1.07.2018

A variety of is or are?

I've been proofreading and copy editing and just analyzing English for years, but sometimes I get stuck on collective nouns. For instance, I recently saw "A variety of methods was used." That seems correct because the focus on the sentence is "a variety." Just in case, though, I did a search online, and the conflicting information is worrisome. Many articles and books have "was used," so it seems legitimate. But when I did a search for "were used," there are many articles using that as well. So what's the correct usage?

Well, if I were to use "variety" related to the articles and books I found, I would say "a variety of articles and books show" instead of "a variety of articles and books shows" because I want to emphasize the plurality of "articles and books" instead of "variety," which is singular. I guess that falls in to the "proximity agreement" concept, because I'm "relying on the noun that is closest to the verb to determine whether the verb is singular or plural."

I ended up keeping "A variety of methods was used" because I felt that the emphasis was on "variety." But if it said "A variety of methods were used," I probably would've kept that as well, because it "sounds right" and a lot of people online seem to agree. Many sources say that if it's preceded by "the," then "variety of" would be singular. But if it's "a," then it's not.

So am I wrong? I don't think so, because I still think the emphasis is on "variety," plus "of..." is a preposition, and it seems like prepositions create subsets of the main subject. But according to language nerds discussing this stuff online, I'm wrong because it's "a." And what doesn't help is that the Oxford learner dictionary seems to contradict itself; they say (ha ha, I'm breaking the grammar rule here; I should say "it says") "There is a wide variety of..." but later on they say "A plural verb is needed after a/an (large, wide, etc.) variety of...A variety of reasons were given."

I like Grammar Girl's explanation; it seems more forgiving: "Some people get tripped up when a prepositional phrase comes after a collective noun that is the subject of a sentence. For example, if you're talking about 'a large group of students,' 'group' is the collective noun and the subject of the sentence; however, it's easy to get distracted by the prepositional phrase 'of students' because it sounds plural. The thing to remember is that the verb takes its cue from the subject of the sentence--'a large group'--and not from the prepositional phrase that modifies the subject. In cases like this, just ignore the prepositional phrase 'of students' and take your cue from the real subject: 'a large group'.”

So according to GG, I'm correct. Plus American English (which I'm a native speaker of [of which I'm a native speaker]) uses the singular, while Brits use plural. And just to make sure, I asked a writing group that I sometimes meet with what they think, and all of them agree with what I did.

Thus I think I made the right decision, though I'm still struggling with "a number of," which I'll discuss in another post.

10.15.2017

I'm studying Swedish

I've told people offline, but I feel like I should proclaim this publicly since I've declared my love for languages here for over a decade (though I went off topic at times and didn't post much for a while), and I'm committed at this point.

What got me interested in Swedish and Sweden was watching Annika Bengtzon and thinking, "Wow, they're so restrained and cool and sophisticated," and I was impressed with the understated style of acting that we really don't see in the U.S. because so many actors are dramatic or exaggerated. 

Then I watched the Swedish version of Wallander, which had a similar style, delivered with humility (which is also not typical of U.S. shows--the lead actors are usually brazen and arrogant, and it's all about them). 

I was curious about the actors, but couldn't find much information in English. Example: The Guardian has Krister Henriksson's "only British press interview" about why he left Wallander, and there weren't a lot of English articles online about Malin Crépin, the wonderful, stylish actress who plays Annika Bengtzon. And when it came to actor Leif Andrée, who played her intense, stressed-out editor, forget it: a super-brief Wikipedia page, and the rest in Swedish, which of course I didn't understand at all.

So to find out more about this seemingly stable, refineddeveloped country, I decided to try to learn the language well enough to read about it (and read about those actors I like). I first tried Duolingo, which people have complimented but which didn't seem very helpful. I usually used the app on my phone, and got through a number of lessons. It would congratulate me on ridiculous achievements, telling me that I was x-percent "fluent." Such fakery wasn't encouraging because I know what fluent means, and it was like they were trying to "motivate" me into using their app more, like superficial cheerleaders on the sidelines. 

Another problem I had with Duolingo was that a number of their sample sentences were nonsensical, like "the cow likes the dog's toy" or "the cat doesn't want to dance tonight." Ok, those aren't exactly accurate examples, but the sample sentences were often phrases that we wouldn't need to know in real life, and pretty much no one would use unless they were making goofy poetry. So why were they giving them to us? Why not have sentences that said, "Where is the post office?" and other sentences that we'd actually need (though many people have said Swedish people's English is so good, you don't need Swedish over there).

Also, at least on the phone app, there were no grammatical explanations. So I'd try to do the exercises by intuition, but I really didn't learn much about the language structure. It just seemed like I was going through the motions to get through the exercises, like consuming empty calories that are briefly satisfying but don't lead anywhere.

Even though I wasn't thrilled with the app, I guess I learned enough to understand the headline of a Swedish article about the suicide of Johanna Sällström, who played Wallander's daughter (because I was doing a search about why they changed actresses, and it was hard to get sufficient info in English): Krister Henriksson: "Jag älskade Johanna djupt". I made progress! But then I went back to the ridiculous drills at Duolingo, and decided to move on.

After the split (though I don't want to drop Duolingo forever), I read stuff online, got a grammar book, watched online videos, etc. But I still wasn't satisfied, so I looked for a class, and lo and behold, there was one starting within a couple of weeks at the Swedish American Museum

I am the only person in the class who has nothing to do with Sweden or Swedish people. Other people have Swedish heritage, work for a Swedish company, or are married to Swedes. When it came to my turn to tell the class why I was studying it, I said, "I watched Swedish mysteries and want to know more." They laughed. But I still have that reason, in addition to wanting to go there at some point (though I apparently won't need Swedish anyway). 

One student in the class has really good pronunciation and comprehension, and it's because he studies consistently, listens to/watches Swedish news...and uses Duolingo. He said it's really helped him. So maybe I don't "get it"?

An unintended consequence of studying Swedish consistently is the rush in my head of English and German, which have collided into each other and are getting in the way of my Swedish acquisition. There are many similarities with both languages, which seems attractive, but the killer is the pronunciation. Very difficult and not phonetically written.

Because English and German have been swirling in my head when I try to produce sentences in class or try to comprehend words, I've been pulled in the German direction, to the point that I cracked open a German reading strategy book that I used years ago in one of the worst language classes I've ever taken (the teacher basically never spoke German and didn't want to teach it either, just talked about politics and her own personal gripes that I couldn't care less about). So now I'm trying to read bits of Japanese, French, and Spanish (all which I used to translate), learn Swedish as a total beginner, and reconnect with German, because...I don't know. I guess the Swedish activated a desire to recover knowledge of the German I once had, and to reconnect with a language that is way more difficult than Swedish, but is much easier to pronounce. Now I just need to partition my brain so that I'm not going through German to get to Swedish, though I keep saying in class "that's like German" when she explains a grammar point, which could seem pretentious.

10.02.2017

Guest post: Describing October

Elliot Abrams, Chief Forecaster and meteorologist at AccuWeather, sent me this essay about the month of October. Thus this is a guest post, since it was written by him:

October colors scream for attention as summer's emerald draperies are splashed with auburn, set ablaze with firethorn, streaked with burnished copper, then saturated in chocolate just before Halloween.

If March is the chameleon month, October is its cousin. One day is bright and crisp, brimming with fresh vitality; the next is under a dreary roof of slate framed by steel wool curtains...a lint-filter sky.

Nature takes its full palette of pastels, earth tones and half shades and thrown them together in a tapestry simultaneously chaotic and yet invitingly familiar. Autumn is our annual sunset, the rich colors and interweaving of light providing our last look at the year, with the winter night temporarily postponed but imminently inevitable.

October's loud colors are matched by its noisy winds. The brittle leaves crackle in the breeze, a sure giveaway it's autumn on those increasingly rare warm south wind nights. The leaves lodge in the lawns, shove into shrubs and burrow into the bushes; the nachos style crunchiness amplifies the sound of footsteps.

Brash noise and sullen solitude. Bold bright colors and dim dreariness. Tossed trees with spiced scenery.  How they match life's many moods and tastes. For here in one month is captured the diversity of the entire annual cycle of earthly life. Yet for all of its richness and variety, few of its scenes and sounds will last out the year.

But, when winter's scouts retreat north for reinforcements, an eerie still is left behind.  The quiet is punctuated by the quick tick of a bouncing acorn. The scene of vivid crispness is hidden by a haze that smears the colors. The waning sun is too feeble to stir the grimy soup; fog lingers through damp mornings. Later, the haze tints muted sunbeams on bittersweet warm afternoons. You can just barely feel the hint of bygone summer, but the lengthening shadows and eager evening dusk say warm times are headed for history.

As the sun wearies of its heated climb through summer skies, the woodlands are tossed into an autumn salad bar. The leaner diet of light and the fingers of frost lace the chervil and sage greens of summer with oregano, pumpkin spice and cinnamon. The ocean of summer green now has islands of amber and auburn amidst currents of crimson, the mixing colors changing each day.  

Fall days can bring wondrous variety:

We can have windy days. In the nooks and crannies around buildings on a dry day you see dust, paper scraps and leaf fragments whipped into whirlpools, the tiny pieces sucked in and thrown out as the vortex vanishes.

Out in the countryside, cumulus cloud shadows race along the ground, racing along the ridges and vaulting the valleys. The trees, still in leaf. have their twigs twisted and their branches bent. In the fields and weedlots, unseen waves rustle the tassels and taller grass blades, the surface rippling like waves on a lake. 

Other days represent just the opposite: foggy calm mornings and hazy quiet mellow afternoons. Tiny spider mites weave threads and fragile strands that drift in the slightest puff of wind. The leaves detach from their summer homes to form a carpet of brown crinkle on the forest floor. Acorns snap to ground. You can still feel a hint of summer in the afternoon air; the long shadows of late afternoon and the early dusk make us sense somehow the summer party is over.

Only later do we find ourselves skewered on the rotisseri of reality, sucked in by the shop-vac of autumn's summer remnants, raked over by nature's leaf blower, the rototiller of northerly winds. The annual chilly eraser transforms the artful tapestry of October to the gray canvas of late fall and winter. 

by Elliot Abrams
Sr. VP
AccuWeather Inc
Twitter: @accuelliot

9.04.2017

Pullman factory before the restoration/rehab


I am a fan of Pullman, which is on the far South Side of Chicago. Everyone should go there, as I've said before.

I also said that I would take the factory tour, and I did. There will only be a few more tours before they close it for restoration. First of all, the tour guide (who's lived there for almost 50 years) did a great job explaining not only elements of the building and the company, but the area's history and the more subtle issues that have arisen, such as the possibility of Section-8 housing, which means dollars for the developer (and alderman?) but headaches for the residents. Right now the neighborhood has a great, relaxing vibe that makes it a jewel within the city limits, and the people who live there want to keep it that way.

What I saw of the factory will not be the same next year, not just because of the restoration but because I reckon they're going to do a lot of publicity to get visitors down there. The place deserves it, but in the meantime, if you want to see the pre-hyped version, go there now.

pullman factory entrance
Entrance to the factory site on 111th street.
I was also lucky to see huge remnants of Acme Steel, which will eventually be moved to a more permanent historic preservation site (I forgot what they said--I'll update if I find out).

pullman factory-acme steel
Pullman building in back, Acme realia in front.

acme steel-pullman
 from Acme Steel
acme-steel-pullman-administration
Rebuilt administration building in background.

Though these Acme items might stay.

pullman interior with acme items


steel art pullman
Steel industry art.
Unfortunately and tragically, a literally insane homeless man who was off his meds set fire to the Pullman factory because he said voices told him to. So the current tower and building are essentially reconstructed, and will continue down that path. So it's not really a restoration but a creation that visitors will see in the future. 

clock tower pullman
Rebuilt after the evil arson.
Here's a melted bell that the insane arsonist left behind.

pullman-melted-clock

But some original brick and a tiny part of the original factory remain.

pullman-factory-interior

original pullman factory

I'm guessing future visitors post-rehab won't be able to wonder in such a space anymore.

pullman-bricks

pullman roof

pullman windows

original pullman interior

As I was walking along a former carriage path that used to wind its way beside a lake...

pullman factory nature

I thought, "I'm coming back." 


pullman factory chicago

While the factory is being revitalized, I could just hang out at the Pullman cafe.

pullman cafe

8.24.2017

Go to Pullman

A while ago, I was on the Metra train going to and from University Park, and I passed by the Pullman stop. It looked historical and interesting, not like the West Pullman shootings we often hear about in the news. Ever since then, I was curious about the area, and I finally got a chance to go there recently. What I discovered was a quaint neighborhood of restored row houses (retaining the requisite Pullman colors)...

Pullman rowhouse
Pullman house


trees...

Pullman home and trees


and friendly people who said "hello." I don't think I've been anywhere in the city where people voluntarily greet strangers, and it shows how much pride they have in their neighborhood. It's more a location than a major tourist attraction, though I plan on going on the factory tour before they close it down for restoration (they're going to move the visitors center to the factory's tower, which is also being restored). I have a hunch that when they make major changes, there will be a lot more visitors. The day I went, there were only a few of us, and we were from the city. So I think I've seen the area pre-rush because it's become part of the national park system, and I reckon they're going to do a lot of publicity to get more people down there. I was lucky to see it "unspoiled" and pretty much empty, which allowed me to enjoy it a lot more (instead of having to compete with crowds to get a glimpse of the historic houses and surrounding nature).

There's an art installation at the Market Hall, whose remains are sort of sad but hopeful.

art market hall pullman

There are also grander homes thrown in, such as this place, similar (or the same?) to where I think the former police chief lives...

large pullman house

and this house, which is one of the larger ones in the hood. 

large Pullman house

Towards the center of the area is the worn (but undergoing restoration) Hotel Florence, where the Rich and Important stayed way back in the day.

Hotel Florence Pullman


But nothing is happening at the Annex (where workers and some visitors stayed); it sits unused northeast of the hotel.

Hotel Florence Annex Pullman


There is so much to appreciate there. It's not fireworks and spectacle, but it's really incredible to see such a historical area be preserved and celebrated. It's easy to get there, too: just west of the expressway or on the Metra Electric line. Hopefully the upcoming hype won't affect its charm.

8.13.2017

I want to use "can not" instead of "cannot"

I was proofreading something (because, according to my elevator speech that I should have, "I solve language problems"), and saw that the writer used "can not" instead of "cannot." I wanted to see what language pros say about it, because it seems to me that "can not" is acceptable, which Oxford and Grammar Girl (who's made a total success out of language nerdiness) say as well. 

Writer's Relief goes so far as to say "cannot" should be used, and I find a comment by Gideon Roos interesting: "It follows the grammar tendency set up with do not and should not etc."


Commenter James Gentry mentions a post by Languagehat (whose quote I kept in my blog's "masthead" even though he removed me from his blogroll) about it, in which he says, "The only context in which can not, two words, occurs is as an emphatic alternative: 'You can do it, or you can not do it'.” 


I seem to remember "back in the day" (whenever that was, and if it really should be considered that, which is worth another blog post) that the conventional construction was "can not." I think "cannot" slipped into acceptance to the point where it's a given. 


Even though I'm inclined to use "can not" and probably have, to Languagehat's and other people's dismay, the final word on the subject seems to be from the Associated Press, which issues language proclamations and rules all the time. When I did a search for "cannot" several articles came up. But when I did a search for "can not"...nada. 


So I'll go with the AP, since that's closest to my language world's order. And again, I'm proofing and editing and writing stuff all the time, so I should know better. And don't worry--I ended up correcting that "can not" to be "cannot," so all is well.

7.17.2017

Enjoy this "tastiness"

As a lot of people already know, especially people who've lived in Japan, Japanese English can be odd. It's almost like they're using weird phrases as in inside joke, to see if people can tell that the words are dorky or don't make sense for the context. At this point, if Japanese companies want to have sensical English (or English that makes sense), they could easily find a lot of native speakers to help out with such a task. But maybe they're just having fun (like my use of the non-word "sensical"). Or maybe they're making an earnest effort to communicate an idea that would make sense in Japanese. Anyway, there are a lot of examples, and entire websites are devoted to such oddities, such as Engrish.com

So here's something I found in Mitsuwa, which has an excellent selection of Japanese drinks. They're not cheap, but they're good and entertaining. Like the tagline of ハニップC. I only bought it because it had a plum at the bottom *and* weird English, thus was worth the higher price. Basically, I've never seen anything like it in the US, and I like novelties.

Hanippu-C Japanese drink

The label says "Hanippu C" (transliteration of the name), and below the picture of the fruit it says "plum and apple." But then the weird English appears: 
Please enjoy this "tastiness."
So let's deconstruct this for a moment. It's not totally weird English because it makes sense, sort of. American companies wouldn't use the word "tastiness" to describe a drink, but rather "flavor," and they'd use animated adjectives to modify "flavor" to entice the consumer to purchase the delicious drink. Or they'd just simply say the drink is "tasty."

But this Japanese company, プラム (Plum), not only uses "tastiness," but puts quotation marks around it. Why? Are they implying that the suggestion is "tastiness" but the reality is different? Are they using the quotation marks to admit to falling short of flavor expectations? Is it a textual version of a wink and a nod?

Also what's not typical English is the request "Please enjoy..." as if they're trying to be polite yet firm. It would be harsher, of course, to simply say "Enjoy this tastiness," especially in apologetic, self-effacing Japanese culture. Realistically, products don't usually have any kind of request, but boldly proclaim how great they are and how they'll make you feel, which should convince you to buy them. But in this case, the sentence is literal but awkward, because of the combination of words, ending with the quotes. Overall, it comes off as stilted and sarcastic, which was most likely not the company's intention.

Below the English sentence it says "Please enjoy the blended flavor of plum and honey." On the bottom it says "contains honey" on the left and "refreshing drinking water" on the right, though I'm wondering why they say "water" when it tastes like juice. Next to that it says "less than 10% fruit juice." Okay, so it's not technically juice, but it hardly tastes like mere flavored water.

Thus the mysteries are numerous, but it doesn't deter me from purchasing other weirdly-worded products, whose "tastiness" I'm willing to explore. So I might have something else to post on such a topic in the future.