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June 22, 2006

Language Log — Home of the Snowclone


What's a snowclone?

It's the basic building block of clichés, for example, "X is the new Y."

I learned this and more from Michael Erard's article in this past Tuesday's New York Times Science section about Language Log, a blog "that provides up-to-the-minute linguistic commentary."

Here's the Times piece.

    Analyzing Eggcorns and Snowclones, and Challenging Strunk and White

    Serious linguistic scholars don't usually write about talking dogs and street signs — not for publication, anyway. But that is what they do on Language Log, a funny, wide-ranging blog that provides up-to-the-minute linguistic commentary written for a wider audience.

    Now three years old, Language Log, at itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog, attracts 5,000 daily visitors and is now partly captured in a book, "Far from the Madding Gerund" (William, James & Co.), which reprints some posts by Language Log's founders, Mark Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, and Geoff Pullum, a linguist at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

    On Language Log, Professors Liberman and Pullum and a dozen or so other writers discuss typing monkeys, trained parrots and Google searches, as well as prepositional phrases, negation and language change. On any given day a reader might find a quippy analysis of an unusual word in the news, a rant about the grammar police who do not appear to know grammar or commentary about broader language issues.

    Regular readers learned there first about snowclones, the basic building blocks of clichés, like "X is the new Y" or "you don't need a degree in A to do B."

    Language Log is also the definitive source for eggcorns, a type of slip of the ear in which people mishear a word and mispronounce it, then insist that the malapropism is correct. Examples are "cut to the cheese" for "cut to the chase," or "preying mantis" for "praying mantis."

    "Eggcorn" is itself an eggcorn of "acorn," which a person might defend saying that it is a seed of an oak (hence cornlike) and shaped like an egg. (A spinoff site devoted to eggcorns is at eggcorns.lascribe.net.)

    Some of the funniest posts on Language Log are those directed at linguists' natural foes: grammarians. The conflict arises because linguists champion scientific description of language while the grammar police want to save civilization from decline. Professors Liberman and Pullum put points on the linguists' side by coming down hard on rules that ignore linguistic facts.

    For instance, the International Trademark Association has a rule against using a trademark as a noun. "It is raving, wild-eyed lunacy to say that no trademarks are correctly used as nouns," Professor Pullum writes. For one thing, that rule would eliminate slogans like "I could have had a V8," in which V8 is a noun.

    They also lay into "The Elements of Style," by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, who instructed writers, "Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs."

    "Look, you don't get good at writing by deleting adjectives," Professor Pullum snaps. "Writing is difficult and demanding; you can learn to get moderately good at it through decades of practice writing millions of words and critiquing what you've written or having others critique it. About 6 percent of those words will be adjectives, whether you write novels or news stories."

    The blog began more as a time-saver than an effort to pique public interest in linguistics, Professor Liberman said. He realized he was spending an hour or two a day composing e-mail messages to friends that engaged ideas and invited responses.

    Even though a deep strain of subversive humor runs through their field, linguists have an undeserved image as finger-wagging eggheads. Yet they have had trouble communicating what is so compelling about thinking about language structures in a scientific way. One result is plummeting undergraduate enrollments. "It seems to me that the pendulum has swung as far as it can go," Professor Liberman said, noting anecdotal evidence that more college students are studying linguistics.

    Blogging has put him in touch with an audience he never imagined existed, including a walking-tour guide, a horse farm owner, a high-energy physicist and a rock musician, all regular e-mail correspondents. "There is a group of very smart and very well-read people out there who like to read about language and who can put together arguments based on evidence from sources and background knowledge which is not made up or nuts," he said. "It's a big world out there."

June 22, 2006 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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