Archive for Syntax

Grammatical diversity in the New York Times crossword

Monday's New York Times crossword is the handiwork of Tom McCoy, an undergraduate member of the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project. I wouldn't've thought it possible, but he's managed to make a coherent theme out of a nonstandard grammatical variant in American English.

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"Far beyond unconventional levels of dishonesty"

For the Washington Post opinion blog The Plum Line, Greg Sargent wrote: "The events of this week are revealing with a new level of clarity that President Trump and the White House have ventured far beyond unconventional levels of dishonesty."

Obligatory screenshot:

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Court fight over Oxford commas and asyndetic lists

Language Log often weighs in when courts try to nail down the meaning of a statute. Laws are written in natural language—though one might long, by formalization, to end the thousand natural ambiguities that text is heir to—and thus judges are forced to play linguist.

Happily, this week's "case in the news" is one where the lawyers managed to identify several relevant considerations and bring them to the judges for weighing.

Most news outlets reported the case as being about the Oxford comma (or serial comma)—the optional comma just before the end of a list. Here, for example, is the New York Times:

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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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A stick with which to beat other women with

There have been dozens of articles in the news recently about Emma Watson's Vanity Fair photo shoot, the reaction to it, and her reaction to the reaction. For example, Cherry Wilson, "Is Emma Watson anti-feminist for exposing her breasts?", BBC News 3/6/2017; or Jessica Samakow, "26 Tweets Prove #WhatFeministsWear Is ‘Anything They F*cking Want’", Huffington Post 3/6/2017; or Travis Andrews, "‘Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women’: Emma Watson tells off critics of revealing photo", Washington Post 3/6/2017.

What's the linguistic angle? Well, the quote in that WaPo headline is not exactly what she said.

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The Daily Mail deluding themselves

An amusing slip in the Daily Mail (online here), in an opinion piece by Dan Hodges on the decline of the Labour Party and its singularly unsuccessful leader Jeremy Corbyn. Hodges says that "anyone who thinks Labour's problems began on September 12, 2015, when Corbyn was elected, are deluding themselves."

It's unquestionably a grammatical mistake, of course. Not about pronoun choice, but about verb agreement.

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The passives of PricewaterhouseCoopers

While we at Language Log bemoan how often the passive voice is misidentified, and how often passive constructions are wrongly scapegoated, last night's Oscars debacle has provided us with a clearcut case of how agentless passives can serve to obfuscate. The official apology from PricewaterhouseCoopers for the envelope mixup, which led Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway to announce "La La Land" as Best Picture instead of "Moonlight," reads as follows (emphasis mine):

We sincerely apologize to Moonlight, La La Land, Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, and the Oscar viewers for the error that was made during the award announcement for Best Picture. The presenters had mistakenly been given the wrong category envelope and when discovered, was immediately corrected. We are currently investigating how this could have happened, and deeply regret that this occurred.
We appreciate the grace with which the nominees, the Academy, and Jimmy Kimmel handled the situation.


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Ask Language Log: "*I very like"

From Jonathan Lundell:

The first comment on this performance of the Brandenburg 6 (nice one, btw): "I very like this authentic manner. And I very like first violist. Who is it?" It's from one Artem Klementyev (so Russian?).

So, a question: why can't we say "I very like X"? …when we can do it with, say, truly & really?

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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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New Yorker copy editors (probably) moving adverbs around

In an article called "The increasingly lonely hope of Barack Obama," the The New Yorker showed that it belongs to the increasingly lonely class of educated people who still imagine that if they ever allowed an adjunct to separate infinitival to from the plain-form verb of the infinitival complement that it introduces, demons would break through the walls and floor and drag them down to hell. The article, by Vinson Cunningham, contained this passage:

The President thanked his Vice-President, Joe Biden, and the rest of the people who had made possible his time in office. And here, too, was a contrast with Trump, who has yet to demonstrate an ability ardently and earnestly to praise a person other than himself.

To demonstrate an ability ardently and earnestly? Vinson, are you quite sure you didn't mean that what Trump hasn't yet demonstrated is that he can ardently and earnestly praise a person other than himself?

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Resumptive pronoun of the week

Jonathan O'Connell, "Feds, Trump attorneys wrangle over president’s D.C. hotel lease", Washington Post 2/10/2017 [emphasis added:

Chaffetz told reporters this week that he was interested to learn how officials intended to grapple with the potentially awkward situation in which the Trump-led government intended to negotiate with a business controlled by the president’s family.

“His being both the landlord and the tenant is something that we’re curious what the GSA’s opinion of that is,” Chaffetz said.

The earliest version of this quote seems to have come from Kyle Cheney, "Chaffetz has no idea why Trump wants to see him", Politico 2/7/2017, and it's been reproduced in several other stories. But I haven't been able to find a recording, and there's no evidence that reporters' shoddy quotation practices have improved, so despite the quotation marks, we have no way to know whether these are Chaffetz's words or a reporter's  paraphrase.

Whoever created the sentence, however, it offers a nice example of what linguists call a "resumptive pronoun".

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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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