Nonsensical English...

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ElWanderer
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Re: Nonsensical English...

Postby ElWanderer » Thu Jul 26, 2012 10:12 am UTC

Eugo wrote:And now for something completely different. The nonsensical expression that I spy is "you have a balance on your account". Nonsense, because it now means "you don't have a balance on your account". An account has a balance if credit and debit balance out to a cent. I can only guess how "balance" went from "the sides are of equal weight" to "the difference between the sides".

The etymology of the word balance is "From Middle French balance, from Late Latin *bilancia, from (accusative form of) Latin bilanx (“two-scaled”), from bi- + lanx (“plate, scale”)." i.e. the "initial" meaning was a set of scales with two plates... most of the meanings that followed refer in some way to comparing the weight or import of things. Sometimes we're interested in whether things are equal, sometimes we're interested in the difference between them.

Wikitionary has 11 (!) different definitions for the noun form of balance; here are a select four:
Wikitionary wrote:1. (uncountable) a state in which opposing forces harmonise; equilibrium

6. (uncountable) the overall result of conflicting forces, opinions etc.; the influence which ultimately "weighs" more than others
The balance of power finally lay with the Royalist forces.
I think the balance of opinion is that we should get out while we're ahead.

8. (accounting) a list accounting for the debits on one side, and for the credits on the other.

9. (accounting) the result of such a procedure [in definition 8]; the difference between credit and debit of an account.
I just need to nip to a bank and check my balance.

It's definition 9 that is common when talking about the balance of a bank account. Switching to verbs, balancing the books (trying not to spend more money than you've got coming in) is also fairly common, though in colloquial terms the preference is not to get the two to match exactly - people usually like to spend less than is going out so that they're making a profit or building up a cash reserve! I did work experience at an accountantancy firm and while all the debits and credits in the accounts book had to add up to the same numbers (or the computer would reject it), usually the actual final bank balance was one of those figures. If your firm has spent £100 on something and received £150 in payment, there will be £50 either cash in hand or sat in the bank account.
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Re: Nonsensical English...

Postby Eugo » Thu Jul 26, 2012 11:03 am UTC

ElWanderer wrote:It's definition 9 that is common when talking about the balance of a bank account.

This custom of adding more meanings to a word is what led to this nonsense - that the meaning #9 is a negation of #1.
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Re: Nonsensical English...

Postby Derek » Fri Jul 27, 2012 12:32 am UTC

Eugo wrote:
ElWanderer wrote:It's definition 9 that is common when talking about the balance of a bank account.

This custom of adding more meanings to a word is what led to this nonsense - that the meaning #9 is a negation of #1.

No it's not, they're different things. One refers to a state of equality, the other refers to a difference of accounts. In fact it is entirely possible for your balance to be in balance.

Of course, auto-antonyms are a thing. "Prescribe" is a good example in English, it can mean to prohibit or to require. But "balance" isn't one of them.

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Re: Nonsensical English...

Postby Eugo » Fri Jul 27, 2012 6:53 am UTC

Derek wrote:
Eugo wrote:
ElWanderer wrote:It's definition 9 that is common when talking about the balance of a bank account.

This custom of adding more meanings to a word is what led to this nonsense - that the meaning #9 is a negation of #1.

No it's not, they're different things. One refers to a state of equality, the other refers to a difference of accounts. In fact it is entirely possible for your balance to be in balance.

Of course, auto-antonyms are a thing. "Prescribe" is a good example in English, it can mean to prohibit or to require. But "balance" isn't one of them.

I beg to differ. While it may be possible for the balance to be in balance, such a condition is not true if the balance shows, or has, a balance.

IOW, auto-antonyms feel like nonsense (or even doublespeak) to me. They may be the place where ambiguity, otherwise absent from the language, may creep in.
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Re: Nonsensical English...

Postby Wlerin » Fri Jul 27, 2012 11:09 am UTC

Derek wrote:Of course, auto-antonyms are a thing. "Prescribe" is a good example in English, it can mean to prohibit or to require. But "balance" isn't one of them.

What. Prescribe doesn't mean prohibit. Ever. At least not until the first vowel fades into a schwa. You're thinking of proscribe.


Some of the other examples on that page are rather questionable too, but eh. It's a sign of a living language. Show me a language that's without ambiguity, and I'll show you a dead language (or one that is ambiguous and you just didn't notice).


As to balance, the meaning of balance is to measure two different weights by equalizing them, i.e. by measuring the difference. When you balance your account, you measure the difference between your credit and your debit. That difference is your balance (noun).

When you measure, e.g. the weight of a bowl of rice on a balance, what matters isn't that you bring both sides into equilibrium, what matters is how much weight it took to do so.
Last edited by Wlerin on Fri Jul 27, 2012 11:33 am UTC, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Nonsensical English...

Postby Derek » Fri Jul 27, 2012 11:28 am UTC

Wlerin wrote:
Derek wrote:Of course, auto-antonyms are a thing. "Prescribe" is a good example in English, it can mean to prohibit or to require. But "balance" isn't one of them.

What. Prescribe doesn't mean prohibit. Ever. At least not until the first vowel fades into a schwa. You're thinking of proscribe.

Ah, sorry, you're right, I got confused by the near or true (depending on dialect) homonymy of them, let me give some other examples to make up for it:
"Let" can mean to allow or to prohibit (the latter mostly archaic, but found in the phrase "Without let or hindrance")
"Fast" can mean moving quickly, or secured in place.
"Overlook" can mean to avoid seeing, or to watch over.
"Sanction" can mean to allow or prohibit (this example, which I couldn't quite put my finger on yesterday, also contributed to my confusion with "prescribe")

Another homonym example (true auto-antonyms in speech, but not in writing) is "raise" and "raze".

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Re: Nonsensical English...

Postby Wlerin » Fri Jul 27, 2012 11:37 am UTC

Fast is debatable, as those aren't really opposites (I move quite fast while buckled fast in the driver's seat, for example). And saying sanction is an auto-antonym is like saying law is an auto-antonym, just because you can make laws for or against a thing. But yeah, we do have them.

edit: Some of the others on that page seem to result chiefly from first arbitrarily limiting the meaning of a word, then finding another meaning that contradicts that meaning. For example, "to dust" more or less just means "do something with dust". It just so happens that the most popular things to do with dust are remove it or add it. The example of French hôte is likely a similar case, especially since the Latin root has an even wider range of meaning.

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Re: Nonsensical English...

Postby Derek » Fri Jul 27, 2012 5:52 pm UTC

Wlerin wrote:edit: Some of the others on that page seem to result chiefly from first arbitrarily limiting the meaning of a word, then finding another meaning that contradicts that meaning. For example, "to dust" more or less just means "do something with dust". It just so happens that the most popular things to do with dust are remove it or add it. The example of French hôte is likely a similar case, especially since the Latin root has an even wider range of meaning.

That's an etymological explanation for the existence of auto-antonyms, and it is the source of many (most?) of them. But "dust" does not just mean "do something with dust". It means "to remove dust" in one definition, and "to add dust" in another (as well as I'm sure many others), so it's definitely an auto-antonym.

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Re: Nonsensical English...

Postby RebeccaRGB » Sat Jul 28, 2012 3:44 am UTC

The auto-antonym I've always heard as an example is cleave, which can mean either to split apart or to stick together. I'm surprised it hasn't been brought up yet, because I've heard it enough to get tired of it being used as an example. :)

Table is another one, meaning either to present or to withdraw, but I think that's more a U.S. vs. U.K. thing (though I can never remember which one is which).
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Re: Nonsensical English...

Postby Wlerin » Sat Jul 28, 2012 5:19 am UTC

Derek wrote:But "dust" does not just mean "do something with dust". It means "to remove dust" in one definition, and "to add dust" in another (as well as I'm sure many others), so it's definitely an auto-antonym.

No... like... I'm not going to argue this point further, but the verb dust is just the noun verbed. Anything you can do with dust, or which dust can "do", can be described with the verb "dust".

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Re: Nonsensical English...

Postby Eugo » Sat Jul 28, 2012 5:23 am UTC

Wlerin wrote:No... like... I'm not going to argue this point further, but the verb dust is just the noun verbed. Anything you can do with dust, or which dust can "do", can be described with the verb "dust".

Which, again, introduces no ambiguity at all, as proven by http://xkcd.com/1087/.
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Re: Nonsensical English...

Postby Iulus Cofield » Sat Jul 28, 2012 7:58 am UTC

I eagerly await Gmalivuk's explanation of how there is no ambiguity in the comic's referenced sentence.

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Re: Nonsensical English...

Postby gmalivuk » Sat Jul 28, 2012 8:39 am UTC

I've never denied that sentences can be ambiguous, though.
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Re: Nonsensical English...

Postby Derek » Sat Jul 28, 2012 1:31 pm UTC

RebeccaRGB wrote:Table is another one, meaning either to present or to withdraw, but I think that's more a U.S. vs. U.K. thing (though I can never remember which one is which).

Yeah, I don't think you can count that one because within one dialect it only means one of those.

No... like... I'm not going to argue this point further, but the verb dust is just the noun verbed. Anything you can do with dust, or which dust can "do", can be described with the verb "dust".

You're right that it's a verbed noun, but that doesn't mean that anything you do with dust can be described as "dusting". Wiktionary lists four definitions for "to dust", the first two are about removing dust, the second two are about adding dust.

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Re: Nonsensical English...

Postby goofy » Sat Jul 28, 2012 2:49 pm UTC

Wlerin wrote:Fast is debatable, as those aren't really opposites (I move quite fast while buckled fast in the driver's seat, for example).


I don't see how your example is relevant. One meaning is "unmoving", another meaning is "moving quickly". How are those not opposites.

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Re: Nonsensical English...

Postby ElWanderer » Mon Jul 30, 2012 12:09 pm UTC

Eugo wrote:
Wlerin wrote:No... like... I'm not going to argue this point further, but the verb dust is just the noun verbed. Anything you can do with dust, or which dust can "do", can be described with the verb "dust".

Which, again, introduces no ambiguity at all, as proven by http://xkcd.com/1087/.

I'm bemused that you seem to think the joke in the comic ("...a pig named Wilbur who is saved from being slaughtered by an intelligent spider named Charlotte." - is Charlotte doing the slaughtering or the saving?) relies on the same ambiguity as to whether "I'm dusting x" involves adding dust to x, or taking away dust from x. You can remove all ambiguity from the dust example by adding the context of what you're dusting with (as well as what you're dusting) e.g. I'm dusting the crops with insecticides versus I'm dusting the shelves with a cloth. To remove the ambiguity from the Charlotte's Web description, it needs to be rearranged or have an explanation tacked on to the end, Terry Pratchett-style*.

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Re: Nonsensical English...

Postby Eugo » Mon Jul 30, 2012 12:48 pm UTC

ElWanderer wrote:I'm bemused that you seem to think the joke in the comic ("...a pig named Wilbur who is saved from being slaughtered by an intelligent spider named Charlotte." - is Charlotte doing the slaughtering or the saving?) relies on the same ambiguity as to whether "I'm dusting x" involves adding dust to x, or taking away dust from x.

The reason or mechanism of introducing ambiguity was not my concern, just its existence. Is it there or not.

You can remove all ambiguity from the dust example by adding the context of what you're dusting with (as well as what you're dusting) e.g. I'm dusting the crops with insecticides versus I'm dusting the shelves with a cloth. To remove the ambiguity from the Charlotte's Web description, it needs to be rearranged or have an explanation tacked on to the end, Terry Pratchett-style*.

* "Patrician attacks man with knife (the patrician had the knife not the man)" - The Ankh-Morpork Times

Ah, indeed. I can remove ambiguity. Because it was there to be removed, ergo it existed, Q.E.D.
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Re: Nonsensical English...

Postby Wlerin » Mon Jul 30, 2012 2:14 pm UTC

Derek wrote:
No... like... I'm not going to argue this point further, but the verb dust is just the noun verbed. Anything you can do with dust, or which dust can "do", can be described with the verb "dust".

You're right that it's a verbed noun, but that doesn't mean that anything you do with dust can be described as "dusting". Wiktionary lists four definitions for "to dust", the first two are about removing dust, the second two are about adding dust.

Because those are the only things we currently do with dust. If we had other activities that commonly involved doing something with dust, the verb could also be used for them.

goofy wrote:
Wlerin wrote:Fast is debatable, as those aren't really opposites (I move quite fast while buckled fast in the driver's seat, for example).

I don't see how your example is relevant. One meaning is "unmoving", another meaning is "moving quickly". How are those not opposites.

Because unmoving is a mischaracterisation of the second fast. It means tightly, firmly. I gave that example, and I'll admit it was not a very good one, because the "quick" meaning of fast derives from the "strong, firm" meaning.

Eugo wrote:
Wlerin wrote:No... like... I'm not going to argue this point further, but the verb dust is just the noun verbed. Anything you can do with dust, or which dust can "do", can be described with the verb "dust".

Which, again, introduces no ambiguity at all, as proven by http://xkcd.com/1087/.

Um... what? What do these have to do with each other?


Eugo wrote:The reason or mechanism of introducing ambiguity was not my concern, just its existence. Is it there or not.

So then what is your point? I believe I already said that all living languages have ambiguity. In general the more actively used the language, the more potential ambiguity.

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Re: Nonsensical English...

Postby Eugo » Mon Jul 30, 2012 7:05 pm UTC

Wlerin wrote:So then what is your point? I believe I already said that all living languages have ambiguity. In general the more actively used the language, the more potential ambiguity.

It's a long standing dispute between gmalivuk and me, where he says there is no ambiguity in english (because the language has the tools to avoid it, or some such argument), and tries to disprove every example I bring.

My other point in that dispute was that it's a bit more frequent in english than any other language I know (but there may be other such languages) because it has a high rate of polysemy, heavily relies on context (while the number of situations where context is reduced or absent grows - various captions, signs, one-line texting etc).
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Re: Nonsensical English...

Postby gmalivuk » Mon Jul 30, 2012 7:31 pm UTC

Eugo wrote:he says there is no ambiguity in english
Nope, I'm pretty sure that's not what I say.
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Re: Nonsensical English...

Postby Eugo » Mon Jul 30, 2012 9:48 pm UTC

gmalivuk wrote:Nope, I'm pretty sure that's not what I say.

Probably so. Just an impression I got. May have understood you in a wrong way.
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Re: Nonsensical English...

Postby tetromino » Tue Jul 31, 2012 5:02 am UTC

Eugo wrote:As a kid, I was thoroughly confused with the registered mail form, where it listed various options and the instruction above the list was "nepotrebno precrtati" (unnecessary to strike). It took me years to understand that the infinitive here was used as imperative (as was deemed the polite way in some legalese dialects), so it actually meant "do strike the unnecessary", i.e. strike the options you don't want.
This example is pretty interesting to me. In Russian, the equivalent bureaucratic phrase ("cross out [the items that are] not needed") would read «ненужное вычеркнуть» (transliterated as nenuzhnoye vycherknut'). However, that phrase would not be ambiguous, for two reasons:
  1. the adjective meaning "not needed" («ненужное», nenuzhnoye) is spelled and pronounced differently from the predicative expression meaning "it is not needed" («не нужно», ne nuzhno); and
  2. the phrase uses the perfective aspect form of the verb "to cross out" («вычеркнуть», vycherknut'), and its object, whether explicit or implied, must always be definite (e.g. "the items that are not needed"). If you want to say that "it's not needed to cross [any stuff] out", then the object of the verb is indefinite, forcing you to use the imperfective form of "to cross out" («вычёркивать», vychyorkivat').
So I was surprised that the phrase nepotrebno precrtati can be ambiguous in Serbian; after all, the languages are very close.

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Re: Nonsensical English...

Postby Eugo » Tue Jul 31, 2012 6:08 am UTC

tetromino wrote:This example is pretty interesting to me. In Russian, the equivalent bureaucratic phrase ("cross out [the items that are] not needed") would read «ненужное вычеркнуть» (transliterated as nenuzhnoye vycherknut'). However, that phrase would not be ambiguous, for two reasons:
  1. the adjective meaning "not needed" («ненужное», nenuzhnoye) is spelled and pronounced differently from the predicative expression meaning "it is not needed" («не нужно», ne nuzhno); and
  2. the phrase uses the perfective aspect form of the verb "to cross out" («вычеркнуть», vycherknut'), and its object, whether explicit or implied, must always be definite (e.g. "the items that are not needed"). If you want to say that "it's not needed to cross [any stuff] out", then the object of the verb is indefinite, forcing you to use the imperfective form of "to cross out" («вычёркивать», vychyorkivat').
So I was surprised that the phrase nepotrebno precrtati can be ambiguous in Serbian; after all, the languages are very close.

It could as well been the same phrase, considering how much USSR was officially imitated in many ways in the early years. And it could have been unambiguous in serbian as well in several ways, but it used the neutral gender adjective in acusative, which is always the same as the adverb (which leads to some ambiguity, of course - a regular weak spot). Even the wrong meaning I found in it is actually missing the auxiliary verb - "it is unnecessary to strike out" should be said "nepotrebno je precrtati", but this little piece of paper was already in the context of bureaucratic speech, where they omit words here and there, use infinitives where everybody else uses imperative etc etc.

And the postal practice didn't help either. The clauses listed had names that people didn't use, and they weren't clear to most people, so the postal clerk would fill those parts of the form - and never by striking the unused words, but rather by circling the one used. This much context actually confirmed my belief that one doesn't need to strike anything, one should draw an ellipse instead.
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Re: Nonsensical English...

Postby Daimon » Wed Aug 01, 2012 2:41 am UTC

"Be that as it may"

I don't know about anyone else, but I can't conciously comprehend this phrase; I understand it, but I can't comprehend it. Or was it the other way around? I know what it means subconciously. :roll:

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Re: Nonsensical English...

Postby tetromino » Wed Aug 01, 2012 5:06 am UTC

Daimon wrote:"Be that as it may"

I don't know about anyone else, but I can't conciously comprehend this phrase; I understand it, but I can't comprehend it. Or was it the other way around? I know what it means subconciously. :roll:
Your confusion is understandable. The phrase "be that as it may" uses the adverb "as" in an old-fashioned manner, and includes a verb in the subjunctive, which tends to trip up modern English speakers.

Here's the breakdown:
  • "be" is in the present subjunctive;
  • "that" is used as a pronoun; it is "be"'s subject;
  • "as" is used in the old-fashioned sense of "however" (e.g. "Fair as she is, I would my widow take" in modern English would be "However fair she is...");
  • "it" refers to the earlier "that".

If you modernize the adverb and use a more natural word order, which eliminates the need for the "it", the phrase "be that as it may" simply becomes "however that may be".

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Re: Nonsensical English...

Postby Derek » Wed Aug 01, 2012 8:38 am UTC

tetromino wrote:

This does not strike me as archaic. In fact, I think I would prefer "Fair as she is" to "However fair she is", although my most preferred version would be "As fair as she is/may be". I also don't really like the gloss of "however", the words can't be substituted for each other and require different clause structures (it's also not a common use of "however" either, which had me a bit confused by what you meant at first), although I agree that the two phrases you gave have the same meaning. From the definitions on Wiktionary, I think the most relevant (literal) definition is "Introducing a basis of comparison, after as, so, or a comparison of equality", with the preceding "as" optionally dropped.

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Re: Nonsensical English...

Postby gmalivuk » Wed Aug 01, 2012 4:28 pm UTC

I think a better gloss would be "though", so "be that as it may" becomes "though that may be", which actually matches my use of the phrase.
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Re: Nonsensical English...

Postby Derek » Wed Aug 01, 2012 5:10 pm UTC

Yeah, that's a much better gloss to get the meaning across. It still doesn't have the same structure, but I'm not sure there is any word that can be swapped into the same position and have mostly the same meaning.

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Re: Nonsensical English...

Postby Daimon » Sun Aug 05, 2012 7:38 pm UTC

The more I think of this sentence, the less is makes sence. "I cannot think fast." as opposed to "I cannot think quickly." I'm not an expert in English, but I'm going to assume "fast" is not an adverb, and is actually an adjective. So you cannot think about the adjective fast, rather than you not being able to quickly think. I'm not too particularly versed in English.

EDIT - Or I could just google "DEFINE fast" and see that it was an adverb. It doesn't end in -ly, but it's English.

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Re: Nonsensical English...

Postby gmalivuk » Sun Aug 05, 2012 8:07 pm UTC

There are tons of adverbs that don't end in ly. Always, never, well, ill, fast, hard, incognito, and others. Some of those, like 'fast', are also adjectives.
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Re: Nonsensical English...

Postby Daimon » Sun Aug 05, 2012 8:21 pm UTC

gmalivuk wrote:There are tons of adverbs that don't end in ly. Always, never, well, ill, fast, hard, incognito, and others. Some of those, like 'fast', are also adjectives.


I always considered cunning to be a strange word, where it doesn't quite sound right to say "He has cunning." as well as "He has cun." even though the first one is correct.

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Re: Nonsensical English...

Postby Wlerin » Fri Aug 10, 2012 7:56 am UTC

Daimon wrote:
gmalivuk wrote:There are tons of adverbs that don't end in ly. Always, never, well, ill, fast, hard, incognito, and others. Some of those, like 'fast', are also adjectives.


I always considered cunning to be a strange word, where it doesn't quite sound right to say "He has cunning." as well as "He has cun." even though the first one is correct.

What? Not any stranger than, say, learning, or understanding. Trying to think of another participle character trait, but coming up blank. And... of course "He has learn" and "He has understand" don't make sense either.

Of course the verb form of cunning is no longer recognizable, so I can understand how that might make it strange.

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Re: Nonsensical English...

Postby ElWanderer » Fri Aug 10, 2012 10:31 am UTC

I saw this headline and thought of Eugo...

"Beatie Boys star's will bans ads"

It's easily mis-read as "Beastie Boys stars will ban ads". It confused the heck out of me at first. Sometimes I think the BBC News do this kind of thing deliberately to get more clicks.

(seems Adam Yauch has requested in his will that no music he's been involved in creating should be allowed to be used as part of any advertising)
Now I am become Geoff, the destroyer of worlds

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sam_i_am
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Re: Nonsensical English...

Postby sam_i_am » Mon Aug 20, 2012 9:57 pm UTC


Daimon
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Re: Nonsensical English...

Postby Daimon » Thu Aug 23, 2012 8:51 pm UTC

For some reason, the phrase, "Look every single word up." haunts me.

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Sizik
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Re: Nonsensical English...

Postby Sizik » Fri Aug 24, 2012 1:55 pm UTC

I was wondering, how does this sentence sound: "What even is that thing?"
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PM 2Ring
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Re: Nonsensical English...

Postby PM 2Ring » Sat Aug 25, 2012 5:10 am UTC

Sizik wrote:I was wondering, how does this sentence sound: "What even is that thing?"


Odd. :)

I prefer this word order: "What is that thing, even?", spoken with the emphasis on "is". I guess the original word order is tolerable, but I'd add a couple of commas: "What, even, is that thing?"

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eSOANEM
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Re: Nonsensical English...

Postby eSOANEM » Sat Aug 25, 2012 5:22 am UTC

Sizik wrote:I was wondering, how does this sentence sound: "What even is that thing?"


Sounds a bit like a line from a creature-feature horror film to me, but otherwise sounds fine to my ears.
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Re: Nonsensical English...

Postby Derek » Sat Aug 25, 2012 5:35 am UTC

Sizik wrote:I was wondering, how does this sentence sound: "What even is that thing?"

A bit odd, but I can't really find a good place for "even" in that sentence, so it's acceptable.

Wlerin
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Re: Nonsensical English...

Postby Wlerin » Tue Aug 28, 2012 11:32 am UTC

Sizik wrote:I was wondering, how does this sentence sound: "What even is that thing?"

It sounds strange, but as is, I believe that is the best order. Putting even at the end would only be sound if there were more to the sentence, such as "What is that thing even meant to be?"


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