Barbara Partee


Posts by Barbara Partee:

    John McIntyre's notes on 'Word Crimes'

    John Lawler (thank you!) pointed me to this blog entry by John McIntyre, which was written in response to readers' requests for his reactions to "Weird Al" Yankovic's Word Crimes.  I see that Mark Liberman is already a McIntyre fan (here, here, here, for instance), but I hadn't known about him before. I should — as John Lawler pointed out to me, he's an Oriole fan; and the Baltimore Sun, where he is an editor, was our family's daily paper through all my school years.

    His notes on 'Word Crimes' really just consist of references that he agrees with, one by Stan Carey at Sentence first, and the recent guest post by Lauren Squires here on Language Log. He also refers to a couple of nice posts by our resident curmudgeon Geoff Pullum both here on LLog (on the curious English of police reports and the inability of journalists going on about the passive voice to accurately identify passive constructions) and in Lingua Franca (on ambiguity).

    I don't have a very good excuse for passing this on — I'm just pleased to have been alerted to the existence of such a thoughtful and articulate writer who happens to be a copy editor by profession (and is a fellow Orioles fan!).  I love his self-description: "mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers' work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun's night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics."

    I'm so glad that he's teaching editing, and wish there were more copy editors who were "moderate prescriptivists" like him!

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    Fatter for longer (sigh)

    Here's a doubly embarrassing confession. First it involves my use of a construction that I love to make fun of. Secondly my spontaneously generated example is unfortunately also a true sentence.
    I was trying on four dresses that have been stored in the attic for a while to see if I could avoid having to shop for a formal dress in Chicago on Friday for the Friday black tie dinner that precedes the Saturday honorary doctorate. I didn't think I was going to be able to fit into any of them, since I've gained back all the weight I lost around 2008-9 and am now close to an all-time maximum. But to my in some ways happy surprise, I found that I could sort of fit into two of them, including the best one. And my surprise was expressed (just talking silently to myself, but obviously in real sentences, since this sentence immediately caught my attention as soon as I "said" it) as "Gosh, I've been fatter for longer than I thought". (The happy part is I may not have to go shopping on Friday, or at least it won't be obligatory to buy a new dress, which takes off the pressure that accompanies last-minute obligatory shopping.)
    I still reject that sentence, even though I said it .

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    WHO: 5 percent of calories should be from sugar

    Even though I've been reading that headline on my portal page for 3 days now and know what it's really supposed to be saying, I still can't read it the way they intended. The first sentence of the actual article:

    The World Health Organization says your daily sugar intake should be just 5 percent of your total calories — half of what the agency previously recommended, according to new draft guidelines published Wednesday.

    Even that sentence doesn't really say they'd be happy with 4 percent, or would previously have been happy with less than 10%. But at least the "just" cancels an otherwise implicit "at least". There's a lot of literature about when numbers are interpreted as "exactly" and when as "at least", and about where exactly those two kinds of interpretations come from. But unless they occur with suitable modifiers or in particular constructions, they are never freely interpreted as "at most". So unless we're supposed to believe that WHO wants everyone to get exactly 5% from sugar, that headline is just wrong, I believe.

    No big deal. I just had to say it after three days of suffering in silence.

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    Reaching a crescendo?

    There was a language-peeve Op-Ed piece in the NYT yesterday called "A crescendo of errors", written by a violist who hates the expression "reach a crescendo". In music, a crescendo is a gradual increase, but it's widespread in non-musical contexts to use it to mean "reach a very loud state" or something like that. "But here’s the thing: as God — along with Bach, Beethoven and Mozart — is my witness, you cannot “reach” a crescendo." (Well, of course, as many commenters noted, you can reach a crescendo in the sense of reaching the point where it begins.)

    Comments were closed before I saw the piece; it got 144 comments. Many applauded the author, but what struck me was how many didn't, and instead made the point that is so often made here, that languages change, and that peeving by "purists" won't prevent change. That seems heartening.

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    Language change in progress – us and our Red Sox buddies

    Just now I was washing breakfast dishes and mentally composing a Facebook post, which started out “Last night was not a good night for Orioles – Red Sox – anti-Yankees fans! The three way tie for first place got broken in the worst direction! Us and our Red Sox buddies …” and I forget how that sentence was going to end, because I was caught up short noticing how it began. I’ve known about the ongoing spread of the ‘accusative’ pronouns forever – Sapir wrote about it (as a case of “language drift”), and Ed Klima, one of my favorite grad school professors, had worked on it and talked with us about it (we tried to figure out what kinds of rules would make ‘us’ and ‘me’ not get nominative in conjoined subjects while "I" and "we" as simple subjects are obligatorily marked nominative, and discussed similarities with French ‘disjunctive’ pronoun ‘moi’ vs. clitic subject 'je'). And it was the source of my oft-repeated anecdote about my son Morriss in 4th grade asking me to proofread a composition he had just written – it started out ‘Seth and I went to the mall’ and he pointed to ‘Seth and I’, and said to me “That’s how you spell “me and Seth”, right?”.

    But none of that had prepared me for having it emerge in my own dialect. But there it was. And when I think about putting “We and our Red Sox buddies” instead, it sounds over-formal, doesn’t fit in the context of baseball buddies. So it looks like “us and …” has made the move from passive recognition to becoming an active part of my (most?) colloquial register, at least the baseball buddies register.

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    New blog on history and philosophy of language sciences

    There’s a new blog, “History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences”, edited by James McElvenny at the University of Sydney. I’m the invited author of the third post in it, ‘On the history of the question of whether natural language is “illogical”’, which came out on May 1. For now, new posts are planned weekly. Here’s the blog address:

    Let any interested friends know about it, because there is a desire for good discussion of the entries and for interesting new posts.

    Comments (9)

    No word for "privacy" in Russian?

    Reader and fan Will Thompson wrote to Mark Liberman, who passed his letter on to me, about a recent article by Ellen Barry in The New York Times, discussing a book by the Russian political analyst Nikolai V. Zlobin in which he explains weird/different American cultural norms to Russians.

    Will notes that towards the end, the reviewer states:

    He [Zlobin] devotes many pages to privacy, a word that does not exist in the Russian language[.]

    And Will is suspicious of that claim.

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    $1 in the hands of a woman

    Reader Jacob Baskin wrote with an interesting ambiguity that he was reminded of reading my recent post about "the wife and mother of two men killed in a fire". He writes

    In the context of third-world development, I recently heard the factoid that "$1 in the hands of a woman is, on average, worth $10 in the hands of a man" (here, for instance).

    Does this mean, "Each dollar that a woman has is worth, to her, what ten dollars would be to a man"? Or, "Each dollar that a woman has would be worth, if it were in the hands of a man, ten dollars"? Clearly the former meaning is intended, but as with that "duck/rabbit" optical illusion, I can make myself see the sentence in either way.

    I'm hard pressed to think of other sentences with two possible meanings in direct opposition to each other. I also can't quite figure out what's going on with the sentence to create this ambiguity. Just thought this might be interesting to you.

    Yes, it’s interesting! Here are my first thoughts, for what they’re worth. I also easily hear both meanings, (plus a third, I discovered as I wrote this) and I think both (maybe all three) patterns are probably common.

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    The wife and mother of two men killed in a fire

    Local radio station WFCR on Thursday, October 11 started a report with a sentence that gave me a big double-take:

    “The wife and mother of two men killed in a fire in Northampton has filed suit …”

    And the next morning, October 12, I saw almost the same words in the local paper, the Hampshire Gazette:

    Photo caption:

    Alleged arsonist Anthony Baye has been sued by Elaine Yeskie, the widow and mother of the two men killed in a Northampton house fire he allegedly set.

    Beginning of story:

    The widow and mother of men killed in a house fire in 2009 filed a wrongful death lawsuit Wednesday against alleged fire-starter Anthony P. Baye. Elaine Yeskie, 77, is seeking monetary and punitive damages against Baye, …

    The version under the photo caption makes the description an appositive phrase, so we already know that it’s a description of one person. But the beginning of the radio story really took me by surprise and made me grab my pen. I feel subjectively sure, though I could of course be wrong, that I could never say that that way. All the ways I could express it take more words; about the shortest acceptable version I can find is “The wife of one and mother of the other of two men killed in a fire …”

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    I can do pretty much whatever minus not being stupid

    I just really like this sentence from the Baltimore Orioles' Nolan Reimold, who is recovering slowly from a herniated disk in his neck. "I can do pretty much whatever minus not being stupid." I find that a great sentence that could be used in a lot of situations, e.g. retirement …

    No big linguistic point. Just three nice little dialectal variants in a row — that use of "whatever"; "minus" in place of "except for", and the inclusion of "not" in such a context. I think they've all been discussed in posts at one time or another, but this three-in-a-row is a gem, plus [oh, there's a 'plus'; I'm infected] I love the sentiment.

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    Presupposition & VP-ellipsis in the comics

    Today's Doonesbury Flashbacks, 35 years ago (July 30, 1977): Trudeau here has made clever use of the fact that normally, with VP-ellipsis, the presuppositions of the antecedent VP are preserved …

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    Hero after hero after dead hero

    Tom Roeper sent the following "Summer question" around to the UMass Linguistics Department the other day, and I offered to put it onto Language Log as a guest post. What follows is all Tom's. (I've never worked on this topic myself).

    For anybody who is intrigued: This is a summer question because you might have time in the summer to devote 10 minutes to it — if it captures your fancy. For several years [too many actually] in my various explorations of recursion, I have looked at cases like: hero after hero after dead hero => all the heroes are dead.

    Today in the NYT, I read this quote from Ray Bradbury who just died: "it was one frenzy after one elation after one enthusiasm after one hysteria after another" My question is: what does this sentence mean?  Is it a set of frenzies followed by a set of elations followed by a set of enthusiasms or are they systematically interspersed, or randomly interspersed? Any comments welcome– Tom

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    "I actually saw Khrushchev not bang his shoe"

    I just found that sentence in the first footnote to William Taubman's "Khrushchev: The Man and his Era" (2003). It's a great example of a "negative event" – we call them "negative events" with scare quotes because it remains controversial whether there are any such things. How can not doing something be an event?

    First a clarification: I realize from Googling that there's a completely different sense of "negative event" which is more common and not controversial at all – that's something bad that happens to you, an event with "negative" effects. What linguists and philosophers worry about are sentences or phrases containing negation that seem to denote events, like the one that heads this post.

    We chatted a bit about it around the water cooler at Language Log Plaza yesterday, and David Beaver contributed the following nice link:

    The discussion there and in Taubman's footnote of the events at the UN General Assembly on October 13, 1960 makes it clear that on the one hand, Khrushchev's banging his shoe on the desk became famous and iconic, and that on the other hand, there is a real dispute about whether it actually happened. That seems to be one circumstance in which something not happening can be described as an event.

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    Is this a great photo or what!

    That was the start of my heading-comment on a photo of my son Dave. Ensuing back-and-forth on Facebook between me and Andy Rogers (with a relevant interpolation from my son Morriss):

    Andy Rogers: Shouldn't it be "or what?"?
    Barbara H Partee: I punctuated it as I would pronounce it! Maybe if it was somebody else I might right "or what?".
    Andy Rogers: Seems syntactically like a question.
    Barbara H Partee: That's true. Well, but how would you punctuate an annoyed "Will you stop that!" It's also a question, but it's pronounced as an imperative. Maybe "Will you stop that?!" Maybe that's what some of those double punctuation marks are for — I've never seen them discussed (but haven't really looked — it's not a category I normally think about.) So maybe we could agree on "or what?!" ?
    Barbara H Partee But I have to confess that when I made the original post, a question mark never even entered my head.
    Morriss Partee: Would you stop arguing about punctuation or what?!?!??!??!???!!!!?!???!!!??!??!
    Morriss Partee: ;)
    Andy Rogers: So what IS the relationship among syntactic form, whatever is going on in your ! examples, and punctuation?
    Barbara H Partee: ‎(Sorry, Morriss, but wasn't it always like this at the dinner table? Should make you nostalgic!) Andy, I don't know, but somebody must. Maybe I should put a little query-post on Language Log and see what turns up.

    So comments are open because I really don’t know! In this domain I’m just a naïve native writer of English, with ordinary education about prescriptive grammar, but they never taught us about what might be called “colloquial punctuation” (maybe it has a name, I don’t know that either.) I wonder if comic strip writers study colloquial punctuation somewhere, or if they just pick it up by paying attention to what other comic strip writers have done. If it’s been studied at all, I’m sure Facebook must be one good corpus-source.

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    It depends on what "the" means …

    Semantics in the John Edwards trial (James Hill and Beth Lloyd, "John Edwards Defense Relies on Definition of 'The'", Good Morning America 5/13/2012):

    Not since Bill Clinton challenged the definition of "is" has so much hinged on a very short word.

    John Edwards appears to basing much of his defense, which begins today in a North Carolina courtroom, on the legal interpretation of the word "the." […]

    The statute governing illegal receipt of campaign contributions "means any gift, subscription, loan, advance, or deposit of money… for the purpose of influencing any election for federal office."

    The words "the purpose" suggests that in order for a conviction, the sole reason for the money would have to be to finance a presidential campaign.

    Edwards' legal team has argued … that his main reason for hiding Hunter was to keep her secret from his wife, Elizabeth.

    Prosecutors, however, are arguing the law should be interpreted to mean "a purpose," meaning use of the donations does not have to be solely for a political campaign.

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