Log in

Q. Pheevr
14 Marts 2017 @ 01:59

I recently stumbled across the following story in an old file on my hard drive. Judging by the modification date on the file, I seem to have written it near the end of 2002; in any case, it’s old enough that I was still using Microsoft Word (shudder), and because it was before I started this blog, I don’t think I did anything with it at the time. Anyway, it’s in the tradition of Raymond Smullyan’s knights-and-knaves logic puzzles and their many other imitators, but with a linguistic angle. I decided I still like it well enough to post it now (although if I were editing it I would probably tell myself not to use “smiled <adverb>” twice in such a short space).

A linguist on the Island of Knights and Knaves

Puzzle lore is rich in stories of a strange island on which everyone is either a ‘knight’ (someone who speaks only true statements) or a ‘knave’ (someone who speaks only false ones). A linguist recently visited this island to study the peculiar conventions of expression employed by its inhabitants.

When she landed, she was greeted by two women. “I’m Cass,” said the first one, “and this is my sister Sandra.” The second smiled indulgently. “Actually,” she said, “I’m Cass and she’s Sandra.” The first woman then said something inaudible. “I’m afraid I didn’t hear that,” said the linguist. “She asked you what country you come from,” said the second woman. “No, I didn’t,” said the first, “although I would be interested to know.” Which woman was which?

Once she had figured out which was which, the linguist learned a great deal about life on the island from Cass and Sandra. Eventually they began to talk about the relationships among the inhabitants, and Sandra announced, “Everyone on the island loves someone on the island.” Hearing this, Cass smiled enigmatically and said, “Everyone on the island loves someone on the island.” Such a short time elapsed between these two utterances that the linguist was quite sure nobody could have arrived at or departed from the island, or had a change of heart, during the interim. What did the linguist learn from these two statements?

Q. Pheevr
11 Juli 2012 @ 16:41

What is either today's least surprising statistic or today's most surprising bound variable can be found at DutchNews.nl:

The Netherlands has one of the lowest percentages of non-Dutch nationals living within its borders in the EU, according to new figures from the EU statistics office Eurostat.
Q. Pheevr
15 Juni 2012 @ 15:54

The thing about online news stories is that they, and their headlines, get updated as new information comes in. I'm not sure there's ever any definitive version anymore—I guess the print version is the version of record, but it seems as if the print versions nowadays are often written on the assumption that everyone's already read the basic story online already, and so they just highlight whatever the most recent development is as of press time.

The frustrating thing about this is that when I see a funny or ambiguous headline online and I want to tell you about it, sometimes it's changed by the time you get there. Oh, and also our culture is bereft of any definitive day-to-day record of those events that alter and illuminate our times, but what can you do, eh?

Anyway, at some point in the recent past you could read these headlines in the online version of the Toronto Star:

  1. Nixon’s vice was ‘far worse than we thought,’ write Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein

    Shocking new revelations about Spiro Agnew?

  2. 9-year-old blogger gagged after posting unappetizing school lunch photos

    Seriously unappetizing. You'd gag, too.

Q. Pheevr
07 April 2012 @ 13:48
Toby Keith singing Ke$ha? Kenny G saxing it up with Megadeth? Pick an artist to cover any other artist's song -- who would be singing what? Why would you find this mix-up so amusing, amazing, or just plain weird?
Bernard Cribbins, "I'm too sexy." For all the obvious reasons.
Q. Pheevr
20 September 2011 @ 09:47

Yesterday was Talk Like a Pirate Day, for those who celebrate it. But did you know that today is Maraud Like a Rhetorician Day?

Raid eloquently, me hearties.

Q. Pheevr
31 August 2011 @ 10:55

Thank you, Mr. Black, but I really did not need to hear about your constipation. The following comes from an article in the Toronto Star about an interview with Conrad Black in Vanity Fair:*

In his VF interview, Black described anal inspections with which he was “slightly mystified at the extent of official curiosity about that generally unremitting aperture.”

Lord Black of Crossharbour is fond of using fancy words, and he sometimes becomes obscure in his efforts to avoid brevity. Still, it might explain something about his character if it's true that his anal sphincter is (as the OED's definition of unremitting has it) "never relaxing or slackening; continuing with the same force; incessant." The main purpose of that particular aperture is to remit material to a lower authority at suitable intervals, and if Mr. Black's is unremitting, well, then, he must be full of it.

*Yes, that's a newspaper reporting on a magazine reporting on a newspaper baron. Our news media are as close as anyone to discovering perpetual motion.

Q. Pheevr
08 August 2011 @ 17:44

Even the zombies in this town are nice. I was biking home from the grocery store yesterday, and had to wait for a bit at a crosswalk while a teeming horde of undead shambled by. At one point, a few of the zombies decided that they were collectively taking rather a long time to cross the street, and paused to give some motorists and me a chance to get through. But of course we declined and waved them on; they did have the right of way, after all.

Nuværende humør: pleasedpleased
Q. Pheevr
11 Juni 2010 @ 12:41
writersblock asks:

How would you describe your sense of humor in six words or less?

q_pheevr answers:


Q. Pheevr
14 Maj 2010 @ 23:14

This man and this lizard are celebrated in song for a feat that was eventually replicated in 1903 by a Norwegian.

Q. Pheevr
19 Juli 2009 @ 17:12

Anyone who has paid much attention to the Language Log’s occasional examinations of prescriptivism and style manuals and such will have noticed a few truisms that come up again and again:

  1. People who write very well sometimes say silly things when they try to advise others on how to write well.
  2. People who give advice on writing do not always follow it.
  3. Geoff Pullum hates The Elements of Style with the sort of passionate fury ordinary people tend to reserve for terrorists, dictators, and members of rival sports teams.

I have nothing to add to the discussion on point three. I do, however, want to share some further evidence touching on points one and two, from one of my favourite authors.

Dorothy L. Sayers was, of course, the author of some of the most beautifully written detective fiction in the English language. Less famously, though, she was also the author of a remarkable collection of essays called Unpopular Opinions, published in 1946. The book is divided into three sections: Theological, Political, and Critical. The Critical section consists entirely of mock-serious “Studies in Sherlock Holmes,” which are essential reading for anyone interested in the early history of the territory now known as Fandom. The Political section includes the classic feminist essay “Are Women Human?” (a question that was taken up many years later by Catharine MacKinnon). But the essay I’d like to look at here is “The English Language,” which, perhaps tellingly, appears in the Political section as well.

[Dorothy L. Sayers]

“The English Language” is a remarkable mix of good sound sense, silly nonsense, and appalling jingoism. Sayers, as one might expect, is too well-informed to fall for certain familiar forms of prescriptivist poppycock:

There are pedants, God mend their ears, who, having read some cheap-jack, rule-of-thumb, cramp-wit folly in a sixpenny text-book,1 would like to break our free idiom to the bit of an alien fashion. These are not the Latinists (who know better), but the Latinisers; they remember the Latin bones of language, and will have them dry bones. These are the pinching misers, who will hoard their gold, but will not put it out to gain. Of such are the dreary little men who write to the papers protesting—in the teeth of Chaucer, Bacon, Spenser, Shakespeare, Jonson, the English Bible, Milton, Burton, Congreve, Swift, Burke, Peacock, Ruskin, Arnold and the whole tradition of English letters—that a sentence must not end with a preposition. This is no matter of syntax; it is a matter of idiom; and the freedom to handle our prepositions is among the most glorious in our charter of liberties.

Sayers is presumably not alluding here to the Magna Carta Libertatum, which was, after all, written in Latin; perhaps there's something about prepositions in the English Bill of Rights (1689). In any case, one can sense a strong nationalist undercurrent here. A couple of pages earlier, Sayers’s nationalism is no mere undercurrent:

It is well, then, to know what we mean and to learn how to say it in English. And by English I mean English, and not any other tongue. In a day when the British Broadcasting Corporation imports its language committee from Ireland and Scotland, and when Fleet Street swarms with Scots, Irish, and Americans, it is well to remember that all these persons are foreigners; that the Scots and the Irish were so from the beginning and that the Americans have become so; that they speak our language as foreigners; and that while it is childlike and charming in us to enjoy their sing-song speech and their quaint foreign barbarisms, to imitate these things is childishness and folly.

Sayers does not mention Canadians at all; perhaps she felt that they had not yet become foreigners as the Americans had. The Welsh are another interesting omission. And I really don’t know precisely what she means when she says that the Americans (et al.) “speak our language as foreigners.” Did she think that the American language had become a separate language from the English language? But under that view, surely Americans don’t generally go around speaking English as a foreign language; they speak American as their native language, with all its “quaint foreign barbarisms.”

In addition to her prejudices, Sayers had her peeves. She insists, adamantly and at length, on the semantic distinction between will and shall, and laments that “Even so correct and elegant a writer as Mr. Robert Graves is losing his English ear and writing: ‘I would like to,’ and ‘I would prefer to.’” (Her forcefulness on this point is perhaps that of a committed partisan fighting a hopeless battle.) I confess to having felt a certain thrill when I learned that Sayers shared one of my peeves; she objects to the expression meteoric rise on the grounds that “a meteor cannot rise, and in fact is a meteor only in virtue of its fall.” (I think I’m entitled to this peeve; after all, I don’t claim that meteoric rise is bad grammar, but only that it is bad astronomy, as well as a cliché.)

Sayers also inveighs against “that vile fellow the hanging participle, who, if he would but hang all his employers, would perform the one useful act of his mean existence.” She offers us the following example, together with her perhaps hyperbolically bewildered reaction to it:

“And though one might avoid the margins his lobby was too tiny not to step on the paint when crossing it.”

Who stepped on the paint? The lobby? Who crossed? The lobby? Crossed what? Did the lobby, in an access of religious fervour, cross itself?2

The thing is, I don’t think this really is an example of a hanging participle at all. Sayers purports to be confused first about the subject of to step, which is an infinitive, not a participle, and then about the subject of crossing, which is a participle, but not a hanging one. The participial clause when crossing it is correctly attached to the clause it modifies, namely not to step on the paint, and the two clauses are naturally interpreted as having the same subject. Who that subject may be is perhaps less obvious, but it is clearly intended to be the arbitrary or generic null subject (called PROarb in some modern theoretical syntactic frameworks), which is more or less equivalent to the generic pronoun one, as in Sayers's proposed rewording: “the lobby, being small, had been painted all over, so that one could not cross it without stepping on the paint.” I grant that the original sentence is an ungainly one, but it is not well chosen as an illustration of “that vile fellow the hanging participle.”

I have a better example for you. This is from page 115 of a mystery novel called The Five Red Herrings, by one of my favourite authors:

Being, however, of the female sex, the prohibition immediately aroused in her a strong spirit of inquiry [...].

Who was of the female sex? The prohibition?

To be entirely fair, the sentence quoted above is not directly attributable to the author herself, or even to her eloquent omniscient narrator; it is part of a speech made by Mervyn Bunter to his employer, Lord Peter Wimsey. Sayers certainly did, on occasion, deliberately put malapropisms into the mouths of her characters (especially if they were meant to be Scottish, Irish, or American), but Bunter is always the epitome of the gentleman’s gentleman, and I doubt that she would play such a trick on him. Furthermore, I cannot believe that if Sayers had intentionally made Bunter hang this participle, she would have allowed it to pass unremarked by both Lord Peter and the narrator.

Finally, as long as we are taking pot-shots at the nodding Homer, I may as well show you this charming example of overnegation, from page 115 of Have His Carcase:3

No theory is too silly to be dismissed without investigation.

Words to live by!

1. Does this turn of phrase remind you of anyone?

2. In case you were wondering, the word access here is not an error (on Sayers's part or mine) for excess; rather, Sayers used it in the sense given by the OED as “11. An outburst; a sudden fit of anger or other passion. (Modern, after Fr. accès.)”

3. Sayers evidently had particular trouble with hundred-and-fifteenth pages.

Q. Pheevr
28 Juni 2009 @ 13:00

Statue of Humpty Dumpty by Kimber Fiebiger in Mesa, AZ

...and writing for the Toronto Star under the pseudonym Bob Martin:

There will be many detractors heckling you from the road side as you plod your way to Broadway. Allow yourself the satisfaction of proving them wrong. The best way to do this is by winning a brace of Tony awards. One Tony might be given out of pity, or two because the show got lucky in certain categories, but winning a brace of Tonys is an unequivocal statement of success and should be celebrated as such.

I define a "brace" as more than four.

That's a great deal to make one word mean; to be precise, it's more than twice as much as the word brace means for the rest of us poor slobs. It must be fun to be Bob Martin—imagine reading, in some old novel or other, about two gentlemen fighting a duel with a brace of pistols, and trying to picture how they managed to hold them all. And what a feast a brace of pheasants would make!

Impenetrability! That's what I say.

Q. Pheevr
28 Juni 2009 @ 12:15

...and tell sad stories about the King of Pop. That's certainly what CBC Radio's been doing for the past couple of days, anyway. (Word is they no longer have funding for chairs over there.)

Oddly enough, I, too, have a sad story about Michael Jackson to tell. I've never been interested in the type of music he made, and I didn't pay particular attention to the disturbing tales of his personal conduct, so it's not really a story about the man himself, and it's not a long story, but I think it's worth telling.

When I was in high school, I rode the school bus every day; my school was too far away to walk to, and I never did learn to drive (and even if I had, the family car would have been needed elsewhere anyway). The bus driver was a black woman named Terri (or Terry, or Teri—it feels odd that I don't know how to spell her name, but I never did have occasion to see it written down). Although she was a parent, she was not very much older than her high-school passengers, and she would chat with those of us who were sitting near the front of the bus; I didn't say much, but I enjoyed listening, and felt a pleasant and unexpected sense of continuity between high school and adulthood in these conversations. Anyway, Terri would sometimes tell us about her young son, and once or twice even brought him on board with her. One time, she told us about something he had said about his aspirations for the future: "When I grow up," he had announced, "I want to be white, like Michael Jackson."

I'm not going to blither about Role Models here, and I neither know nor care whether Jackson's gradual albinification was the result of vitiligo or cosmetic procedures or some combination of the two. I'm also not going to pontificate about the cultural significance and biological arbitrariness of racial categories; there are many interesting things to be said about them that I'm really not well equipped to say. But this story is the one thing I will always remember about Michael Jackson, even if it's not exactly about him.

Q. Pheevr
16 Maj 2009 @ 21:31

Here (scanned from the Toronto Star) is a frame from a TV ad by the Conservative Party, which attacks the Liberal Party leader, Michael Ignatieff, for running attack ads: (Note in particular the inset showing part of a Liberal ad with an image of the Conservative Party leader, Stephen Harper.) This is an example of:

cognitive dissonance
why voter turnout is so low in Canadian federal elections