Category Archives: language and linguistics

Watch out for the theta roles!

Never mind passive voice — it’s all about your cast list

This article was originally published in NINK, the magazine of Novelists, Inc.

Listen to the audio version of this article on Patreon.com

We have all been taught to be leery of the passive voice – sorry, make that we have all learned to be leery of the passive voice – because passive voice focuses on the recipient of the action rather than the actor. But we often get it wrong – for example, when a news story or headline is criticized for using the “passive,” odds are high that it’s actually written in the active voice; it’s just evasive in some other way.

Consider a few real-world examples of active voice misidentified as passive. When Janet Jackson had her famous “wardrobe malfunction” at the Super Bowl, one writer tut-tutted another for using the passive by writing A snap unfastened and part of the bodice tore. But although that sentence doesn’t name Justin Timberlake, it isn’t passive voice either – to be passive, the sentence would need to say a snap was unfastened. Other typical examples of misidentified passives include An accidental discharge of the firearm occurred and Boy dies as troops fire on demonstration. In spite of writers inveighing against other writers for using “the passive,” these sentences have no is or was and no past participle – to be passive, they would have to be written as The firearm was accidentally discharged and Boy is killed as troops fire on demonstration.

So how did we get so far off base in telling the passive voice from the active voice? The answer is that we’re not off base at all; we’re asking the wrong question. It’s not really the passive we should be looking out for. It’s the theta roles.  Continue reading

Eye rhymes and iRhymes

(or: Can you rhyme emoji?)

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly

An eye rhyme is when two words that only look like they rhyme are used for a rhyme. This was an early annoyance from my childhood, when elementary poems rhymed good with food. Another famous one is from Shakespeare:

If this be error and upon me prov’d
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

Both of those examples may be excused by having been real rhymes at one time (indeed, for the Bard, the o’s in both prov’d and lov’d were like the oo ingood). Other eye rhymes have always been for your eyes only: come and home, for instance, which have never rhymed, or the name Sean Bean.

But if we can get away (at least occasionally) with rhyming things by appearance, then rhyme can be visual. In which case visual things can rhyme. Such as emoji. Continue reading

Let’s do the time Whorf again

Every so often, someone in a field such as economics comes up with something that seems to suggest that the language we use can affect how we think and even how we act. I’m not talking about obvious things (such as “How do you get 50 Canadians out of a swimming pool? You say, ‘Everyone please get out of the pool.’”). I mean what if, for instance, our grammar affected how we save for the future? What if our perception of time is conditioned by our language?

And all the linguists roll their eyes and say, “Whorf.” They’ve been down this road before. They reach for the mute button.

But what if both sides are overreacting a bit?

Read my latest article for the BBC:

Can language slow down time?

The roots of disagreement

This article was originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the blog of Editors Canada. Listen to an audio version of it on Patreon.

It was one of those crises that end up in the parentheses of memoranda; it concerned the geneses of several referenda among alumni (and alumnæ) about addenda to their indices: the criteria for the termini of Greek- and Latin-derived words. By what formulæ should we choose, for instance, schemata or schemas? The competing sides saw each other’s preferences as bloody stigmata. It finally came to a head over the school’s mascots, the octopuses. Or, as the zoologists called them, the octopodes. Or, as the school’s coach called them, the octopi. Continue reading

Season your fiction just right

This article was originally published in NINK, the magazine of Novelists, Inc.

Can you tell when and where (America or England) these passages were written? (And I promise the answers will be revealed.)

  1. When we were summoned to dinner, a young gentleman in a clerical dress offered his hand, and led me to a table furnished with an elegant and sumptuous repast, with more gallantry and address than commonly fall to the share of students.
  2. She wore the hood set back off her square honest face and showed her hair, dark brown with a tinge of Tudor red. Her smile was her great charm: it came slowly, and her eyes were warm. But what struck me most about her was her air of honesty.
  3. I was so vexed to see him stand up with her! But, however, he did not admire her at all; indeed, nobody can, you know; and he seemed quite struck with Jane as she was going down the dance.

Continue reading

Don’t die a critic of diacritics and special characters

Do you always get your accents and special characters right in non-English words? Or are you sometimes unclear on which is which, and maybe not sure what difference it makes?

Well, lucky you. I spent quite a bit of time recently putting together charts for a presentation I took part in at the 2018 Editors Canada conference. They list the most common ones, some of the languages you’re likely to see them in, and the kinds of differences they can make – cases where the presence or lack of a little mark can turn something innocent into something dirty (or vice versa, which is sometimes even worse).

Here they are. It’s a PDF, but it’s small: accents_characters_harbeck.pdf

Is text-speak replacing speech?

Every so often, some get-off-my-lawner launches another jeremiad about the demise of English and points the knobbly finger at that interweb text thing the youth do. Are we losing the ability to communicate in basic, decent English? Is this text-speak taking over from talk? Well… no (hell no) and yes (sorta). We’re not losing anything; we’re just adding another variety of English, which I’ve taken the liberty of calling live internet vernacular English. I explain in my latest article for the BBC:

Will we stop talking and just text?