Sunday, April 26, 2015

Specificity and Generality

A friend posted a quotation from Diane Arbus on Facebook:
The more specific you are, the more general it’ll be.
I really liked the idea because it connected with what I've been preaching to my students in a class on poetry and songwriting: be specific! But I also wanted the source, and especially the context, so I did some digging and found a passage from the introduction to a 1972 collection of Arbus's photographs published as "an Aperture monograph" and edited by Doon Arbus and Marvin Israel:
I remember a long time ago when I first began to photograph I thought, there are an awful lot of people in the world and it’s going to be terribly hard to photograph all of them, so if I photograph some kind of generalized human being, everybody’ll recognize it. It’ll be like what they used to call the common man or something. It was my teacher, Lisette Model, who finally made it clear to me that the more specific you are, the more general it’ll be.
I was right to want the context, because now the grand generalization about specificity is so much more specific. The context acts out two things that are lost in the quotable quote at the end: first of all, how the generalization is built on a specific experience; secondly, how that experience is a matter of learning something.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015


The Germans say it's from Goethe:
Entschuldigen Sie, dass ich Ihnen einen langen Brief schreibe, für einen kurzen habe ich keine Zeit.
 The Americans say it's from Mark Twain:
 I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.
The French say it's from Voltaire, but it's from Blaise Pascal:
Je n’ai fait celle-ci [cette lettre] plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.
I love that it's "loisir": leisure. And that it's Pascal, whose famous formulation about the troubles of humanity also implicitly touches on "loisir", here as "repos":
Tout le malheur des hommes vient d'une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos, dans une chambre.
If only we had the time to sit quietly and write shorter letters.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Rules ignoring people

In a Facebook discussion just now, I took my usual "descriptivist" position in a discussion with "prescriptivists" (quotation marks since I don't particularly like the word "descriptivist" and my conversation partners might not like "prescriptivists" either). As part of the discussion, I contrasted some examples of what I called "real" rules with the "rules of grammar" that get so much attention:
Here's an example of a rule in English: the order of modifiers before a noun is fixed. We say "an attractive pink swimsuit" but not "a pink attractive swimsuit." Or another: what types of construction can follow a particular verb? "Risk" takes a gerund phrase ("you risked going too far") but not an infinitive (*"risked to go too far") or a noun clause (*"risked that you went too far"). These are real rules of English grammar. Pretty much all the rules that get argued about in public are not "rules" like this. "They" cannot be singular: demonstrably false. The "who/whom" distinction is a matter of subject/object uses: demonstrably false. "That" is for integrated relatives, "which" for supplementary relatives: demonstrably false.
One of the others involved in the discussion is an excellent poet and sharp thinker who I have great respect for (and who would definitely prefer I had said "whom I have great respect for" – I'm not sure what her position on the stranded preposition there might be). She responded aphoristically:
Andrew, the only difference I can see between the rules you cite as real and the rules you cite as demonstrably false is that the former aren't ignored quite as often as the latter.
To which I could only respond that she had hit the nail on the head:
Exactly. The "rules that are often ignored" are not real rules, but pretend rules. In fact, that helps me with a nice chiasmus to state my position: with such rules, it's not that people are ignoring rules. Rather, it's that rules are ignoring people.
And that's the purpose of this post: to make a permanent record of my nice chiasmus. 

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Unshakeable PERHAPS

Here's Robin Fulton's translation of "Brief Pause in the Organ Recital", a poem by Tomas Tranströmer (15 April 1931 - 26 March 2015):


The organ stops playing and it's deathly quiet in the church, but only for a couple of seconds.
And the faint rumbling penetrates from the traffic out there, that greater organ.

For we are surrounded by the murmuring of the traffic, it flows along the cathedral walls.
The outer world glides there like a transparent film and with shadows struggling pianissimo.

And as if it were part of the street noise I hear one of my pulses beating in the silence,
I hear my blood circulating, the cascade that hides inside me, that I walk about with,

and as close as my blood and as far away as a memory from when I was four,
I hear the trailer that rumbles past and makes the six-hundred-year-old walls tremble.

This could hardly be less like a mother's lap, yet at the moment I am like a child,
hearing the grown-ups talking far away, the voices of the winners and the losers mingling.

On the blue benches a sparse congregation. And the pillars rise like strange trees:
no roots (only the common floor) and no crown (only the common roof).

I relive a dream. That I'm standing alone in a churchyard. Everywhere heather glows
as far as the eye can reach. Who I am waiting for? A friend. Why doesn't he come. He's here already.

Slowly death turns up the lights from underneath, from the ground. The heath shines, a stronger and stronger purple —
no, a colour no one has seen ... until the morning's pale light whines in through the eyelids

and I waken to that unshakeable PERHAPS that carries me through the wavering world.
And each abstract picture of the world is as impossible as the blue-print of a storm.

At home stood the all-knowing Encyclopedia, a yard of bookshelf, in it I learnt to read.
But each one of us has his own encyclopedia written, it grows out of each soul,

it's written from birth onwards, the hundreds of thousands of pages stand pressed against each other
and yet with air between them! Like the quivering leaves in a forest. The book of contradictions.

What's there changes by the hour, the pictures retouch themselves, the words flicker.
A wake washes through the whole text, it's followed by the next wave, and then the next ...

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Inverting "An Artist of the Floating World"

In his New Yorker review of Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel The Buried Giant, James Wood describes the narrators of Ishiguro's earlier novels as follows:
His complacent or muted unreliable narrators, like the painter Ono, in An Artist of the Floating World, or the butler Stevens, in The Remains of the Day, tell stories that mildly and self-servingly repress secrets, shameful compromises, and the wounds of the past. (Both of these narrators have reason to conceal or minimize their involvement with Fascist politics just before the Second World War.).
 While this is an accurate description of Stevens, it gets Ono backwards. I know this, because I misread An Artist of the Floating World the first time I read it. Only a second reading did I notice what makes the novel so distinct and striking: Ono does not "conceal or minimize his involvement" with Fascism. On the contrary, throughout the book, he is trying to acknowledge his guilt – and everyone around him doesn't want to hear about it. They tell him he's exaggerating; they tell him there's no reason for him to feel so guilty. If the novel is a figure of "self-serving repression of secrets", it is the people around Ono who are doing the repression, not Ono himself.

It's time to reread An Artist of the Floating World so I can back up this claim with some evidence!

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Using "that" to refer to people

I saw a complaint about the supposedly increasing use of "that" to refer to people (instead of "who").

Since I have a digital copy of Jane Austen's "Emma," it took me only a few minutes to find an example of such a usage by Austen: Mr. Woodhouse "was a nervous man, easily depressed; fond of every body that he was used to, and hating to part with them; hating change of every kind."

But the Corpus of Historical American English also provides some evidence. I searched for the phrase "man who" and the phrase "man that". Amusingly, "the man that" seems to be decreasing in frequency. From the 1830s to the 1930s (by decades), it appears with at least 200 hits per decade, while since then it has been decreasing, with only 94 hits in the 1990s and 116 in the 2000s.

But the complaint was made by someone from Britain. The BYU corpora do not include a corpus of Historical British English like the COHA for American English, but you can use the BYU corpus site to search Google Books. And again, "man that" has decreased considerably since the 19th century: over 20,000 hits per decade from the 1830s to the 1900s (and up over 30,000 sometimes). Oddly enough, there is then a sudden drop in hits between the 1900s and the 1910s, from over 36k hits to about 12,500. And then it's been pretty steady since then.

So whatever is going on here, it is highly unlikely to be a matter of increasing frequency of use of "that" to refer to people (or at least to refer to "man"). This is what's known as "the frequency illusion."

Sunday, February 22, 2015

"deemed as"? "based on" vs. "based off of"?

A Facebook friend who was grading papers wrote:

Fellow language/grammar enthusiasts: I need another verdict so I know if two more of my pet peeves are justified. My students write that something is "deemed as" rather than simply "deemed" the adjective that follows. They also write that things are "based off of" rather than "based on" other things. I hate both. May I correct them or are these now so common as to be legitimate?

I responded:

This is the kind of thing I love to go a little bit crazy with …

I looked up the phrases in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) and the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GLOWBE). These two corpora can be found at the BYU site for linguistic corpora.

For based on vs. based off of:

based on = 61860
based off of = 9

based on = 335832 (US 76525)
based off of = 736 (US 392)

I think you can safely say that “based off of” is not yet Standard English.

Deemed (as): this pair is a bit harder to deal with, because it’s not two distinct phrases (i.e., all hits for “deemed” as are also counted for “deemed”, and many of the uses of “deemed” might be in contexts where “deemed as” would not be used). But here are the numbers:

deemed as = 56
deemed (including the above) = 5141

deemed as = 1419 (US 136)
deemed (including the above) = 39523 (US 5512)

While these ratios lean quite strongly in favor of not using “as” with “deemed,” I think there’s enough uncertainty about the numbers to make “deemed as” worth accepting, as well as enough grounds for understanding where “deemed as” comes from (parallel to “regard as” and “consider as” — which latter form I don’t like, actually, but have to admit exists).

This is only about current usage (1990-2012 with COCA, 2012-2013 with Glowbe), so it doesn’t even address the history of “deemed as” and “based off of.” I bet the former has a long history, while the latter doesn’t. But linguists have a term to refer to people’s sense that a construction is new when it is not: “recency illusion”.

And the Google Books Corpus shows that I’m right: “base d off of” does not appear until the 1990s in American English (though it has risen sharply since). In contrast, “deemed as” has been in steady use for 200 years now.

So mark “based off of” as wrong (and discuss it?), but accept “deemed as” (and talk about the “recency illusion”?).