It must be nearly Father’s Day….

… because the blog post I wrote three years ago is once more showing up in Google searches! Just to add: no, there’s still no definitive answer, but then again, I’m a descriptivist not a prescriptivist, so I’m more interested in knowing what language users actually write* rather than what they should write. That said, according to one comment on the blog a few months ago, “The New Oxford Style Manual says that it is Father’s Day (capital letter, apostrophe before the s).” So there you have it.

One assumption I have been making, though, is that everyone has one father — but with the rapid expansion of marriage equality laws in the States in the last year, we might want to make a logical exception for children with two dads. Fathers’ Day would make perfect sense in that context, I suppose.

* It strikes me that this is one of very few linguistic distinctions, along with capitalization, that is not possible in speech. Unless, of course, you are the incomparable Victor Borge.

Happy Father’s Day for Sunday, dear readers.

Bizarre searches

One of the advantages of using WordPress for this blog is the detailed stats page, which shows me how many people read the blog and how you get here. Many hits come from searches on Google and other search engines, but I suspect some surfers have got a bit lost. Here are some of my favorite searches, with annotations, of course:

  • essay my former instructor  (I hope it wasn’t me)
  • nigel pronunciation (that’s “ni” as in night, and “gel” and “angel”, with the stress on the first syllable, please)
  • pronunciation of neigel (fail)
  • just alive
  • alive oder living englisch (ja!)
  • english grammar+day off
  • cursing at a teacher (one of my students?)
  • teacher should avoid boring classes (ditto)
  • a sorry to your teacher – essay (you get the picture)
  • foreign film where teacher has to discipline two children, swearing
  • i need an essay now
  • i need a 5 paragraph essay now
  • write an essay role of teacher to print
  • five paragraph essay teacher (definitely shouldn’t like to my site!)
  • daddy speak teacher
  • funny passive verbs (rotfl)
  • 5 paragraph essay content (contradiction in terms)
  • the meaning of caught in the heavy rain

Of course, writing this post pretty much guarantees more of these hits in the future. So, for those of you look to plagiarize a five-paragraph essay about the qualities of English teachers, or if you want information on foreign movies about foul-mouthed child-abusers, or if you’re wondering whether English is a dead language, or if you just need a weather report … feel free to keep clicking.

Happy searching.

The Google corpus

A story on NPR this afternoon made the incredibly slow drive home from Newark in the snow a little more bearable: “Google Books Tracks Cultural Change with Words.” As part of the Google Books project to take over the world … sorry, digitize all books ever written, Google has released an “n-gram viewer“. This is basically a way to search Google’s book collection as a corpus and track trends over time. Both the report and the website are very interesting — although I was amused to note that none of the experts quoted is a linguist (no-one at NPR thought linguists might have something to contribute to a story about, err, words).

So, I thought I’d run a parenting question through the site: apparently my toddler has magically turned into a preschooler (and not a pre-schooler) since he turned 3 last month. I’m not quite sure how that happened, since he definitely still toddles, and he has been and will continue to be pre-school for some time.

According to this graph, toddler has been around since at least the early 20th century, although its use took off in the 70s. Preschooler only emerged at that time, and its use appears to be waning. Of course, this corpus only contains books, which represent a very limited subset of language use. A very cursory glance at the sample concordance lines confirms my suspicion that preschooler is a much-loved term for parenting books — after all, if you’ve already bought the book on pregnancy, the book on newborns, and the book on toddlers, you’re clearly going to be in the market for a book about the next stage … oh, let’s call ’em preschoolers.

At least I have a new way to while away those long snowy evenings during winter break in Delaware.

(And if you too are the parent of a preschool toddling infant baby, check out Barefoot Books — as sold by the other parent of said three year old.)

Happy Father’s Day. Or Fathers’ Day?

Update: Six years after posting, this remains the most popular entry on my blog, largely because once a year it starts to get hundreds of hits for about 3 days! I’m refreshing the content this year and removing some dubious Google search data (June 2016).  Also refreshed June 2019 with new corpus searches.

My then two-year-old son gave me this great father’s day card in 2010 (I think mummy helped …), but the wording on the front got me wondering about a small grammar point: is it Father’s Day or Fathers’ Day? (That is, the day for daddy, or for all fathers?)

Pronunciation doesn’t help (the apostrophe is seen by very rarely heard) and even using quotation marks on Google doesn’t distinguish between the two positions of the apostrophe.

So, I went to the source of it all: Hallmark, the greetings card company that has become an eponym for named days (Hallmark holidays). And sure enough, their standard phrasing is Father’s Day, which hasn’t changed since 2010 when I first looked.

But on the other side, there’s a Robin Williams movie from 1997 called Fathers’ Day.

A quick search reveals a lot of advice about the position of the apostrophe in this phrase — apostrophes are a common source of obsession for grammar pedants. Here’s the note from a fairly reliable site:

A number of American Holidays have possessive forms, and are peculiarly inconsistent. “Mother’s Day” and “Father’s Day” are easy enough, one parent at a time, and “Parents’ Day” is nicely pluralized, as is “Presidents’ Day” which celebrates the birthdays of both Washington and Lincoln. “All Souls’ Day (Halloween),” of course, takes a plural possessive. “Veterans Day” is plural but not possessive, for historical reasons shrouded in mystery. Martin Luther King Jr. Day has no possessive. “New Year’s Day,” “St. Valentine’s Day,” St. Patrick’s Day,” and “April Fool’s Day” all have their singular possessive form, and so, while we’re at it, does “Season’s Greetings.” Note that “Daylight Saving Time” is neither possessive nor plural.

Corpus searches appear to confirm this advice: both the Corpus on Contemporary American English and the massive iWeb corpus return very few results for fathers’ day. So, it’s Father’s Day, right?

I’m not sure it is this simple, though. In French, today is la fête des pères (Fathers’ Day), presumably because while a person may have only one father, it is all dads who are being fêted today.

Plus, more importantly, the assumption of “one parent at a time” falls somewhere between outdated and discriminatory: with divorce and remarriage widespread (thus, the day of dads and stepdads), marriage equality the law of several lands (thus, the day of two to four dads), and growing sensitivity to gender fluidity (thus, transparent dad), I now feel that the most inclusive solution is to take out a marker and a bottle of Wite-Out (Tippex for fellow Brits) and change Father’s to Fathers’ Day. Of course, if your father is not a grammar teacher, you can probably skip the apostrophe altogether, a luxury my own kids don’t have.

So, however you write it, happy holiday to my dad and all dads out there!

(And if you read this far, a shameless plug that the second edition of my book Grammar Choices for Graduate and Professional Writers includes a new section with everything you ever wanted to know about apostrophes in academic writing.)

World Cup language

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=world+cup+england+us&iid=9097887″ src=”http://view1.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/9097887/south-africa-rustenberg/south-africa-rustenberg.jpg?size=500&imageId=9097887″ 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=”http://view.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/9105348/referee-marco-rodriguez/referee-marco-rodriguez.jpg?size=500&imageId=9105348″ 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 …

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.

A volcano in Iceland called …

Ekya ... Eyja ... That volcano in Iceland

If you were curious about the name of  the volcano in Iceland that’s causing airline chaos, you probably won’t hear it on many newscasts, for the good reason that it’s quite a tongue-twister:

Eyjafjallajökull

And you thought English was hard to pronounce? Fortunately, the world’s linguists are on hand to explain how to say it (John Wells on his blog, and Mark Liberman on Language Log, and here again). The BBC’s famed pronunciation unit — of course — has its own advice. NPR in the US has largely given up (with the exception of the intrepid Joe Palca), but offers these renditions.

At least it gives you something to do while you’re stuck at Heathrow

It’s Paddy not Patty!

March 17 is St. Patrick’s Day, commemorating the patron saint of Ireland. So, I was rather disappointed to receive this email today from CVS:

The “nickname” for Patrick is Paddy not Patty (St. Patricia?)!

The confusion is uniquely American, and I believe it stems from a pronunciation feature of American English. The “d”s in Paddy are pronounced with a “flap” sound (not a full /d/ as in British and Irish Englishes), which sounds very much like a /t/ — compare “ladder” and “latter”: they sound almost the same in American English. So, it’s not surprising that Paddy might be heard and subsequently misspelled as Patty.

But to turn St. Patrick into a beefburger just doesn’t seem right.