one, two three, first, second, third

There is statistical law called Benford’s law or the first-digit law, which states that in many naturally occurring collections of numbers, the first digit is significantly more likely to be 1, 2 or 3, and significantly less likely to be 7, 8 or 9. 1 is the first digit about 30% of the time, and 9 about 5%.

This also generally applies the written words one, two, three etc. Google Ngrams shows that one to six appear in exactly that order, then ten, eight, seven and nine. Ten gets a boost because of its use as the base for the decimal system, while eight is a power of two, and we prefer counting in even numbers.

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right speech

I have just been editing an article which refers to “The negative and discriminatory rhetoric of the current same-sex marriage debate [in Australia]”. For the target readership, I wanted to change “rhetoric” to something simpler. But what? lists as synonyms for “rhetoric”: hyperbole, oratory, address, balderdash, bombast, composition, discourse, elocution, eloquence, fustian, grandiloquence, magniloquence, oration, pomposity, verbosity, big talk, flowery language, hot air. Most of these have moderately or extremely negative connotations. Even rhetoric, which includes “the art of prose in general as opposed to verse”, “the ability to use language effectively”, “the art of making persuasive speeches” and “the art or science of all specialized literary uses of languages in prose or verse” has as its number one definition (according to “the undue use of exaggeration or display; bombast”.

Because the passage already has the adjectives “negative and discriminatory”, I don’t need a noun with negative connotations, so I simply changed it to “negative and discriminatory language”.

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No matter what you think about the use or misuse of the word literally, the statement about last night’s (my time) eclipse, reported on a news website this morning:

It was literally cold and dark

strikes me as a remarkably clunky way to use literally (as well as a remarkably unimaginative way to describe a total solar eclipse).

(Because of time zones, I wasn’t going to stay up, or set the alarm. I just happened to wake up at 3.53 am, so I went downstairs and watched NASA’s webcast for about an hour.)

Unexplained and puzzling usage advice

I have posted before about unexplained and puzzling advice on language-related websites. This kind of advice is given in terms of ‘that is wrong, this is right’. I stumbled across a website which gives generally correct and useful advice on English vocabulary, grammar and usage for second-language learners. But on one page, among 13 pieces of unexceptional advice, are three pieces of unexplained and puzzling advice on word usage. I won’t identify the website, because I don’t want to name and shame; this person has obviously put a lot of time and effort into the site and the advice is generally correct and useful. The name and photo indicate someone from a major English-speaking country, one sentence uses the spelling center, many of the mistakes sound typical of Indian English, and one sentence mentions Chennai, so draw your own conclusions from that.

The website has a page of ‘Common mistakes in the use of nouns’. Only one piece of advice comes with an explanation:

Incorrect: I am learning a new poetry.
Correct: I am learning a new poem.
Poetry means poems collectively.

The three puzzling pieces of advice are:

(1) Incorrect: He enquired about your state of health.
(2) Correct: He enquired about the state of your health.
(3) Incorrect: My English is very weak.
(4) Correct: I am very weak in English.
(5) Incorrect: Why are you standing in the center of the street?
(6) Correct: Why are you standing in the middle of the street? [my numbering]

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heatable, heatful

I don’t like students depending on dictionaries in class (in fact, I don’t like them using dictionaries at all), for several reasons, another of which I might write about in a future post. Last night the students were practicing changing nouns into adjectives and vice versa (for the sake of completeness, I also added the appropriate verbs and adverbs). Most nouns change to adjectives and vice versa by the addition or subtraction of a suffix. However, there is a group of words which are clearly related but include other changes (long > length, strong > strength etc), sometimes enough to classify them as two  different words (poor > poverty).

One word was heat, for which most students had no trouble finding hot. (Though one student wrote tropical.) Another student then said ‘What about heatable and heatful?’. I said ‘What?!’. He pointed at the dictionary app on his phone. I said approximately ‘Well, I understand I those words but I’ve never seen or heard them in my life. Forget them. If you’ve ever got a choice between hot, heatable and heatful, keep it short and simple, and choose hot.’
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Gift me a verb … VERB!

Much ink and many pixels have been devoted to the topic of gift as a verb (see, for example). I don’t want to weigh in to the wrongs and rights of it, except to say that I don’t and wouldn’t use it as such (except linguobuccally). (I’ve got no general issue with verbing nouns, but why do it when there’s a perfectly good verb available already?) But I have recently noticed three uses of it in a major historical shopping building in the city. One shop has a poster ‘Gift the magic of Provence’, which could easily be ‘give’. Another has ‘Gift UGG this season’, which would still be awkward even with ‘give’.

The building management has provided a ‘Gifting station’. We can’t change that to a ‘Giving station’, but we could call a ‘Gift-wrapping station’ or even ‘Gift-wrapping’ if getting the words onto the sign was a factor.

(I am breaking a long-standing rule about gifting free publicity to commercial entities, but the identities of the companies are relevant.)