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Separated by a common blah blah blah

I love reading the kind of English that English people write. It’s the same language as American but just slightly different. I was thinking about this recently after coming across this footnote from “Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop,” by Bob Stanley:

Mantovani’s atmospheric arrangement on ‘Care Mia’, I should add, is something else. Genuinely celestial. If anyone with a degree of subtlety was singing, it would be quite a record.

It’s hard for me to pin down exactly what makes this passage specifically English, but there’s something about it . . .

P.S. Mark Liberman reports that, in combination, several of the words and phrases in the above quote indeed supply strong evidence (“odds of better than 50 to 1 in favor of a British origin”).

22 Comments

  1. Rahul says:

    +1

    I’m also a fan of the older generation of scientific / engineering writers. Books and papers before 1960 or so tend to have crispness and a peculiar wit even in technical writing. That’s sadly a lost art in modern academic writing.

    • Entsophy says:

      That is so very true. Just about anything written in math, physics or statistics between say 1850-1950 in English is in an absolute pleasure to read. 95% of everything written since about 1970 or so is unbearable.

      Incidentally in terms of absolute productivity, or better yet productivity/scientist or even productivity/research-dollar, how would any 43 year period chosen at random from 1850-1950 compare to the period 1973-2013?

      • Entsophy says:

        Note: by ‘productivity’ I don’t mean ‘papers published’. Peer reviewed journal articles are a highly gamed scam today. I’m talking about advances that made a real difference to the wider world.

      • Andrew says:

        Joseph:

        You write, “Just about anything written in math, physics or statistics between say 1850-1950 in English is in an absolute pleasure to read. 95% of everything written since about 1970 or so is unbearable.”

        Don’t forget survivorship bias! There was all sorts of crappy stuff from 1910 or whatever that’s been justly forgotten; what survives is the good stuff. In contrast, recent crappy stuff is much more accessible.

        There might be something to what you’re saying—after all, the barriers to publication were higher in the old days, and it’s reasonable to suppose that (a) people put more effort into what they wrote, and (b) lots of drafts in the old days never got published, whereas now there’s an outlet for anything. Still, I do think that selection bias will affect any simple comparison based on publications you’ll have happened to have seen.

        • Entsophy says:

          Survivorship bias is a real possibility. I make a point of reading original sources as much as possible, but they’re all things which survived a century or more of weeding out.

          It’s definitely possible though that they wrote that way because they had absorbed the style of writing and science common at the time. A few weeks back I read an older translation (from before 1950) of Mendel’s original genetics paper (the one Fisher critiqued and claimed may been data-fudged). This guy was a friar outside the scientific establishment, but his paper has that same quality Raul was talking about. Even if his results had of turned out to be crap, at least it would have been well written crap.

          I don’t think this change is unique to science either. In Ulysses S Grant’s war autobiography there are some examples of orders he’d written to his generals. They were composed and written by him, with few corrections, usually in appalling conditions. Yet 150 years later the orders are crystal clear. They have a quality and style very similar to scientific papers of the time.

          I’ve experienced first hand op orders in Iraq directed at field armies about the same size as Grant commanded. They were difficult to read at the time and are already largely incomprehensible to anyone but specialist historians less than a decade later.

        • I don’t think it’s survivor bias. The style of 1890–1910 is very different from today’s. To see for yourself, just query [statistics] on Google Scholar and restrict the date range. Now I want Google Translate to offer a target option of Quaintspeak.

          Personally, I prefer more modern writing in both science and fiction, not to mention science fiction.

        • We Yanks just can’t match the Brits when it comes to litotes and meiosis. Speaking of which, I used to think Monty Python and Agatha Christie were broad farce until I spent three years in the UK, after which I realized they’re just social realism.

          • Entsophy says:

            I spent 8 formative years in the UK because my Dad was stationed there. I can definitely relate.

            Love the name “Quaintspeak”.

            I found the writing styles of Grant, Gibbs, and Maxwell, who were all writing around the 1860-70s to be noticeably similar. They were all the same kind of Quaintspeak. There are personal differences. Grant placed a premium on clarity. Gibbs was excruciatingly methodical. Maxwell portrayed a senior wrangler Feynman-esque style of virtuoso mathematician. The two American’s had a little more of the American plain spokenness. But really overall they had surprising similar writing styles to my eyes.

            Another thing is that while they all used specialized vocabulary to get domain specific points across, it almost doesn’t seem like it. They never use acronyms or purposefully jargon-y language. They seemed to stick with a smaller core of time-tested jargon of the kind which often enters mainstream English.

            • Robert Grant says:

              I particularly admire the helpful, didactic tone evident in pre-80s stats papers, Sir David Cox being the exemplar. I think that really has changed in favour of “crisper, more mathematical exposition” (as an editor once told me to be). I’d like to think that the influence of blogging and the like will shift scientific language back to a less formal tone.
              I should look up some of General Grant’s writing. If I like it I might claim to be related.

        • Rahul says:

          One point I noticed is that older writers are more open to an anecdotal style where they draw up on their professional experience and stories shared by colleagues, the insider scoops, the grapevine etc. At least in Engineering. They are more likely to express an “opinion”.

          The newer breed tries to be more dry and objective. It’s a noble goal but in the process the work often becomes boring to read.

          Another factor is what I call the “delta+” books. A lot of new authors rarely have as much new insight to add to a subject. Many of the oldies were true pioneers writing about stuff that perhaps had never been written about before. I guess that’s a natural development to be expected.

          But I do wish academics wrote *less* books! Don’t write one unless you have something really important and novel to say!

          e.g. In undergraduate Chemical Engineering classes the Thermodynamics books written in the 1960’s or 1970’w are classics and what they have to say is pretty much what you need to know. Even 50 years later. Perhaps with some ammendments or chapters added to reflect the use of computers or a few modified correlations etc.

          Yet there’s a hundred new books coming up a decade which are often lower in quality and at best equal but so what? A lot of this unnecessary book publication stems from weird incentives: The ego boost from having written a book, the heft it adds to your Resume, and the politics that can allow you to force classes at your university to use your crappy book just because a local professor wrote it.

          • Meic Goodyear says:

            In BrENG we would say *fewer* books rather than *less* books,as “fewer” applies to what we count and “less” applies to what we measure.

            I doubt many people would regard Fisher’s prose as a pleasure to read, but that of the late Dutch computer scientist Edsger Dijkstra are an absolute joy. There are exceptions to just about any rule.

            • Entsophy says:

              I don’t know about his books, but Fisher’s papers are a pleasure to read. Most stat papers today pad the first 2-5 pages with “throat clearing” before getting to any kind of point. In that same space, Fisher would have stated the problem, solved it, and be done with the whole mess.

            • As for “fewer” and “less”:

              http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003775.html

              As is so often the case when it comes to language “rules”, what was once asserted as a preference by one writer turned into a “rule.”

              • Nick Cox says:

                With this rule (“fewer” or “less”) and many others, it becomes more a matter of social etiquette than of linguistic correctness. For example, regarding split infinitives as wrong in English is just a prejudice based on a false analogy with Latin. But anyone who was taught dogmatically at an early age, as I was, that you should never split infinitives remains trained (conditioned, even) to try hard never to split infinitives, even if they know the rule has little or no basis.

                So, the reasoning is often that some large percent won’t care what you write and some small percent will care, and politeness means that you pander to the sensitive, regardless of linguistic right or wrong.

                For the same reason, I don’t think it’s acceptable to use expletives in a forum like this, but clearly that’s not a universal attitude.

                On English and American: few things are more characteristically “American” (itself a very troubling word, given two continents and one nation-state) than being sloppy about the difference between “British” and “English”.

          • Entsophy says:

            Rahul, I agree 100%.

            I love the fact that in times past if a scientist was merely thinking about something, they could openly say so. Instead of hiding that fact behind a mountain of scientific bureaucratese, they’d just say “I was thinking speculatively about XYZ today” and get on with it. I don’t know what unholy disaster people think would befall science if papers were that plainspoken today, but I don’t see any.

  2. jonathan says:

    Two things leap out, the “I should add” uses “should” which is uncommon in American and American would tend to use “someone” instead of “anyone”. The gist is American is more direct, while English is more diffident, as seen in “quite a record” with its hint of inspecificity. American might rewrite the last sentence as, “It would be a great recording if someone good was singing” because American tends toward affirmative statements.

    • Lord says:

      Yes, the parenthetical “I should add” would have been treated as superfluous, and the inverted form of the last sentence would have been reversed, for directness and simplicity, a newspaper style for an eighth grade audience.

  3. Dan Simpson says:

    I would point to the gloriously bitchy counterfactual as the thing that I think is the most wonderfully, passive agressively British-ism. (Although, I think the author dodged the subjunctive ["If anyone... were singing"], which would’ve made it even more wonderful.) It’s very different to the way that American authors tend to go for the throat (see, for example, Renata Adler’s glorious hatchet job on New Yorker critic Pauline Kael http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1980/aug/14/the-perils-of-pauline/)

  4. Simon Martin says:

    Does anybody know if there was a change in the cost per page of publishing books and journals in the late sixties/early seventies? If it became less risky to publish a book then the publishing houses may well have reduced the level of scrutiny that books received.

  5. jrkrideau says:

    I would suggest that a major change in the last 30 years is the lack of good gramatical training in schools. I was reading a short article in the local university student newspaper where the author (a fourth year student IIRC) stated that she had taken an introductory Latin course and it was the first time she had ever learned anything about sentence structure.

    Oh, and someone I know who is getting her high school diploma at the ripe old age of 30 stated that her English instructor was amazed that she actually knew how to properly use a semi-colon!

    Most authors, 50 years ago and more, would have had intensive training in English and Latin plus most likely one or two other languages so that they understood how sentences are constructed.

  6. Seriously, would any American in the 21st century write with a straight face in praise of Mantovanni? Celestial? How about saccharine?

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