vendredi 14 mars 2014

No more talks from Tony Benn

As is so often the way these days, I surmised the demise of a public figure by random occurrences in my Twitter timeline, such as this:
which is quite a nice way to get the sad news.

I did actually meet Tony Benn one day on Whitehall, sometime in 2003: opposing the invasion of Iraq, we were. He wasn't actually engaged on any more serious conversations at that moment, so I went up to him and shook his hand and told him how much I'd enjoyed a talk he'd given at Sheffield University Students' Union at the time of the miners' strike. He received the compliment without comment, smiled benignly and moved on. I was struck by how his dress sense resembled my father's: decent in a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches and brown trousers.
Anyway, here, in his memory, is the story he told, to that adoring student audience, back in 1983:

"So I was helping out on one of the miners' stalls outside a supermarket--we were gathering food, tins and whatnot, from the people coming out of the shop--when an old lady, obviously very deaf, came up and said [more than passable imitation of a Chesterfield accent] "What's going on 'ere then?"
"So, of course, I replied, we're collecting food for the miners, there's a strike on you know."
"And she replied, [more Chesterfield] Oh verra good. I'll 'ave a tin of beans then."
"And she took a tin of beans off the stall!"
[We all laughed with Tony, who of course had a wonderful beaming smile on his face as he told the story]
 "And of course, at the time I was flabbergasted, and I didn't know what to say. But I've thought about it, and you know, that old lady was right. Because that is what this strike is about: it's about defending the rights of ordinary people to live a decent life..."

Truly, a memorable homily. It was a big meeting: I'd say 1500 students had turned out to hear the great man, and we were not disappointed. He had that very rare talent, of great warmth and charm, and being able to put that over in a way that unites an audience.

Of course, he is as easy to criticise in hindsight as any of his contemporaries, left or right, but I think he was a very decent man, and I mourn his passing. Plenty of YouTubery out there to enjoy, but @medialens picked this one out, which does capture his late era persona rather nicely.

dimanche 2 mars 2014

Shocking resort to science to resolve question of English language usage

Almost two years ago, David Crystal posted a short article on his blog musing about when to use "for instance" and when to use "for example." Such pedantry is perhaps not the most thrilling topic, but I guess métier oblige, and Mme Beezer and I count ourselves among his fans: she even buys his books.

As Crystal was requesting the intuitions of his readers, and as anyone had yet to post, I thought it a reasonable opportunity for increasing my notoriety, and quickly drafted a few remarks. These stated my intuition that "for instance" was perhaps more likely to be used in spoken English, than "for example," and showed that "for example" was more common, citing evidence from the Google Books corpus. I also remarked that my hunch about spoken vs written usage would be testable, given access to the right corpus. Happily I managed to express all this, and still get the first post, which I'm sure are more read than others 'below the line'.

Even more happily, I'm now five weeks into the most excellent Future Learn MOOC on corpus linguistics, which has given me access to the British National Corpus, and some good teaching about to how to use it. Anyway, as we all now know on the course, the BNC comprises corpora of both transcribed speech and written texts, enabling me to test some of the intuitions I offered Crystal two years ago against hard data. Here's a table showing the relative frequencies of both terms in the spoken and written sections of the BNC:
For instance51.4976.61.49
For example106.25257.42.42
(freq/10^6 words)(freq/10^6 words)(ratio)
Data: British National Corpus hosted at
As you can see, the outnumbering of "for instance" by "for example" witnessed in the Google books corpus is replicated. I'm no statistician, but it does look as though "for instance" is relatively more favoured in speech than in writing, when compared with "for example."
As some of Crystal's other commentators (Lucy, Rick Sprague) remarked two years ago, fr'instance does slip more felicitously off the tongue, or, if you like that kinda thing, "is preferred for phonotactic reasons."