Tag Archives: language

Help Stop Comma Abuse!

Yes, there are some rules for commas. Some are strict, some aren’t. Some are debated (the Oxford comma), some aren’t. And some commas are just a question of style.

I’d like to draw your attention on a comma issue which is not a question of style.

You cannot use a comma to separate the verb from its subject or object. Look:

John, ate some bread.

John ate, some bread.

Doesn’t work.

But you do see commas floating around verbs. That’s because they come in pairs. Look:

John, without hesitation, ate some bread.

John ate, without hesitation, some bread.

See how those commas come in pairs, because we inserted “without hesitation” into the sentence?

I was prompted to write this article after struggling through this article. I struggled because the article content was interesting — but boy, does the author have comma issues. Hopefully they’ll fix them. In the meantime, I’ve used the text to provide you with real-world examples, corrected. You can try your skills at spotting missing paired commas. (And do read the article, though, it is interesting.)

In 1748, the British politician and aristocrat John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich used a lot of his free time for playing cards.

Can you spot the missing comma? This is a situation where the first paired comma was used, but not the second. The “inserted” text in the sentence is “the 4th Earl of Sandwich”, which should therefore be surrounded by commas. This one is actually tricky, because it looks like we have avoided placing a comma between the subject and the verb. But we have. Better:

In 1748, the British politician and aristocrat John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, used a lot of his free time for playing cards.

Here is another one:

Since recently a good friend of mine, gave me an introduction to the power of storytelling, I wanted to learn more.

This one has a comma which shouldn’t be there. No reason for a pair, as the sentence is not “Since John, a good friend of mine, gave me…”. Corrected:

Since recently a good friend of mine gave me an introduction to the power of storytelling, I wanted to learn more.

I’ll have to admit that I’m not 100% certain about the next one:

When we are being told a story though, things change dramatically found researchers in Spain.

Don’t you also want a comma in front of “found”? It probably has something to do with the fact that instead of the usual SVO order, we’ve switched to something like OVS. Here, try this one instead:

When we are being told a story though, things change dramatically, found researchers in Spain.

Isn’t it better?

Here’s one which might have more than comma issues, but let’s stick to the commas:

The brains of the person telling a story and listening to it, can synchronize, says Uri Hasson from Princeton.

I would suggest one of these two alternatives, though my prefer would probably add in an extra word or two:

The brains of the person telling a story and listening to it can synchronize, says Uri Hasson from Princeton.

The brains of the person telling a story, and listening to it, can synchronize, says Uri Hasson from Princeton.

And a last one which is a classic example of paired commas:

A story, if broken down into the simplest form is a connection of cause and effect.

The “inserted text” here is “if broken down into the simplest form”. Proof? The sentence would be fine without it:

A story is a connection of cause and effect.

Now, let’s add in this if-clause, with commas.

A story, if broken down into the simplest form, is a connection of cause and effect.

There we go. Pay attention to your commas!

Disclaimer: I’ve never really studied English grammar properly, so I’m sure there are fancy terms and maybe rules to come up with here that I don’t know of. And also, following a law which probably needs a nice name, as this is a post about language/grammar, there are bound to be mistakes in it that you can point to and laugh at — and probably, God forbid, a misplaced comma.

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Posted in Language Geekiness | Tagged comma, commas, english, grammar, language, punctuation, Writing | Leave a comment

Deb Roy: The Birth of a Word

[fr] Une vidéo fascinante sur l'apprentissage du langage -- et aussi sur le traitement et la visualisation de quantités étourdissantes de données linguistiques. A regarder.

Ah yes, another video. You see, some evenings, instead of sitting in front of the TV (not my usual evening occupation, by the way), I sit in front of my computer and watch videos I’ve queued up on Boxee — or hunted down for the occasion. No surprise, TED Talks are a favourite hang-out of mine.

Here’s one titled The Birth of a Word: researcher Deb Roy recorded the whole three first years of his son’s life to gather data which, once analyzed, would bring insight on how we learn language.

It’s fascinating. Fascinating for the language geek in me, and also fascinating from a data visualisation and analysis point of view. In the second part of his talk, Deb moves on to analysis of publicly available commentary (online) matched to TV shows they’re about. The visualisation is stunning (he’s showing us real data) and the implications left me feeling giddy.

Your turn.

Hat tip: thanks to Loïc for pointing out this video on Facebook.

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Posted in Language Geekiness, Social Media and the Web | Tagged analysis, baby, commentary, data, data visualisation, language, Research, talking, ted talks, tv, video | Leave a comment

LeWeb’09: Kevin Marks on Buzzwords

Live notes from LeWeb’09. They could be inaccurate, although I do my best. You might want to read other posts by official bloggers, in various languages!

Do we really use too many buzzwords? Right now, “real-time”. Some words Kevin has found useful to describe the new web.

  1. Flow: the stream metaphor.
  2. Faces: we expect faces. Making the face bigger makes the information more relevant. A large part of our brain is about faces.
  3. Phatic: an action that is designed for social interaction, grooming purposes, not to communicate content.
  4. Following: not assuming that all relations are bi-directional. Basic pattern of the web. Hyperlinks go in one direction. This is what allowed the web to scale to the size it is. Very powerful in a social context too.
  5. Semi-overlapping publics: not just “one” public space, which is an invention of mass media. We all see a different web. We have different publics.
  6. Mutual media: all these networks are ways of making sense of the world, filtering the web for each other to make it more interesting.
  7. Small world networks: it’s easy for information to flow through these networks, and there are also long-range links, so we don’t stay locked up in our small worlds.
  8. Out-groups: homophily, minimal group paradigm. Different parts of the web as different countries. You feel alien when visiting another online community than those you’re familiar with.
  9. Tummeling: the person who connects people with each other. The life and soul of the party.

That’s Kevin’s set of words that help him think about the web.

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Posted in Language Geekiness, Live Blogging | Tagged buzzwords, language, leweb09, web, words | Leave a comment

De la dégradation de la langue

[en] About my French spelling being worse than it was 15 years ago (is it the keyboard? is it something else?) and the terrifying experience of "losing my French" while I was in India 10 years ago.

La mienne, en l’occurence.

Plus de 15 ans que j’ai passé mon bac (XB, s’il vous plaît). Plus de 10 ans que j’écris sur le web. Quelque part en chemin, j’ai fait une licence en français.

Et parfois, quand je me relis, je suis horrifiée par les fautes que je trouve dans mes textes.

J’ai toujours été bonne (allons, n’ayons pas peur des mots — excellente) en orthographe et grammaire. Au gymnase, franchement, je crois pouvoir dire que j’avais un français écrit irréprochable.

Ça s’est gâté, ensuite. Dix ans à prendre des notes à l’uni, d’une part ça vous fiche en l’air la calligraphie (qui ne fut d’ailleurs jamais mon fort) et d’autre part, ça vous ramollit les règles de la langue.

Je me demande aussi parfois quel rôle joue le clavier dans tout cela. Je me retrouve à faire des fautes de “frappe” inimaginables lorsque j’écrivais à la main. Une terminaison en “-é” au lieu de “-er” par exemple, qui vient se glisser là, mine de rien, au milieu d’une phrase. Je l’attrape au passage si je prends la peine de me relire, bien entendu, mais le drame est que la faute ait simplement jailli de mes doigts. Ça n’arrivait jamais, “avant”.

(D’ailleurs, je tiens à le préciser, je ne me relis que très rarement. Oui, je sais, ça va faire des jaloux — chacun sa croix: mes compétences dans le graphisme frisent le zéro absolu et je suis tellement peu physionomiste que c’en est régulièrement embarrassant.)

Qu’est-ce qui a donc changé?

  • Est-ce le clavier au lieu du stylo?
  • Est-ce l’absence de correction en rouge pour me rappeler de temps en temps mes manquements à la perfection de la forme?
  • Est-ce l’âge?
  • Est-ce la proportion moindre de français par rapport à l’anglais, dans ce que j’écris aujourd’hui?
  • Est-ce la plus grande quantité de texte écrit que je produis?

Allez savoir.

J’ai vécu une autre expérience de dégradation de la langue, orale celle-ci, qui m’a profondément marquée. En 1999-2000, comme vous le savez, j’ai passé une année en Inde (le cas échéant, chers lecteurs, relisez vos classiques).

Bilingue déjà à l’époque, mais avec un anglais passablement rouillé, je me retrouvais pour la première fois depuis ma petite enfance à communiquer exclusivement en anglais, durant des mois — à l’exception de l’occasionnel e-mail qui, m’avouera-t-on plus tard, arborait des tournures de phrase de plus en plus étranges à mesure que passait le temps.

Après 6-8 mois, une amie de Suisse est venue me rendre visite. Et là, catastrophe. Je cherche mes mots. Je suis maladroite. Je construis mes phrases à tort et à travers. J’étais en train de perdre mon français! Il avait suffi de si peu de temps…

Je savais que j’avais pas mal perdu de mon anglais durant mon adolescence, au point qu’il m’était devenu pénible de le parler. Il revenait après quelque temps, bien sûr, mais c’était depuis longtemps ma deuxième langue. Jamais je n’aurais imaginé que je pourrais (aussi vite!) perdre mon français.

Je vous rassure, il est bien revenu. Et mon anglais est resté — j’avoue qu’il est rare que je passe une journée sans utiliser mes deux langues à présent (et internet joue très clairement un rôle là-dedans).

Mais même sa langue maternelle, quand on ne la pratique pas, se dégrade.

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Posted in Language Geekiness | Tagged anglais, bilingual, bilingue, clavier, english, français, french, inde, india, language, langue, orthographe, spelling, typing | 6 Comments

Bunny’s Language Linker: New WordPress Plugin

[fr] Un nouveau plugin WordPress que je viens d'écrire. Celui-ci vous permet de gérer les liens entre pages équivalentes de deux versions linguistiques d'un site. Par exemple, si vous avez http://stephanie-booth.com/en et http://stephanie-booth.com/fr (deux installations WordPress séparées!), le plugin vous aidera à faire en sorte qu'il y ait des liens entre http://stephanie-booth.com/en/about et http://stephanie-booth.com/fr/a-propos.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m proud to announce the WordPress plugin Bunny’s Language Linker (zip, phps).

I’ve been wanting to write this plugin for ages, and I’ve finally done it this evening. This is a plugin for people who have a WordPress site with content duplicated in more than one language, like I’m going to have with stephanie-booth.com. For example, you have an “about” page in English, and another “about” page in German. This plugin helps you create and manage links between such “sister” pages. (“Pages”, not “posts”. It doesn’t work with posts at all.)

The plugin adds an extra field to the page editing form, inviting you to input the page slug of the sister page:

Bunny's Language Linker - Admin view

The screenshot is a bit small, but there on the right, there is a little box with “a-propos” — the slug of the French sister page. It works with more than one other language, too. You just need to edit the settings in the plugin file to specify which languages you’re playing with (instructions are in the plugin file). If I had sites in 3 other languages, say French, Spanish, and German, my settings line in the plugin file would look like this:

$bll_other_languages=array('fr', 'es', 'de');

And the little box would provide three different fields for the page slugs of the different localized sites. (OK, I’m making this sound complicated, sorry.)

The plugin then automatically adds links to the sister pages you’ve indicated. Here’s what it could look like:

Bunny's Language Linker - Page view

There’s a readme file with the plugin which will give you some more details. I’ll soon have a client site in production using that plugin, so if these explanations weren’t very clear, hopefully the demonstration will help.

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Posted in Language Geekiness, Wordpress | Tagged bunny's language linker, i18n, l10n, language, language linker, Languages / Linguistics, Links, localisation, multilingual, plugin, Real Live Code, translation, Weblog Technology, Wordpress | 20 Comments

Advice for a Translating Tool

[fr] Quelques conseils pour mettre en place un outil de traduction d'interfaces en ligne.

I was asked for some advice for a soon-to-be-released online interface translation tool. (Hint: maybe my advice would be more useful earlier on in the project…) Here’s what I said:

  1. allow for regional forking of languages. e.g. there was a merciless war on the French wikipedia between the French and the Belgians over “Endive” which is called “Chicon” in Belgium. One is not more right than another, and these differences can be important.

  2. remember that words which are the same in English can have two different translations in other languages. e.g. “Upload” can be translated as “Téléchargez” (imperative verb form) or “Téléchargement” (noun)

  3. if you’re doing some sort of string-based thing (which I suppose you are) like translate.wordpress.com, let people see what they’re translating in context. (See the interface in English, with the place the string is in highlighted, and then see the interface in French, with the string highlighted too.)

Note: yes, this person had already watched my Google Tech Talk on languages online — and yes, I’m going to collect my language stuff somewhere neat on a static page at some point.

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Posted in Language Geekiness | Tagged advice, building, language, Languages / Linguistics, software, Software and Tools, tool, translation | 4 Comments

A Blog is Not a Post, Dammit!

[fr] De plus en plus répandue, la confusion entre "blog" et "post/billet/article" est un cancer qui ronge la terminologie blogosphérique. Pour mémoire, un blog est un type de site composé d'une série d'articles (ou posts, ou billets). On ne dirait pas, dans le cas d'un magazine composé d'articles, "j'ai écrit un nouveau magazine" -- et donc on ne dit pas "j'ai écrit un nouveau blog sur le sujet".

Photographiez les coupables à coups de saisie d'écran et envoyez-les-moi -- je les ajouterai à la collection dans ce b... illet!

Lately, I (and others) have noticed an increasingly aggravating trend: saying “blog” instead of “post”.

To make it clear: a blog is a type of website, made of a collection of blog posts, or “posts”.

Just like a magazine is a collection of articles. You wouldn’t say “he just wrote a new magazine” instead of “he just wrote a new article”, would you?

So, you don’t say “to write a blog” instead of “to write a post”. It just doesn’t make sense.

I’ve started collecting screenshots of offenders and I’m collecting them here (Flickr tag: ablogisnotapost). Post your own screenshots on Flickr and I’ll add them to this blog… post (!) — with credit, linkage, and everything, of course. Just drop me a line or leave a comment with the link.

Let’s fight back and get all those newcomers to get their terminology straight before it’s too late!

“Blog” and “post” confusion — offenders

How to Make a Blog:

Confusing 'blog' and 'blog post'


E-mail with "blog" and "post" confusion


StumbleUpon » My Preferences

StumbleUpon » My Blog

Plasq, courtesy of Stowe Boyd:

plasq bad blog usage

Maria on Millions of Us, courtesy of Stowe Boyd (one could argue that this is, in fact, her “first blog”):

Her First Blog Ever

Foreign correspondent Telegraph Blog, courtesy of Adam Tinworth:

Not a Britney Blog - a Britney Post!

SAP Community Network:

SAP Blog_Post Confusion

Alan Patrick (his excuse: lots of beer and a late night, and an attempt at justification by invoking a semantic shift of the word “blog”):

broadstuff blog_post confusion

Dwayne Phillips commenting on /Message:

Comment on /Message, blog/post terminology confusion

Tim Berners-Lee himself :-( :

OMG. TBL himself calling a post a blog :-(

Send me yours!

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Posted in Language Geekiness | Tagged ablogisnotapost, blog, Blogger musings, blogging, campaign, language, Languages / Linguistics, post, screenshots, sendyours, stumbleupon, terminology | 15 Comments

Most People Are Multilingual

[fr] Une clarification de ce que j'entends par "la plupart des gens sont multilingues". Multilingues au sens large.

In a comment to my last post, Marie-Aude says I’m being a bit optimistic by stating that “most people are multilingual”. I’d like to clarify what I mean by that.

The “most people are multilingual” thing is not from me. I’ve seen it mentioned in varied settings, though I still need to find systematic studies to back it up (let me know if you have any handy).

It all depends how you define “multilingual”. If you define it in a broad sense (ie, school-level passive understanding of a language counts), then a little thinking shows it’s not that “optimistic”. Here is what would make somebody multilingual:

  • immigration, of course
  • learning a foreign language at school
  • living in a country with different linguistic groups.

Some examples:

  • in India, many people are fluent in their mother tongue, and to some extent in one of the countries official languages: Hindi or English
  • in the US, think about the huge immigrant population; the whole country was built upon immigration, come to think of it; in the bus in San Francisco, I often heard more foreign languages than English
  • again in the US (because the English-speaking world is seen as a big “monolingual” block), think of the increasingly important hispanic/latino population (people who will often have knowledge of both English and Spanish)
  • in most European countries, people learn at least one foreign language in school — even if it’s not used, most people retain at least some passive knowledge of it; I’m not sure about Asia, Africa, Southern America, Australia: does anybody know?

So, I don’t think it’s that optimistic to say most people are multilingual. To say that most people are “perfectly multilingual”, of course, is way off the mark. But most people understand more than one language, at least to some extent.

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Posted in Language Geekiness | Tagged foreign, knowledge, language, languages, Languages / Linguistics, learning, linguistics, multilingual, people, statistics, understanding, world | 13 Comments

Google Questions

[fr] Comment Google détermine-t-il (1) le pays d'où provient un site et (2) la langue d'une page? Pourquoi les résultats d'une recherche en français sont-ils différents, selon qu'on utilise google.ch ou google.fr?

So, I’m writing up a document for a client about search engine placement. Not really an SEO thing, more a “good search engine placement results from popularity and success, not the opposite” thing. Like, (gosh, am I being eloquent right now,) setting objectives like “be in the first three results for this or that keyword combination is not very realistic.”

Anyway, I’m stuck in the part about limiting seach to one country or a language (which is a “big thing” if you live outside Anglophonia and ambition to reach the local population). I realise that the way Google manages these different searches is not quite clear to me.


If you go to google.ch you can choose to do a search for “pages from Switzerland” (I’m using my name as a search term example). Or with google.fr, “pages from France” (language set to English both times so you can compare). My assumption (thanks shastry) is that they use server location for that. But is that all? (My server is in the US, so that explains why CTTS does not show up as a “Swiss” site.)


If I select French as the search language, I get different results whether I use google.ch or google.fr. I assume Google uses language detection — but why are the results different?

Thanks for any explanation which can help me see a bit more clearly.

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Posted in Language Geekiness | Tagged detection, Geek / Technical, google, internationalisation, internet, language, Languages / Linguistics, localisation, location, question, search, searchengine, Wanted | 14 Comments

Teenagers and Spelling

[fr] Pour moi, la dégradation constatée de l'orthographe des jeunes a principalement à voir avec le fait que leur pratique d'écriture a maintenant le plus souvent lieu dans des espaces "non normés" (c'est-à-dire en-dehors du milieu scolaire et "des adultes", où "écrire juste" est important). Les SMS font bien entendu partie de ces pratiques d'écriture, mais son caractère "court" a plutôt comme conséquence l'apparition d'abbréviations très tôt dans l'écriture des jeunes, plus que la "perte" (!) de notions grammaticales ou orthographiques.

Here’s a case of “comment or post?” where I first commented, but now am thinking that I would rather have posted. So I’m reproducing my comment to danah’s post titled dystruktshun of inglesh as we no (I know it’s in my comments page and embedded in the sidebar of the blog, but I need to remember that many of you read this blog through RSS):

As a French teacher, I was asked this question (are blogs destroying our children’s spelling?) a couple of years back. My take on it is that compared to 15-20 years ago, most of the kids’ “writing activity” goes on in uncontrolled environments. When I was at school, if I wrote, it was usually at school. With pressure to have correct spelling, or I’d have to correct it / get a bad mark. Or I’d be writing a letter to my Grandma (better check the spelling there too).

Today’s teen spends most of his/her writing time on IM, in e-mails or text messages, or in blogs/SN. Peer pressure to “write correctly” can’t really be said to exist.

Text messaging has brought to them abbreviations. I remember discovering (stupefied!) that one could abbreviate words when I was in 9th grade (tjs=toujours, bcp=beaucoup). Now, kids know all these — and many more “bastard abbreviations” (jta=je t’adore) that might make our older skin crawl.

I’d say that there are two ways in which teens’ writing today is “modified” by their writing habits:

  • peer spaces (“uncontrolled” regarding “proper writing”) => funky spelling and disregard for “grammatical rules”
  • length limitation (SMS) => abbreviations

One thing I wanted to add, which is “somewhat related”, is that historically, spelling stabilised when the printing press came into use. That explains why in French (and English too, for that matter) written spelling can be so widely different from pronunciation: the oral language has continued to shift, but our spelling has remained frozen. (If I’m saying stupid things here and you know better, let me know — but as far as I remember my linguistic courses from university this is how things happened.)

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Posted in Connected Life, Digital Youth, Language Geekiness | Tagged cellphone, Digital Youth, Education, evolution, grammar, language, Languages / Linguistics, linguistics, mobile, Online Culture, school, sms, spelling, teenagers, text, Writing | 13 Comments