Against the Capitol I met a lion, Who glared upon me, and went surly by

It is, I believe, generally accepted that who can be used to refer to animals (or at least some animals, or at least under certain conditions). Thus, Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary has this entry (I’ve outlined the key part in red):


However, Merriam-Webster’s online learner’s dictionary has this entry:


No mentions that who can be used for animals. And it isn’t only MW. I checked six learner’s dictionaries and none of them said this was acceptable, or an option. This isn’t a huge deal, necessarily, but it can lead to confusion if, say, this has been taught as a ‘rule’ and then students read graded readers where the ‘rule’ is broken without any consequence (search for horse who, fish who, or monkey who in the Lextutor graded reader corpus, for example). Of course, there are tons of sources where students might encounter who being used for animals.

This came up because a student of mine had written “I don’t want a dog who is so big” and a peer suggested it should be which. And that’s FINE. It can be which :-). Or that :-). But it can also be who :-D.

For teachers who like to do consciousness raising or language awareness activities, this kind of situation provides opportunities for discussions of things like what if you read/hear some language in real life that doesn’t seem to match what the dictionary/grammar guide says, analyzing  lines of ‘controversial’ lexicogrammar patterns, or formulating ideas about why people choose to use who, or which, or maybe that in different circumstances (does it seem ok for certain animals but not others? is it special for pets? does it change the meaning/tone/nuance?).

Of course, the underlying ideas could be applied to other language questions, too. So, in general, the ‘corpus lesson’ here is that corpora can be used to explore alternatives to more conventional patterns and aid in developing greater language awareness. Corpus-use can be applied to not just learning frequent or common patterns of expression, but to expanding the ways in which learners are able to express themselves.

While talking about this with another teacher, it was suggested that maybe the learner’s dictionaries (and perhaps some other learner-oriented materials) don’t acknowledge who for animals as acceptable because it’s new (recent) and thus ‘non-standard’. But I have trouble seeing which of these would be considered ‘non-standard’ (in fact, I doubt that in many cases fluent English users would even notice this usage unless it were pointed out or they were looking for it). And it’s not really a recent thing, is it?:

Against the Capitol I met a lion,

Who glared upon me, and went surly by

Julius Caesar, 1.3 20-21

This corpus-based analysis (Gilquin & Jacobs, 2006) of who being used with animals may also be of interest.

Alive (and a meta-analysis)

Well, that was a longer break from blogging than I expected. I’ve had a tremendously busy winter, but hopefully I can get back to updating more frequently.

The first item on my list is to mention that Boulton & Cobb’s meta-analysis of DDL has been published. It adds context, detail, and discussion to their earlier slides.

It’s not a quick read, but the short version is that DDL works quite well in general; there are very encouraging results and several medium-to-large effect sizes were found. Going forward there needs to be more fine-grained research on for whom, for what, under what conditions, and for how long does DDL work well. They also make some important points about what information needs to be included in the future by researchers doing quantitative work on DDL.

To not mention*, it just feels right

@anthonyteacher has a great post at his site discussing the patterns “not to VERB” and “to not VERB”. He writes about his students’ reactions to the constructions, his own view, and some findings from Google N-grams and COCA. You should read his post in full.

I basically agree with everything he says, with one point he makes that I would like to extend a little bit. So I’d like to highlight this paragraph from his post, and especially the statement I put in red:

All of this data tells me several things. First, “to not” is on the rise, most likely due to the fact that the ability to separate an infinitive has become more accepted and “to not” has probably rolled in through a snowball effect. Second, the placement of “not” does not necessarily imply emphasis, as can be seen in the sentences above. Third, while my speech may make some of the older generations shake their first with anger, possibly telling me I am killing English, I can now reply confidently that my speech is the vanguard of an English where “not” is as placement-fluid as “they” is gender-fluid. My speech may be a speech that is likely to boldly go where few have gone before. Or to not boldly go, because language change is really unpredictable, and this is just a tiny thing.

I chose to highlight this section because I felt that sometimes my own choices regarding placement of “not” are definitely, if not necessarily, done for emphasis, but after thinking about it I don’t think it is a matter of placing emphasis per se. Rather, it is about restricting possible meanings/uses.

Let me explain. Here are two partial lines from COCA (query terms: not to mention):

1) … He would talk only if I promised not to mention he lived in …

2) … But tours and marketing materials, not to mention data on the average student, won’t tell you if that college will …

In the first line, I, personally, would probably phrase that as “to not mention”, though not necessarily. The point is that both constructions feel natural to me. However, I can’t imagine myself saying that about the second line. To me, and the way I’m processing these constructions, the first line’s meaning is straightforward, but the second line’s meaning is based on my understanding of “not to mention” as a fixed or partially fixed expression in this instance.

In this case, the construction is not simply negating the mentioning of something (in fact, the thing in question is explicitly and necessarily mentioned/understood). Indeed, the online Cambridge Dictionary, for example, defines “not to mention” as a phrase used when you want to emphasize something that you are adding to a list.

So, generally speaking, I process “to not VERB” as basically interchangeable with “not to VERB” (with a personal preference for “to not VERB”) when the meaning is straightforward (i.e. negating the verb). But “not to VERB”, perhaps because of it’s associations with certain fixed expressions, seems to me to have a broader range of usage. Something like this:

“not to VERB”: can negate the verb or have idiomatic/figurative meaning and usage

“to not VERB”: restricted to negating the verb

Here is a sample of COCA lines from @anthonyteacher ‘s post:


All the “to not VERB” uses here have meanings that can be understood as simply negating the verb. I suspect it would be this way throughout all the lines.

At least, until the language changes some more 😉

If I have said something glaringly, obviously wrong please tell me. Or if you have evidence of “to not VERB” used in an idiomatic/figurative way, please share it. Or if you have better choices for terminology etc. etc. etc. …

That rule that you don’t know that you know you know…is not a rule

A couple weeks ago a tweet from Matthew Anderson of the BBC blew up a little bit. The tweet had an excerpt from Mark Forsyth’s book The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase. The excerpt asserted that “adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac.”

The tweet has more than 51,000 retweets and nearly 75,000 likes. It has also spawned articles like the following:

And a bunch more.

This is too credulous. Fortunately, Language Log was asked about the claim and explained how adjective order is not so simple. And many folks have put forth “big bad wolf” (size-opinion) as a clear violation of this so-called rule.

Forsyth responded by saying “big bad wolf” is actually a case of ablaut reduplication (think of words like zig-zag or tick-tock, they are never zag-zig or tock-tick) and, I think, he’s saying that this means it’s not subject to the rule that “adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order”. If that’s the case, then absolute ≠ absolute.

But even if we let there be an exception for ablaut reduplication and decide that the ‘absolute’ rule for adjective order doesn’t apply in such cases, does the rule hold otherwise?

We can look for evidence.

The Language Log article mentioned above noted several hits in COCA for patterns that don’t fit the rule, including “big ugly”. I got on COCA myself to see what some of the concordance lines looked like, and ran a few other searches as well (other than “big ugly”, in the searches I purposely used words found in the example from the excerpt). Here are a few of the many, many hits that violate the ‘rule’:

Adjective pattern: size-opinion; Search terms: big ugly

  • This is a cute little town with a big ugly fire problem right now
  • On the platform was a big ugly man who talked loud and waved his arms around until his face was red
  • The construction of the big ugly office building was going very well

Adjective pattern: material-origin; Search terms: silver [j*] [nn*]

  • We gave her a small silver Ethiopian cross because we knew she was a devout Catholic

Adjective pattern: color-shape; Search terms: green [j*]

  • Inside the matchbox were nine little green triangular pills
  • One torn green triangular corner of the murdered Slap-of-Wack bar blows across the desert
  • he takes his pass from its slot in the green rectangular pass book before adding his name and time of departure to the long list

Adjective pattern: age-opinion, size-opinion; Search terms: [j*] lovely

  • seemed infinitely more beautiful for the presence of this new lovely white figure in their midst
  • At the doorway to the kitchen stood a tall lovely woman with long black hair and wearing a pink linen dress

None of these constructions sound maniacal.

I think the pattern Forsyth describes is a general preference for order that is usually going to result in good patterning, but it’s definitely not an absolute rule. The rules governing adjective order are messier than that (see the Language Log post). I only felt the need to comment and remark on it because I noticed several ELT-related accounts passing it around and I thought “Really?? Did anyone check the data??” This post doesn’t have anything really in the way of using corpora in the classroom or anything like that, but hopefully it can be a reminder that corpora are excellent reference tools (especially to check sketchy ‘rules’).


I realized someone might object to the “silver Ethiopian cross” example since an Ethiopian cross is a particular style of cross. So here’s a different example from COCA that demonstrates the same pattern of material-origin (search terms: wooden [j*] boat):

  • a traditional wooden Bahamian boat hand-built in the early 1960’s

DDL meta analysis

Last month some PPT slides on a meta analysis of DDL by Thomas Cobb and Alex Boulton were uploaded to the Lextutor FB group. (h/t MuraNava)

You can peruse the slides yourself, but one of the findings I found interesting was that while the best results seemed to be concentrated in learners of intermediate to advanced proficiency, lower proficiency learners also had generally good results, suggesting educators don’t need to be afraid of introducing DDL techniques with those lower proficiency learners.

For comparison with some older work, here are links to a preliminary meta analysis investigation by Cobb and Boulton; and a meta analysis limited to DDL in Japan by Mizumoto and Chujo.

Computer concordancing history

This is a follow-up to one of my posts yesterday.

I was reading a very interesting Language Log post on Digital Humanities which made reference to Michael Preston’s “A brief history of computer concordances“.  While Preston’s article focuses more on ‘lit’ than ‘lang’ applications, it provides a succinct history of how computer concordancing has developed since its early days using tools such as punch cards. I also enjoy learning about how attitudes toward computation have evolved over time, and this article touches on that as well.