Because I love you, I'm letting you go" (dependents are probably fronted almost equally as they are written in their basic position, although some pedants really don't like it when you front "because" phrases) but not "*Too much, he eats fish".

You'll notice that the correct style for fronted adverbials has always been to comma them off and I have followed that here.

Now, wind it back to fish.

"Sometimes, I eat fish." You may have felt a little uneasy with that sentence. And before I suggest why, let's digress briefly.

A lot of the reading we do in the day to day is in the form of what one  might call "Newspaper English", even when it's online. This is a particular style of writing that's become quite popular outside of its birthplace, which was newspapers. It tends to deploy a simple sentence structure, rather few adjectives and relatively few adverbs. It doesn't allow extraneous words, so you'll see far fewer "that"s than you would in most other forms of writing. "I feel he eats fish too much" is standard and "I feel that he eats fish too much" would be corrected by a sub. It also largely eschews commas, possibly because they don't look good in newspaper print.

So in Newspaper English, you'd tend to write "Sometimes I eat fish" and indeed single adverbs are very rarely comma'd off in any form of English. Newspaper English goes further, so that "With a glad heart I send you five pounds" would be correct style. It would not generally be acceptable to write "?Because I love you I'm letting you go."

This form of punctuating English is taking over and these days you'll see it in most forms of writing. You probably haven't noticed or thought about it, any more than you'd think about whether you should hyphenate "Oxford-street" (which was the case less than a hundred years ago) or use semicolons like they're in short supply (they were much more used before the war, when a hit on the semicolon factory killed most of the world's stock).

I applaud it. Commas are great tools for avoiding ambiguity but if they're not really helping, why keep them? I intend to write some posts where I'll show how they do help (and imagine I had written "if they're not really helping why keep them?" -- which is poor and I'll explain why later).

As I say, you cannot go far wrong if you simply comma off fronted adverbials. Don't worry about being too correct. Just stick a comma after anything at the front of the sentence that is not the subject of your sentence. If you don't know what the subject is, well, here's a tip. Take your sentence and find the verb. Everything after the verb cannot be the subject so ignore that. Look at the elements before the verb and cross out everything that is a word that can't do the action of the verb. Nearly always you'll be left with one word. That's the subject. Or none -- hey you have an imperative sentence! Then decide if the other words around that subject describe it or describe what it does.

On a wet Wednesday a dog barked loudly.

Take off everything after the verb.

On a wet Wednesday a dog barked

Wednesdays can't bark and "On a wet" belongs with Wednesday.

A dog is our subject.

Comma off everything in front of "A dog".

On a wet Wednesday, a dog barked.

It will probably become old fashioned to do this but for now you won't be doing anything wrong, and you'll have the advantage of always being right in the instances that haven't changed and won't change soon.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

There's a change coming

Before we get started, we'd better get a few ideas straight. Otherwise, this will be just be a confusing mass of words for the nonlinguist.

Let's being with the idea of diglossia. This is quite difficult for the English speaker to get their head round but it's second nature for, say, German speakers. A Swiss German, for example speaks, and importantly writes, two languages: Swiss German and High German. They very likely speak more than two, of course. But this is the bare minimum. Swiss German and High German are different varieties of German. They don't sound very similar and even if you have learned German to a degree of fluency at school, you'll find Swiss German difficult.

High German is the standard German as we understand it. It's generally speaking the language of education, of parliament, of newspapers and so on. It's the German Germans speak. Other varieties of German, and related Germanic languages are diglossic with High German, although some are no longer spoken much. Franconian shades into High German and many people in western Germany speak a dialect or even a different language at home but are fully fluent in High German. When I visited Lower Saxony for instance, some people could speak Platt -- and everyone could understand some -- which is Low German (the names are related to the topography of the areas they predominate in, not their relative social worth).

Diglossia can be quite extreme. One of the more famous examples is Arabic. Arabs tend to speak the "local language" at home but can generally also understand Classical Arabic, which is the literary language among other things.

Now, we should be clear. There are many varieties of each language. People in Damascus can often speak three languages that are all "Arabic": a street version of their local language, Syrian Arabic and Classical Arabic. We can call different varieties of a language that have different purposes "registers". We are familiar with the idea, if not the name, because we all use different forms of our language in different circumstances. We're quite comfortable with the ideas of "informal" and "formal" language, even if we don't always agree on the words that should feature in each type. Some registers are more heavily subscribed to by people of one age than people of another and this has always been true. The kids use "text English" and "verlan" and they used to use "pig Latin" and "gang language" and so on. Americans will be familiar with the language of "gangsta rap", which is largely influenced by what we might call Black Vernacular English, or Ebonic, or Standard African-American English, which is diglossic with Standard English. I hope that some have just learned something new. When you hear a black speaking "bad English", you are in fact hearing someone speak a different language fluently. BVE has different rules from English and a somewhat different vocabulary. The speakers are no more "wrong" than speakers of Swiss German.

The final idea is easy to understand. We all grasp "borrowing". Languages take words from each other, sometimes because they don't have a word for the concept expressed (so "million" is the world's most cognate word and "computer" isn't all that far behind) but also for social reasons. If the king starts using a French word, the peasants will too. What's probably less apparent is "internal borrowing", where one register is changed by adopting words from another. To make things slightly more complicated, there are also "sociolects", which are the varieties of languages spoken by different social classes.

But this borrowing does also happen. Take "ain't" for Standard English (StE) "isn't" and "don't" for StE "doesn't". The former is recognised as part of a "lower-class" sociolect and "incorrect" on that basis, and the former is mostly considered incorrect even by the sociolect that allow "ain't". But both were part of the "upper-class" sociolect in Victorian times, as a quick jifty at Vanity Fair will confirm. And today, posh young lads from the Home Counties can be roundly mocked for their use of "Estuary English" or "mockney". I mean, seriously, does anyone who actually works for a living say "pukka"?

The key takeaway here is that languages are fluid and functional. We learn them to use them. And the notion of correctness has more to do with sticking to the correct register (keeping within a style, if you like) than it does with some absolute measure of correctness. "I ain't never givin you one" is just as much English as "I am never giving you one". When we are babies, no one sits us down with the rulebook. We actually make up the rules for ourselves, fresh in each generation. (This is one good reason linguists tend to be "descriptivists" because we are aware we can only ever describe languages and not say what they are supposed to look like.)

So let me digress for a moment (you'll have to imagine your own big grinny emoji here). Many languages have an "existential identifier" (or words to that effect). It has a word, or sometimes words, that point out that something is. Turkish uses "var" for this purpose; French uses "il y a" (and often in speech a single word that ought to be spelled something like "illa". English does not have just one. Or did not. One is being born and it's a question of "reanalysis".

Remember what I said about babies. They make up the rules afresh in their generation. You and I did it and your children do it too. You may have corrected them when they said "hitted" and overgeneralised the standard rule for the past tense (you needn't have bothered; they continue to adjust their language long past the phase in which they get strong past tenses wrong, and they do the same in every language that has them).

So what does a child hear when you say "there's a dog"? You are expressing (don't worry if you don't actually know that you are doing this): existential deictive+copula+article+noun and you likely pronounce it /thai:z uh dog/ or similar (apologies for lack of IPA but I can't be arsed digging out a font and in any case, the point is you recognise that /thai:z/ is heard by the child as a single unit).

Interestingly, the plural version doesn't work quite as comfortably. /thai:ruh/ doesn't really work so we don't often say "there/re" (I won't go into why it doesn't work) and /thai:ra:/ is a bit formal for the spoken register.

So children generally understand /thai:z/ altogether as an existential deictive (existential just means "being" and deictive means "pointing"; deictives are "pointing words" such as this, that, those). They don't analyse it as containing a copula because in fact there's no copulative function (I know I just sounded like I took off into Martian but it's fairly easy: copulas are (usually) verbs that link phrases in a sentence and in effect say they are equivalents: "I am a man" says that the identified person (me) and the identified descriptor "a man" are equivalent; technically, in English, the copula allows subjects and predicates to sit in a co-equal relationship (compare "I am a fish" with "I ate a fish", where "I" am the subject of the verb "to eat" -- I do the eating -- whereas in "I am a fish", both "I" and "a fish" can be considered subjects of the copula).

Without getting overly technical, the verb "to be" in a phrase such as "there is a man" is not a copula. Although it's not actually true that all things copulated by "to be" are strictly equal (the sentence "the man is a fish" is not the same as "a fish is the man" at all), it's true that it allows equivalence of subjects with subject complements (it says things are the same thing). But "there is a man" is not saying "there" is the same thing as "a man"; "there" is a "dummy pronoun" that doesn't stand for anything.

Children analyse spoken language. No two-year-old can read. So they analyse "theres" as a single word with no apostrophe and have done for some time now. And in spoken language, it is used as a single word with no apostrophe. But, I hear you say, where is the verb? Well, many languages simply do not use a verb in copulative sentences and it's perfectly "logical" not to. Spoken English is quite happy to deploy many sentences without verbs. We like to call them "sentence fragments" but they are often perfectly well-formed sentences. "Not likely." "Sometimes." "You fucking idiot."

So in spoken language, constructions such as "there's three of them" have become not only common, but correct. And the rather awkward English method of introducing an object has become streamlined. In Australia, "there's" is standard in the spoken language and has begun to be written too. I've noticed it is common in spoken English, although a speaker would consider it "incorrect" and no one would allow it in any kind of writing. But they will.

You cannot hold back the tide of language change with worthless pedantry. Unless you're Icelandic and nearly everyone lives in the same town. Rejoice in seeing history unfold. There's big changes ahead.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Time past

BC and AD seem at first glance confusing, because there's no "Year Zero", you go from AD1 from 1BC without stopping anywhere that's neither. But there is a Point Zero and it's the only one in history as we reckon it. Or is it?

Two things we need to be clear on to begin with. First, what does a clock tell you? What is 3pm? 3pm is "three hours after midday". So 3:00 is the end of the third hour. Because it begins with a 3, it would be easy to confuse it for the first moment of the fourth hour. But it isn't. It's the end of the third.

The other is that Jesus can be thought of as having an "official birthday". The queen of England was actually born on 21 April at some hour in that day. But she has an official birthday, on which we are bid to celebrate her, on usually the second Saturday in June.

And we all understand the concept that our birthdays begin at some point around 00:00:01 (I'll come back to that) on the anniversary of our day of birth, regardless when we were actually born. I was born at 9:30pm but like everybody, I start to be a year older after midnight on 11 October.

So Jesus was born a few years BC, according to the story. But his "official birthday" is Point Zero.

Now, think about my birthday. When does it actually begin? It cannot be midnight because that belongs to October 10. It cannot be 00:01 because it has already existed for a minute. It can't be 00:00:01 because it has already existed for a second.

So when we reckon the beginning of my birthday we enter a Zeno's paradox. No matter how close we approach the beginning it has still already begun. We can get as close as the Planck length to midnight and we still haven't quite reached its beginning.

So in fact the start of my birthday, and yours, and the queen's, and in fact Jesus', must be considered an abstract that is neither within yesterday nor within today. It is the very moment the clock ticks past midnight but that moment does not have any physical reality.

AD and BC work in exactly the same way.

AD1 is the year after Jesus was "born". 1BC is the year before. There cannot be an actual 0BC or AD0 because the Zero is entirely abstract. So BC becomes AD in exactly the same way that yesterday becomes today.

But why isn't AD1 AD0? After all, no years have passed, right? It should match a clock, where the time it tells is how much is passed. Or 0BC?

Well, it would be rational, of course. But we don't measure years in that way and never have. We label which year it is, not which year it has been, whereas we label which hour has passed. You can consider it "illogical" that the two systems don't work the same way but it isn't. Both are perfectly logical. They're just different. You put yourself in the position of arguing that English is correct and French is wrong, which is understandable to believe, but of course nonsensical.

So in fact, today is the 23rd day of the ninth month in the 2017th year after the official birthday of Jesus. But the time now is 11 hours have past and 21 minutes. But if we measured it in the same way we do years, we should say it is 11:22 or 12:22 or...

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Semicolonic irrigation

A question often posed by writers is “When should I use semicolons?” The short answer is, Never. Semicolons are most commonly used, wrongly, to introduce lists, definitions and explanations, where the writer should have used a colon. For example:

There are two exceptions to the rule never to use a semicolon: one you must use and one you ought often to avoid if you can.

The first use is simple enough but often abused. In lists, we use a semicolon to separate elements that include commas. You usually use a comma to separate the elements in a list: fish, chips, peas and ketchup (add a comma before the “and” if you are American). But in more complex lists, only a semicolon will do: fish, chips, peas and ketchup; curry and rice; and bananas, apples and carrots. Here, using only commas would create a nightmare of ambiguity, and we don’t want that. However, two things you should avoid: don’t use semicolons when you can just use commas, that is, when the items are not complex; don’t use them when you write your list in bullets or numbered. The latter is common but these days we don’t bother with punctuation in lists because it’s ugly.

The second use puts you in peril of one of writing’s worst crimes: the comma splice. So take care. It’s to divide clauses in a sentence where a comma would be too light. I used one in a sentence in the previous paragraph, where the two clauses form a sort of list, but usually a semicolon separates ideas that are in contrast or complement:

They go high; we go low.
I like her; she hates me.

Now these are at best borderline in today’s English. Close to a comma splice, which is where independent clauses are mistakenly joined with a comma, where you should have used a full stop. For example:

I ran down the road, he saw me and waved.


Remember though that you can join clauses with a comma when the first depends on the second. So this is fine:

When I ran down the road, he saw me and waved.

If you want to get technical, you use a comma because you fronted an adverbial phrase. We’ll talk more about fronting phrases when we look at commas.

Don’t use a semicolon in that instance. People do and it’s always wrong to. Don’t get confused with something like this, which is perfectly fine:

He saw me three times: when I ran down the road; when I swam in the river; when I jumped off the cliff.

You can add an “and” into the last element if you like; in fact, this is one of the few instances when even someone who eschews the Oxford comma might prefer to retain the semicolon. It’s not ambiguous if you take the semicolon out and add “and” but it’s what you might call a “stumble point”. You don’t want a reader to have to look twice at your writing. They should always be able to read through without stumbling over your words (unless they lack vocabulary or you have written something genuinely difficult technically).

Friday, September 01, 2017

Broken lives

M was a beautiful boy, a cheeky smile on legs. I remember picking him up from school when he shit his pants. I helped him get through that. I always had a cuddle for him. I loved him.

I did my best for M and for L, his brother, even though L was a difficult boy. They needed a dad because their dad wasn't in the picture and their mum was, if we're fair, crackers. This is a woman who once ran into my car and said she did it because she was "too mad to steer".

I loved those boys. They felt like mine. I have not seen them for years.

G was a beautiful girl. a cheeky smile on legs. I remember helping her when a bigger boy at school bullied her. I went to his mum and sorted it out. She was clumsy and upset the other kids when she carried on but I talked to them and made them see she was a good kid. I loved her and I also loved T, her sister, a quiet girl who ran deep. They needed a dad they weren't scared of and I was that guy. Their mum was under pressure and would sometimes find them hard to handle but she was never too far out of line but once or twice.

I loved those girls. They felt like mine. I have not seen them for months.

A is a beautiful girl. I don't really know what she is like. I remember holding her and she barely knew whether she should smile or cry. I remember when I did know her well I could delight her with a smile or a silly noise but kids grow out of that. She needs a dad and I'm him.

I love that girl. I can only fight for one. The worst thing about this age is you make relationships with women but also with their kids. You grow to love them and then their mothers break your life apart and they never seem to care about the kids.

You think I don't fucking care? Seriously? I think all the time about you and do you ever think of me at all and how it might feel?

These women. They have friends to tell them how great they are but I'm not a monster. I didn't hurt anybody. I did my best. I loved M's mum and tried to help her. I loved T's mum and tried to carry her. I didn't do a thing to them that I feel ashamed of. I didn't do a thing that I don't feel I could answer for.

And when they answer for it, they have to lie. I don't. I never will have to. Cold comfort. But when I end up on the phone to a Brisbane judge, I won't have to lie. And A will know, one way or another, she did have the dad that the others lacked. She had him right here.

Abandon all hope

I cannot help crying when I watch the Time Traveler's Wife because first I think, why can't I have that? and then I think, well maybe I did, and then I think, the way things are, am I only fooling myself? What if she really is what she seems to be? Won't a time come when you'll have to pay what she's asking? And I'm like, how can I ever become someone who gives up on love? I am here, completely alone, so lonely and abandoned and sad, all I have is I believe in love.