The English Learners' Blog

A blog for English learners and their teachers everywhere, initiated in 2010 with the contribution of students from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. More about me on the On-line Profile below. Welcome!

Why Technology Has Not Killed the Period. Period.

A new study finds that the period serves important functions in the very text messages that are supposed to spell its demise

There are punctuation symbols that have largely gone the way of the dodo. But while National Punctuation Day, Sept. 24, may be an occasion to pour one out for the pilcrow, that’s not the case for the period. Despite much yammering about this familiar little dot being on life support, or already dead, the period is here to stay for the foreseeable future. And a new analysis of text messages—a medium that is supposedly spelling the period’s demise—helps illustrate why.

“Periods are not dead,” says computational linguist Tyler Schnoebelen, who turned to his own trove of 157,305 text messages to analyze how the final period—a period at the end of a thought or sentence—was being used and shared his initial results exclusively with TIME. “They’re actually doing interesting things.”

These were messages that he sent or received over a period of about seven years with about 1,100 other people, and while he did notice that many of those texters severely declined in their use of periods over that time, he also found that there are a lot of reasons people are still double-tapping their smartphone screens. (Schnoebelen presents the caveat that this, of course, is just one man’s social network, but it also happens to be the largest linguistic analysis of SMS texting done to date, he says.)

One reason is structure. We’ve all gotten that loooooong text from a rambling friend, or jilted lover, or parent who apparently believes there are prizes to be awarded for Most Letters Used In a Single Sitting. Schnoebelen found that the lengthier a message was, the more likely it was to end in a period. While only 13% of messages that were shorter than 17 characters (about this length) ended in a period, 60% of messages that exceeded 72 characters got the period treatment. That’s about half the length of a maxed-out tweet.

Longer text messages, like news articles and novels and legal filings, need more punctuation and will continue to need it “because people would get lost without it,” as Schnoebelen puts it. And there is a natural tendency towards parallelism: If the text was long enough that we needed to use periods within it, it feels natural to plop another one on the end, even if text bubbles themselves often act as their own visual “thought stops here” indicator.

Schnoebelen also found that a period can be a signal of emotion. There has been much ink spilled about how the period, once neutral as water, now makes texters seem angry, irritated or insincere. And it certainly can connote all those feelings. Linguist David Crystal, who has lamented that his comments about language change got overblown by news outlets wishing the period better luck in the next life, gives a fine example:

John’s coming to the party [statement of fact]
John’s coming to the party. [Oh dear!]

But that gravity can also be kind, expressing sincere empathy when something bad has happened to a friend, or conveying the sincerity of your own feelings. Periods can help minimize the risk of looking careless or being unclear. Texts ending in a period, in Schnoebelen’s analysis, had a disproportionate amount of the words told, feels, feel, felt, feelings, date,sad, seems and talk. By contrast, many of the words that tended to show up in texts that did not end with a period were more casual kinds of speech:lol, u, haha, yup, ok, gonna. (lol, it’s worth noting, is arguably used as a form of punctuation itself sometimes, like emoji.)

As the world of people we text with continues to expand, from just our closest friends to our colleagues, our distant relatives, businesses, customers, and so on and so forth, punctuation such as the period will help distinguish the registers we use. Because it’s not just whatever medium we’re using that determines how formal our speech is: it’s also who we’re talking to on whatever medium. “Punctuation is a way to convey standardness,” Schnoebelen writes. “Not everyone who texts with you wants to be (or thinks they can be) colloquial with you.”

By contrast, he discovered that one of the more unlikely places to find periods was bouts of sexting. Much as a query like “Pardon me, but might I remove your pants?” would seem out of place in most bedrooms, so too does assiduous punctuating have potential to ruin the mood.

National Punctuation Day is a day meant to celebrate these marks and signals that we sometimes misuse or abuse or take for granted. And one of Schnoebelen’s findings suggests how much more they are than mere organizing splotches and lines. He found that people, at least in his texting world, often mirrored each other when it came to final period use, reflecting back the same kind of style of whoever wrote the text. That means, in their small ways, periods can help build relationships and underscore group identity.

Sure, a complete absence of punctuation could serve the same purpose. But this finding also suggests that so long as there are people using periods, there will be other people sending them right back from whence they came, coming full circle.

Text by 

Filed under: 4►WRITE, ■ Punctuation Marks, ■ They say... & what they mean is..., ■ They write... & what they mean is..., ■ TIME

How Much Do You Know about Polish Beer?

Zywiec Brewery Musem - CLUE 1

Zywiec Brewery Musem – CLUE 1

Zywiec Brewery Musem - CLUE 2

Zywiec Brewery Musem – CLUE 2

Zywiec Brewery Museum - CLUE 3

Zywiec Brewery Museum – CLUE 3

Zywiec Brewery Museum CLUE 4

Zywiec Brewery Museum – CLUE 4

1. Żywiec Beer has a unique front label which went through significant changes.

2. The Żywiec logo includes all of the most important historical symbols of the brewery. The Krakow dancing couple holds a coat of arms adorned with the crown. There are three Spruce trees and the year 1856 on the coat of arms. The name Żywiec is placed on the red sash with the golden trimming in the lower part of the mark.

3. The Żywiec logo is the most famous mark or a brand of beer in Poland and the trademark of the entire brewery.

Logo - CLUE 5

Zywiec Logo – CLUE 5

More about beer, senses, and our DNA in the article below, posted by Alexandra Sifferlin on the Health & Family section of the TIME blog.

The Beer-Smell Gene and Other Ways DNA Drives Our Senses

Beer smells like beer and a violet smells like a violet to everyone, right? Maybe not, according to the latest study that traced the way we smell to differences in our genes. 

It turns out that our senses are intimately connected to our DNA, and small variations in our genes can determine whether we are partial to the smell of blue cheese, or can’t stand the taste of cilantro. That’s not such a surprise, but what is impressive is the precision with which scientists can match up sensory experiences (such as an appreciation for the spicy scent of curry) to specific stretches of DNA. We may occupy the same environment, but the way we see, smell, taste, touch and hear things may vary widely depending on our genomes.

Perhaps the best example of this gene-based sensory diversity is color blindness — people with genetic abnormalities in the types of cone cells produced in the eye have trouble seeing red, blue or green light. And research has shown that 21% of people from East Asia, 17% of Europeans, and 14% of people of African descent taste a soapiness in cilantro that makes the popular herb unwelcome in their meals. The reason? 23andMe, the company that sequences consumers‘ genes, surveyed 30,000 of their customers and traced the soapy sensation to a gene called OR6A2,  which can make some people sensitive to the aldehyde chemicals that flavor cilantro.

(MORE: Single Genetic Glitch May Explain Most Allergies and Asthma)

“Because our genes encode the machinery that we use to perceive the outside world, our perceptions of the outside world are all a little bit different,” says Dennis Drayna, a geneticist at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). “Think about it. You and I know what green is, or what a rose smells like, but does green look to you the same as it looks to me? Maybe, but maybe not. What you and I call green may be slightly different things. There’s no doubt this is going on, and it is going to become better understood.”

How specific is the map tying sensory experiences to genes? Here’s a brief rundown of what geneticists are learning:

In a study published in the journal Current Biology, researchers traced variations in smell sensitivity to four odors to different versions of smell genes.

 The scientists, from Plant and Food Research in New Zealand, tested 10 different scents in hundreds of subjects, who were provided with wine glasses containing either water or a range of diluted scents.

The four odors related to apples, violets, blue cheese and malt, and depending on the participants’ genetic makeup, their smell receptors either detected the floral scent of violets, for example, or a rancid, acidic smell that wasn’t so pleasant. Or they could either pick out the sour smell of malt — the germinated grains that form the base of beer — or be unable to smell it at all.

“These smells are found in foods and drinks that people encounter every day, such as tomatoes and apples. This might mean that when people sit down to eat a meal, they each experience it in their own personalized way,” said study author Jeremy McRae in a statement.

(MORE: New Insight into the (Epi)Genetic Roots of Homosexuality)

In his research, Drayna found that about a quarter of the world’s population does not taste the same bitter sensations as the majority do. His team identified a gene that encodes the TAS2R bitter taste receptor, which is expressed in taste cells on the tongue. There are three different places where the DNA code for the gene differ, resulting in an individual being unable to taste some bitter flavors. He’s also identified specific genetic variants, called SNPs, that explain about 16% of the differences in how people perceive sweets and why some people are less able to taste sweet substances.

“Every single person has had the experience where you look at something and you want to call it one color, and you’re with someone and they want to call it a different color,” says Jay Neitz, a professor of ophthalmology and a color vision researcher at the University of Washington in Seattle. Neitz’s lab has done groundbreaking research into color blindness, even curing the disorder in primates.

Even among those without color-blindness, Neitz says there is a wide variety in how eyes distinguish color. “If you take the rainbow and spread out all the different colors, it turns out some colors almost everyone agrees on how they look, and there are other colors with huge disagreement,” he says.

For instance, almost everyone agrees on what yellow looks like. But if you ask someone to point to what they classify as uniquely green on a color spectrum, there’s huge variability. The same goes for red. “This is one of the things that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention because people have not been able to nail [down] why this is true,” says Neitz. “It turns out that there is variability in the ratio of red and green cones in the eye that’s huge.”

These cones affect how sensitive a person’s eyes are to those colors. Normal-sighted people can contain anywhere from 30% to 95% of red cones, with the remainder being green. Neitz says a series of genetic mutations can affect whether cells destined to become cone cells in the eyes become red or green.

(MORE: How Much of Obesity is Genetic?)

Scientists are looking into such gene-based differences in the way other senses are perceived too. Some researchers have identified touch genes that help distinguish hot and cold, for example, from studies of people with genetic disorders that prevent them from telling the difference, and Drayna has also looked at the significant variability in hearing among people — from those who are deaf to people with perfect pitch.

The work isn’t just academic. How people sense taste and smell, for example, has a direct connection to what they eat, so testing people for these senses is becoming an important part of nutrition surveys. For example, since January 2013, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), an annual government look at eating habits and nutrition among a representative sample of Americans, began asking participants to scratch and sniff cards containing scents of four common food items and four non-food items, and to report what they smelled. To better understand taste differences, the survey takers also apply solutions of various flavors to the tips of participants’ tongues.

“Taste and smell, our chemosensory perceptions, form the basis for what we choose to eat or drink,” said Howard Hoffman, the program director of epidemiology and statistics at the NIDCD in a statement. “Does the ability to taste and smell impact nutrition? I would say so, but in what ways and to what degree remains uncertain.”

(MORE: Study Identifies Four New Genetic Markers For Severe Childhood Obesity)

Such data would undoubtedly be helpful to the food industry as well. Manipulating ingredients to counteract the off-putting flavors that some people taste or smell, for example, could expand the market for certain products.

And it’s not just what we eat that is affected by flavor. The Food and Drug Administration recently concluded that menthol cigarettes likely pose a greater public health risk than regular cigarettes, and Drayna’s research suggests that may be due to people’s preference for that flavor, which could induce them to smoke more heavily. “African Americans almost exclusively smoke menthol cigarettes. The menthol receptor is a temperature receptor and menthol is a chemical that activates that receptor, so it produces the perception of cold,” Drayna explains. “Africans have quite a different version of this gene than non-Africans, so we are working to see whether that genetic difference is actually responsible for a perception difference.”

Even beyond the food industry, custom scents are already being exploited by retailers to attract consumers. As Business of Fashion reports, Bloomingdales hired global scent marketing company ScentAir to create different scents for its various departments, such as a coconut fragrance for the swimwear racks and a lilac scent in the lingerie area. Since scent is evocative of emotions and memories, store executives hope that being reminded of pleasant experiences at the beach will entice customers to purchase swimwear.

That connection between the senses and our experiences — to moods, emotions, and memories — is part of our sensory world, and ultimately work in combination with our genes to determine how we perceive everything from foods to scents. “There’s a strong environmental component to food preferences that doesn’t have to do with genetics, but experience,” says Drayna. “But genetic differences are real, and probably very common and we have a lot more to learn from them.”

Filed under: 3►SPEAK▼, ■ Drinks, ■ Senses, ■ TIME, ►11.ON LINE▼, TOPICS▼

Brain Plasticity and Empathy, Dealing With “The Impossible” and Other Thoughts

Imagine  A number of documentaries I watched recently on BBC Knowledge and Discovery have led me to an interesting net-surfing experience, in search of more info on two topics that I, among many others, find absolutely fascinating: the plasticity of the human brain – its causes and effects, as well as its connections with feelings like empathy. Listed below you will find some interesting links and quotes I came across during my search. Feel free to add to it any other sources/ links you consider of relevance.

1.  You can watch a short video on the BBC Virtual Revolution Blog from 2009, in which Baroness Susan Greenfield approaches the question: Is the web changing us? The transcript is available on the site. Here’s an excerpt:

One of the most important issues I think, as well as the good thing about IQ going up, is the issue of risk. Obama said that the current financial crisis is attributable in part to greed and recklessness. Now greed are recklessness occur as part of something called a frontal syndrome, when the frontal part of the brain is less active in various conditions.
Could it be – and also this frontal part of the brain only comes on stream in late teenage years – could it be, given the brain is so obliging in the way it adapts, that if you’re putting it in a situation where you are living for the moment in a rather infant-like way with lots of sensory experiences, that that could be being changed? And I think that’s one of the things that would be very interesting to look at.
My final issue is identity, and it does stun me, Twitter for example, where the banality of some of the things that people feel they need to transmit to other human beings. Now what does this say about how you see yourself? Does this say anything about how secure you feel about yourself? Is it not marginally reminiscent of a small child saying “Look at me, look at me mummy! Now I’ve put my sock on. Now I’ve got my other sock on,” you know? And I’m just being neutral here, I’m just asking questions, right… What does this say about you as a person?

2. On Top Documentary Films you can read about and watch for free brilliant documentaries. Take another great series by the same insightful Susan Greenfield, called Brain Story.

The greatest numbers of documentaries on this site belong to the categories of Science (350) and Society (304). However, these are only 2 of the 25 categories you can browse, so plenty of resources to delve into.

3.  On the topic of visual illusions, I think it is safe to presume that we all prefer and appreciate watching well-produced special effects in pretty much any kind of movie. The quality of the special effects in a science fiction movie is, for instance, what makes the difference between an A and a B movie  for meHollywood award ceremonies never fail to highlight the best special effects in movies on a regular basis. This being said, I was surprised to find out that Harvard University also has an awarding ceremony called: “The Best Illusion of the Year Contest”! 🙂

Here‘s the winning illusion for 2011. The effect is called  “silencing by motion” and its source is Professor Michael Bach’s “Optical Illusions and Visual Phenomena”.  

Click this link to visit Professor Bach’s site and get access to 101 such illusions and phenomena. 

4. The link up next leads to a 2012 scientific research study from the biannual journal Essays in Philosophy  whose intriguing title instantly caught my eye: “On Being Stereoblind in an Era of 3D Movies”, by Cynthia Freeland. Put on a scientist’s hat, or any other kind that is comfortable and feel free to investigate its content.

5.  Can we adapt to unimaginable situations? How does our brain deal with catastrophes beyond our worst nightmares? The Impossible - UK Poster Such questions are the subject of a movie that reached the Polish cinemas this month and that I warmly recommend, called The Impossible (2102).

You can read about the real story that inspired the movie in this article from The Mirror: “Seemingly impossible: Miracle survival of family who inspired new tsunami movie”.

Last but not least on today’s list, the following article from the Health section of the Times investigating “How Disasters and Trauma Can Affect Children’s Empathy” can be placed in the same category of the effects that surviving catastrophes can have on the human brain and the human behaviour – in this particular case, on kids aged 6, 9, and 12. I selected below some of the findings of the studies discussed in the article. 

“There are developmental differences in empathy,[…] and younger children may not be able to regulate their emotions as well as older ones because the prefrontal regions in the brain responsible for such control are less mature. Faced with extreme stress, their self-regulation capacities regress even further. “Adverse events appear to cause six-year-olds to revert back to selfish ways typical of early childhood,” the authors write. Even in situations with less tragic consequences, but which are nonetheless stressful, such as living through a divorce, or getting lost in a public place, many children may resort to more immature tendencies.

By age nine, however, most youngsters have mature enough brains to not only recognize the feelings of others, but to try to mitigate bad ones. Their increased altruism during distress reflects what has been seen in many disasters, from man-made ones such as the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., to natural catastrophes like Hurricane Sandy. […]

While the results support the intuitive sense that the personal experience of pain can increase compassion, there are cases when it can have the opposite effect. Indeed, research shows that if suffering occurs too early in life, when young brains are not equipped to process the experience, or if the pain is too overwhelming, it can make people less sensitive and more focused on self-preservation, such as often occurs in cases of child abuse and neglect. “Painful experiences may increase empathy and care, provided that one can regulate one’s own emotion,” Decety says. The findings suggest that our social and biological structures may be biased toward cooperation and empathy for others: “Without caring for others, we would not survive as a species,” he says.

It would be interesting to compare the findings of this article with the development of Lucas, one of the heroes in The Impossible, who is only 10, in the face of the sixth deadliest natural disaster in recorded history, the 2004 tsunami that hit the Indian Ocean, affecting Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and the Maldives and killing nearly 300 000 people. The earthquake which caused the tsunami was the 3rd largest in recorded history measuring a magnitude of 9.19.3

Compared to being caught right in the middle of it,  it is much easier to make sense of “the impossible” from a desk in the living-room or from a cinema seat, which is why I wish you all safe trips to the cinema :),  tsunami-free vacations and peaceful school experiences, no guns involved… 

May you be safe, show empathy, and, regardless of situation, always navigate through unpredictable changes with fresh new breaths of faith!

Filed under: 0►TRUST, 9►EXTRA, ■ BBC: The Virtual Revolution Blog, ■ Books, ■ Brain Plasticity, ■ China, ■ Empathy, ■ Movies, ■ News, ■ The Mirror, ■ TIME, ■ TOP Documentary Films

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