Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Without a doubt

A student (a native speaker of German) used the expression "without doubts" to start a sentence. That sounds wrong to me; I would prefer "without a doubt". But instead of just marking it as wrong, I did a quick bit of research.

I searched the NOW Corpus at the Brigham Young University site with linguistic corpora. The NOW Corpus contains 3.3. billion words of data from web-based newspapers and magazines from 2010 to the present. And by the present, they mean the present: it's updated with 4-5 million new words every day.

There were 27 hits for "without doubts" and 7752 hits for "without a doubt." So I can correct the student's usage in good conscience.

And that is how a usage point can be resolved: check actual usage using a linguistic corpus like the NOW Corpus (or any of the other corpora at the BYU site).

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

"Riddle", by Ian Duhig


Who I am’s child’s play,
a cry in a kindergarten;
though I pun on Latin,
my Yorkshire kin’s laik,

a whole lexical rainbow
unweaving in no code,
no masonic Mahabone

but I’m caltrops at night
to the bare feet of adults
inspiring their language
to such colours as I am,

Kulla, Mondrian plastic
pixellating Mies blocks;
in each cubist bust;

the Song of Amergin
name me or you’ll be
thicker than any brick.


"Riddle" begins and ends with the figure mentioned in its third line: the pun. In the first line, "child's play" is an idiom for "very easy", but the literal "play of a child" is also present. The final line varies the idiom "thick as a brick", meaning "very stupid", but also puns on "brick", as the answer to the riddle involves "bricks."
            As a student pointed out yesterday, "Riddle" ends by insulting readers who have not figured out its answer: if you can't "name me", you're stupid. This is a common understanding of poems: they are all riddles waiting to be answered. From this perspective, the poem ends with the idea of poems as puzzles rewarding those clever enough to "solve" them and punishing those who are not.
            Yet the poem's opening pun offers an alternative way of thinking about poems. If the poem is "child's play", it is easy, and the way to make reading a poem easy is precisely to play with it. A riddle is itself a kind of game, and this poem makes poetry in general a game as well, a game played with words, a game that plays on words, a game of word play, of "cries" and "puns", of "lexical rainbows", of "colourful language", of "songs" (and not, as the second stanza makes clear, a "code" to be deciphered). Ultimately, "Riddle" encourages readers of poetry to let go of the idea of poetry as a set of "riddles" to be solved.