Monday, December 14, 2015

Melissa Lee-Houghton's "Beautiful Girls": A sixth excellent Christmas present

Here's a sixth Christmas book suggestion: Melissa Lee-Houghton's Beautiful Girls (Penned in the Margins, 2013).
I first read this book at a time when I was not reading much poetry (the only time in my adult life that that was the case), and it re-invigorated my reading of poetry, and I read it multiple times.

(If I humbly mention that there's also my book of poems, I hasten to add that when I "listen" to Melissa Lee-Houghton, I am in the state that I imagine Thomas Hardy could have been with respect to Louis Armstrong – the state of sheer astonishment.)

Monday, December 07, 2015

John Agard's "Alternative Anthem": a fifth excellent Christmas present

Here's a fifth Christmas book suggestion: John Agard's Alternative Anthem, his 2009 volume of selected poems.
Of if you want a collection rather than a selection of Agard's poems, I also recently read his wonderful sequence Clever Backbone, which spins out variations on the evolution of Homo sapiens going back to the African savannah several million years ago. It's 60 14-line poems that are sometimes very close to being sonnets and sometimes a bit farther.

Or if you prefer a more recent collection, there's Travel Light, Travel Dark from 2013, another excellent collection of Agard's brilliant poetry.
(And of course this wouldn't be one of my recommendations if I didn't mention that there's also my book of poems.)

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Patience Agbabi's "Telling Tales": A fourth excellent Christmas present

Here's a fourth Christmas book suggestion: Patience Agbabi's Telling Tales, her rewriting of The Canterbury Tales for contemporary Britain, which she published with Canongate Books in 2014. Each revision of one of Chaucer's tales is written in its own form and in the voice of a different fictional poet. It's a wide-ranging and highly entertaining book.
(And of course there's also my book of poems.)

Call for Papers: The Beautiful Game: The Poetics and Aesthetics of Soccer in Transnational Perspective

The Beautiful Game: The Poetics and Aesthetics of Soccer in Transnational Perspective
University of Basel
June 30-July 2, 2016

Confirmed Speakers:
Simon Critchley (New School for Social Research)
Eva Lavric (University of Innsbruck)
Emily Ryall (University of Gloucestershire)

This conference, scheduled to take place during the 2016 European Championship and hosted by the University of Basel’s Department of English, takes up soccer with a special focus on its poetics and aesthetics. The conference particularly seeks to scrutinize the poetics and aesthetics of the game in light of comparative as well as transnational, transcontinental, and global perspectives. In doing so, it aims to shed light on the poetics and aesthetics of all aspects of soccer, from the actual game to fan chants and choreographies, from representations in the arts to the aesthetics of media coverage, from the poetics of live commentary to institutional image cultivation (MLS, FIFA, UEFA, etc.), from aspects of design (jerseys, balls) to recent developments in stadium architecture. Given this range and diversity of the forms in which the poetics and aesthetics of soccer manifest themselves, the conference by necessity is interdisciplinary in nature, with possible contributions coming from fields such as literary and cultural studies, philosophy, linguistics, visual studies and the arts, design, and architecture to name but a few.

Possible topics include but are not limited to:
• the poetics and aesthetics of the game
• “skill,” “creativity,” “intuition,” and “style” in soccer
• soccer and the notions of the beautiful and the sublime
• fan chants
• fan choreographies
• Ultra aesthetics
• the aesthetics (and politics) of institutional image cultivation via the staging of events such as opening ceremonies, fixture draws, player award ceremonies, etc.
• languages of/in soccer
• the poetics and rhetoric of soccer live commentary
• the poetics, rhetoric, and aesthetics of soccer media coverage
• representations of soccer in the arts (including literature and film)
• the aesthetics of stadium architecture
• design in soccer: jerseys, balls, gear, club emblems, etc.

In addition to academic talks, the conference will also include an art event, exhibiting some of the original art that is the basis for tschuttiheftli’s sticker collection they create for every World Cup and European Championship (

Please send your 300-word abstracts and 100-word bios to:

The deadline for submissions is December 14, 2015. The conference organizers plan to publish a collection of essays based on selected contributions to the conference.

Conference Organizers:
Dr. phil. des. Ridvan Askin and Dr. Catherine Diederich, Department of English, University of Basel, Nadelberg 6, CH-4051 Basel

Friday, November 27, 2015

C. Dale Young's "Torn": A third excellent Christmas present

Here's a third Christmas book suggestion: C. Dale Young's Torn, his third collection of poems, which he published with Four Way Books in 2011. I also recommend his first two books (The Day underneath the Day and The Second Person), but Torn (as many of my friends know) is my favorite collection of poetry from this century.
And for those who want to read a book that will be just as extraordinary, C. Dale Young's new collection The Halo will be published by Four Way on 1 March, 2016, and you can preorder it now.
(And of course there's also my book of poems. Yes, this is the third time I have repeated this point!)

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Major Jackson's "Roll Deep": Another excellent Christmas present

Here's another Christmas book suggestion: Major Jackson's Roll Deep, his fourth collection of poems, which he published this year. I also recommend all three of his other books (Leaving Saturn, Hoops, and Holding Company), with Hoops perhaps being my favorite of those three.

(And of course there's also my book of poems. I hope you'll forgive me for repeating this point!)

Monday, November 23, 2015

Claudia Rankine's "Citizen": An excellent Christmas present

If you want to buy a good book for someone this year for Christmas, how about Claudia Rankine's "Citizen: An American Lyric"? I especially recommend it for anyone who has read Ta-Nehisi Coates's "Between the World and Me" (which is another great book to give someone for Christmas).

(And of course there's also my book of poems.)

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Coates is the Coates of ...

Ta-Nehisi Coates, from Between the World and Me (43, but here copied from the excerpt from the book in the Atlantic):
Serious history was the West, and the West was white. This was all distilled for me in a quote I once read, from the novelist Saul Bellow. I can’t remember where I read it, or when—only that I was already at Howard. “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?,” Bellow quipped. Tolstoy was “white,” I understood him to say, and so Tolstoy “mattered,” like everything else that was white “mattered.”
And again, from later in the book (56, again copied from the Atlantic excerpt):
It must have been around that time that I discovered an essay by Ralph Wiley in which he responded to Bellow’s quip. “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus,” wrote Wiley. “Unless you find a profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership.” And there it was. I had accepted Bellow’s premise.
And here's the beginning of an article by Felice Léon from The Daily Beast, "Ta-Nehisi Coates on Why Whites Like His Writing":
 “Why do you think that so many white people love what you write?” asked the award-winning New York Times Magazine journalist, Nikole Hannah-Jones, during a sold-out discussion at The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
Here are some passages from the article where Coates's response is quoted:
“I don’t know why white people read what I write,” Coates said. “I didn’t set out to accumulate a mass of white fans.”
“I felt like many of the people that I was reading in the ’90s, when I was in college, were very much burdened by the need to explain to white people,” he said. “And that has an effect on your language.”
“The history is what the history is. And it is disrespectful, to white people, to soften the history.”
“I’ve never seen white people embrace the idea of a black man talking about a world in which they are not at the center of the narrative (for better or worse).”
“Who knows what the mentality is behind that [white people purchasing his book],” he said. “You’ll have to ask some white people, but from my perspective I try to give them [white people] the respect that they deserve, as readers.”
My eipgrammatic response to why I read Coates, then, is this: Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus, and Coates is the Coates of whites. 

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Superfluities, by Major Jackson

I read this poem in Major Jackson's Holding Company this morning, and I went to find it online to share with friends. I found it, but I also noticed that the version that is online has one more phrase than the version in the book, and as the phrase that is only in the book is one that I had stopped to ponder ("ecstasy of fumbling", which comes from Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est"), I wanted to get the book version online. So here it is:


by Major Jackson

This downpour of bad reasoning, this age-old swarm,
this buzzing about town, this kick and stomp
through gardens, this snag on the way to the mall,
this heap and toss of fabric and strewn shoes, this tangled
beauty, this I came here not knowing, here
to be torched, this fumbling ecstasy, this ecstasy of fumbling,
this spray of lips and fingers, this scrape of bone, this raid
of private grounds, this heaving and rocking, this scream
and push, this sightless hunger, this tattered perishing,
this rhythmic teeth knocking, this unbearable
music, this motionless grip, grimace, and groan.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Tag der Poesie, Basel, 12 September 2015

The Tag der Poesie in Basel was revived in 2012 by Alisha Stöcklin and has taken place in September every year since then. The 2015 "day of poetry" with the theme of "Stillstand und Bewegung" ("stillness and motion") takes place on 12 September at Münsterplatz in Basel, featuring over 20 performances of poetry and music, in German as well as in English and Italian. The two readings in English will be at 1 pm (Cecilia Woloch reading from her latest collection, "Earth") and 1:30 pm (Andrew Shields launching his collection "Thomas Hardy Listens To Louis Armstrong").

For complete information (in German) on all the readings and events, check the Tag der Poesie home page.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Negation or not in a subordinate clause

My wife (a native speaker of German) tells my daughter: "I'm not going to let you go before you haven't practiced [piano]." I noticed the negation in German in such a subordinate clause a few years ago, but today I decided to not just notice the negation in the English but to think about it for a moment.

Consider the following sentences in which I have put the preposition in bold and underlined the verb in the subordinate clause:
  1. *I'm not going to let you go before you haven't practiced.
  2.  I'm not going to let you go before you have practiced.
  3. *I'm not going to let you go until you haven't practiced.
  4. I'm not going to let you go until you have practiced.
  5. I'm not going to let you go if you haven't practiced.
  6. *I'm not going to let you go if you have practiced.
With "before" and "until", the verb in the subordinate clause should not be negated, but with "if", the verb in the subordinate clause should be negated.

For a moment, I thought it might have something to do with the "let" construction, but the main clause could be the much simpler "you can't go" instead, so it's not that.

The first time I encountered the corresponding German construction was in an English class with native speakers of German, to whom constructions 2 and 4 above don't make sense, so it's not just a matter of the "logic" of the sentences either, since English and German realize the referential logic of the situation differently.

At this point, I should probably get out my Cambridge Grammar of the English Language and look up "scope of negation" (that's my best bet about where to start), but instead, I'll just post this and see what anybody says.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Somebody's Hometown

In addition to my poetry book, I have also just published an album with my band Human Shields, "Somebody's Hometown." The title of the album comes from the first line of one of the songs, "Alisa's Bridge": "On the streets of somebody's hometown."

The album is available here on Bandcamp, where you can stream it for free or buy it as a download. Whoever wants a CD should contact me personally.

Here are Don Brown's liner notes about the album:

What are songs for?  Are they simply hummable ditties to alleviate or enhance a mood, or are they little tales that captivate us with their implications?
On "Somebody’s Hometown", Human Shields invest songwriting with the poetic, philosophical, and storytelling content found in the work of the best songwriters.  Like the oldest forms—those found in the folksongs of almost any culture—the songs on this collection take lyrics seriously.   From songs that play off familiar poetic figures—the birds in “Land Without Nightingales,” to the burning tiger (or tyger) in “Rumpus”—to songs that evoke folkloric content—the pale rider, the pirate, the face cards—to songs relevant to our times—“Abottabad”—to songs that engage with a philosophical outlook—“Better Never Than Late,” “You Know I Know”—the songs of Somebody’s Hometown repay attention to lyrics that far too few songwriters can command.
That’s not to say you can get all the value from this disc by reading the lyric sheet.  Not by a long shot.  The songs themselves partake of many aspects of folk music, but crossed with jazz and rock and other forms that best suit the song.  When “Abottabad” begins, we could be listening to someone singing about life in any year of the modern period.  As the sound begins to blend into what might be a cry-in-your-beer confession, we come to something closer to home, passing through a hint of Country  to attest to an American moment.  Or consider the Violent Femmes-like strum of “Rumpus,” or the complex solo in “Sundowning,” or the vocals late in “You Know I Know” where a Tim Buckley-like impassioned abandon comes into play.  Everywhere there are echoes, hints, suggestions of the musical background that gives the work of Human Shields its rich context.
The songs on this disc are stately, thoughtful, varied, surprising.  The simple instrumentation of Andrew Shields, Dany Demuth, and Christoph Meneghetti articulates the songs’ structures with fascinating clarity, and Demuth’s vocals are always graceful, able to punch us with punkish blues belting in “Better Never Than Late,” or lull us with the lovely lyricism of “Long Enough”—a song that starts by evoking one of my favorite paintings, by Vermeer.
The best records invite much replaying—songs the listener wants to learn or memorize, performances that offer a definitive treatment.  "Somebody’s Hometown" is a place to settle down in.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Thomas Hardy Listens To Louis Armstrong

My first full-length poetry book, Thomas Hardy Listens To Louis Armstrong, was published on 1 July 2015 by Eyewear Publishing in London. You can order it any local bookstore near where you live (it has an ISBN and all that). It's also available directly from Eyewear, from Amazon, and soon from Small Press Distribution.

The book has three blurbs:
You’ll find sundry sorts of life that touch Andrew and you as well, in all sorts of verse: brief or long, quick or deep, free or meter, filled with experience. What’s more, you may well want to speak them to family and friends. His last poem’s last line tells us “verses did what verses mean to do”—a truth that’s worth to check back on!

John Felstiner

Andrew Shields is maestro of the sympathetic and the savvy.  He writes with unapologetic lyricism and with a narrative self-awareness that is anymore too rare in contemporary poetry.  The poems in the volume are entirely composed—and I intend that word in all the ways one might employ it: composed in the manner of a piece of music, composed in the way one might describe someone as being emotionally pulled together.  The simple stoicism of “Sundowning” will break your heart; “Blackbird” is a masterwork.  Everything about this collection sings.

Jill Alexander Essbaum

Andrew Shields is a musician himself. If you have not heard him play, read his poems. The scene in which Thomas Hardy listens to Louis Armstrong could only have been arranged by someone like him.

Durs Grünbein

Plus, it was summarized in the Poetry Book Society Bulletin as follows:
 Music swells from Andrew Shields' debut collection, from anonymous buskers "whose words have long been drowned out by the year" to Osip Mandelstam's 'Tambourine', from soaking in 'Monk's Dream' to hearing "unfinished poems in radio static". Rhythm and melody consume this poet, "spoken words [his] only instrument" yet conjuring verse "for the dancers / and the dance, unnoting, unwitting, unwrit" in a sweeping collection of symphonic depth and detail.
  "Symphonic depth and detail"! That makes me smile. :-)

Monday, July 06, 2015

Jerry Garcia at a Los Lobos concert, 1987

When I saw Los Lobos in the summer of 1987 at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco, Jerry Garcia was in the audience. After the opening act, I had a little chat with him about the lyrics of “Lady With A Fan”: I wanted to know if it was “his job is to shed light and not to master” or “share light.” He said, in his inimitable voice, “Some people hear shed; some hear share. Hunter wrote shed, but whatever you hear is okay by me; I’m just the singer, you know.”

During the Los Lobos set, a roadie came out and gave David Hidalgo a cherry-red Telecaster, and David strapped it on to play “Come On Let’s Go,” which he dedicated to Jerry.

A week or so later, I met a guy who had been backstage at the show, and he told me about that guitar: Jerry had come backstage with a guitar case before the show, looking for Hidalgo. When he found him, he gave him the guitar: a mint-condition vintage Telecaster. Hence the dedication!

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Luther and Apocryphal Attribution

In April 2005, A. E. Stallings published "Triolet Apocryphally Attributed To Martin Luther" in Poetry:

Why should the Devil get all the good tunes,   
The booze and the neon and Saturday night,   
The swaying in darkness, the lovers like spoons?   
Why should the Devil get all the good tunes?   
Does he hum them to while away sad afternoons   
And the long, lonesome Sundays? Or sing them for spite?   
Why should the Devil get all the good tunes,   
The booze and the neon and Saturday night?

When I read the poem in the magazine, I immediately grabbed my guitar and began strumming around, and in a few minutes, I had set the poem to music. 

In the meantime, the song has become a staple of my band Human Shields. It's a very short and punky song, and you can watch a video of it on Facebook here.

The other day, I linked to that video, and a Facebook friend wondered about the attribution to Martin Luther. It was not that she disputed the quotation's apocryphal nature, but that she had never heard the line attributed to Luther. She also said that it did not sound like Luther to her.

Now, I can never resist pursuing the attribution of a quotation, and I am very sympathetic to my friend's sense that it didn't sound like Luther – many false attributions can be detected by how the quotations do not sound at all like anything Mark Twain or whoever would actually say. But first I just wanted to find a few cases of people attributing the line to Luther.

I found quite a few, with the interesting caveat that every single case of attribution to Luther mentioned that the quotation is surely apocryphal. But one case found something in Luther's Table Talk that sounded a bit like the line; more precisely, the passage that follows is from Richard Friedenthal's 1967 biography of Luther:
Luther's intentions were strict; he wanted to eliminate the profane songs entirely. How had it happened, he asked, that in the secular field there 'are so many fine poems and so many beautiful songs, while in the religious field we have such rotten, lifeless stuff?' What is undeniable is that he injected his own fire into the genre, wherever the tunes and words may have come from. 'The devil has no need of all the good tunes for himself,' he remarked, and took them away from him.
The reference is to "WA TR 5, no. 5603" (Werkausgabe Tischreden), so I found the original in a 1919 edition:

Wie geht es zu, das wir in carnalibus so manch fein poem und so manch schön carmen haben, und in spiritualibus haben wir so faul, kalt ding?
(Translation here.)

As is so often the case with apocryphal attribution, there might be something that has led people to make the attribution (though of course attributions are also often just made up out of whole cloth). So in the case, Luther did say something that contrasted "carnal" art and "spiritual" art, and he did so in the context of music. But he didn't put it the way that the apocryphal attribution puts it, and the devil was not involved.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Specificity and Generality

A friend posted a quotation from Diane Arbus on Facebook:
The more specific you are, the more general it’ll be.
I really liked the idea because it connected with what I've been preaching to my students in a class on poetry and songwriting: be specific! But I also wanted the source, and especially the context, so I did some digging and found a passage from the introduction to a 1972 collection of Arbus's photographs published as "an Aperture monograph" and edited by Doon Arbus and Marvin Israel:
I remember a long time ago when I first began to photograph I thought, there are an awful lot of people in the world and it’s going to be terribly hard to photograph all of them, so if I photograph some kind of generalized human being, everybody’ll recognize it. It’ll be like what they used to call the common man or something. It was my teacher, Lisette Model, who finally made it clear to me that the more specific you are, the more general it’ll be.
I was right to want the context, because now the grand generalization about specificity is so much more specific. The context acts out two things that are lost in the quotable quote at the end: first of all, how the generalization is built on a specific experience; secondly, how that experience is a matter of learning something.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015


The Germans say it's from Goethe:
Entschuldigen Sie, dass ich Ihnen einen langen Brief schreibe, für einen kurzen habe ich keine Zeit.
 The Americans say it's from Mark Twain:
 I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.
The French say it's from Voltaire, but it's from Blaise Pascal:
Je n’ai fait celle-ci [cette lettre] plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.
I love that it's "loisir": leisure. And that it's Pascal, whose famous formulation about the troubles of humanity also implicitly touches on "loisir", here as "repos":
Tout le malheur des hommes vient d'une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos, dans une chambre.
If only we had the time to sit quietly and write shorter letters.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Rules ignoring people

In a Facebook discussion just now, I took my usual "descriptivist" position in a discussion with "prescriptivists" (quotation marks since I don't particularly like the word "descriptivist" and my conversation partners might not like "prescriptivists" either). As part of the discussion, I contrasted some examples of what I called "real" rules with the "rules of grammar" that get so much attention:
Here's an example of a rule in English: the order of modifiers before a noun is fixed. We say "an attractive pink swimsuit" but not "a pink attractive swimsuit." Or another: what types of construction can follow a particular verb? "Risk" takes a gerund phrase ("you risked going too far") but not an infinitive (*"risked to go too far") or a noun clause (*"risked that you went too far"). These are real rules of English grammar. Pretty much all the rules that get argued about in public are not "rules" like this. "They" cannot be singular: demonstrably false. The "who/whom" distinction is a matter of subject/object uses: demonstrably false. "That" is for integrated relatives, "which" for supplementary relatives: demonstrably false.
One of the others involved in the discussion is an excellent poet and sharp thinker who I have great respect for (and who would definitely prefer I had said "whom I have great respect for" – I'm not sure what her position on the stranded preposition there might be). She responded aphoristically:
Andrew, the only difference I can see between the rules you cite as real and the rules you cite as demonstrably false is that the former aren't ignored quite as often as the latter.
To which I could only respond that she had hit the nail on the head:
Exactly. The "rules that are often ignored" are not real rules, but pretend rules. In fact, that helps me with a nice chiasmus to state my position: with such rules, it's not that people are ignoring rules. Rather, it's that rules are ignoring people.
And that's the purpose of this post: to make a permanent record of my nice chiasmus. 

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Unshakeable PERHAPS

Here's Robin Fulton's translation of "Brief Pause in the Organ Recital", a poem by Tomas Tranströmer (15 April 1931 - 26 March 2015):


The organ stops playing and it's deathly quiet in the church, but only for a couple of seconds.
And the faint rumbling penetrates from the traffic out there, that greater organ.

For we are surrounded by the murmuring of the traffic, it flows along the cathedral walls.
The outer world glides there like a transparent film and with shadows struggling pianissimo.

And as if it were part of the street noise I hear one of my pulses beating in the silence,
I hear my blood circulating, the cascade that hides inside me, that I walk about with,

and as close as my blood and as far away as a memory from when I was four,
I hear the trailer that rumbles past and makes the six-hundred-year-old walls tremble.

This could hardly be less like a mother's lap, yet at the moment I am like a child,
hearing the grown-ups talking far away, the voices of the winners and the losers mingling.

On the blue benches a sparse congregation. And the pillars rise like strange trees:
no roots (only the common floor) and no crown (only the common roof).

I relive a dream. That I'm standing alone in a churchyard. Everywhere heather glows
as far as the eye can reach. Who I am waiting for? A friend. Why doesn't he come. He's here already.

Slowly death turns up the lights from underneath, from the ground. The heath shines, a stronger and stronger purple —
no, a colour no one has seen ... until the morning's pale light whines in through the eyelids

and I waken to that unshakeable PERHAPS that carries me through the wavering world.
And each abstract picture of the world is as impossible as the blue-print of a storm.

At home stood the all-knowing Encyclopedia, a yard of bookshelf, in it I learnt to read.
But each one of us has his own encyclopedia written, it grows out of each soul,

it's written from birth onwards, the hundreds of thousands of pages stand pressed against each other
and yet with air between them! Like the quivering leaves in a forest. The book of contradictions.

What's there changes by the hour, the pictures retouch themselves, the words flicker.
A wake washes through the whole text, it's followed by the next wave, and then the next ...

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Inverting "An Artist of the Floating World"

In his New Yorker review of Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel The Buried Giant, James Wood describes the narrators of Ishiguro's earlier novels as follows:
His complacent or muted unreliable narrators, like the painter Ono, in An Artist of the Floating World, or the butler Stevens, in The Remains of the Day, tell stories that mildly and self-servingly repress secrets, shameful compromises, and the wounds of the past. (Both of these narrators have reason to conceal or minimize their involvement with Fascist politics just before the Second World War.).
 While this is an accurate description of Stevens, it gets Ono backwards. I know this, because I misread An Artist of the Floating World the first time I read it. Only a second reading did I notice what makes the novel so distinct and striking: Ono does not "conceal or minimize his involvement" with Fascism. On the contrary, throughout the book, he is trying to acknowledge his guilt – and everyone around him doesn't want to hear about it. They tell him he's exaggerating; they tell him there's no reason for him to feel so guilty. If the novel is a figure of "self-serving repression of secrets", it is the people around Ono who are doing the repression, not Ono himself.

It's time to reread An Artist of the Floating World so I can back up this claim with some evidence!

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Using "that" to refer to people

I saw a complaint about the supposedly increasing use of "that" to refer to people (instead of "who").

Since I have a digital copy of Jane Austen's "Emma," it took me only a few minutes to find an example of such a usage by Austen: Mr. Woodhouse "was a nervous man, easily depressed; fond of every body that he was used to, and hating to part with them; hating change of every kind."

But the Corpus of Historical American English also provides some evidence. I searched for the phrase "man who" and the phrase "man that". Amusingly, "the man that" seems to be decreasing in frequency. From the 1830s to the 1930s (by decades), it appears with at least 200 hits per decade, while since then it has been decreasing, with only 94 hits in the 1990s and 116 in the 2000s.

But the complaint was made by someone from Britain. The BYU corpora do not include a corpus of Historical British English like the COHA for American English, but you can use the BYU corpus site to search Google Books. And again, "man that" has decreased considerably since the 19th century: over 20,000 hits per decade from the 1830s to the 1900s (and up over 30,000 sometimes). Oddly enough, there is then a sudden drop in hits between the 1900s and the 1910s, from over 36k hits to about 12,500. And then it's been pretty steady since then.

So whatever is going on here, it is highly unlikely to be a matter of increasing frequency of use of "that" to refer to people (or at least to refer to "man"). This is what's known as "the frequency illusion."

Sunday, February 22, 2015

"deemed as"? "based on" vs. "based off of"?

A Facebook friend who was grading papers wrote:

Fellow language/grammar enthusiasts: I need another verdict so I know if two more of my pet peeves are justified. My students write that something is "deemed as" rather than simply "deemed" the adjective that follows. They also write that things are "based off of" rather than "based on" other things. I hate both. May I correct them or are these now so common as to be legitimate?

I responded:

This is the kind of thing I love to go a little bit crazy with …

I looked up the phrases in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) and the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GLOWBE). These two corpora can be found at the BYU site for linguistic corpora.

For based on vs. based off of:

based on = 61860
based off of = 9

based on = 335832 (US 76525)
based off of = 736 (US 392)

I think you can safely say that “based off of” is not yet Standard English.

Deemed (as): this pair is a bit harder to deal with, because it’s not two distinct phrases (i.e., all hits for “deemed” as are also counted for “deemed”, and many of the uses of “deemed” might be in contexts where “deemed as” would not be used). But here are the numbers:

deemed as = 56
deemed (including the above) = 5141

deemed as = 1419 (US 136)
deemed (including the above) = 39523 (US 5512)

While these ratios lean quite strongly in favor of not using “as” with “deemed,” I think there’s enough uncertainty about the numbers to make “deemed as” worth accepting, as well as enough grounds for understanding where “deemed as” comes from (parallel to “regard as” and “consider as” — which latter form I don’t like, actually, but have to admit exists).

This is only about current usage (1990-2012 with COCA, 2012-2013 with Glowbe), so it doesn’t even address the history of “deemed as” and “based off of.” I bet the former has a long history, while the latter doesn’t. But linguists have a term to refer to people’s sense that a construction is new when it is not: “recency illusion”.

And the Google Books Corpus shows that I’m right: “base d off of” does not appear until the 1990s in American English (though it has risen sharply since). In contrast, “deemed as” has been in steady use for 200 years now.

So mark “based off of” as wrong (and discuss it?), but accept “deemed as” (and talk about the “recency illusion”?).

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Voltaire misattributions

Voltaire was quoted often in the past week: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." But Voltaire never said that, as can be read in the "misattributed" section of the Wikiquote page on Voltaire.

Still, at least the quotation is from one person's attempt to sum up Voltaire's position on free speech. The same cannot be said of another Voltaire attribution that just crossed my path: "To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize." This turns out to be a quotation from an American white supremacist named Kevin Strom (see the Wikiquote page again).

Voltaire did actually say a few things. Here's one of them (found by skimming that Wikiquote page): "Un bon mot ne prouve rien." Or as that page translates it, "A witty saying proves nothing."

Charlie Hebdo and the State Monopoly on Violence

A hypothesis for discussion:

Charlie Hebdo is not about freedom of speech. It’s about the state monopoly on violence: “the right to use physical force is ascribed to other institutions or to individuals only to the extent to which the state permits it” (Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation”). The caricaturists’ “freedom of speech” protects them from state suppression or punishment of their speech as speech. Because they were offended by what the Charlie Hebdo caricaturists drew, the murderers claimed the state’s “right to use physical force” as their own. Such vigilante justice is what should be condemned here; no defense of “freedom of speech” is necessary (or even appropriate?).

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Erasing "Bringing It All Back Home"

It's the 50th anniversary of recording of Bob Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home. I listened to the whole album this morning while working out, looking for something to write about it. I found myself overwhelmed by how many individual lines and images would be worthy of lengthy posts. So instead of writing a blog post, I have done an erasure of the lyrics.

        homesick   it
It’s          it      alley
       back, write
       it all took  back
       take          fall
It’s          with
It            all
Without    faithful     situations   wall  all
        all    bring              with
Especially  it’s
It            take
       all    away
              call it
Writing                   with
              all    editor
       waitress     kitchen
       all    back alley
With               front
       all    with
It     it
       bringin’ back
Back               back suit
It             with
       it back
              back  took
              it      away
Wait                      it
It’s                  it’s
It’s   take
With all
With        lit 
All           with
Its    it
All    all    fall
With with
Sits with     hermit
All    wait  with
It            it      totally
With ditch
It's                  balloon
       waterfalls pity
It’s                         downfall
                      small        call
       all           nothing      all
It’s          without
              really        waits
It’s    it’s                        it
All                  nothing
              with         really
        it                          it
Nothing                          criticize
        nothing            with
Limited                    it
Obscenity  really
With                      security
It                    bitterly
        fall         naturally
        it’s          it’s
It's All                    take
        it’s all
Take         it’s all
All                                 home
All                          all    home
        taken all
        it’s all                            calls
       it’s all