Tag Archives: adjective

Language on the Move: The Case of the Flat Adverb

In a not-so-long-ago ad, Apple asked us all to “think different.” Even longer ago, Elvis Presley asked us to “love me tender. And when I was a wee bairn, my mum used to tuck me in at bedtime with the phrase, “Night night, sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite.”

I wasn’t a particularly precocious or bright toddler, so my response to mum was simply to smile and stick my head under the covers to check for insects, rather than, “But mum, surely it should be sleep tightly because you’re using the word as an adverb and therefore the correct formation of the word is to take the adjective as the base and use the –ly ending as an adverbial morpheme?” I suppose if I has said that I’d have been called a “clever clogs” [1] and told to “just go to sleep.”

drive slow sign

Adverbs, by definition, are used to describe verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. With Elvis, if the question to him was “How do you want me to love you,” he should reply “tenderly”; with Apple, if the question was “How would you like us to think,” the reply would be “differently”; and with mum, she should be telling me to sleep “tightly.” We might also find we’re “talking loudly,” “laughing heartily,” “arguing vehemently,” “working quickly,” and “complaining bitterly” whenever the occasion demands it.

So why isn’t Apple thinking differently, Elvis being loved tenderly, and I sleeping tightly? Well, it’s all to do with something called flat adverbs and the appeal of the –ly ending.

The commonest way to create an adverb is to take an adjective and add an –ly to the end of it. You have a “hungry cat” and a “thirsty dog” but the former will “eat hungrily” and the latter “drink thirstily.” Similarly your “perfect day” should “end perfectly” and a “generous patron” will always “give generously.” It’s regularity like this that should make the lives of teachers of English easier, and the possibility for artificial intelligence more likely. Alas, consistency and continuity seem to be in short supply when it comes to language. In fact, just when you think you’ve got it all worked out, the lexical world starts to wobble on its axis and, like tectonic plates on a bed of molten rocks, words slide around and rearrange themselves in all sorts of non-standard ways.

Flat adverbs are an example of these slippery words that want to have it both ways – adjective and adverb. It’s like Bruce Jenner wanting not to become just Caitlyn but both Bruce and Caitlyn at the same time! They skip and jump around like frogs on a hot plate, not pausing long enough for anyone to get a grip on which is right or wrong – or perhaps more accurately which is better at any particular time.

One situation where you can take a stab at which to choose in when you’re writing songs or poems and meter is important. When mum told me “Night night, sleep tight,” she was simply adhering to the underlying stress pattern of the phrase, along with the rhyme for night and tight. The form “Night night, sleep tightly” would be judged grammatically correct but poetically wrong. Similarly when Johnny Cash sang about how “the sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home,” using brightly would have buggered up the timing [2], forcing the Man in Black to slip in an extra syllable that really doesn’t want to be there. And try singing “Love me tender-ly, love me do…” to get a feel for why Elvis flattened his adverb.

Our confusion over flat adverbs is comes primarily from those that are identical to an adjective. If you consider the pair fast and slow, the former presents less of a problem because it doesn’t have an –ly form. I can “run fast” (adverb) or drive a “fast car” (adjective) and not worry about whether it’s an adverb or an adjective because there simply is no *fastly. However, although I can drive a “slow car” (adjective) it’s less obvious whether to “drive slow” or “drive slowly.”

As you might suspect, the bastard nature of English also plays a part in spreading confusion [3]. Way back when Old English was the current flavor of the language, changing an adjective into an adverb was done by the addition of a final -e; fairly simple, eh? So if we had the word glaed (OE for our modern glad) then you could add an e to make glaede meaning gladly. So far so good.

If you wanted to turn a noun into an adjective, you could add the ending -lic; again, not to tricky. The word craeft (meaning skill) became craeftlic, an adjective meaning skilful. So guess what you did to say skillfully? Yup, you added the e-ending to get craeftlice.

This meant we had some adverbs ending in a very weak-sounding –e and others with a more pronounced-sounding –lice. Gradually over the years, the weak –e disappeared and the stronger –lice became the slightly weaker –ly. Equally, those adjective ending in –lic also wore down to take on the sound of –ly. By the 14th century, we had adjectives and adverbs ending in –ly but this ending became the more commonly used to mark adverbs. Folks then started adding it willy-nilly to adjectives and this is pretty much how we do things in Modern English.

It’s not surprising that folks have some trouble working out whether adverbs should have an ly at the end or not, and those fossilized flat adverbs don’t make it any easier. Strang (1970) [4] expressed a sentiment that is as true today as it was in the 20th century:

…the sense of unease about adverbs homophonous with an adjective […] has been felt at all periods, and there has been a steady progress from plain to –ly forms (p.273).

Apart from my earlier suggestion that you can use poetic meter to decide which word to use, another guideline you might want to consider is that flat adverbs are more likely to sound right in short, imperatives. So “sleep tight” and “drive slow” are fair enough. As is “think different.” As always, if you’re unsure, use a dictionary or better still an online corpus. But don’t get too wound up about whether to use an ly form of not; if it’s taken a thousand years to get to this point where no-one is sure, you’re not going to find the definitive answer from reading this one blog post!

[1] I’m something of a fan of the UK cartoon series Peppa Pig, and in an upcoming post I’ll explain in some detail precisely why but for now, just take this as a snippet of information that gives you a peek into what makes me tick. In several episodes, the phrase “clever clogs” is used, and although I had to explain this to my American family, folks over in the UK have no difficulty with it. And why not, seeing as it appears to have been around since 1866 at least! Joseph Wright’s 1898 English Dialect Dictionary also includes the phrases “clever-breeches,” “clever-clumsy,” “clever-dick,” “clever-head,” and “clever-shanks.”

[2] When I was a kid in the 1960s, the word bugger was a swear word that would get me a clip round the ear for using. In the hierarchy of swear words, bugger was about as profane as bloody, with bloody hell being a tad more shocking. In the more liberal 21st century, bugger and bloody are now little more than quaint Britishisms, especially to the American ear because they never crossed the Atlantic as curse words. It’s a little known fact – but allow the Dudes to enlighten you! – that the word bugger comes from the Latin Bulgarus, which means Bulgarian, and was used to refer to a group of 11th century heretics who came from Bulgaria. As often happens when people talk about any group with which they disagree, the orthodoxy ascribed certain “practices” to the Buggers, one of which was sodomy. By the 16th century, the word was being used to describe anyone who committed the crime of buggery (engaging in sodomy), and by the 19th century it was being used as a general term of abuse or insult. By the end of the 20th century, it had become less profane and could also be used in a more affectionate”blokish” way, such as “He’s really quite a decent bugger when all’s said and done.”

[3] An interesting article on the development of the ly-ending in English and its parallels in other languages is:

Hummel, M. (2014). The adjective-adverb interface in Romance and English. In P. Sleeman, F. V. d. Velde & H. Perridon (Eds.), Adjectives in Germanic and Romance (pp. 35-72). Amsterdam and Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins.

There’s also some information in the highly entertaining book:

Burridge, K. (2005). Weeds in the Garden of Words: Further Observations on the Tangled History of English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[4] Strang, Barbara M.H. (1080). A History of English. London: Methuen.

Valentine’s? President’s? Whose Day IS It?

On a singularly dull day in Hell, when the screams of tortured souls no longer gave Lucifer a thrill, he came up with a new form of torture: the apostrophe [1]. It’s a brilliant piece of evil engineering because it takes up less than the merest dab of ink to pop it onto a piece of parchment, yet placing it in the wrong place can wreak maximum havoc on the sensibilities of gentle readers. And over-worked copy editors. It’s possible one of Satan’s most wickedly powerful dividers of nations ever invented.

Evil apostropheWithin the space of one week, we’re about to experience the full force of an apostrophe debate that will also generate more examples of that malevolent little mark all over the internet. February 14 and 16 are all set to become a grammatical confluence of biblical proportions. Perhaps.

Let’s start with the easier one: the case of St. Valentine and a celebration of card sales love. According to one version of the legend, St. Valentine was a priest who was martyred by the Roman emperor Claudius II for being a Christian, and for performing marriage rites. In one of the more lurid descriptions of his death, he was first stoned and clubbed but when that failed to kill him he was beheaded. I’m not sure that’s ever been part of a Valentine card illustration – though in the interest of accuracy, I think Hallmark need to consider it.

His performing of marriages seems to fit in with the idea of love, but oddly St. Valentine is also the patron saint of epilepsy, fainting,  plague, and bee keepers. Again, potential new avenues of exploration for the folks at American Greetings.

St Valentine

Can you look after these bees for me, Val?

When we celebrate St. Valentine, we do so on St. Valentine’s Day, where the apostrophe comes before that final “s.” Why? Well, it’s because one of the accepted norms for using an apostrophe is that you use it before a final “s” to indicate the notion of possession; the idea that the preceding succeeding noun belongs to the apostrophized previous thing. In this instance, this is a special day that “belongs” to St. Valentine. So you can have “the cat’s whiskers” because the whiskers belong to the cat; “the man’s coat,” because the coat belongs to the man; or “my brother’s wife,” because the wife belongs to my brother [2].

A second rule says that if you have more than one possessor, and the plural form ends with an “s,” you still put the apostrophe after the word but you can ignore a following “s.” Hence we can have “the dogs’ bone,” which is a bone shared by multiple canines; “the bishops’ fund,” which is a fund administered or used by a bench of bishops [3]; or “my brothers’ wives,” which is a clumsy way of referring to the collection of women owned by my brothers.

Valentine’s Day is, therefore, a pretty easy one. There is only one Valentine; it’s a day that is in some sense “owned” by him; so the apostrophe can happily nestle itself between the “e” and the “s” and copy editors can sleep at night. Sanity 1 – Satan 0.

But the Prince of Darkness is not yet done with us. He’s fully aware that although some folks will have trouble with Valentine’s Day, those who find it relatively easy have been lulled into a false sense of security. Lurking in the wings – or in this case, two days later – there is the day that even such luminaries as the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) and the Associated Press Stylebook (AP) disagree on; Presidents Day or Presidents’ Day. Sanity 1 – Satan 1.

I know that our readers don’t come here to be subjected to stress, pain, or irritation (other than the mild form suffered when we say something outrageous or wrong) so let me take away any worries you’re having about which form to use here and now. The Associated Press Stylebook says “Presidents Day” with no apostrophe; the Chicago Manual of Style says “Presidents’ Day” with the apostrophe right at the very end. So the Dudes say; so go with the one you prefer!

DIfferent ways of spelling Presidents Day
Yes                                                    Yes                                                No

So why the confusion – apart from Beelzebub’s delight in watching us all squabble and bicker? It’s really because of the way that nouns can, in some circumstances, behave as if they were adjectives. Specifically, it’s a type of noun called an attributive noun, which sounds like another Mephistophelian invention. For the most part, nouns are pretty solid, stalwart parts-of-speech, happy to be just what they are – low-frequency, limited meanings. A dog‘s a dog, a cat‘s a cat, and that’s about it. However, sometimes a noun will have the urge to buddy up to another noun to make a compound, and the one that goes first can change its behavior and act, temporarily, like an adjective.

Here are some examples of attributive nouns, where the first noun is being used to enhance the meaning of the second:

football player: Just using the noun player on its own may not be sufficient, so adding the noun football helps specify the type of player. Similarly we could have a baseball player, hockey player, and so on.

business lunch: Again, lunch on its own is OK in a generic sense but if you’re having lunch for the purpose of discussion business-related issues, then adding business as an attributive tightens up the meaning.

apple tree: Fairly obvious and by now needs no explanation.

If you want to do a quick check as to whether you’re seeing an attributive noun or an attributive adjective, try the following test:

Change <WORD 1><WORD2> to “The <WORD2> is <WORD1>”: does it make sense?

“The player is football,” “The lunch is business” and “The tree is apple” sound wrong. But if we had “aggressive player,” “free lunch,” and “tall tree,” applying the test would result in sensible sentences, therefore they are attributive adjectives, not attributive nouns.

All of this brings us back to why Presidents/Presidents’ Day is a challenge. If it is a day that “belongs” to Presidents, then the apostrophe should be used to indicate possession and therefore needs to be included at the end of the word. But if it’s a day “about” or “for” Presidents [4], then it’s being used as an attributive noun descriptor to enhance the meaning of “day,” and so needs no apostrophe.

The distinction is fine, and so is the interpretation – hence the disagreement between CMS and AP. But it is an instructive example of how words can shift not only their meaning but function, and even a humble noun can aspire to adjectivehood!

[1] Apostrophe comes from the Greek ἡ ἀπόστροϕος meaning “of turning away, or elision.” Often the apostrophe is used to mark where something is missing (elided) such as in can’t for cannot, the poetic o’er for over, or singin’ as a colloquialism for singing. It’s this sense of “missing something” that gave rise to its name as a punctuation mark.

[2] You’re right to guess that I put that one in on purpose, knowing full well that it’s somewhat un-PC. I could, of course, have used “My sister’s husband” and explained it as “because the husband belongs to my sister,” but that wouldn’t be as forceful in showing how grammar and punctuation rules regarding “possession” don’t care for social norms. Doubtless there are folks out there who would be all for having us change the language so as to avoid that notion of “owning” someone but that’s not going to happen. Grammatical possession is a little different from social possession.

[3] The  most frequently cited collective noun for bishops is, indeed, a bench. Others include a sea of bishops and a psalter of bishops.

[4] The Presidents in question are apparently George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are Feb 22 and Feb 17 respectively. I say “primarily” because there is also the notion that it is a celebration of all US Presidents, and that this extended meaning is accepted by many people.

1. Eagle-eyed reader, Trish, pointed out I used preceding rather than succeeding in the original sentence. Whoops!

The Dudes Do ATIA 2015: Day 1 – Of Wealth and Water

Economics, when all is said and done, is based on some pretty simple principles, which we can summarize as follows:

1. People want/need stuff.
2. There is only so much stuff available.
3. Rare stuff has more value than common stuff.
4. Economics is about how stuff gets moved around from person to person.

I’m not sure why it took Adam Smith over 1000 pages to explain this in his canonical Wealth of Nations in 1776, or Thomas Picketty close to 700 pages in his 2014 Capital in the Twenty-First Century. I guess one paragraph with 4 bullet points wouldn’t sell as a book,

But if you want an example of simple economics, you need look no further than the price of a humble bottle of water. Here’s your “Dudes Economics 101” courtesy of our trip to the 2015 Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) conference in Orlando, Florida.

Bottles of water

$4.98 and $5.00 water: which is which?

1. People Want/Need Stuff

Water is one of those commodities that folks need in order to live. You might think your life would come to a screeching halt if your smart phone disappeared, but surprisingly it wouldn’t because a phone is a “want” not a “need.”

When you stay at a hotel, you need water, and often not just the water contained in a beer. Typically hotels provide a coffee machine in your room so you can make a hot beverage but from experience, many hotels have faucet water that tastes of chlorine, sulfur [1], metal, or anything other than the standard watery taste of “nothing.” In fact, the stuff that comes out of the tap is only “water” in the sense that it’s wet and clear (although the latter is not always the case.) Which leads us to the notion that…

2. There Is Only So Much Stuff Available.

Gold, diamonds, platinum, tigers, honest politicians; these are all examples of things that, on a global basis, are in short supply.  And in the tiny world that is the Caribe Royale Hotel in Florida, when it’s 11:00 PM and you’re thirsty, water is also in short supply. Given that the tap water is undrinkable, this means the bottle of filtered artesian Norwegian spring water [2]  lovingly provided by the hotel becomes an example of “only so much stuff is available.” And because your alternative is to go to the all-night on site store or get in a car and drive “somewhere else,” the next lesson in economics is that…

3. Rare Stuff Has More Value Than Common Stuff

If something is in short supply, it can be very expensive. Being rare in of itself doesn’t mean something is valuable – it has to be desired or necessary in order to be worth something. Diamonds are only valuable so long as someone, somewhere wants them, otherwise they are just highly compressed pieces of coal; a Rolex is worth several thousand dollars – if you like Rolexes; and a Starbucks grande non-fat latte is worth on average $3.80 – if you like coffee.

So when your mouth is as dry as the bottom of a bird-cage, $5.00 for a bottle of water seems like a bargain. In other places and at other times, you’d sooner shoot yourself in the foot than spend $5.00 for just water but in this place and at this time, the value of that colorless, odorless, tasteless liquid can be jacked up to near obscene levels.

You are probably aware of the phrase “location, location, location” as the answer to the question “What’s the most significant factor to take into account when opening a store?” or “Which factor will play a critical part in determining the price of a house?” but the same phrase applies to all economic transactions at some level. This is because…

4. Economics Is About How Stuff Gets Moved Around From Person To Person

The hotel can charge $5.00 for a bottle of water because it’s sitting there in the room so you don’t have to go anywhere or do anything other than twist off the cap. What they include in the price is the shifting of the stuff (water) from one person (themselves) to another (you).

Purely as an exercise in Economics (well, and perhaps as a demonstration of how cheap the Dudes are) on our way back from dinner at the Dakshin, a wonderful Indian restaurant, we stopped off at a Wal-Mart store and found, to our fiscal delight, that there was a special sale of Aquafina bottled water – $4.98 for a pack of 32 bottles. That’s 15 cents a bottle, and a significant saving when compared to the $5.00 hotel water – sorry, “filtered Norwegian Spring Water.” On that basis, we reckoned that if we drank ONE bottle each and threw away the other 30, we’d still be $5.02 ahead of the game! In terms of the “Dudes 4-Point Model of Economics,” we’d moved stuff ourselves (point 4) and bought from a place where stuff wasn’t rare (point 2) and so was not a premium price (point 3).

Image of economic axes

So there you have it. Proof that attending a conference can be an educational event above and beyond the overt content. Other bloggers will have details about the sessions and the exhibition and all that stuff, but only the Dudes will create a complete fiscal model based on having to spend $5.00 for water. Pedants and doryphores [5] might want to quibble with some details regarding our admittedly simple 4-Point Model of Universal Economics but we like to think that it’s in its naked simplicity where the value of the model lies. “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”

[1] I have to work hard to be able to spell sulfur like this, rather than sulphur, which is what I learned in school when I was a lad in England. The latter gets flagged as “wrong” on WordPress, and Microsoft words also gently scolds me with it little red line. It derives from the Latin sulfur(em) or sulphur(em) and is found in Middle English with a number spellings, such as sulphre, sulphure, sulfur, sulphur, soulphre, solfre, sulphyr, and others. The sulphur spelling appears to have become the more common by the end of the 17th century but other European languages opted for using an “f” (Spanish azufre, German schwefel, French soufre, and Italian zolfo). Even the American Lexicographer in Chief, Noah Webster, used sulphur, with the switch to sulfur occurring in the US relatively recently – the early 20th century. It has now become one of those US/UK differences that folks love to talk about. In a 1988 article, Mitchie and Langslow note that, “Together with driving on the left, the use of ph in sulphur, be it in acid rain or human metabolism, has remained an English prerogative.” Michie, C. A., & Langslow, D. R. (1988). Sulphur or sulfur? A tale of two spellings. BMJ : British Medical Journal, 297(6664), 1697-1699.

[2] In the world of Marketing, adjectives are important. If you want to sell a product, you can’t just offer “water” or “beer,” you have to  stick some lipstick on that pig by using adjectives. “Spring Water” sounds better than just “water,” but “Crystal-clear, Fresh Spring Water” sounds even better. “Crisp, Cold-Filtered Beer” invites you to part with more money than just “Cold Beer.” Restaurants teach their wait staff to use “suggestive selling,” which is simply having them to use adjectives whenever they recommend food; “Would you like some of our fresh, crispy fries with that?” or “We have a delicious, spicy chili that’s popular with all our diners.” Adjectives make money – and so does providing lists of these for copywriters, the best of whom will have Richard Bayan’s popular Words That Sell on their bookshelf. Actually, I would recommend this book to educators and Speechies who are teaching vocabulary because it’s chock-a-block with synonyms for many words, and the “Key Word Index” makes it easy to find them.

[3] I’ve posted this definition before but it’s worth repeating because it’s interesting: 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,” (a δορο is a “spear” and ϕόρος means “to bear or carry”) 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!

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?

[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?

Coffee Rant: Or Why Adjectives Matter

Some years ago, I found myself reading some article about the evils of Corporate America and amongst a crowd of folks who were railing against one of the members of the Economic Axis of Evil – Starbucks. Being the misanthropic curmudgeon I am, I’m usually on the side of anyone who takes an opportunity to “stick it to the Man,” regardless of which flavor of “the Man” that may be, but in this instance, I was perversely on the side of Howard Schultz and his mighty mochaccino monolith. I was also in the minority, which also appealed to my sense of curmudgeonliness [1] and there’s a good chance that I was hyped up on caffeine too. So here’s the response, unedited and expurgated.

So some folks think that Starbucks is “too corporate” and “bland?” So they prefer the small “mom-and-pop” local coffee houses that are supposedly unique and special.

Well I say “poppycock” to their smug, preachy elitism. Why should anyone listen to a bunch of aging, sandal-toed, tofu-eating, ex-hippies who are just mad because their “organic real coffee” stores barely makes enough to keep them in muesli? These are the air-headed boomers who wanted to change the world in the 60’s, failed miserably, then joined the very same corporate world they now despise, which in turn helped them earn the money to start up the pathetic, ersatz “authentic” java joints they now run.

Excuse me for pointing out the stunningly obvious to these self-styled entrepreneurs but they seem to forget that their success comes on the back of the “coffee culture” explosion that Starbucks was instrumental in fueling. Some 20 years ago, springing fifty cents for a cup of hot brown slop from the Micky D’s drive-through was about as much as folks were willing to pay and as sophisticated as their taste reached. Now the three-dollar offering made from quality freshly ground beans is not an unusual occurrence, and the kaftan-wearing, self-important arbiters of taste have no problem selling their own free-trade farmer-friendly Guatemalan dark roast sludge for prices just under the standard Starbucks price. Oh yeah, and sometimes, no matter how much these self-appointed guardians of coffee purity bleat, their stuff is crap. Just because you know Juan Gonzales from Colombia personally and have visited his small pueblo to spend time with his wife and children doesn’t mean his stuff is good. For every coffee place that sells good, drinkable java there are ten others that, like Hans Christian Anderson’s emperor, are wearing no clothes. They talk the talk, walk the walk, but churn our bland or burned buckets of semi-drinkable swill that makes four-hour-old gas station coffee seem like nectar.

So stop your whining, you bunch of goatee-coiffed, hemp-wearing, pot-headed, jelly-brains and come back and pontificate when YOU have a multi-million dollar international organization that’s having to make decision on this sort of scale. Otherwise, go stock up on some of those home-made $2.99 granola bars that take away the taste of your insipid brew.

I chose to share this because (a) I’m too idle at the moment to write a brand new post – or to at least finish ONE of the three “draft” posts languishing in WordPress – and (b) I thought it demonstrated how there are times when the excessive use of adjectives can be used to good effect. Although most writing guides recommend the spartan use of adjectives, sometimes it’s fun to let them loose and watch them cavort and gamble happily with an otherwise sleepy collection of nouns.

[1] I doubt that curmudgeonliness is likely to catch on, and a quick check with the Corpus of Contemporary American English shows only two uses of the word; once in 1997 and another in 2008. However, what is does illustrate is how to use the process of affixation can turn a concrete noun into an abstract. Here’s the route:

(a) curmudgeon (n) -> curmudgeonly (adj)
(b) curmudgeonly (adj) -> curmudgeonliness (n)

It’s possible to change a concrete noun to an abstract directly without the intermediate adjectification by using different suffixes e.g. boy (n) -> boyhood (n); friend (n) -> friendship (n); star (n) -> stardom (n).

And one last fun fact to slip into your next party conversation; sticking an extra “bit” (or morpheme) to a word that changes it from one part-of-speech to another is called derivational morphology, whereas if it stays as the same part-of-speech it’s called inflectional morphology. Curmudgeon to curmudgeonly is derivational;  sing to singing or sings is inflectional. Go ahead, nerd out with that!