Archive for Semantics

Misunderestimation of the month

"Scottish parliament to seek new independence vote despite UK government rebuff", Reuters 3/22/2017:

Holding a non-binding referendum would be damaging, argues Stephen Tierney, Professor of Constitutional Theory at Edinburgh Law School, because it would not provide certainty in a highly divisive situation.  

"The central importance of commonly agreed rules and a neutral referee in a situation of deep disagreement when the stakes are high cannot be under-estimated," he said.

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If we have learned nothing in this election

From Allison Stanger, "Understanding the Angry Mob at Middlebury That Gave Me a Concussion", NYT 3/13/2017 [emphasis added]:

Students are in college in part to learn how to evaluate sources and follow up on ideas with their own research. The Southern Poverty Law Center incorrectly labels Dr. Murray a “white nationalist,” but if we have learned nothing in this election, it is that such claims must be fact-checked, analyzed and assessed. Faulty information became the catalyst for shutting off the free exchange of ideas at Middlebury.

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Decoding political attitudes

I was initially baffled by the political stance of "John Q. Esq.", who submitted this NYT comment:

Having simultaneously benefited from Obamacare and despised Obama and his party for bringing it to them, I have absolutely no doubt what-so-ever that the low information voters who voted for the Republican Congress and Trump will enthusiastically turn out to vote for them again in 2018 and 2020, respectively, while angrily blaming Obama and Democrats for the loss of healthcare that the GOP has stripped them of. The vicious cycle will continue in our broken democracy – this I am sure of.

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What a woman can't do with their body

Mark Meckes noticed a tweet about an interview with Emma Watson, who was being discussed in this Language Log post, and mentioned it in a comment thereto. It was completely off topic (and thus violated the Language Log comments policy), but I felt it was too interesting to be left languishing down there in a comment on a post about preposition doubling, so I'm repeating it here, where it can have its own post:

If you think @EmmaWatson is a hypocrite, maybe consider you shouldn't be telling a woman what they can and can't do with their own body.

Two occurrences of singular they (they and their), with the phrase a woman as antecedent!

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Subsective adjectives and immigration

An important rallying cry and usage distinction made by allies of undocumented workers in the current cultural battle over immigration in the United States is Elie Wiesel's assertion above: "No human being is illegal." In the quote, Wiesel gives examples of the kinds of adjectives that he feels can denote properties of people (fat, skinny, beautiful, right, and wrong). On the other hand, calling a person 'illegal', he says, is a contradiction in terms.

Here's a more elaborated statement of the idea, quoted from this website 

When one refers to an immigrant as an "illegal alien," they are using the term as a noun.  They are effectively saying that the individual, as opposed to any actions that the individual has taken, is illegal.  The term “illegal alien” implies that a person’s existence is criminal.  I’m not aware of any other circumstance in our common vernacular where a crime is considered to render the individual – as opposed to the individual’s actions – as being illegal.  We don’t even refer to our most dangerous and vile criminals as being “illegal.” 

Now because syntax is my actual job, I am honor-bound to point out that the term 'illegal alien' is a noun phrase, not a noun, and furthermore, that "using a term as a noun" does not mean "using it to refer to a person, place or thing," which I think is what the author above may be trying to say. But that quibble aside, we can see the idea. Laws criminalize actions, not people. Hence only someone's actions, not their very existence, can be illegal.

What are the linguistic underpinnings of the intuition that using the term illegal alien implies that a person's existence is illegal? I think it derives from an important distinction in types of adjectival meanings that I've learned about from the work of my Language Log colleague Barbara Partee. Different types of adjectives license different patterns of inferential reasoning.

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On the overt verbal expression of romantic love as a modern habit

In a comment to this post, "A trilingual, biscriptal note (with emoji)" (2/5/17), liuyao remarked,

Interesting that 愛 to mean (romantic) love might be a modern invention. A search in Dream of the Red Chamber (which is regarded as Beijing Mandarin in 18th century) reveals that all instances of it are in fact "to like" (something or someone). 愛吃的 = (what he) likes to eat; 不愛唸書 = doesn't like to read books/study.

liuyao's observation is so noteworthy that I promised to write a separate post on ài 愛 — herewith I am delivering on that promise.

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The craven feminine pronoun

The Times Literary Supplement diarist who hides behind the initials "J.C." makes this catty remark (issue of January 6, 2017, page 36) about Sidney E. Berger's The Dictionary of the Book: A Glossary of Book Collectors:

"Predictions were that the Internet would do away with dealers' catalogs and it is true that many a dealer has gone from issuing catalogs to listing her whole stock online." Bookselling and book collecting are among the world's stubbornly male pastimes — deplorable, no doubt, but less so than the use of the craven pronoun throughout The Dictionary of the Book (Rowman & Littlefield, $125).

J.C. (who, Jonathan Ginzburg informs me, is widely known to be an author, book dealer, and bibliophile named James Campbell) is objecting to the use of she as a gender-neutral pronoun. And you can just guess that a snooty writer in TLS who quibbles about other people's grammar choices would hate singular they. J.C. would probably regard it as "abominable", the way Simon Heffer does. Which can only mean that he advocates use of the traditional practice of he as the gender-neutral 3rd-person singular pronoun, the one that The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL) calls "purportedly sex-neutral he (see pp. 491–493).

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Donald Trump, Frederick Douglass, and the present perfect

The media (for example here, here) have noticed that there is something strange about Donald Trump’s use of the present perfect in a comment about Frederick Douglass at the start of Black History Month:

Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.

Somehow this utterance suggests that Trump believes that Douglass is still alive, raising the question of what aspect of its grammar leads to that inference.

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The temperature is struggling

I commented back in 2008 on the ridiculous vagueness of some of the brief weather forecast summaries on BBC radio ("pretty miserable by and large," and so on). I do sometimes miss the calm, scientific character of American weather forecasts, with their precise temperature range predictions and exact precipitation probabilities. In recent days, on BBC Radio 4's morning news magazine program, I have heard an official meteorologist guy from the weather center saying not just vague things like "a weather front trying to get in from the north Atlantic," or "heading for something a little bit warmer as we move toward the weekend," but (more than once) a total baffler: "The temperature is going to be struggling." What the hell is that about?

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Partial negative concord

Steven Hsieh, "Joking Around: We spoke with that Carlsbad city councilor with the sexist Facebook post", SF Reporter 1/24/2017 [emphasis added]:

Carlsbad City Councilor JR Doporto drew widespread criticism today after KOB 4 highlighted a Facebook post he wrote mocking women who participated in Saturday's nationwide demonstrations against President Donald Trump. […]

After angry comments rained down on his Facebook page, he doubled down on his jokes with additional posts. […]

We caught up with Doporto this afternoon on the phone to hear his thoughts. […]

Q: I don't think anyone is disputing that you have the right to say what you want to say. I guess the question was: The march was for women's rights. And the particular joke you made was disparaging towards women and some of the stereotypes you used were—it seemed you were thumbing your nose at what was taking place. Does that make sense to you?

A: Yeah, yeah. I was thumbing my nose at what was taking place. Enough already. Let's get on. Women have had rights for … years that I have been alive. I don't see no rights they don't have that a man has. When are they going to get on and move on? I believe if a Democratic president was elected, Hillary, I don't think we would've had those protests.

Karen Sumner, who sent me the link, commented: "This is likely an example of a simple and easily-recognized language thing to Language Log folks, but I scratched my head when I saw it. Still scratching, to be honest."

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Only America First

A question asked on Facebook:

Okay, linguists who work on focus sensitive particles – can you tell me what on earth this means? "From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first" I couldn't bear to listen so I don't know where the focal accent was, but no possibility makes sense. 'only AMERICA first'? since there's only one thing first, isn't the 'only' redundant? 'only America FIRST'? as opposed to second? please do enlighten…. Of course this is hardly the most important thing to be worried about today….

I listened, and even transcribed, so here's the quote:


From this day forward,
it's going to be only
America First.
America First.

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"Dog" in Japanese: "inu" and "ken"

This post intends to take a deep look at the words for "dog" in Japanese, "inu" and "ken", both written with the same kanji (sinogram; Chinese character): 犬.

I will begin with some basic phonological and etymological information, then move to an elaboration of the immediate cause for the writing of this post, observations from colleagues, and a brief conclusion.

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"Despite an initial reluctance to withhold comment"

Michelle Kosinski and Kevin Liptak, "Gloves-off White House creates rift between Obama and Trump teams", CNN 12/16/2016:

Donald Trump's dismissal of US intelligence about Russian election meddling has deeply alarmed the White House, prompting a new and combative approach to the President-elect that's caused rifts between the incoming and outgoing administrations. […]

In his briefings, [White House Press Secretary Josh] Earnest has resumed tying Trump to Russia, a staple of Obama's own campaign stump speech.

"It was the President-elect who, over the course of the campaign, indicated that he thought that President Putin was a strong leader," he said on Monday, continuing with a litany of examples meant to demonstrate a tight alliance with Moscow. "His campaign didn't make any effort to obscure this."

Despite an initial reluctance to withhold comment on Trump's cabinet picks, he's tied the President-elect's selection as secretary of state, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, to Trump's approach to Russia. [emphasis added]

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