A kind of affliction

Last Tuesday was an interesting day linguistically, even if it was a slow day work-wise. I noticed three separate issues twice each in different contexts. The first time each, I thought “Oh, that’s interesting” and the second time I thought “Hang on, I’ve seen that before”.

During a lull in my work, I was browsing through some of Geoffrey Pullum’s old Language Log posts. In one, titled ‘Another victim of oversimplified rules‘, he discusses a sentence which he found in a free newspaper on Edinburgh’s buses:

A record number of companies has been formed by Edinburgh University in the past 12 months.

The head noun is number, so the verb seems to need to be is. But the university hasn’t been forming numbers; it’s been forming companies. He explains:

Sometimes number is used as an ordinary noun meaning “arithmetical quantity”, but like certain other nouns it also has a crypto-quantificational use that involves a kind of bleaching of syntactic potency. In this use, number is transparent to verb agreement: the noun in the of-phrase complement determines the agreement.

To which I would add the noun in the of-phrase has to be plural; we can’t have a record number of company.

Compare a lot. Auctioneers might say “A lot (that is, one lot) of paintings is being sold tonight”, but the rest of us would say “A lot of paintings are being sold tonight”. (An auctioneers lot of paintings may, in fact, be only one painting.)

Later in the day, I was reading the preface to Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage (as you do during lulls in work). (The Macquarie Dictionary, my publishing company’s dictionary of choice) has not produced a usage guide (although there are usage notes scattered through the dictionary), so I have been looking for a dedicated usage guide we might use.) I spotted this extraordinary pair of sentences:

A number of common spelling problems are also discussed briefly. While the emphasis of this work is on usage in writing, a small number of articles is devoted to problems of pronunciation.

“A number … are”, but “a small number … is”.

I was looking at it on Amazon, and their preview is based on the Kindle version, not the printed version. Either the printed version says are both times and something happened in the preparation of the Kindle version (but why that, and why only that?), or the printed version says are and is (but WWHHYY???? – that’s not any kind of English usage I know about). The dictionary does have an entry for number, but Amazon shows only a limited number of pages in its preview, so I can’t read it.

After I got home, I searched for “a small number of articles is devoted” (with quotation marks). Intriguingly, there were two results, both in published sources, but nothing about this dictionary, so it seems that I’m the first to have noticed it.

I emailed Geoff (that how he signs his emails), who replied:

Very interesting! I think I’ll be able to provide you with a very satisfying resolution of this puzzle. Haven’t time to go into it right now, but (i) the preface to the original MWDEU is slightly different in a revealing way, and (ii) I have a hard copy of the Concise version at the office, and (iii) I recently by accident came into possession of contact details for the original editor of the book! So I’m well placed to do some detective work here.

The reason I am posting this now, nine days later, is that I can let him tell you the rest of the story, which he posted on Lingua Franca this morning (referring to me as “an email correspondent”). 

tl;dr yes, it’s an honest-to-goodness mistake on the part of one of the leading usage guides in the world.  And I spotted it. Because I read the prefaces of dictionaries. He also named and shamed the editor responsible, which wasn’t my intention.

The second issue arose from an article on Mental Floss about the origin of famous tongue twisters.

One of these is:

A tutor who tooted the flute
Tried to teach two young tooters to toot.
Said the two to the tutor,
“Is it harder to toot, or
To tutor two tooters to toot?”

which it attributes to the American poet and novelist Carolyn Wells in the late 1890s.

I first encountered this many years ago, and didn’t think it was all that hard. Many years later, I realised that for many Americans, tutor and tooter are pronounced identically. For me (and most Australians), tutor starts with /tj/ (‘ty’) in careful speech and /tʃ/ (‘ch’) casually. The American pronunciation is referred to as yod-dropping and the ‘ch’ pronunciation as yod-coalescence(yod is the linguists’ term for the ‘y’ sound.)

On my way to choir practice, I was browsing through a Facebook page called Pun-based humo(u)r (/hj/ even for Americans). One image showed two bananas and two old women playing big brass instruments – viz, tuba nanas. This doesn’t work for me for two reasons. For me (and most Australians), the second ‘a’ in banana is long, and tuba, like tutor, starts with /tj/ in careful speech and /tʃ/ casually.

The third issue (for me, probably /ʃ/ (‘sh’) even in careful speech) came in a quotation from a company spokesperson in an article I had previously subedited but now had to proofread:

We also have a long pipeline of innovation coming to market from throughout 2019 and beyond, which are focused on making life easier for both babies, toddlers and parents.

When I subedited it, I noticed a long pipeline of innovation … are. But it’s not the pipeline which is making life easier, or even the innovation (directly), but the innovative products that are the result of the pipeline of innovation. Either I could leave the sentence as it was, or change are to is, or change innovation to innovative products. (We are allowed to ‘repair’ quotations if they are obviously wrong (or awkward) and there is an obviously right choice.) I hummed and hahed and in the end the editor and I decided to leave it as it was. (This was one of the sentences which caused me to have is/are on my mind.)

Then when I proofread it, I noticed both babies, toddlers and parents. As far as I know, both only ever means exactly two. We might group babies and toddlers together and talk about “both (babies and toddlers) and (parents)”, but I would probably add their in front of parents.

At choir practice, we started rehearsing an arrangement of an English Christmas carol which refers to St Mary as both Mother, Maid, and Wife.

In another post, Geoff says:

Linguistics is not a task that one takes up only as necessary; it is more like a kind of affliction, making the afflicted person incapable of not noticing points of interest in linguistic material.


One thought on “A kind of affliction

  1. Pingback: slew | Never Pure and Rarely Simple

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