Saturday, 23 February 2013

Gramarly (sic)

This has just popped up on my screen
Notice anything? Well, two things actually.
  • The typo in the header is not corrected. 
  • More significantly, the errors corrected aren't errors of grammar - which seems to me (in a product with a name that refers explicitly to grammar) to be a fairly gross oversight.
Suppose I had written 'They aunt errors of grammar,' would the gran'ma checker have noticed? Or - less pleasingly, but more to the point - what about '...enhance you're writing'?

About 18 months ago there was a discussion  about the unpopularity of the passive in the UsingEnglish forums, to which I made this contribution:
One reason for its unpopularity may be that whenever you use it in WinWord the Grammar checker whips out its green pen and says 'Passive voice. Suggest rewriting.' - perhaps they mean 'A rewrite is suggested'.

(This may have been fixed in the latest flavour of WinWord, but I doubt it. )
 A fellow moderator added:
I always suspected that grammar checkers went for that as an easy rule to turn into a computer routine, taking something from Gower's Plain Words and twisting it into a rule that has become semi-accepted.
And I added this afterthought:
Yes - I don't think WinWord started it - which would be an excessively paranoid belief! They just encoded a 'rule' as you said, without bothering to consider its limitations. But Word's grammar checker is a pretty ubiquitous disseminator of that limited understanding.
Generally users of grammar checkers find them a useful tool, but one that needs close attention and post-editing. In my life as a technical writer I sometimes edited other people's work and found errors that had been suggested by Word and that they had unthinkingly accepted. Only last week I saw the phrase 'the choir needs more higher voices [a greater number of people with higher voices]....' - and Firefox's grammar checker marked the 'mistake'.

Grammar checkers are improving. One that is quite useful (but not of course infallible) was announced last month in the UsingEnglish forums:
I have put together an online grammar checker, "GrammarTool". During graduate school my friends would often have me read their drafts as I was one of the few native English speakers around. Eventually I had the idea of writing software to do some automatic basic checks.

Eventually this personal project morphed into a website. The good news: the website is free (and I'll keep it that way unless traffic really picks up and I need to pay for faster hardware), it doesn't have ads; the interface is relatively simple. I am eager to introduce features -- my own skill and time allowing.

The bad news -- like any automatic grammar checker -- my tool is still far worse than having a real live person read your writing
If the poster's web-site is up to it, I'll post a link in an update on this page.

 b
Update 2013.02.24:17.00: Here it is: GrammarTool. What I like about it is that the user's in charge and there isn't a complicated user-interface. There is a Feedback button, which you can use both for feedback and for suggested new features.
 Update 2013.02.25:17.00: By chance I just noticed that the moderator I mentioned earlier on ('Tdol')  has in fact written a blog post that deals specifically with Grammarly – which was the starting point for this post. It was written more than a year [A further update!] ago, though I imagine the principles are still the same.






Update: 2013.10.02.15:55
Header updated:


 Mammon (When Vowels Get Together V4.0: Collection of Kindle word-lists grouping different pronunciations of vowel-pairs – AA-AU, EA-EU, and  IA-IU, and – new for V4.0 – OA-OU.  If you buy it, contact  @WVGTbook on Twitter and I'll alert you to free downloads of the forthcoming volumes; or click the Following button at the foot of this page.)
And if you have no objection to such promiscuity, Like this.

Freebies (Teaching resources: nearly 32,400 views**,  and  4,400 downloads to date. They're very eclectic - mostly EFL and MFL, but one of the most popular is from KS4 History, dating from my PGCE, with 1570 views/700 downloads to date. So it's worth having a browse.)

** This figure includes the count of views for a single resource held in an account that I accidentally created many years ago.
 

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Sez who? Take 2

Excuse my recent silence. What with the Crystal talk, -EE- words that make the /i:/ sound*, and furniture removals, it's been a busy week. It started out to be a report of the Monday talk, but ended up being a bit of a rant about intellectual bullying - which had the same theme as the Crystal talk (language and culture).

Last Monday, David Crystal delivered the 'inaugural English Language/Council lecture' (or so it was described by the first speaker) on the subject of The future of English: coping with culture. It was, as he said at the outset, 'little more than a string of stories', but for all that it was an enjoyable and enlightening string of stories. I wonder if he chose his first anecdote - about a break-down in communication over eggs in a diner in the US - with a private hat-tip to William Caxton's similar anecdote reported by many other commentators (including Crystal himself, in The Stories of English). The word 'similar' may need some justification; it was similar in that it involved eggs (in Caxton's case the rival words egges [Northern] and eyren [Southern]) , a culture-clash in a public eating place, and a traveller who was perhaps not as naïve as the reporter made him out to be:
...in my days happened that certain merchants were in a ship in Thames for to have sailed over the sea to Zealand, and for lack of wind they tarried at Foreland, and went to land for to refresh them.  And one of them named Sheffield, a mercer, came into a house and asked for meat, and especially he asked after eggs; and the good wife answered that she could speak no French, and the merchant was angry, for he could speak no French, but would have had eggs, and she understood him not.  And then at last another said, that he would have "eyren"; then the goodwife said that she understood him well.  Lo, what should a man in these days now write, eggs or eyren? 
from a Boucher.edu (slightly modernised) extract from Caxton's prrologue to his edition (1490) of Virgil's Eneydos
Of this oft-quoted story Crystal says:
More likely [than a reading of the story at face value] the story arose from a piece of banter, much as one might find today in a London pub when someone with, say, an American accent orders some drinks, the barman fails to catch what was said, and another customer intervenes with a comment about the Americans 'not speaking English'.
 The Stories of English p. 208. The imagined pub conversation is not, incidentally, the same as Crystal's own story, which is at 13'55-15'05 here.
By chance I had mentioned the importance of cultural understanding earlier this year in this blog. And by another chance I had just bookmarked with the tag toblog (clearing the decks for my trip to London) a piece with the intriguing title Why Only Some Grammar Rules Are Breakable. And - coincidence upon coincidence (like London buses, three coming at once [and there's a cultural referewnce that I bet doesn't travel well]) - it was written in response to an article that I had previously written about here.

My response to the Breakable piece may seem rather ad-Hebraist (that's not a rather arbitrary bit of anti-semitism - its author's doctorate was in Hebrew grammar); but that is rather my point (and Crystal's): speaking another person's language is only the first step on the journey to mutual comprehension.

Hoffman (its author) begins by making the traditional tripartite division, so beloved of a  certain kind of writer: 'There are three distinct ways to look at grammar' or, as Caesar might have said 'Grammatica est omnis divisa in partes tres';  Caesar, though had the advantage that very few of his contemporary readers might ever find themselves in a position to ask 'Sez who?'

Hoffman's first way to look at grammar (which it isn't - a 'way to look' that is) is 'prescriptive grammar'. For reasons best  known to Hoffmann he gives this the rather clunky soubriquet of 'the "Who Died and Made You King?" school' (a well-chosen word, 'school' - though not his - as the challenge to authority is redolent of the US schoolyard‡). After an unsurprising overview of this sort of grammar, his final 'Ms. O'Conner and Mr. Kellerman [authors of the article I discussed here] are simply wrong [my emphasis] when they say that "to" isn't part of the infinitive in English' comes somewhat out of left field. Previously he has said '...that's the way it goes. The kings told us so. And the same is true of properly positioning [my emphasis again] prepositions and not inserting items into infinitives.'  So his position on split infinitives is clear - not to say clearly outdated. He could look to any one of dozens -  probably hundreds - of authorities. OUP put its blessing on the split infinitive last century. I use that rather arcane dating system because I remember a colleague gleefully citing the preface to a '90s edtion of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary [that may not be the precise edition] and she was made redundant before the turn of the century.


But Hoffmann's 'simply wrong' reminded me of another culture-clash in my first CELTA lesson (training to be an EFL/ESOL teacher) nearly seven years ago. I've been studying foreign languages, off and on, for about 50 years. In French, Latin, Greek, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian (that's the approximate order of the onset of study) the infinitive was one word; and to translate manger we learnt that we had to use two words - even to the extent of having a teacher correcting us: 'No, it's not just "eat", it's "to eat"!' That was the culture I had known as a student of foreign languages.

In my CELTA class, though, my trainer used 'infinitive' differently. The infinitive (the form of the verb with no tense marking - whence the name, incidentally†) took two forms: the 'to-infinitive' and the 'bare infinitive', and the default sort of infinitive tout sec was the bare infinitive. So as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language one learns to say things like 'To form the -ing- form of "eat" you add "-ing" to the infinitive'. 'Simply wrong'? What is simple is that the view is born of a culture clash - the culture of people who study languages and the culture of people learning and teaching English as a Foreign Language. In the words of Molière's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme 'Nous avons changé tout ça!'

Let's return to Hoffmann's ways to look at grammar: 'The second way to look at grammar is both more interesting and less appreciated...[:] descriptive linguistics'. Quite so. It's a shame he didn't just say that rather than dress it up in another bit of 'man o' t'people' slang (which, in any case, is misleading): But Everyone's Doing It! The example he gives is this.
For example, in English, "I am" and "I'm" mean the same thing: "I am going to the movies" is the same as "I'm going to the movies." But even so, an English speaker might say, "he's taller than I am," but never "he's taller than I'm." Hundreds of millions of Americans, Brits, and more all agree on this basic fact, in spite of mostly never having thought about it before....
True. Unarguable. Language is what  everyone's doing, linguistically, and behind it lurk rules like this. But the schoolyard self-jusification 'But Everyone's Doing It!' is used to justify a mistake or an infraction of a cultural norm, rather than an unremarked truth. And is this, in the words of the title, an unbreakable rule? Probably - though Hoffmann doesn't say as much, saving the words for a catchy headline. People don't say  "he's taller than I'm" for the same reason that a footballer - the culture-clash here is intentional; 'he only does it to annoy, because he knows it teases'; I mean Association Football - doesn't pick up the ball. If they do, it becomes a different game. That's the way the language is. This sort of rule is unbreakable simply because if you break it you're not playing the game; it's not the sort of rule that allows cognoscenti to ask 'Shall I break it?' I wonder if that makes it unbreakable?

Finally, the third way: 'the third is art: what's the best way to put words together to achieve a certain goal?' Hoffmann cites various great writers, writing ungrammatically for art's sake. Fine. But it's not a way of looking at grammar. The suspension of grammaticality is not the breaking of a rule. I don't have very much to say about this 'way' because it's vacuous [see Update].

So what have we got? A tripartite division that doesn't work; an overview of prescriptive grammar with an implied blessing of some prescriptive rules on entirely arbitrary grounds; an overview of descriptive grammar that misses the point; and a third bit left over that says 'All bets are off if you're a great writer.' There are no three divisions; there are two - let's call a spade a spade: prescriptive and descriptive. And the bailiwick of art doesn't extend beyond prescriptive rules (unless you're James Joyce!) This doesn't remotely justify the title of Hoffmann's post.

But. generally, culture underlies all this. Hoffmann belongs to the same genus as Dave Barry's 'Mrs Thistlebottom' in his Mister Language Person columns . The world of language is full of arbitrary prescriptive rules, and he will pick and choose which ones will prescribe for him things like 'properly positioning prepositions'. All well and good; dinosaurs dominated the Earth for millions of years, and some of them were pretty scary; but they didn't survive the rise of the mammals. And this mammal resents being told how to write and speak by someone who brandishes his academic prowess but who doesn't understand my culture.

b
* This category represents a large majority (nearly 90% of all words that include the vowel-pair -EE-), and I shall have added it to the work-in-progress version of V2 of When Vowels Get Together Real Soon Now.
‡I don't know whether Hoffmann's high-school education was indeed in the USA, though he has taught in enough US high-schools, to judge from his CV.
† The infinitive is non-finite. In Portuguese it is even called o infinito.

Update, 2013.02.19:11.35 I should make it clear that when I referred to Hoffmann's discussion of 'the third way to look at grammar', using the word 'vacuous', I didn't mean 'vacant'. There are several interesting observations, which you can see in the article itself. But they are observations that are clearly examples typical of descriptive linguistics.

Update: 2013.10.02.15:55
HeadFooter updated
Update: 2014.01.05.12:35
And again:



 Mammon When Vowels Get Together V5.2: Collection of Kindle word-lists grouping different pronunciations of vowel-pairs. Now complete (that is, it covers all vowel pairs –  but there's still stuff to be done with it; an index, perhaps...?)

And if you have no objection to such promiscuity, Like this.

Freebies (Teaching resources:  nearly 36,000 views  and  5,000 downloads to date**. They're very eclectic - mostly EFL and MFL, but one of the most popular is from KS4 History, dating from my PGCE, with 1806 views/840 downloads to date. So it's worth having a browse.)

** This figure includes the count of views for a single resource held in an account that I accidentally created many years ago.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Pot? What pot?

This is just a little amuse-souris - something I was going to develop and release in the fulness of time (when it would be... erm, fuller). But of late I've been engaged in justifying my status as an #eltchat blogger (I'll add a link to my handiwork later). So I'm releasing it now as a pot-boiler.

The man who does has just* given me confirmation of Knowles's Law of Waste Disposal, which holds that:
When clearing up after work out of doors, there will always be one more load [sack or wheelbarrow] than you estimate will be necessary, even when you allow for Knowles's Law.
He was digging out the soil where he was going to set a gate-post, and asked me where I wanted the waste. I asked how many sacks he'd need. 'Two should do it - no, make it three just to be on the safe side.' I went to get him the sacks - three, with a fourth just to be on the safe side. Between us we had got the calculation right; there were four bagsful when he had finished.

b

PS That 'just' was relatively true when I wrote it.
PPS That is 'true as a relative expression'
Update 2013.02.15:22.13 PPS Here's my summary of the #eltchat at midday (GMT) on 6 Feb.

Update: 2013.10.02.15:55
Header updated:


 Mammon (When Vowels Get Together V4.0: Collection of Kindle word-lists grouping different pronunciations of vowel-pairs – AA-AU, EA-EU, and  IA-IU, and – new for V4.0 – OA-OU.  If you buy it, contact  @WVGTbook on Twitter and I'll alert you to free downloads of the forthcoming volumes; or click the Following button at the foot of this page.)
And if you have no objection to such promiscuity, Like this.

Freebies (Teaching resources: nearly 32,400 views**,  and  4,400 downloads to date. They're very eclectic - mostly EFL and MFL, but one of the most popular is from KS4 History, dating from my PGCE, with 1570 views/700 downloads to date. So it's worth having a browse.)

** This figure includes the count of views for a single resource held in an account that I accidentally created many years ago.
 

Monday, 4 February 2013

It must be true, a SURVEY says so

The Mail Online (which scarcely deserves a link, but which - if your blood-pressure can take it - you can find by working back from this article) has done it again (they really ought to have a letterhead that says 'By Appointment to Her Majesty the Queen, Raisers of Blood Pressure').

My attention was caught by a discussion in a LinkedIn forum (open only to members, but anyone can sign up) with the title Is British English a waste of time? - an interesting conclusion to draw from the 'survey'. But my innate scepticism was raised by the first sentence in the thread:
According to a survey in New York, British people use 60 unnecessary words every day, 420 needless words a week and 21,840 superfluous words a year, and all because we try to avoid speaking directly.
This was dubious on a number of grounds. 
  • Who did the 'survey' and why? 
  • Who or what was 'surveyed', with regard to what? 
  • Why was it done in New York (if it was at all), what special insight did the alleged New Yorkers have into British English, and where did the samples of British English come from? 
  • What do all those numbers mean, how were they collected, and do they have any significance? 
 (That was before I'd even followed the link in the post, which is here.)

I set out to find the answers to those questions, and - not surpisingly - the Mail Online wasn't much help. It kept referring to the 'survey', but gave no details whatsoever - apart from the conclusions, and the fact that it was produced by the New York Bakery Company - whose website is 'under construction'. Google tells me they are suppliers of onion bagels to Waitrose; and the web address has the suffix .co.uk. - which suggests that they are based in the UK. But, according to a whois search the registrant is Maple Leaf Foods Inc., of Toronto. The site is one of 40 sites  'hosted on this server', and was registered in 2003. Details are here. So, whether it came from somewhere in the UK or Canada, it's not 'a survey in New York' - that hub of academic excellence in the field of linguistics.

As New York Bakery Co's website - after 10 years -  is still 'under construction', I have to conclude that their interest in communication is limited. So I tried Maple Leaf Foods Inc. - whose website is fuller, and which (the company, that is) was founded long before I was born. But the website is incredibly slow - or perhaps this is another triumph for 'Tesco.net's Infra-Slow "Broadband"' - so (apart from the possibly interesting fact that they have a subsidiary called 'Maple Leaf Bakery') I have drawn a blank.

New York Bakery Co have just 'launched' (says the article - but where?) a translation crib-sheet for people who don't understand the nuances of British English. And I suspect that the Mail Online's source is a press release. But what has their survey found?
[T]he average adult wastes 1.7 million words over a lifetime while struggling to make a point, according to a study.
Rather than get to the point, Britons skirt around issues and use long-winded phrases to hide what they really think leading to confusion and arguments according to an American survey.
Hmmm... 'Wastes'...'Struggling to make a point'...'Rather than get to the point'...'Skirt around'... 'Long-winded'... 'Hide what they really think'... No bias there then.

It is true that British English can be wordier than American English, and that this can cause confusion. (Come to that, American English can be wordier than British English: 'domestic waste operative' is wordier than 'dustman'. It depends on the context. And confusion works both ways. The survey, whatever it is, just says 'We don't understand you because you don't talk straight (like you should - we're just straight-talking innocents).'

Perhaps the truth is that the gulf between British English and American English is greater than we thought. This American-speaker is saying 'I know your language, and you get it wrong.' But perhaps he doesn't know it - or, more precisely he knows its nuts and bolts, but does not understand its background in British culture*). And as it happens there's another LinkedIn forum that discusses inter-cultural issues. There's money involved in the Training behind this forum, but I suspect it might be money well spent, rather than frittering it on jokey 'surveys' with the dubious credentials of an onion-bagel maker!

b

PS When I saw this article I thought it would point to the 'research'. I was looking forward to getting my teeth into the numbers and the assumptions; I expect most of my readers were hoping I'd do that too. I haven't given up all hope of doing this, and if I do I'll write an update.


Update 2013.02.04:12.30 A few tweaks - l'esprit de l'escalier
Update 2013.02.04:14.10 Added PS
*Update 2013.02.05 Added this clarification

Update: 2013.10.02.16:05
Header updated:


 Mammon (When Vowels Get Together V4.0: Collection of Kindle word-lists grouping different pronunciations of vowel-pairs – AA-AU, EA-EU, and  IA-IU, and – new for V4.0 – OA-OU.  If you buy it, contact  @WVGTbook on Twitter and I'll alert you to free downloads of the forthcoming volumes; or click the Following button at the foot of this page.)
And if you have no objection to such promiscuity, Like this.

Freebies (Teaching resources: nearly 32,400 views**,  and  4,400 downloads to date. They're very eclectic - mostly EFL and MFL, but one of the most popular is from KS4 History, dating from my PGCE, with 1570 views/700 downloads to date. So it's worth having a browse.)

** This figure includes the count of views for a single resource held in an account that I accidentally created many years ago.