Archive | August, 2013

Restriction and the marsupial

27 Aug

Somewhat in the manner of Oscar Wilde, I recently spent the afternoon debating whether or not to put a comma in this:


You can see where I mean, can’t you? After “dingo”. Yes: it’s our old friend the restrictive clause. If you put a comma in, it clearly means George Stubbs never saw the dingo or the kangaroo before having to paint them. If you leave it out, as here, it probably means he saw the kangaroo but not the dingo, unless you’re generously inclined to attach the restrictive clause to both animals. But I don’t think that’s the obvious reading. The indefinite article before “dingo” isolates it from “kangaroo” with its definite article and encourages you to succumb to what the linguist Arnold Zwicky calls the Lure of Low Attachment – that is, instinctively reading a phrase as modifying only the thing closest to it, and not things further back (or “higher up”) in the sentence.

The “which” doesn’t help: “which” doesn’t automatically signal the start of a non-restrictive clause, whatever the state of Texas might tell you. Only a comma can do that. So what’s the right answer? It’s hard to say, dammit:


Ah, he did see the kangaroo. So we don’t need the comma. Well, hang on. Does a dead skin count? I suppose it helped for colouration and texture. Elsewhere in the piece, it is suggested that Stubbs might have even inflated the skin into a kind of marsupial balloon to paint from (not an image that’s easily erased from the mind). On the other hand, you might well argue, a skin on its own doesn’t remotely qualify as “the flesh”; it’s just another piece of patchy, secondhand evidence that Stubbs had to wrestle with.

Even with this background information, it’s still a coin-toss; or rather, it’s the writer’s call. Do they think that a kangaroo hide counts as “in the flesh”? Did they leave the comma out deliberately, in the full knowledge that they were creating a restriction? Maybe. But writers put, or don’t put, commas in strange places without always realising the consequences. And since the piece praises Stubbs’s artistic achievement against the odds, half the world away from the Outback, isn’t the whole point that he had almost nothing to work with in Britain?  One or the other interpretation must have been meant, and it’s hard to fudge: adding or leaving out the comma forces you to make a binary choice between meanings.

And that’s one reason, at least, why I’m still so sympathetic to Fowler’s efforts to get writers to maintain “which” after a non-restrictive comma, and “that” when there isn’t one, to reinforce their intentions.  So much hangs on that little tick on the page: it’s such a weak hinge for such a big semantic pivot. Its appearances and disappearances can be as random as the peregrinations of the apostrofly. One virgule-shaped fleck on the newsprint in the wrong place, or one greasy spot that doesn’t take the ink from the roller, and everything changes. Makes me nervous.

Not quite the opposite

21 Aug

“Antagonyms” is probably my favourite term for them, but nobody seems to use it much. So let’s call them “contranyms”. Although you might want to spell it “contronyms”: my copy of Collins is silent on the subject, so the spelling is to choice.

What are they? They are homophones that have opposing definitions: in other words, the same word bearing two contradictory meanings. They’re quite the curio for head-in-a-book 10-year-olds, and also Exhibit A in the prosecution’s case that language is an organically grown, fecund and uncontrolled thing, not a carefully organised and controlled system. And a list of them – whether assembled to prove a linguistics point or bamboozle a junior reader – does seem to prove that conclusively.

Except that some of the entries on the lists can be a little disappointing. Take “sanction”, for example. As a noun, it’s cited ubiquitously as a contranym, but the true opposite of “permission”, its first meaning, would actually be “prohibition” – not “punishment”, which is the word’s other meaning. One’s broadly approbatory, the other broadly disapprobatory – one’s good and one’s bad – but that seems a disappointingly vague standard to qualify as a true contranym.* A penalty isn’t quite the opposite of a permit: it’s the thing that comes after the breach of a prohibition, not the prohibition itself. The opposed definitions don’t provide the kind of precision required, say, for one of those “Black is to White as Over is to _____” questions you get in intelligence tests.

And picking on Wikipedia is cheap sport, of course, but its list of auto-antonyms (as it prefers to call them) contain numerous examples that don’t come remotely close to being opposites:

“Discursive” can mean “covering a wide field of subjects; rambling” or “proceeding to a conclusion through reason rather than intuition”.

“Snuff” can mean a specific kind of tobacco, as well as to inhale it, and to extinguish.

I’m beginning to wonder if there are fewer authentic contranyms than is sometimes supposed. Certainly none of the above will quite do – not when there are several words (also in Wikipedia’s list) that are much better candidates for the description, such as “to dust”, which can mean either to remove dust from a  surface or to scatter it thereon, as from a flour dredger.

Or – of course – “literally”, which, as we know, has come to mean both “without exaggeration” and “with exaggeration”. It’s fast becoming one of the most authentic – that is to say paradoxical – contranyms there is. At least, it is at the moment: but as we were discussing last week, maybe its days as a true contranym are numbered, and a new life – as just another single-meaning, ho-hum intensifier – is just around the corner.

*Unless “contranym” is itself a contranym, meaning both “words that mean the opposite” and “words that do not mean the opposite”.

It’s literally going to die

13 Aug

Whoo! It’s literally happened! No, literally! No, I mean it! Google has, as almost everyone on Twitter has seen fit to observe, included the non-literal definition of “literally” in its online dictionary:

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And, you know? Everyone seems thrilled. Ace lexicographer Kory Stamper is happy,

Copy Curmudgeon is, well, not entirely curmudgeonly about it,

while Tom Chivers  is positively beatific, and he works at the Telegraph, for  heaven’s sake:

“What I will say is: it’s fine, stop worrying, ‘literally’ means ‘literally’, and it also means ‘not literally’, and you’ll almost never get confused between the two. Do you know how I know that? Because this sort of thing happens all the time. Seriously.

For instance: ‘quite’. It used to mean ‘entirely’ or ‘completely’ (and you can, quite literally, still see its old form in idioms). People used it to emphasise something (‘I’m quite exhausted’). But as it became regular currency, it lost its force, and so among some users in some situations it came to mean ‘a bit’. But both meanings exist quite happily (see?) in the language, because context reveals them.”

Whee! Confetti! Except that context won’t reveal them; not this time.

It’s sometimes easy to ascertain when someone is using “literally” metaphorically: “That book literally opened my eyes.” The growing problem, as the use of it as a mere intensifier spreads, will be trying to decide when someone is using “literally” in its traditional sense. “I literally fell off my chair when I was told.” What, really? I suppose you could have done, if the news was very bad and/or you were perched on the edge of your stool. But did you, really? Context is no help when the literal truth of the sentence falls within the bounds of possibility. “The tiger was literally three feet away from me.” Wow, is that all? Could you smell its breath? Or do you just mean: “I was much closer to a tiger than you’ve ever been”? How will I know?

As the language has changed, there are many situations in which the word clearly is not being used in its traditional sense, but no longer any situations in which “literally” unambiguously means “literally”. Context is unable to provide that certainty; I can sometimes tell when you don’t mean it, but never when you do. And without the separation of context, the two meanings cannot successfully co-exist like they do for “quite”; the confusion means that one will supplant the other. With popular usage already pointing the way, it’s clear that “literally” will be an intensifier, and no more than that, in the years and decades ahead.

Nothing anyone can do about that, of course: might as well try to turn back the tide on the seashore. And it would have happened, inevitably, even if Google hadn’t seen fit to put it in the dictionary. But “literally”, in its old sense, was a compact and powerful adverb that was not quite like any other tool in the box. And for those who work with language, as opposed to merely observing it, the blunting of a sharp tool is always to be mourned. Of course the language will survive. But I don’t really feel like celebrating.

Oceans apart

13 Aug

This just in from the mid-Atlantic:

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American video aficionados visiting the Daily Mail’s US homepage don’t need to be told who Sydney Leathers or Weiner are, of course. They’ve seen plenty of them, in every sense. But right next door for readers in the New World: UKIP MEP (what?) Godfrey Bloom (who?) in “Bongo Bongo land” storm (what?) walks off Channel 4 News (who?).

I don’t know how to break it to you, America. It looks like, from now on, we Brits won’t be the only ones enduring the rantings of preposterous saloon-bar xenophobes who work for a currency union 5,000 miles away from New York. That’s the emerging one-story-fits-all Anglo-Saxon news agenda for you. Ten Minutes Past Deadline is standing by to help translate any British weirdness, if you’ll let us photocopy your notes on Chelsea Handler.

And don’t ask how the Tribune managed to miss the cat-dressed-as-shark-rides-on-robot story. Just seemed too workaday at first glance, I guess. Damn.

Mid-Atlantic swells

6 Aug

America: we’re coming. Here in the hard-pressed newsrooms of Britain, there’s a growing sense that you, as so often in history, represent something of an opportunity. Looking up from yet another set of distressing financial results – certainly in the Tribune’s case – we see, across the ocean, a glittering land of huge national online advertising budgets but, as yet, few genuine national news websites, and we think: lots of space over there; it’s just like the Old West. We see a country being dragged unwillingly, thanks to Fox, away from its carefully impartial regional media monopolies and towards a national, partisan, relentless slanging match and we think: you know, that’s starting to look a bit like Fleet Street.

So: we’re coming. Perhaps not all of us at the moment, but the Daily Mail and the Guardian have already queued up at Ellis Island and are settling in to digs off Broadway or on the west coast. Not to produce a print newspaper, of course; that would be too expensive. And not with a digital paywall either: we really are yearning to be free. But we have a strong idea about what we want to do in – or to – the American news market.

The Mail’s message to America, judging from the extensively tweaked US site, is less spittle-flecked outrage and more celebs and gossip – get ’em here. UsWeekly’s cute, but it’s all yoga mats and baby-joggers in Central Park: you never get the real juice. And TMZ’s a bit too sleazy for comfortable reading at work, right? So read us: we’ve got the red carpet fashions, but with a bit of acid style criticism thrown in; we’ve got the scandal, but we sound shocked about it.  Whereas the Guardian’s pitch is clearly this: there’s no need to hastily remodel MSNBC as a rebuttal-and-prebuttal guard dog to fend off the conservatives – we’ve been doing that since 1821. There’s no need for the Gray Lady to butch up and learn how to rabbit-punch like the talk-radio hosts. We’ve got this. You may not have dealt with much street-gang demagoguery, but we face off with Associated and the Daily Telegraph every day. (Oh, and by the way? Your national security apparatus is spying on you.)

And it’s going well – spectacularly well in the case of the Mail, which is clocking up way over 100m browsers a month these days. But there is a slight problem.

News websites are large, multifoliate and deep. It’s relatively easy to set up a front page that’s branded and URL-specific for the US. But what about the dozens of section fronts and sub-fronts one level further down on the site – business, media, sport, travel, environment, politics?  How much time and money do you have to re-curate all of them for each specific national market? Come to think of it, do you even have enough country-specific news items to put on them all?

The answer, certainly at the moment, is no. The main news stories on the Guardian’s US site, for example, are substantially different to the UK homepage, but over on the right hand column, where the features and sport are, the US site looked like this last weekend:

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Right, so that’s NSA, NSA and … day three of the Ashes. (You can imagine the consternation in parts of the Midwest: they had to go in to a third day? What, did it rain?) It looks a bit incongruous. But really, what else is there to do – run a piece of half-baked wire copy on the Yankees as the lead? An extensive US sports reporting infrastructure isn’t in place yet. The over-by-over report is one of the Guardian’s signature products. For better or worse with regard to the US market, it’s what time and money has been spent to create. It is that most coveted property of news organisations everywhere: original content. So up it goes in the top slot under “Sports” (not “Sport” – that would be British!).

And at the Mail, there’s the same problem. The big banner leads swop over nicely from the UK to the US editions, but the long run of  fashion and celebrity items down the side – the Sidebar of Shame – clearly takes so much effort to refresh that not everything changes completely between editions, with the result that the gossip’s getting a distinctly mid-Atlantic feel these days.

This is a snippet from the UK edition on Sunday:

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and it contains one famous British footballer and three US reality stars from shows that either aren’t shown or are currently barely visible in Britain (from top to bottom: Basketball Wives, Dancing With The Stars and Real Housewives of New Jersey). To be fair, Derek Hough did briefly go out with our own Cheryl Cole, and Real Housewives was on an actual terrestrial TV channel – Channel 4 – at one stage. But you suspect it’s the US agenda that had Teresa and Derek appearing on the UK front page last weekend.

Meanwhile, at the same time on the US sidebar, we find this:

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Kinky heels, muffin tops, family feuds – check, check, check (at least no one “looks worse for wear in an inappropriately low-cut dress” today). And you can’t argue with seeing Shia LaBeouf, Jessica Alba and – at a pinch – Lily Collins in the American edition. But wait: is that Pixie Lott, sparky and popular British songstress, attending a wedding in Essex? Does anyone in America have the faintest idea who she is?

And the problems usually only multiply after the front page. As we see above, the item on Jessica Alba makes reference to her US dress size: 2. But if you click on the link, you get taken to an article written, launched and sized in the UK, and you see this:

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Again, what can you do?* Leave it as “size 6” in the US teaser? Every US reader will think: no way she’s suddenly that big. Change the UK article to US sizing? No one in Britain will believe anyone could be that small. Publish two completely separate articles under separate URLs, one edited in the US, the other in the UK? There’s hardly the time and resource to recheck every article from the other bureau for possible mid-Atlantic confusions, and even when you find them, they’re often awkward to fix. Anyway, it would hopelessly split your hits on Google. And even if you could solve the language problem, you still haven’t resolved the larger conflict between the two different news agendas – and won’t be able to for years, until you can afford a full US-based reporting operation running in parallel with the British one.

But there is a radical  and much cheaper option, if you’re prepared to think big enough. You can simply act as though it were perfectly normal to keep New Jersey informed about chirpy London girl groups and Wiltshire up-to-date on the love lives of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Don’t worry too much about cultural relevance; just broaden the readers’ palettes. They’ll like it, or they’ll learn to. It might be too much to hope that America will join the debate over whether Jonathan Trott is worth his place at number three in the Test team. But if you can encourage readers to think that what happens on Real Housewives Of The O.C. or I’m From Essex, Get Me Out Of Here is worth reading whichever side of the Atlantic you’re on, then you won’t have to change the site so much – because you’ll have succeeded in changing the news.

* Given that you’ve decided that it’s appropriate to be writing about this at all, that is.