Category Archives: Language

Okay, Men and Women are Different. Now What?

I was browsing through the back catalogue of Language Log today (because I enjoyed their latest releases, so to speak), and I found an article from October 2010 describing a study that purported to provide evidence to the effect that women are more apologetic than men. The paper, by Karina Schumann and Michael Ross, was described in detail by Mark Liberman in his post so I won’t bother to reiterate what he said in too much depth. In a nutshell, the researchers had thirty-three female and thirty-three male participants complete daily online questionnaires related both to instances that occurred each day in which they were transgressors of apology-worthy acts and to instances in which they received apologies for others’ transgressions. They found that members of the female cohort reported being subject to more apology-worthy transgressions, receiving more apologies, committing more apology-worthy transgressions, and giving more apologies than the males. They suggest that this is because males have a higher threshold in determining which actions and behaviours are worthy of apology–in other words, it will take a more egregious transgression to prompt a male to apologize than it will for a female.

I don’t have any particular qualms with the study itself, and I’m inclined to believe that the study was conducted as carefully as Dr. Liberman says it was (he knows more about statistics than I do, after all); it appears that among the participants they selected, the females really did exhibit a lower threshold for apology-worthy actions than the males did. And it’s very possible that the authors’ speculations about the sources of this disparity, namely “that women might perceive more offenses because they are more focused on the experiences of other people and on maintaining harmony in their relationships,” or “that men have a higher threshold for both physical and social pain,” could be the case. My problem in particular has to do with why we find this kind of study interesting, and what we hope to do with the knowledge that we derive from it.

If we compare this study to a hypothetical study that includes blondes versus brunettes, or black people versus white people, or people from San Francisco versus people from New York, we might find that the San Franciscans, the black people, or the brunettes apologize more than their counterparts, and we could speculate that San Franciscans are more apologetic because they have a lower threshold for physical and social pain than New Yorkers, or because they are more focused on the experiences of others and on maintaining harmony in their relationships. But why, when we search the scientific literature for research dealing with differences between groups of people, do we find a paucity of articles comparing New Yorkers to San Franciscans or blondes to brunettes? What is it about men and women that makes people so motivated to systematically codify all the differences between them? I don’t know the answer to this question, but I imagine that it’s either a response to or an assertion in favour of the idea that men and women should be differentiated from one another. And a political will apparently exists to promote this type of differentiation–a research study comparing New Yorkers to San Franciscans would likely be rejected by NSERC or its American equivalent as frivolous, but a study comparing men to women is worth a few thousand tax dollars.

Liberman acknowledges that studies dealing with differences between groups generally have a bad track record in terms of their role in perpetuating harmful stereotypes.  He hints at this by noting at the end of his post that the study does not include information about within-group differences so that a comparison can be made with the across-group differences. This track record arises from a tendency for people to slide into generalizations about the group members. When looking at populations, statisticians can say that on average, this population is so-and-so, even while acknowledging that the individuals within the group are different  from one another. But when looking at results of a well-done and careful scientific study that talks about men and women as discrete groups, it’s still hard not to apply the results, which refer to an imaginary entity (the average or prototypical member), to all of the members as individuals. Schumann and Ross do this, to some extent, when they speculate about the causes for their findings. When Liberman suggests that it would be good for the papers to pick up this story because it’s not the usual stereotyping fluff, he overlooks the role of this article and others like it in producing a conception of gender that posits men and women as categories of people with more across-group differences than within-group differences, and this conception of gender is what makes gender stereotyping possible (just like it makes it possible to stereotype blondes or New Yorkers). Liberman helpfully indicates as much in another post of his that he links to as part of a warning against misinterpretation of generic plurals:

Most members of the general public don’t understand statistical-distribution talk, and instead tend to  interpret such statements as expressing general (and essential) properties of the groups involved. This is especially true when the statements express the conclusions of an apparently authoritative scientific study, rather than merely someone’s personal opinion, which is easy to discount.

His injunction against “the use of generic plurals to express statistical differences” was presumably intended for discussions of statistical differences in public arenas, because the article in question–which, remember, he would have liked to see picked up by the press–uses generic plurals with aplomb: “The diary data suggest,” the authors write, “that women offer more apologies than men do […].”

When I talk about “discrete groups,” I’m referring to the problems of clearly delineating who is a man and who is a woman. A hundred and fifty years ago scientific researchers had no problems differentiating between black people and white people, but nowadays we’re more aware of the fact that categories of race aren’t as clear-cut as they claimed they were (even at the genetic level). A lot of work has been done to show that the same is true with categories of gender and sex, but this work is hampered by actively malicious treatments of sex and gender differences (like what Liberman refers to as “gender-stereotyping fluff”) as well as by uncritical acceptance of gender as a set of two distinct categories (like the study in question). Both types of research make gender stereotyping possible, because they are both used for that purpose.  Clearly, this study, as much as it is exemplary in its execution, is still treading on the wrong side of the problem / solution divide.



This test recently appeared on the blog HTML Giant. According to Amy McDaniel, who published the test, the questions and answers came from a worksheet from one of David Foster Wallace’s classes. As tends to be the case with prescriptive dogmatists (“kibbitzers and nudniks,” in Stephen Pinker’s terms), many of the solutions are brutally ignorant of the way language actually works. I’ve included the proffered solutions in red following each question.


1. He and I hardly see one another.

He and I hardly see one each another.

“One another” is used for a noun that is three or more in number; “each other” is used for two.

2. I’d cringe at the naked vulnerability of his sentences left wandering around without periods and the ambiguity of his uncrossed “t”s.

I’d cringe at the naked vulnerability of his sentences left wandering around without periods and at the ambiguity of his uncrossed “t”s.

This is a parallelism problem. The subject cringed at two things; the intervening prepositions “of” and “without” cloud the meaning without the repeated “at.” Lots of people put a comma before and, but that is a nonstandard way to improve clarity.

3. My brother called to find out if I was over the flu yet.

My brother called to find out if whether I was over the flu yet.

If you can use whether, always do so. If implies conditionality. Whether or not is redundant.

4. I only spent six weeks in Napa.

I only spent only six weeks in Napa.

The adverb only modifies six, not spent. If it modified spent, the sentence would be implying that the subject didn’t, say, work or weep or dance six weeks in Napa–merely spent six weeks there. Clearly, not the author’s intention.

5. In my own mind, I can understand why its implications may be somewhat threatening.

In my own mind, I can understand why its implications may be somewhat threatening.

You can understand something only in your own mind.

6. From whence had his new faith come?

From wWhence had his new faith come?

Grossly redundant. Whence means from where.

7. Please spare me your arguments of why all religions are unfounded and contrived.

Please spare me your arguments of as to why all religions are unfounded and contrived.

Idiom error.

8. She didn’t seem to ever stop talking.

She didn’t seem ever to ever stop talking.

Don’t split infinitives if you can easily avoid it. Here you can easily avoid it without sacrificing meaning or elegance of expression.

9. As the relationship progressed, I found her facial tic more and more aggravating.

As the relationship progressed, I found her facial tic more and more aggravating irritating.

Aggravating was a special peeve of Wallace’s, since you could just as easily use irritating and thereby not, ahem, irritate readers who believe that aggravate should only mean to make worse. Again, his thing was that if you can use a synonym that doesn’t come with a fraught usage history, you should, because you never want readers to be distracted in that particular way.

10. The Book of Mormon gives an account of Christ’s ministry to the Nephites, which allegedly took place soon after Christ’s resurrection.

The Book of Mormon gives an account of Christ’s ministry to the Nephites, which allegedly took place soon after Christ’s his (or His) resurrection.

Simple rule, avoid needless repetition.

Let’s take these one at a time.

1. The rule that each other is to be used with two items and one another for three or more was well-developed in 1851, but can be traced as far back as 1785 to a work by George N. Ussher. In 1851, Goold Brown noticed that “misapplication” of the phrases was very common, and he expressed bewilderment that so many people were apt to misunderstand such a common phrase. The Merriam Webster Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU) suggests that his bewilderment was due to the fact that the rule governing the use of these two phrases has no actual basis in the use of the phrases by native English speakers: “The interchangeability of each other and one another had been established centuries before Ussher or somebody even earlier had thought up the rule.”

2. I agree with the recommended change, although I’d switch the two phrases around so that the shorter one comes first. This isn’t actually a parallelism problem – the two phrases are parallel, it’s just that the first one is so long that the reader is likely to forget the main verb by the time they get to the second phrase. Compare the sentence, “I’d cringe at the vulnerability of his sentences and the ambiguity of his uncrossed Ts.” No shortage of parallelism there.

3. Using if instead of whether to introduce a noun phrase was disparaged by a proper English chap named J. Johnson in 1762, who called it a “Scotticism.” Unfortunately for him, the usage he attacked was considered standard English by his better-known contemporary Samuel Johnson, the author of the landmark A Dictionary of the English Language [wiki]. The MWDEU notes that “if…is almost always used to introduce a noun clause that is the object of a verb such as doubt, see, ask, wonder, decide, and know,” to which I would add find out.

4. There’s no hard and fast rule for determining adverb placement. Some prescriptivists have railed against separating a verb from its auxiliary with an adverb, others have complained about adverbs that come between a verb and its object. The MWDEU says that, in determining adverb placement, “you will need to rely on your common sense and your ear for the language rather than on a rule.” According to my ear for the language, not only does Wallace’s proposed correction sound awkward, but the possibility of readers applying the adverb to the verb spent in the original is so minuscule as to be negligible.

5. It’s true that “in my own mind” is kind of a dumb way to start this sentence, but I’m guessing that this kind of introductory phrase would be used to emphasize the fact that the author’s understanding differs from some other relevant viewpoint. Instead of striking it out altogether, I might replace it with something like “from my experience” or something, depending on the context.

6. The MDWEU cites the conflict over from whence as a result of the disparity between the idiomatic use of whence and the Latin logic behind the word. Appealing to the Latin roots, it is clear that the word whence does already include the notion of from. However, that has never stopped hundreds of thousands of native English speakers, including writers who we canonize as exemplars of great writing such as Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin, Jonathan Swift, and Thomas Jefferson, from shamelessly using from whence in their work. Even Samuel Johnson, who observed the conflict over this phrase, was known to use it in his own writing from time to time. So although there is an argument that from whence might be redundant, based on its Latinate roots, any well-informed descriptivist must conclude, as the MWDEU does, that there is “no great fault in using it where it sounds right – and great writers have been using it where it sounded right all along.”

7. I agree with the correction wholeheartedly.

8. Split infinitives have been the darling of the prescriptivist world for at least a hundred years. Ambrose Bierce, back in 1909, suggested that all the attention paid to split infinitives has merely been a result of the construction being given a name:

Condemnation of the split infinitive is now pretty general, but it is only recently that any one seems to have thought of it. Our forefathers and we elder writers of this generation used it freely and without shame – perhaps because it had not a name, and our crime could not be pointed out without too much explanation.

Split infinitives have been used by native English speakers since at least the 14th century, and we could conceivably find examples much earlier if we had a reliable corpus that was big enough. According to the MWDEU, “the objection to the split infinitive has never had a rational basis.” They suggest that the objection stems from fear of the divergence of English from more elegant and high-class languages, such as Latin and Greek, that never split infinitives.  Due to the overwhelmingly commonality of the split infinitive among native English speakers, “the consensus in the 20th century…seems to be that awkward avoidance of the split infinitive has produced more bad writing than the use of it.”

9. The OED cites a sense of the adjective aggravating, meaning “exasperating, irritating, provoking,” that goes back to 1775. If Wallace has a problem with this usage, perhaps his best solution would be to procure a time machine.

10. I agree with this change, although I would add that in some cases this type of repetition is warranted. If the sentence in question was “Dave gave an account of Sam’s argument with Alan, which allegedly took place soon after his math exam,” the possessive pronoun his could refer to any of the three people in the main clause, and thus it would be preferable to change the word his to Sam’s to avoid confusion.

The methodology I used in this post – namely, taking a couple minutes to look things up in the OED or the MWDEU – was adapted from the work of the fine folks over at Language Log, and I would recommend that others take up this methodology as well next time they see someone making specious claims about the way language should be. After all, the MWDEU is available in full, for free, on Google Books.

A Plan for the Improvement of English Spelling

By Mark Twain

For example, in Year 1 that useless letter “c” would be dropped to be replased either by “k” or “s”, and likewise “x” would no longer be part of the alphabet. The only kase in which “c” would be retained would be the “ch” formation, which will be dealt with later. Year 2 might reform “w” spelling, so that “which” and “one” would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish “y” replasing it with “i” and Iear 4 might fiks the “g/j” anomali wonse and for all. Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with Iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and Iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants. Bai Iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez “c”, “y” and “x” — bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez — tu riplais “ch”, “sh”, and “th” rispektivli. Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.

(via 3 Quarks Daily)

Lexicographers take note

The CBC recently announced that they would reduce executive bonuses by 50% next year, to which the Canadian Media Guild members, who face massive layoffs and wage rollbacks in the coming year, replied, “The CBC execs get bonuses?!”

Bonus outrage is officially all the rage these days. Nonetheless, the whole blowup over the AIG bonus debacle–which set this ball rolling in the first place–has its roots in a simple semantic problem. Most people conceive of a bonus as something extra. Business executives conceive of bonuses as a natural extension of their salary, subject to the same contractual obligations and expectations.

When the team of executives hired to fix AIG with the help of $170 billion from the government agreed to work for a salary of $1, it gave the impression to the public that they were taking a huge hit for the good of the world’s financial system. In reality, as people found out a few days ago, they actually agreed to work for a salary of a dollar, plus a million dollar “bonus” at the end of the year, which was just as contractual an obligation as their salary was. The trouble is, when the people who naively conceive of a bonus as being something extra heard that these AIG execs were getting million dollar bonuses, they got outraged, because there was obviously no fiscal success on the part of the company that would justify the distribution of an extra million dollars to each executive at the end of the year.

Of course, the bonus wasn’t extra at all. The executives signed a contract that stipulated they would receive an effective salary of $1 ooo oo1. When Liddy got pressured by Congress to allow clawbacks of %90 of that amount, the execs saw it, rightly, as a clawback of %90 of their salary for that year.

Obviously, in hindsight, calling contractually obligated yearly payments to corporate executives “bonuses” is horribly misleading and disingenuous, especially coupled with the announcement that the AIG bailout team would work for $1 salaries. This was an obvious and flagrant attempt to mislead the public, and it has been ever since the concept of contractual bonuses became the norm in executive retention. Nonetheless, it would be nice if corporate execs just played it straight and called the bonuses “salary,” because at least then we would all be talking about the same thing during discussions of exorbitant executive pay rates.

Passive voice: not what he used to be

As a follow-up to this post, I thought I should point out that Mark Liberman at Language Log officially declared today the end of the passive voice as we know it:

[D]espite this long history, I’m afraid that the traditional sense of passive voice has died after a long illness […] Its ghost walks in the linguistics literature and in the usage of a few exceptionally old-fashioned intellectuals. For everyone else, what passive voice now means is “construction that is vague as to agency”.

And in case you were wondering, yes, the folks at Language Log have the authority to do that.

Well-educated people don’t know what passive voice is

For a long time those kooks over at Language Log have railed against people who think that writing in the passive voice simply means writing in a way that obscures the agency of the writer. In fact, the only thing passive voice has to do with is whether the subject of a sentence comes before the object or after it. I’ve made this handy diagram to illustrate the difference between active and passive voice:


That’s it. That’s all passive voice is.

I wanted to add an example from one of the books I was reading this week. Joey  Sprague, in her book Feminist Methodologies for Critical Researchers, writes that using “active rather than passive voice” is a good way to “call attention to the researcher as a person.” Of course, she’s right. But the example she gives, “‘I believe’ rather than ‘it seems,'” is wrong. A sentence beginning with “I believe” would indeed be in the active voice, but a sentence beginning with “it seems” would also be in the active voice, as in the example

……..subject                                        object
………..It          seems         that john ate the cookies.

where the object is a subordinate noun clause. If this sentence was made passive, it would be

……..*That john ate the cookies was seemed

The fact that people can make it through 12 years of postsecondary education without learning this distinction seems to reflect poorly on linguistics education in the North American school system, or something.

The Decline of Language

From McSweeney’s:

WTF Sestina.

– – – –

2punk4punk: do you like nirvana, omg
grndflr76: yeah, but they ripped off the pixies, lol
2punk4punk: i know, wtf
grndflr76: i have the subpop 7″ of ‘love buzz’, hahaha
2punk4punk: me too, stfu
grndflr76: yeah, from ebay, rofl

Bob WallHAX: I’m killin your doods, rofl
HALORuLEZ1337: U R just lucky, omg
Bob WallHAX: getting pwn3d, stfu
Bob WallHAX: you are teh suck, lol
Bob WallHAX: wtf

Lord Uber: you are LATE. where have you been, wtf
Sir Huzzah: with your mom, rofl
Lord Uber: oh, hahaha.
Lord Uber: do you think it’s funny to be late, omg
Sir Huzzah: yes lol
Lord Uber: well, you’re out of the guild so stfu

cowrieshell69: so then I said “no, you stfu”
cowrieshell69: and he was all like, “wtf!”
hardcandy98: you are so funny, lol
cowrieshell69: thanks babe, rofl
hardcandy98: hahaha omg
cowrieshell69: omg hahaha

Lord Uber: Dude, we have vanquished Ha’Xor the Elite! Hahaha!
Lady Mysterious: I’m not a ‘dude’, stfu.
Lord Uber: I didn’t mean that you were, omg.
Lady Mysterious: Women play games too, wtf!
Lord Uber: I am so sorry, will you marry me, rofl.
Lady Mysterious: sure! lol.

sexxymcsexxerton: oh hello there, a/s/l, lol
pussykat87: 18/f/not tellin u, hahaha
sexxymcsexxerton: u r so hot more pix pls, rofl
pussykat87: that is enuff, stfu
sexxymcsexxerton: c’mon please, wtf!
sexxymcsexxerton: wait. these pictures are of mandy moore … omg

2punk4punk: I can’t believe you like them, omg. They suck, lol
grdflr79: wtf, their early stuff is really good, hahaha
2punk4punk: stfu, they are a ripoff, rofl