Category Archives: Vocabulary

All I Needed to Know About Adjectives I Learned at Starbucks

Language is an example of a moving target par excellence. Only today, I received a tweet that outlined a number of reasons why you should instantly wife your girlfriend. Wife her, I thought? Since when did wife switch teams and become a verb? Well, truth be told, it turns out that it became a verb in 1387, as evidenced by a quote from that popular 14th century pot-boiler Prolicionycion wrtten by Ranulf Higden:

Þey..kepeþ besiliche here children, and suffreth hem nouȝt to wyfe wiþ ynne foure and twenty ȝere.

But for reasons unknown – as is often the case in etymology – the use of wife as a verb disappeared sometime during the early 18th century, leaving only the noun usage in common use [1]. After a brief dalliance with verbiness, the word settled back into its original home.

Let’s now go back to just last week during the 2014 Closing the Gap conference in Minneapolis. After standing in line for almost 15 minutes to get a Starbucks latte from the hotel’s coffee bar, I asked for a “tall skinny” and was then quizzed with, “Is that the short tall?”

A “short tall?” Dear Lord, how much more torture do we want to subject the English language to? Prescriptivists everywhere would be wailing in anguish and putting red pens to paper – or maybe tweeting their disgust in 140 characters or less!

However, it’s pretty clear what’s happening here. Just like wife in the 14th century, the word tall is getting bored with being a simple adjective and deciding that being a rambunctious noun is much better; “Noun Envy” as the psychoanalinguists might say [2].

Starbucks, for purposes of marketing and not linguistics, decided to ignore the more semantically accurate method of labeling coffee sizes by “small,” “medium,” “large,” and “freakin’ huge,” in favor of “tall,” “grande,” “venti” and “trenta.” But they created an element of cognitive dissonance in consumers’ minds by linking a word like tall, which is semantically typically opposed to short, with the word small, which is more likely to be balanced against large. So using a word like tall to describe something that is cognitively small just doesn’t jibe.

What our consciously unaware but unconsciously linguistic barista has done here is to overcome that dissonance by treating the word tall as a noun and using short as an attributive adjective. Pretty damn cool, eh? [3] I can easily imagine that at some point, various baristas [4] have uttered not only “Is that the small tall?” but also “Do you mean a medium grande?” or “Is that a large venti?”

So while I’m hanging out here with you all in our virtual Starbucks, something else you might be curious about is the whole “How do I order my coffee?” issue. Does one ask for “a skinny grande cappuccino” or “a grande skinny cappuccino?” And when you start adding caramel or extra shots, where on earth do  you hang them?

Well, having castigated my good friends at Starbucks in relation to their idiosyncratic naming of drink sizes, I’ll offer them points for actually providing a “syntax” for budding baristas in order to make ordering easier. In a 2003 manual distributed to employees, the following generic ordering structure was recommended:

1. CUP: That’s hot, cold, iced, or “for here.”
2. SHOT and SIZE: No stipulation for which should be first.
3. SYRUP: For your caramel, raspberry, cinnamon etc.
4. MILK: Skimmed, 2%, soy, or whatever.
5. DRINK: Coffee, tea, mocha, or any other name.

My personal common order is for a “grande, non-fat latte,” which fits the rules of 2>4>5. During summer, I might order an “iced, grande, non-fat latte,” which again conforms with 1>2>4>5. My wife has a “grande non-fat, caramel macchiato” that follows the rules, and sometimes goes for the “iced, grande non-fat caramel macchiato,” which illustrates the full-blown 1>2>3>4>5 ordering.

Budding researchers [5] might want to spend an afternoon at their local Starbies armed with a pen and a notebook, jotting down as many orders as they can overhear – what researchers like to call “taking a sample.” After an hour of sampling both orders and coffee, they should be able to do some analysis to see how many people actually conform to the ordering paradigm. Remember, this is what research is all about; setting up a hypothesis about how we think folks will order coffee, and then testing it against observations of how they really order it!

Outside the world of Starbucks, adjective ordering in English also has some rules. One of the most common ordering paradigms is as follows:

Order of adjectives

If we compare this with the Starbucks recommendations, we can see that the sequence CUP-SHOT/SIZE-SYRUP-MILK-DRINK corresponds to the generic OPINION-SIZE-MATERIAL-QUALIFIER-NOUN. So they’re pretty much on the syntactic ball here!

Doubtless our hundreds of “proxy Dudes” collecting real data at coffee bars across the world will find exceptions to the ordering rules, but language performance has always been variable. On the other hand, we’re unlikely to hear “macchiato iced grande caramel” or “caramel latte venti soy.”

Or are we?

Notes
[1] I suppose as a proponent of using evidence and data to support propositions, I did take a look at the Corpus of Contemporary American and found no instances of wife as a verb in the 450 million word sample. Same for the British National Corpus (100 million word sample) and the Canadian Strathy Corpus (50 million words). Of course, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but I think I’m pretty confident in asserting that using wife as a verb is extremely rare and unlikely.

[2] Don’t rush out to your dictionary – even if YOUR dictionary is the Urban Dictionary – to find the word psychoanalinguist. It doesn’t exist. It’s only a “real word” in the sense that (a) I have just used it and (b) it can be understood within the context of this article.

[3] I suppose I need to appreciate that not everyone gets as excited about language change as I do. But this type of living example of how new meanings come about helps us all understand how important it is to be aware of the simple fact that languages are not, and never have been, static. I’m not suggesting that we allow some form of lexical anarchy where you can simply stick any old word anywhere but knowing that words can, and do, change meaning and category can, I believe, make us more aware clinicians.

[4] The word barista is, as you might know, Italian, so you might be tempted to point out to me that I should really be using the word baristi to mark the plural. However, the word baristas is perfectly acceptable because it’s an example of a word that’s been Anglicized i.e. taken into the English language, and the normal rule for making a plural word is simply to add an “s.” Hence baristas. I think I’ve talked about this before in relation to octopuses as being a wonderful plural, with octopi being fake Latin (octopus comes from Greek, not Latin, and if you wanted a Greek plural, it would really be octopodes!)

[5] It strikes me that a generous supervisor might be totally OK with letting a grad student work on a study such as, “Syntactic adjectival variability in coffee ordering.” And should that student be the recipient of a grant from Starbucks itself, it seems a bit of a no-brainer, don’t yah think?

ColorBrewer: Utilizing cartography software for color coding

It seems that I am getting a reputation for being a teensy-weensy bit doryphoric [1] and that may have some truth in it insofar as I hate – with a passion – the tendency for people to use the word “utilize” rather than “use” simply because the former sounds more erudite. It’s not, in fact, erudite; it’s just plain wrong. As I’ve said in previous posts, “utilize” means “to use something in a manner for which it was not intended.” So I can “use” a paper clip to hold a set of pages together; but I can “utilize” it to scoop wax out of my ears or stab a cocktail olive in my vodka martini (shaken, not stirred).

Colorado beetle

Doryphoric

So when I titled this post with “utilizing cartography software” I really do mean that and I’m not trying to sound clever by using a four-syllable word (utilizing) over the simpler two-syllable using. No siree, I say what I mean and I mean what I say: utilize. The software in question is online at ColorBrewer: Color Advice for Cartography and its original purpose was to help map makers choose colors that provide maximum contrast. Let’s create an example. Suppose you have a map of the US and you want to use colors to show the average temperatures as three data sets; below 50F, 51F-65F, and above 65F. You can use three colors in one of three different ways:

  • (a) Sequential: Three shades of a chosen color from light to dark to indicate low to high values. e.g. Sequential color
  • (b) Diverging: Three colors that split the data equally in terms of the difference between the colors, but with the mid-range being related to a degree of difference between the extremes. Divergent color coding
  • (c) Qualitative: Three colors that split the data into three distinct groups, such as apples/oranges/bananas or trains/boats/planes – or for the statisticians out there, any nominal level data. Color coding qualitative

For a map of temperature averages, you’d choose the sequential coding so as to show the degree of change. Here’s what such a map might look like:

Three data point colors

Three data point colors

Compare this with a version whereby we chose to have six data points rather than three i.e. less that 45F; 46F-50F; 51F-55F; 56F-60F; 60F-65F; above 65F.

Six data points colors

Six data points colors

What the software does that is interesting is that it automatically generates the colors such that they are split into “chromatic chunks” that are equally different. The lowest and highest color values for each map are the same but the shades of the intermediate colors are changed. If you were to choose a set of 10 data points, the software would split those up equally.

Of course, as the number of data points increases, the perceptual difference between them decreases i.e. it becomes harder to see a difference. This is one of the limitations of any color-coding system; the more data differentials you want to show, the less useful colors become. You then have to introduce another way of differentiating – such as shapes. So if you had 20 shades of gray, it’s hard to see difference, but with 20 shades of gray and squares, triangles, rectangles and circles, you now have only 5 color points for each shape.

One of the areas where color coding is used in Speech and Language Pathology is AAC and symbols. In the system of which I am an author [2] color coding is used to mark parts of speech. But suppose you were going to invent a new AAC system and wanted to work out a color coding scheme, how might you utilize the ColorBrewer website?

If you’re going to design your system using a syntactic approach (and I highly recommend you do that because that’s how language works!) you could first identify a color set for the traditional parts of speech; VERB, NOUN, ADJECTIVE, ADVERB, PRONOUN, CONJUNCTION, PREPOSITION, and INTERJECTION [3]. This looks suspiciously like a nominal data set, which corresponds to the Qualitative coding method mentioned at (c) above. So you go to the ColorBrewer site and take a look at the panel in the top left:

ColorBrewer Panel

ColorBrewer Panel

You can set the Number of data classes to 8, the Nature of your data to qualitative, and then pick yourself a color scheme. If you chose the one in the graphic above, you see the following set recommended:

Eight color data setFor the sake of completeness, here are all the other options:

ColorDataQualSet2You can now choose one of these sets knowing that the individual colors have been generated to optimize chromatic differences.

So let’s assume we go for that very first one that starts with the green with the HTML color code #7FC97F [4]. I’m going to suggest that we then use this for the VERB group and that any graphics related to verbs will be green. Now I can move to step 2 in the process.

Verbs can actually be graded in relation to morphological inflection. There are a limited number of endings; -s, -ing, -ed, and -en. Knowing this, I can go back to the ColorBrewer site and use the sequential setting to get a selection of possible greens. This time I changed the Number of data classes to 5 and the Nature of your data to Sequential. Here’s what then see as a suggested set of equally chromatically spaced greens:


ColorDataQualPanel2

This now gives me the option to code not just verbs but verb inflections, while chromatically signaling “verbiness” by green. Here’s a symbol set for walk and write that uses the sequential – or graded – color coding:

Color-coded symbols

Color-coded symbols

If you want an exercise in AAC system design, knowing that ADJECTIVES also inflect like verbs using two inflectional suffixes, -er and -est, you can try using the ColorBrewer to create color codes [5].

There are probably many other ways to utilize the site for generating color codes. For example, you might want to create colors for Place of Articulation when using pictures for artic/phonology work, and seeing as there are a discrete number of places, it should be easy enough. Why not grab yourself a coffee and hop on over the ColorBrewer now and play. But only use it if you’re creating a map. Please!

Notes
[1] A doryphore is defined by the OED as “A person who draws attention to the minor errors made by others, esp. in a pestering manner; a pedantic gadfly.” It comes from the Greek δορυϕόρος, which means “spear carrier,” and it was originally used in the US as a name for the Colorado beetle – a notable pest. This beetle was known as “the ten-striped spearman,” hence the allusion to a spear carrier.  To then take the noun and turn it into an adjective by adding the -ic suffix meaning “to have the nature of” was a piece of cake – and a great example of using affixation to change a word’s part of speech. As always, you leave a Speech Dudes’ post far smarter than you entered it!

[2] Way back in 1993 I was invited to join the Prentke Romich Company’s R&D department as one of a team of six who were tasked with developing what became the Unity language program. The same basic program is still used in PRC devices and the language structure has been maintained such that anyone who used it in 1996 could still use it in 2014 on the latest, greatest hardware. The vocabulary also uses color coding to mark out Parts-of-Speech but not exactly like I have suggested in this article. Maybe next time…?

[3] The notion of 8 Parts-of-Speech (POS) is common in language teaching but as with many aspects of English, it’s not 100% perfect. For example, words like the, a, and an can be categorized under Adjectives or added to a class of their own called Articles or – by adding a few more – Determiners. So you might see some sources talking about 9 Parts-of-Speech, and I like to treat these as separate from adjectives if only because they seem to behave significantly differently from a “typical” adjective. Another confounding factor is that some words can skip happily between the POS and create minor havoc; light is a great example of this. The take-away from this is that sometimes, words don’t always fit into neat little slots and you need to think about where best to put them and how best to teach them.

[4] In the world of web sites, colors are handled in code by giving them a value in hexadecimal numbers – that’s numbers using base 16 rather than the familiar base 10 of regular numbers. Black is #000000 and white is #FFFFFF. When you’re working on designing web pages, it’s sometimes useful to be able to tell a programmer that you want a specific color, and if you can give them the precise hex code – such as #FF0000 for red and #0000FF for blue – then it makes their job easier and you get exactly what you need. You can also something called RGB codes to described colors, based on the way in which the colors (R)ed, (G)reen and (B)lue are mixed on a screen. Purple, for example, is (128,0,128) and yellow is (255, 255, 0). Take a look at this Color Codes page for more details and the chance to play with a color picker.

[5] I suppose I should toss in a disclaimer here that I’m not suggesting that creating an AAC system is “simply” a matter of collecting a lot of pictures with colored outlines and then dropping them into a piece of technology. There is much more to it than that (ask me about navigation next time you see me at a conference) so consider this article just one slice of a huge pie.

Countdown to Christmas – Question 16: Monday 16th December

What type of verb is “have” in the sentence “Have you the time?”

(a) Auxiliary verb

(b) Lexical verb

(c) Subjunctive verb

(d) Copular verb

wrist watchANSWER: Lexical verb!

In this example, the word have is being used as a near-synonym for “to own” or “to possess.” This contrasts with its other function as an auxiliary, or helping, verb.

Links

About lexical verbs at The Tongue Untied

About auxiliary verbs at The Tongue Untied

 

 

Countdown to Christmas Quiz: Question 2 – Monday 2nd December

Certain words are used very frequently, across populations, and across situations. In the augmentative and alternative communication articles, you’ll find these words in the vocabulary of 3-year-olds, 23-year-olds, 83-year-olds, and in schools, workplaces, stores, and out on the street. What word do we use to refer to these important words that lie at the heart of everyone’s lexicons?

ANSWER: Core!

The words core and fringe are used often in the field of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC). In general, a core word is one that has a high frequency of use value that is statistically expected when compared to a large reference corpus.

In contrast, a fringe word is one that has a low frequency of use value that is statistically expected when compared to a large reference corpus.

Apple coreCore words are fairly foreseeable whereas fringe words are much harder to predict. We can guarantee you’ll say the words that, want, stop, and, to, what, and you many times today; we can’t predict if you’ll say anchovy, aardvark, pretzel, Santa, fox, boom-box, frighten, or sock – even though these are all perfectly useful and valuable words. So if you are going to teach vocabulary, you get much more bang for buck from this, that, and how than do from burger, elephant, and sing.

Links

Teaching Core Vocabulary: From the PrAACtical AAC website.

A Few Good Words: Using Core Vocabulary to Support Nonverbal Students by Barbara Cannon and Grace Edward, published in the ASHA Leader.

The Dudes Dissect “Closing the Gap” 2013: Day 2 – Of Speech and Sessions

Having looked at the vocabulary used in the Closing the Gap 2013 preconference sessions, it’s time to cast a lexical eye on the over 200 regular presentations that took place over two-and-a-half days. For most attendees, these are the “bread and butter” of the conference and choosing which to attend is a skill in of itself. It’s not uncommon [1] to have over ten sessions run concurrently, which means you’re only getting to attend a tenth of the conference!

So let’s take a look at the vocabulary used in the titles to all theses presentations to get a flavor of the topics on offer.

Conference Presentations: Titles

The total number of different words used in the session titles was 629 after adjusting for the top 50 words used in English [2]. As a minor deviation, kudos to all who used the word use correctly instead of the irritatingly misused utilize. Only one titled included utilizes – and it was used incorrectly; the rest got it right! For those who are unsure about use versus utilize, the simple rule is to use use and forget about utilize. The less simple rule is to remember that utilize means “to use something in a way in which it was never intended.” So, you use a pencil for drawing while you utilize it for removing wax from your ear; you use an iPad to run an application while you utilize it as a chopping board for vegetables; and you use a hammer to pound nails but utilize it to remove teeth. Diversion over.

Top 20 Most Frequent Words in Titles

Top 20 Most Frequent Words in Titles

Top 20 Most Frequent Words in Titles

No prizes for guessing that the hot topic is using iPad technology in AAC. Your best bet for a 10-word title for next year’s conference is;

How your students  use/access iPad AAC apps as assistive technology

This includes the top 10 of those top 20 words so your chances of getting accepted are high.

Conference Presentations: Content Words

The total word count for the session descriptions text is 2,532 different words (excluding the Stop List), which is a sizable number to play with. And when I say “different words,” I mean that I am basically counting any text string that is different from another as a “word.” So I count use, uses, used, and using as four words, and iPad and iPads as two. A more structured analysis would take such groups and count them as one “item” – or what we call a LEMMA. We’d then have a lemma of <USE> to represent all the different forms of use, which lets us treat use/used/uses/using as one “word” that changes its form depending on the environment in which it is sitting [3]

Top 50 Words By Frequency in Session Content

Top 50 Words By Frequency

A 2,3oo-word graphic would be rather large so I opted to illustrate the top 50 most frequently used words. As you can see, the top words seem to be the same as those in the titles, which suggests that on balance, presenters have done a good job overall in summarizing their presentation contents when creating their titles – something that is actually the strategy you should use.

Keywords in Content

Finally, let’s take a look at the keywords in the session content descriptions. Remember, the keywords are those that appear in a piece of text with a frequency much higher than you would expect in relation to the norm.

Top 10 words by Keyness score

Top 20 words by Keyness score

Top of our list here are apps with the iPad coming in at three. Fortunately this fetish for technology is tempered by the inclusion in our top 20 of words like strategies, learn, how, and skills, all critical parts of developing success in AAC that are extra to the machinery. It’s good to think that folks are remembering that how we teach the use of tools is far, far more important than obsessing over the tools themselves.

Coming next… The Dudes Dissect Closing the Gap: Day 3 – Of Content and Commerce. In which the Dudes look at the marketing blurbs of the Closing the Gap exhibitors to discover what the “hot button” words intended to make you want to buy!

Notes
[1] WordPress’s spell and grammar checker flagged the phrase “it’s not uncommon” as a double negative and told me that I should change it because, “Two negatives in a sentence cancel each other out. Sadly, this fact is not always obvious to your reader. Try rewriting your sentence to emphasize the positive.” Well, although I generally agree that you shouldn’t use no double negatives, the phrase “not uncommon” felt to me to be perfectly OK and not at all unusual. I therefore took a look at the Corpus of Contemporary American English and found that “it’s not uncommon” occurs 313 times while “it’s common” scores 392. This is as near to 50/50 as you get so I suggest to the nice people at WordPress that “it’s not uncommon” is actually quite common and thus quite acceptable – despite it being a technical double negative.

[2] For the curious among you, here are the contents of the Stop List I have been using, which is based on the top 50 most frequently used words in the British National Corpus (BNC): THE, OF, AND, TO, A, IN, THAT, IS, IT, FOR, WAS, ON, I, WITH, AS, BE, HE, YOU, AT, BY, ARE, THIS, HAVE, BUT, NOT, FROM, HAD, HIS, THEY, OR, WHICH, AN, SHE, WERE, HER, ONE, WE, THERE, ALL, BEEN, THEIR, IF, HAS, WILL, SO, NO, WOULD, WHAT, UP, CAN. This is pretty much the same as the top 50 for the Corpus of Contemporary American English, except that the latter includes the words about, do, and said instead of the BNC’s one, so, and their. Statistically, this isn’t significant so I suggest you don’t go losing any sleep over it.

[3] When you create and use lemmas, you also have to take into account that words can have multiple meanings and cross boundaries. In the example of use/used/uses/using, clearly we’re talking about a verb. But when we talk about a user and several users, we are now talking about nouns. So, we don’t have one lemma <USE> for use/used/user/users/uses/using but two lemmas <use(v)> and <use(n)> to mark this difference. It gets even more complicated when you have strings such as lights, which can be a verb in “He lights candles at Christmas” but a noun in “He turns on the lights when it’s dark.” When you do a corpus analysis of text strings, these sort of things are a bugger!

The Dudes Dissect “Closing the Gap” 2013: Day 1 – Of Words and Workshops

Regular readers of the Speech Dudes will know that when the “Dudes Do…” a conference, Day 1 is typically all about the travel experience, usually including some unfavorable comments about taxi cabs and hotel coffee, but this time I’m feeling charitable and, although not yet ready to “Hug a Cabbie,” I’ve decided to provide an overview of the preconference sessions, which I didn’t attend.
Now, you may think that not having attended a workshop might put me at a bit of a disadvantage with regard to reporting on content and offering a critique – and you would be right. On the other hand, what I can comment on is the contents of the preconference brochure that everyone can have access to prior to the actual event and which they use to decide the workshops and sessions they want to attend.

So what you’re going to see is an example of corpus linguistics in action, dissecting the very words used to influence YOUR choices. In short, you’re about to learn about what words presenters and marketers use to make up your mind for you. Grab your coffee, hold on to your hats, and prepare to be amazed at what you didn’t know!

Methodology

The Dudes are big believers in the scientific method and the application of evidence-based practice. We strive for some objectivity where possible, although we acknowledge that our occasional rants may be just a tad subjective. We don’t expect our readers to take everything we say as gospel sharing the methodology of how we analyzed our data seems fair.

The raw data came straight from the official conference brochure, available for any to check at http://www.closingthegap.com/media/pdfs/conference_brochure.pdf. From that I extracted all the text in the following categories:

  • Preconference Workshop Titles
  • Preconference Workshop Course Descriptions
  • Conference Session Titles
  • Conference Session Descriptions
  • Exhibitor Descriptions

Technically, I simply did cut-and-paste from the PDF and then converted everything to TXT format because that’s the format preferred by the analysis software I use.

WordSmith 6 is a wonderful piece of software that lets you chop up large collections of text and make comparisons against other pieces of text. These comparisons can then show you interesting and fascinating details about how those words are being used. I’ve talked in more detail about WordSmith in our post, The Dudes Do ISAAC 2012 – Of Corpora and Concordances, so take a look at that if you want more details.

Once I have the TXT files, I can create a Word List that gives me frequency data, but I also use a Stop List to filter out common words. If you simply take any large sample of text and count how often words are used, you’ll find that the top 200 end up being the same – that’s what we call Core Vocabulary. And when you’re looking for “interesting” words, you really want to get rid of core because its… well… uninteresting! Hence a Stop List to “stop” those words appearing.[1]

Preconference Workshop Titles

The first opportunity you have to encourage folks to come to your session is to have a title that makes a reader want to find out more about what you have to offer. The title is, in fact, the door to your following content description. Of course, you have to find some balance between “catchy” and “accurate.” For example, a paper I presented at a RESNA (Rehabilitation and Engineering Society of America) conference entitled Semantic Compaction in the Dynamic Environment: Iconic Algebra as an Explanatory Model for the Underlying Process was, in all fairness, technically accurate, but from a marketing perspective it had all the appeal of a dog turd on crepe. [2]

Let’s therefore take a look at what seem to be the best words to use if you want to attract a crowd.

Pre-conference Sessions: Keyword in Titles

High frequency words in Pre-conference titles

High frequency words in preconference titles

The Word Cloud here counts only words that appeared twice or more, and the size of the words is directly proportional to frequency, so it’s clear that students is a critical word to use, followed closely by iPad, technology, learning, and communication. On that basis, if you’re planning to submit a paper for 2014, here’s your best “10-word-title” bet for getting (a) accepted and (b) a crowd:

The implementation of iPad technology for learning and communication

In the event that the CTG review committee find themselves looking at multiple courses submitted with the same title, you’re going to have to consider how you describe your actual course contents – and luckily, we can help there, too!

Preconference Sessions: Keywords in Course Content

The actual highest frequency words were workshop and participants, which is something of an artificial construct because most people include phrases such as “in this workshop, participants will…” and so I removed these from my keyword analysis.

Frequent words in preconference sessions content

Frequent words in preconference sessions content

So to further enhance the pulling power of your course, you need to be talking a lot about students, how they use iPads and communication, along with using apps to learn, enhance learning, and any strategies that help meet needs. In fact, you need to include any of these Top Ten words:

Top Ten keywords in Pre-conference session content

Top Ten keywords in preconference session content

But wait, wait… there’s more

I’ve been using the word keywords to refer to those words that appear within a piece of text more frequently than you would expect based on comparing them to a large normative sample. If you perform  a keyword analysis on the preconference contents sample, you find that the top five keywords that appear are iPad, iPads, AAC, apps, and students. This suggests that we do an awful lot of talking about one, very specific brand name device – which is good news for the marketing department at Apple!

Top 15 words by Keyness score

Top 15 words by Keyness score

The relevant score is the keyness value. The higher the keyness, the more “key” the word is i.e. its frequency in the sample is significantly higher than you would expect to see in the normal population. So when you look at the table above, you’re not just seeing frequency scores but how significantly important words are. [3] As an example, the word iPads is used less frequently than the word communication (10 times as against score 16) but iPads is almost twice as “key” as communication i.e. it is significantly more important.

Now, as a final thought for folks who are working in the field of AAC (augmentative and alternative communication), I suggest that if you are developing vocabulary sets for client groups, using frequency studies is certainly a good start (and more scientific than the tragically common practice of picking the words “someone” thinks are needed) but if you then introduce a keyness analysis, you can improve the effectiveness of your vocabulary selection.

Coming next… The Dudes Dissect Closing The Gap 2013: Day 2 – Of Speech and Session. In which the Dudes present an analysis of the words used to describe conference session titles and contents. Find out how to improve your chances of getting paper presented!

Notes
[1] In truth, there is more I could say about the methodology, and were this intended to be a peer-reviewed article for a prestigious journal, rest assured I’d go into much more detail about some of the finer points. However, this is simply a blog post designed to educate and entertain, so I ask you to allow me some leeway with regard to precision. I’m happy to share the raw data with folks who want to see it but all I ask is you don’t toss it around willy-nilly.

[2] Not only did it have a title that included the word “algebra” but it was scheduled for 8:00 am on the final day (a Saturday, no less) of the conference. Surprisingly, people showed up – which says more about the sort of folks who attend RESNA conferences rather than anything about my “pulling power” as a presenter.

[3] There is a mathematical formula for the calculation of keyness values. One way is to use the Chi-Square statistic; the other is to use a Log-likelihood score, which is something like a Chi-Square on steroids. As I’ve often said, I didn’t become an SLP because of my ability to handle math and statistics, so I admit to finding these things a strain on my brain. However, for the non-statistically inclined among us, the point is that both these measures simply compare the frequency value of a word from an experimental sample against the frequency value it has in a very large comparative sample (such as the British National Corpus or the Corpus of Contemporary American), and then shows you how similar or dissimilar they are. If their frequencies are very, very dissimilar, the word from the experimental sample is a keyword – like iPad and AAC in the examples above. Now feel free to pour yourself a drink and let your brain relax.

Little Things DO Matter – Even Little Words

Sometimes the linguistic stars align and a lexical event of supernova proportions takes place. More specifically, unless you’ve been taking a vacation on an island without an internet connection or phone service [1] you’ve doubtless learned about the word twerk and, if you’re really unlucky, seen it demonstrated by pop princess Hannah Montana Miley Cyrus. Once the idol of millions of teen girls across the world, Miley is now the idol of millions of aged perverts who can’t wait for her to make a real porn movie instead of the “R”-rated performance she provided for the VMA Awards ceremony on August 25th, 2013.

Public domain image

Let’s twerk!

Tempting as it is to pander to the prurient and show you videos and pictures, there’s little need to do that because at this moment in time as I suspect 50% of the world’s internet content is already full of such material, and if you start typing “Miley Cyrus” into your search engine, you’ll probably get millions of links even before you get past the third “l” in her name!

As an SLP working in AAC, my interest is strictly professional and concerns the revelation from August 28th that twerk has officially entered the Oxford Dictionaries Online (ODO) site – that’s just three days after Miley’s graphic demonstration. So, just in case you are unsure, here’s the actual definition of twerk as used by Oxford:

Pronunciation: /twəːk/
Verb [no object]: informal.
Dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance.

Surprisingly, it was first noted in the 1990’s, and it is thought to be an alteration of the word work in the sense of “work it, baby, work it.” Normally when new words are added to the ODO, it’s fairly low-key and only word nerds really care. However, in this instance, it’s as if the Oxford marketing department had contracted with Miley to do her bump-and-grind act purely to promote the “release” of the new word – and a spectacular release it was! As I write, typing twerk into Google search returns 20,300,000 hits. Hell, “The Speech Dudes” only gets a paltry 4,990,000 hits!

So let’s think a little about what we can learn from this little episode because we, the Dudes, would like to think of our little piece of cyberspace here as being educational – in the most laid-back of ways, of course.

When the inclusion of twerk was announced to the world, thousands of commentators leaped forward to say that it was now a “real word” because it was “in the dictionary.” I want you all to take another look at that second phrase, “in the dictionary.” The significant element is the use of the word the as a determiner that precedes a noun. Typically, we use the – often referred to as the definite article – to refer to a single, specific thing. But we use the word a (0r an) – the indefinite article – to refer to one of many things. There is a world of difference between “Pass me the pencil” and “Pass me a pencil.” There’s an even bigger difference between, “Hey, you’re just the man!” and “Hey, you’re just a man!” And although some folks treat the and a/an as merely “fillers” that can be ignored, there are some occasions where they are absolutely crucial to the meaning of a sentence. Tell me “You’re the shit!” and I’m happy; tell me “You’re a shit!” and I’m a wee bit upset.

In this instance, the reality is that twerk has been added to a dictionary and not the dictionary. If it had been added to the dictionary, we’d have had to be clear which one that was, and then agree that is was the only one that matters. For me, “the dictionary” is the 20-volume complete Oxford English Dictionary (OED), 2nd edition, and anything else is “a dictionary.” But for twerk, as I mentioned earlier, the dictionary in question is the Oxford Dictionaries Online dictionary, which is a very different beast than the OED. A number of commentators failed to mention this, and indeed some suggested it was the OED.

Picture of a dictionary

Is it in the dictionary?

The ODO is what you would call a “living dictionary,” which is aimed at capturing the global lexicon as it exists now. It’s a less profane and more researched version of the Urban Dictionary, which is also a living dictionary but without vetting or investigation. Words can, in fact, be taken out of the ODO if they cease to be used, whereas once a word gets into the OED, it never leaves. This is because the OED is a “historical dictionary” that aims to trace the meanings of a word from its earliest known use through to either its demise (anyone used shrepe [2] lately?) or its latest meaning. For example awful didn’t originally mean “terrible” but “wonderful” – it referred to something that left you full of awe.

Something else we can learn is the speed at which a new word can be used in its constituent morphological forms i.e. twerk, twerking, twerks, and twerked. Using ghits [3], we see the following hit figures, which gives us some idea of the distribution of the word as a whole [4]:

     twerk: 20,300,000
     twerking: 17,700,000
     twerks: 2,850,00
     twerked: 439,000

Not surprisingly, we find that an adjective form also exists, twerky (71,200 ghits) but there’s a dearth of adverbial examples with twerkily only scoring 84 ghits, which is close to nothing. I should, however, now total all these up because they are all forms of the base form twerk, pushing the total ghit score up from 20,300,000 to just over double at 41,360,200.

For folks working on teaching vocabulary, the “teachable moment” from the whole Miley Cyrus debacle would be to use the word twerk as a springboard for reinforcing regular morphology. Thus, any worksheet along the following lines would be splendid:

“Miley Cyrus says she likes to TWERK. In fact, she TWERK___ a lot! We saw a video yesterday and she was TWERK____. Some people think she shouldn’t have TWERK___ at all.” [5]

So there you have it. Vocabulary, morphology, frequency studies, and the critical importance of the definite and indefinite articles. And who says the Speech Dudes site isn’t educational?

Notes
[1] If you’ve never done this, it’s highly recommended. It’s what used to be called a vacation, when you went away to somewhere very different from your home and spent one or two weeks doing fun and relaxing things that were not work related. Sadly, many people are now permanently connected to their jobs via smart technology and actually start their vacation mornings by checking work emails or making a couple of calls. This is not called a vacation; it’s called working from home – for which you don’t get paid. Cutting yourself off from the world is surprisingly difficult and something you really have to plan for and work at. Try it – and see if you have the will to do it!

[2] Shrepe means “to scratch” and comes from the Old English screpan=to scrape, which in turn came from  Old Norse skrapa=to scrape or erase, and ultimately from an unattested but re-constructed Germanic word *skrap-=scrape. Shrepe sadly went out of fashion in the 13th century but it’s good to pull such words out of the closet once in a while and wear them for just a day.

[3] Ghit is short for “Google hit,” which is the number of hits an entry in the Google search box gets. It appears just below the search term in a phrase such as About 39,300 results (0.13 seconds). It’s not an official measure in the world of corpus linguistics but it a pretty useful “quick and dirty” way of estimating web frequencies. If you find a word or phrase that only has ONE ghit, it’s called a googlewhack. Try slipping that one into your next conversation at the bar.

[4] Trying to define a “word” is not as easy as you might think. For example, are eat, eats, eating, ate, and eaten 5 words or just one? After all, the difference between eat and eats is simply based on whether you are talking about the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person i.e. I/you/we/they eat but he/she/it eats. One way to get around this is to talk about something called a LEMMA, which is basically the dictionary form of a verb – such as twerk. A dictionary would, for instance, have the word eat as an entry, but not necessarily eats, eating, or eaten. It would, however, include ate because it’s a very irregular form of the lemma, eat.

[5] I admit that shamelessly using Miley Cyrus’s despicable behavior to teach language worries me no more than when I used beer bottle tops as poker chips to teach my daughters to count. Some may question my use of alcohol and poker for my “teachable moment” but hey, what can I say – I’m a dude!

In Defense of the Grammar Nazi

Watching television is often a complete waste of time and a total abdication of Life. I admit that I suffer from anguish, shame, and guilt if I’ve just spent three hours viewing re-runs of Family Guy, Frasier, and Bar Rescue, so I’m as guilty as the rest of the world when it comes to Couch Potato Syndrome [1].

Nevertheless, if you try really hard, you can turn your sin into a virtue by questioning what you’re seeing and thinking about how it applies to what you should be doing instead. And one of my more recent observations has been in relation to attitudes towards “skills” and “expertise.” So let’s start with one of my favorite gripes – the Celebrity Chef.

Chef

Chef: Fuurin Kazan Chef in Black and White (http://www.flickr.com/photos/joi/444939001/) / CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

Americans in general seem to love watching people in conflict. I dare say that almost every “reality show” is predicated on the need to see people fighting while trying to live on an island, etching tattoos, singing, dancing, or even, for goodness sake, baking a cake! (“You’re going down, punk, when I whip your ass with this amazing fondue!”) The more spiteful and bitter the contestants, the better the ratings. Rome had the Coliseum with gladiators and Christians; we have cable TV with hosts and contestants.

But what all of these shows include is the Expert who exemplifies the target skill; the master who can turn something mundane and mindless into a work of sheer brilliance. Celebrity Chefs are such people. For them, the difference between a winning dish and one that has them vomiting into a bucket is whether the cook added two bay leaves or three.  And woe betide anyone who should cook a steak for 3 seconds too long – because there lies the way to the door. Fundamentally, the message that is being sold to us here is that the fine attention to minuscule details is what make a chef a great chef.

And we all sort of accept that.

Meanwhile, over in the sports arena, the same message is being played, except that the skill here is seen in the slightest of motions and the briefest of actions. In golf, putting just an inch too short of the hole is a miss that could have been avoided if just the merest of extra effort had gone into hit. In swimming, that last kick while extending the finger tips to touch the wall is the difference between a gold medal and nothing. In baseball, a two degree extra angle when the batter hits the ball can mean the difference between a World Series and a long, quiet flight home. And in basketball, that extra tap to push the ball an extra inch over the edge of the hoop can turn a player from good to legendary.

And we all sort of accept this.

Now consider the reaction at work I get when someone says, “So which of these two designs is the best?” and I reply with, “Er, better. It’s the comparative, not the superlative. If we had three choices, we could have a best.” Does this “attention to detail” come across as acceptable? Is this modest defense of some sort of standard seen as the equivalent of Gordon Ramsey tossing a whole plate of food into the trash because the color of the scallop is browner than he thinks tolerable? [2]

Nope. Any attempt at being precise in the use of language is seen instantly as nothing more than bourgeois pedantry, trivial snobbery, or the action of a Grammar Nazi [3]. Just take a look at any discussion thread on the Internet related to some issue of language use and within six or seven responses the level of argument will have dropped to name calling and attacks on anyone who tries to be in any way linguistically precise. There’s a good chance that even you, dear reader, are already feeling the pressure to trot out the “But language is always changing” argument in defense of anyone who seems to be having a hard time using their first language as their first language! When Sarah Palin used the word “refudiate,” rather than ‘fess up that she’d made a mistake, she actually tried to argue that she was no different from Shakespeare who “liked to make up words!” Sarah Palin as Shakespeare! And George W. Bush was the new Cicero.

Now before some of you have collective heart attacks and click repeatedly on the “Comments” button, let me be clear that I am NOT suggesting that everyone has to talk proper, avoid splitting infinitives, never use “their” when “there” is the right word, avoid ending a sentence with a preposition, or stab themselves in the eye if they say “irregardless.” No, we know that oral language is frequently dysfluent, peppered with errors, given to jumping from topic to topic, and studded with words whose meanings can be slippier than a bucket of eels in olive oil. And written language can be similarly dotted with misarticulations (“nyoo kyoo luh” for nuclear anyone?), spelling mistakes, wandering apostrophes, malapropisms [4], and just plain unreadable rubbish.

Where the disjunct appears is that while people will accept a Ramsey tantrum to defend standards in cookery, a Simon Cowell insult in defense of musical talent, or Tyra Banks tossing out some poor unfortunate judged not good enough to be America’s Next Top Model, they see no value whatsoever in the idea that there may be some standards in the use of the English language.

A big part of why this happens is that we are all, in our own heads, experts at language. After all, we’ve been speaking it all our lives so we must be experts. So how dare some self-appointed, smug-faced, pedantic, “no-life” critic tell ME that I used the wrong word… or can’t spell… or know my own language.

It’s a manifestation of the well-known difference between knowing a language and knowing about a language. And knowing about language is not regarded as a skill or expertise in the same way that knowing about cookery, golf, basketball, singing, tattooing, baking cakes, surviving on an island, or any other such endeavor is viewed.

In a recent post at Gizmodo, Casey Chain pointed out that Google’s definition of the word literally now includes the following definition:

Used to acknowledge something that is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to indicate strong feeling

Words do, of course, change meaning over time – less than 40 years ago being gay had nothing to do with sexuality – but there is nothing “pedantic” or “petty” about taking a stand to prefer one definition over another. In fact, the failure to try to preserve a word’s meaning can lead to it being totally hijacked by special interest groups.  Take the word socialized as in “socialized medicine.” Here’s a word that has been used particularly by the political right because it sounds close to socialist and serves to taint the very concept of “free health care” as being somehow close to communism – and you don’t support communism, do you? Listen to any Talk Radio show and you’ll hear it being used in the pejorative sense by all right-wing commentators, whereas left-wingers are more likely to talk about “affordable health care” or just “health care.” It’s a good example of where allowing a word’s meaning to change ends up with it becoming pejorative; like gay, or queen, or fag – all of which have slid from having a non-pejorative, non-sexual meaning to become almost taboo [5].

So unfashionable as it may be to talk about things such as “standards” and “norms,” it is possible to be fully aware of the evolutionary nature of language while at the same time taking some effort to protect some of the features that keep the system rich and fascinating without letting it degenerate into an “anything goes” mish-mash of rough words strung loosely together with no thought for the comprehensibility, flow, phrasing, and even beauty of language.

And after all;

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

Notes
[1] The saddest and most soul-destroying conclusion that one can come to is that it’s not just the watching of TV shows that is pointless but that one is watching the same thing over and over! With an average four-score years and ten alloted to our miserable time on the earth, depression can really set in when you realize that this is the tenth time you’ve seen Peter Griffin try to flip a dead frog out of the window, and it’s still funny. I guess when I’m lying on my death-bed about to croak, I’ll think, “Gee, if I’d only skipped those re-runs I’d have another few years to live.”

[2] Even the term “Grammar Nazi” itself illustrates the negative regard people have toward those who want to pay attention to those details that make language special and interesting. A Google search for the phrase turns up over 2 million instances, and Wikipedia provides the definition, “A Grammar Nazi is a common term used on the internet and on social websites for an individual noticing a grammatical mistake and correcting obsessively. ‘Grammar Nazis’ usually correct any punctuation or spelling errors they find in a comment or post. British comedians Mitchell and Webb have an interesting take on the Grammar Nazi.

[3] It seems to be de rigueur for celebrity chefs to be loud mouthed and arrogant, so much so that contestants in cookery contests appear to have developed these qualities before actually learning to cook. Thus the pleasure in watching these types of show is as much about seeing pride going before a fall as it is about having any genuine interest in a winner.

[4] A malapropism is where someone uses a wrong word that is phonetically  similar to the intended one. Examples of malapropisms would included “Magellan circumvented the world” for circumnavigated; “He was wearing a turbine on his head” instead of turban; and “When a baby’s born you have to cut the biblical cord” instead of umbilical.

[5] For those curious, the word gay appears to have taken on its meaning of homosexual in the 1920’s. At the end of the 1700’s it was used as a euphemism to describe a female prostitute – a “gay lady.” Queen was first used as slang to refer to male homosexuals way back in 1729 (“Where have you been you saucy Queen? If I catch you Strouling and Caterwauling, I’ll beat the Milk out of your Breasts I will so.” From the book Hell upon earth: or the town in an uproar. Occasion’d by the late horrible scenes of forgery, perjury, street-robbery, murder, sodomy, and other shocking impieties.) Finally, fag (or faggot) comes from US slang in the early 1920’s, most likely by way of its use of a term of abuse for a woman in the 1840’s.

“I don’t care what the research says…”

A colleague of mine was asking for some references to support the notion that kids with severe learning difficulties can learn to use high frequency core words (such as want, stop, and get) because they were being told that what these kiddos really use (or need) are words like toy, cookie, and banana. I duly provided a quick sample of peer-reviewed articles and shared the information with other colleagues. And what the hell, I’ll share them with you, dear reader, in the References section at the end of this piece.

Reading the research

Reading the research

But another of my friends also commented that there are still those folks who respond with comment such as, “I don’t care what the research says, I don’t care who these kids are. These are not the kids I’m working with. The kids I’m working with just aren’t going to use these words.”

So what do you do about this? At what point does being “critical of the research” become “ignoring the research because I don’t believe it.”? In the world of Physics, it’s hard to say, “I don’t care what the research says, I’m still going to fly using my arms as wings.” Mathematicians don’t say, “I don’t care what the research says, 1 + 1 does equal 7.” And it’s a brave doctor who would say, “I don’t care what the research says, you go right ahead and smoke 40 cigarettes a day and you’ll be just fine.”

No-one would argue that Speech and Language Pathology as a profession will ever achieve the rigid, statistical certainties of physics and mathematics, but what does it say about our profession if we openly admit to ignoring “the research” because it doesn’t fit with our individual experience? There are certainly enough practices  in Speech Pathology that are hotly debated (non-speech oral motor exercises, facilitated communication, sensory integration therapy) and yet still being used. But all of these are open to criticism and lend themselves to experimental testing, whereas an opinion based on personal experience is not. I could tell you that I have used facilitated communication successfully, but that is still personal testimony until I can provide you with  some measurable, testable, and replicable evidence. This is one of the underlying notions of evidence-based practice in action.

However, it’s  one thing to talk about using evidence-based practice but another to actual walk the walk. If the evidence suggests that something you are doing is, at best, ineffective (at worst, damaging), how willing are you to change your mind? If 50% of research articles say what you’re doing is wrong, how convinced are you? What about 60%? Or 90%? At what level of evidence do you decide to say, “OK, I was wrong” and make a change?

If there’s anything certain about “certainty” it’s that it’s uncertain! Am I certain that teaching the word get to a child with severe cognitive impairments is, in some sense, more “correct” or “right” than teaching teddy? No, I am not. But what I can do is look at as many published studies of what words kids typically use, at what ages, and with what frequency, and then feel more confident that get is used statistically more often across studies. This doesn’t mean teddy is “wrong,” nor does it preclude someone publishing an article tomorrow that shows the word teddy being learned 10x faster than the word get among 300 3-year-olds with severe learning problems.

But until then, the current evidence based on the research already done is, in fact, all we have. Anything else is speculation and guesswork, and no more accurate than tossing a couple of dice or throwing a dart at a word board.

Being wrong isn’t the problem. Unwillingness to change in the face of evidence is.

References
Banajee, M., DiCarlo, C., & Buras Stricklin, S. (2003). Core Vocabulary Determination for Toddlers. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 19(2), 67-73.

Dada, S., & Alant, E. (2009). The effect of aided language stimulation on vocabulary acquisition in children with little or no functional speech. Am J Speech Lang Pathol, 18(1), 50-64.

Fried-Oken, M., & More, L. (1992). An initial vocabulary for nonspeaking preschool children based on developmental and environmental language sources. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 8(1), 41-56.

Marvin, C.A., Beukelman, D.R. and Bilyeu, D. (1994). Vocabulary use patterns in preschool children: effects of context and time sampling. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 10, 224-236.

Raban, B. (1987). The spoken vocabulary of five-year old children. Reading, England: The Reading and Language Information Centre.

The Dudes Do ATIA 2013: Day 3 – Of Dining and Data

Today was a day of meetings. Fortunately, the first was at a delightful restaurant; the Thai Thani  on International Drive in Orlando. Being an Indian curry lover, I opted for the Curry Fried Rice with chicken, and wasn’t disappointed. One of the house specialities is a pineapple yellow fried rice curry with a choice of beef, chicken or pork, stir fried with raisins, cashews, and onions but I wanted something less fruity so I’ll save this special for another visit.

Thay Thani restaurant

Thai Thani Orlando

Following two more meetings, I did the first of my two joint-presentations. I usually fly solo – then there’s only me to blame of things go wrong – but this year I tried sharing. And this one was on one of my favorite topics: automated data collection and analysis with AAC devices. The content was similar to the presentation I gave at ASHA 2012 and which has already been documented in The Dudes Do ASHA 2012: Day 4, so feel free to click and read that.

What wasn’t discussed in that older post was the way on which the word data itself can tell us something about language change over time. So try this quick test – and don’t spend too long thinking about the answer:

Which is these statements is correct:

(a) The data is good.

(b) The data are good.

If you answered (b), then you are in the company of the good people at the  Oxford English Dictionary (and that’s not bad company to be in) and the hearts of die-hard grammatical prescriptivists [1].

But if you answered (a), then you are not that different from the population of the English-speaking world as a whole because the is and the are seem to be in free variation! If you take a look at the Corpus of Historical American English, you’ll see that in terms of frequency of use, they don’t seem to differ that much since the 1930’s, and you can make a case, I suppose, for arguing that the is-form has edged ahead of the are-form.

Take a look at these charts that track use since 1830.

The word data and the verb is

“The data is…”

Notice that “data is…” was being used at the turn of the century and peaked in the 1990’s. Compare that with the “data are…” instances:

The word Data and the word Are

The data are…

There are hardly any examples prior to the 1930’s and from the 1960’s onward, both is and are appear to be neck and neck in terms of usage.

So why does this happen? What is it that makes data such a tough word for folks to decide whether it should be used with is or are? The answer – or a t least part of it – is related to our understanding of whether a noun is a count noun or a mass noun.

For those saner readers who are less obsessed with language than this Dude, count nouns are – unsurprisingly! – those that can be counted. So dog, cat, shoe, table, boat, and cup, are all count nouns because we can talk about “three cups” or “five shoes” or “a room full of dogs.” With a count noun, you’re usually able to turn it into its plural form by adding an “s.”

On the other hand, a mass noun cannot be counted. Pork, education, furniture, and weather, cannot be used with a number or pluralized by adding an “s.” You don’t have “*three weathers” or “*a room full of furnitures.”

Data is one of those words that has become a mass noun, even though it was originally a count noun. And by “originally,” I mean going back to Latin, where the singular was datum and the plural was data. What often happens with foreign words that are imported into English is that we apply regular English rules to them. On that basis, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see datums – but it didn’t happen ;)

What appears to have happened is that the word data has become a synonym for information, and folks feel that if “the information is good” sounds OK, then so does “the data is good.”

Incidentally, there is a way to turn a countable noun into a mass noun by using a rather gruesome linguistic device called a “universal grinder [2].” Suppose that in a frantic effort to catch a bird that has found its way into your house, you cat leaps up into the air and accidentally hits a rapidly rotating heavy fan. Saddened by its untimely demise, you might, through your tragic sobs, explain to someone over the phone that, “There is cat all over the room.” In this situation, a regular count noun has suddenly transformed into a mass noun.

Kitten playing with a fan

Careful, Mr. Tibbles!

Equally, in certain circumstances, some mass nouns can take on the appearance of a count noun. Although water is typically a mass noun, you might be in a restaurant and remark  that, “there are four or five waters already on the table.” Needless to say, folks learning English have a bit of a struggle trying to learn the difference between them as the only rule seems to be that liquids and powders (amorphous items) tend to be mass nouns, and the rest are count.

The learning point from all this – and we’re trying to be recognized as an educational blog as well as providing entertainment – is that when we are evaluating someone’s ability to use language, it’s critical to be aware of the fact that sometimes the prescribed way of speaking may actually be in free variation with the popular way, and this is actually one of the ways in which language changes over time [3].

For the sake of completeness, the day ended with wine, pizza, beer (mass noun), and a cocktail before bed. Needless to say I fell asleep quickly.

Notes
[1] In the world of language mavens, there are constant arguments between prescriptivists, who take the line that there are “correct” ways to say things, and descriptivists, who say that so long as you can be understood, there ain’t no right and wrong.  Although I’m more often the prescriptivist boat, I’m happy to jump ship depending on my mood – and whether I want to just get into a bit of a row with someone just for the hell of it.

[2] The Universal Grinder is a linguistic thought experiment first written about by Francis Pelletier, who used it in a paper talking about the nature of count versus mass nouns. Pelletier didn’t use household pets and rotating blades as his examples but the Dudes feel more at home with Edgar Allan Poe as a role model than, say,  Noam Chomksy or Stephen Pinker.

Pelletier, F.  J. 1975. Non-Singular Reference: Some Preliminaries. Philosophia 5.

[3] A pretty comprehensive coverage of how and why languages change over time can be found in Larry Trask’s 2010 book Why Do Languages Change? For those who want the Dude notes, you can click on the following Dude Link to get the 38-page summary. Link to book summary