More on Tweets and language

AP is running a fun story today about Twitter in Japan, which taught me that the verb Tweet (which I’ve written about here) is translated as mumble in Japanese. Here’s the quote of the day:

“It’s telling that Twitter was translated as ‘mumbling’ in Japanese,” he [a Japanese media analyst] said. “They love the idea of talking to themselves.”

That’s not a trend I’ve ever noticed when teaching Japanese students — any truth in it? It is striking that mumbling is a private act, so even if users are not exactly talking to themselves, they are at least talking quietly and unobtrusively. Compare that to the English “tweet” and “twittering,” which suggests to me a rather louder, more irritating sound.

The report goes on:

Ending Japanese sentences with “nah-woo” — an adaptation of “now” in English — is hip, showing off the speaker’s versatility in pseudo-English Twitter-speak.

(Here‘s a detailed blog posting about this neologism.) It’s not surprising to me that technology has caused new words to come into Japanese, or any language, but I’m curious that the Japanese have calqued (to use the technical word) an English adverb, rather than a noun or verb. For example, German borrowed der Computer, and even French has l’Internet (attempts to translate the word literally using webs and nets never caught on). So, I would have expected the word Twitter (or even Tweet) to crop up — although wouldn’t those words both be very hard to fit into Japanese phonology? And doesn’t Japanese already have a word that expresses the English now? Does its (apparently) word-final restriction mean anything?

Japanese linguists, please help out!

World Cup language

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=world+cup+england+us&iid=9097887″ src=”″ width=”234″ height=”167″ /]The soccer (US)/football (UK) World Cup may be a great sporting event (I stress may …), but it is an even greater opportunity for linguists, especially since England played the U.S. yesterday. Quite apart from the fact that the two teams have different names for the game itself and almost everything to do with it (field vs pitch, match vs game, and I believe the vocabulary for the players’ positions varies, too), I found two charming language notes to share.

My local paper carried this headline on the sports page today:

Americans win 1-1 draw vs. England

I presume the reporter expected England to win (yes, well …), so for the American team to force a draw (or tie in American English?) is a success for them. Interestingly, this suggests that win is not necessarily in a binary relationship with lose (or even a mutually exclusive relationship with lose and draw/tie). That is, winning is not the same as not losing or not tying. [Compare lend/borrow as a true pair of binary verbs.] This reminds me of the (American) football game last year when the Eagles’ quarterback, Donovan McNabb, claimed that he “never knew” that a tie was possible in a regular season game, making the result seem like another loss to the long-suffering fans of Philadelphia like myself.

[picapp align=”right” wrap=”true” link=”term=soccer+red+card&iid=9105348″ src=”″ width=”127″ height=”185″ /]But back to the football that is mostly played with the foot. Using bad language (i.e. swearing/cursing) is punished quite strictly during the World Cup, but only if the referee hears and understands it. Since referees have to be from neutral countries, no English or American refs could officiate Saturday’s game. An amusing piece from AP noted that:

referees can’t give out cards [i.e. warnings and expulsions] for what they think was said, and FIFA requires World Cup referees and assistants to be proficient only in English.

Which means that you might get away with swearing as long as you avoid English and the ref’s first language! I presume the English team was studying useful expressions in Chinese before the game …

“than I” or “than me”?

I was just reading through one of the textbooks that we use here at the University of Delaware English Language InstituteBetty Azar‘s mega-best-seller, Understanding and Using English Grammar — when I saw this footnote:

In formal English, a subject pronoun follows than: He’s older than I (am). In everyday informal English, an object pronoun is frequently used after than: He’s older than me.

This made me suspicious for two reasons: “formal” and “everyday informal” English are very vague categories that I don’t find useful; and it seems unlikely to me that this advice holds up in practice.

In fact, it doesn’t. Presumably, by “formal” Azar means academic writing, so I ran a search of the academic section of the Corpus of Contemporary American English. Here’s what I found:

  • than I (28)     than me (37)
  • than he (40)  than him (5)
  • than she (20) than her (5)

(I tried to catch only instances of than I/he/she not followed by a verb — so I don’t include “than I am/say/know/believe/etc.) because the object pronoun is impossible here.)

We can see that:

Step Up to the TOEFL, Basic Level, is out now!

My latest textbook, Step Up to the TOEFL for Students at the Basic Level, has just been released by the University of Michigan Press. You can find details of both the basic and intermediate level books here. It even has a companion website, and you can take a peek at Unit 1 and the introduction!

This book is aimed at elementary to low-intermediate level students who would like to start preparing for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). However, instead of teaching to the test (types of questions, how to make the best guesses, what to write in the essay, etc.), my books teach the vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation skills needed for the test … and many other situations. This book is structured around vocabulary (the greatest need at this level); the higher level book started with grammar.

I’d love to hear your feedback about the book, and we always welcome suggestions! Just leave me a comment, or contact me directly.

Continue reading “Step Up to the TOEFL, Basic Level, is out now!”

Paraphrasing cartoon

We are now settling in to our new home in Wilmington, Delaware, and they sent us a free copy of the News Journal last week to encourage us to subscribe. One of the cartoons — Tina’s Groove — was surprisingly relevant.

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=dictionary&iid=1643938″ src=”3/2/3/7/Miami_Schools_Teach_b363.jpg?adImageId=12975402&imageId=1643938″ width=”234″ height=”156″ /] A mother is saying to her daughter: “If you want to get a more comprehensive meaning of the word ‘plagiarism,’ look it up in this dictionary … and then look it up in this dictionary published two years later … almost word for word!”

This raises some interesting questions, which I can’t fully answer:

  1. Do lexicographers (dictionary writers/editors) ever get accused of plagiarism?
  2. How close can a definition be to one in another dictionary before it’s considered plagiarism?
  3. Are there examples of the phenomenon that Tina describes? — that is, identical (word for word) definitions in competing dictionaries?
  4. In other academic disciplines, can you be accused of plagiarizing the definition of a common term, or does this fall under the category of common knowledge? (A graduate student in Nursing at UNC once told me that there aren’t many ways to define osteoarthritis!)

I address some of these questions in my online videos on paraphrasing and plagiarism, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on these problems!

Videos on paraphrasing and avoiding plagiarism

My last major task before leaving UNC-Chapel Hill was to finish a series of video presentations on paraphrasing and plagiarism that I’ve been promising to make for months! They are finished, and you can watch them here.

I had already done a video on this topic last year, but after hearing some great sessions at TESOL in March, I wanted to revisit this important area for academic writers. In particular, the second-language writing interest section’s colloquium on plagiarism (handouts here) stressed the importance of teaching learners good use of sources and not just threatening them with the consequences of plagiarism.

So, that’s what I’ve tried to do in the video presentations. I start by discussing how to use sources — or rather, I give writers questions to ask about sources in their field — and then go on to show the language tricks and techniques that make for acceptable paraphrases and summaries. The series is written for ESL graduate students, but others might find it useful, too.

Please let me know what you think by leaving a comment!

Googling and Bing…ing?

A quick follow-up on my post about  [T/t]weeting, and [X/x]eroxing:

A contemporary example of the verbing of trademarks is Google — so far, at least, when people talk about “googling” something, they seem to mean “searching using Google.” Of course, as with Xerox, there’s always the chance that the verb will become generic so that it would make sense to google someone on Yahoo or Bing (the lawyers in the Googleplex are very aware of this potential problem).

And talking of Bing, Microsoft’s newish search engine, I was reminded this evening of a curious marketing technique that MS is using. Their TV ad ends with this slogan:

Bing  and decide.

(I also found it on their promotional website, shown on the left, but with Decide capitalized.) Since decide is obviously an imperative verb here, by parallelism, so is Bing. (Have you heard anyone saying “Oh, I’ll just Bing it” yet?) Is this an attempt to compete with Google on grammatical grounds? Or is Microsoft playing with linguistic fire? Remember how hard Xerox is trying to kill the verb to xerox and the noun a xerox?

Precedent suggests that attempts to manipulate the spread of language forms in a “top-down” fashion (i.e. governments/corporations telling us what we should or should not say) are unlikely to work, certainly not in English, and certainly not on the Internet. The Associated Press can try to mandate how journalists use language, and the style guides such as the Chicago Manual are influential in publishing and academia, but these are not the places where linguistic innovation occurs. Continue reading “Googling and Bing…ing?”

Twits, Tweets, and Twitter

Today’s Daily Tar Heel, UNC’s rather good student newspaper, ran an interesting article on athletes who post messages on Twitter, the social network for people who have very short things to say.

“When Ed [Davis, UNC men’s basketball star] Tweets at 2:30, there’s more conversation about why Ed Davis is Tweeting at 2:30 in the morning when he’s got a game the next day than what he actually says,” [Associate Athletic Director Steve] Kirschner said.

I have to admit that I’m less interested in Mr Davis’s late-night pearls of wisdom than I am in the capitalization of “Tweets”, “Tweeting” and “Tweet” (the simple present, present participle, and noun forms, respectively). Clearly, the name of the website (Twitter) needs a capital since it is a proper noun — although the official logo is all in lower case. But seeing this extended to the derived verbs and nouns surprises me. In fact, even though the DTH editors have correctly applied the rules of the Associated Press style guide, Twitter’s own website doesn’t!

Indeed, a majority of Twitter’s use comes through third-party applications that lets users tweet and read tweets wherever they choose.

They would be well advised to update their page, though. The precedent is that once a word starts being “verbed” and drops its capital letter, it risks losing its protected trademark and its unique association with a particular brand. The classic example is the verb “xerox” (meaning to photocopy) — you can xerox your handout on a Canon photocopier, although the Xerox company would prefer you not to.

The Xerox trademark should always be used as a proper adjective followed by the generic name of the product: e.g., Xerox printer. The Xerox trademark should never be used as a verb.

So, Twitter is safe, at least in US newspapers, but there remains the question: why is called Tweeting? Especially when there’s a perfectly good verb “to twitter”? Twitter — the verb — of course suggests irrelevant, uninteresting babbling (hmm … sounds about right). But tweeting is what birds do.

One of the postdocs in my writing group, Aleck, brought up a wonderful alternative: the archaic verb to twit (not to be confused with the noun twit, which is a mild British insult), defined in the OED as “To tell tales; to blab.” That is, to gossip.

Ah, now that seems much closer to reality. And no, I neither Tweet nor twit. At least not in public.

Authors and authorship (and citation and plagiarism) in medical writing

The current issue of The Write Stuff (available as open access here) — the journal of the European Medical Writers Association — is all about the complex writing process for medical journals. A sample from the table of contents:

  • A contribution to the authorship debate: Can we trust definitions and declarations?
  • Authorship ethics in Asian cultures
  • Whose citations are they?

Add that to the summer reading list (below)!

Thanks to Mary Ellen Kearens on the TESOL Second-Language Writing IS listserv for this reference.

Summer Reading

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=banned+books&iid=3111873″ src=”b/4/1/1/Coo_c082.jpg?adImageId=12600765&imageId=3111873″ width=”234″ height=”161″ /]The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom has just released it’s top 10 list of the most “challenged” books of 2009.

“Challenged” is the charming euphemism that the ALA uses for books that are basically censored from schools and libraries in the U.S.:

A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others. (source)

Since I usually find that challenged books are well-written, thought-provoking, relevant, and engaging, I like to read as many of them as possible as my own challenge to this form of censorship.

On this year’s list are some perennial favorites (Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which everyone should read at least once; Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War, which is gritty, disturbing, and brilliant; Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, an important American classic; Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, still one of the great coming-of-age novels, if a little dated now) and some recent books I don’t know (“The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things,” by Carolyn Mackler has to be good with a title like that).

I’m all in favor of age-appropriate literature, but I dispute anyone’s right to tell me what is or is not age appropriate. And if you really can’t stand a book, for goodness’ sake, just put it down and let someone else try it! My two-year-old has already developed a great strategy for dealing with books that are too old for him: he stops paying attention.