Archive for Syntax

"Misunderstand that …", "pessimistic that …"

In late June Lila Gleitman noticed a case of "A is pessimistic that S" meaning that A considers it likely that S will happen/turn out to be the case, and A considers S to be an unwanted outcome. Her example was "I am more pessimistic than I was two weeks ago about the trade war spinning out of control."

We agreed that we would both find it impossible to say "I’m pessimistic that the trade war will spin out of control", but differed on "pessimistic about": in my dialect, but not Lila’s, "A is pessimistic about a Republican victory in the fall" is OK, meaning that A fears that the outcome will be the one she doesn’t want — that there will be or that there won’t be, depending on her point of view.

Lila, by the way, said she could use “pessimistic that” in the case of losing hope in a good outcome: “I am more  pessimistic than I was two weeks ago that the prices of stocks will rise.” But I don't think I could use "pessimistic that" there either. (So the original speaker and Lila and I seem to have three different patterns of judgments about "pessimistic that".)

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Citizenship and syntax (updated, and updated again)

Last week the Washington Post published an op-ed by Michael Anton arguing that the United States should do away with birthright citizenship—the principle that anyone born in the United States is a U.S. citizen, even if their parents are foreign-born noncitizens. The op-ed has attracted a lot of attention from people on both the left and the right, and by “attention” I mean “condemnation”. (E.g., Garrett Epps at The Atlantic, Mark Joseph Stern at Slate, Dan Drezner at the Washington Post, Robert Tracinski at The Federalist, Alex Nowraseth at The American Conservative, and Jonathan Adler at Volokh Conspiracy. See also this Vox explainer.)

The criticism both on on Anton’s nativism, but also on his interpretation of the 14th Amendment, on which birthright citizenship is based. One of the interpretive moves for which Anton has been criticized is his handling of a statement made on the floor of the Senate while the proposed text of the 14th Amendment was being debated. And that dispute turns on the resolution of a syntactic ambiguity.

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Extreme right node raising

Wikipedia explains that "right node raising" is "a sharing mechanism that sees the material to the immediate right of parallel structures being in some sense 'shared' by those parallel structures, e.g. [Sam likes] but [Fred dislikes] the debates."

This construction is alive and well in modern English, but it flourished to a much greater extent in centuries past. I believe that it was once more common, though I don't have quantitative evidence. But 18th-century authors certainly produced examples that seem to go beyond the boundaries of modern prose style.

Here's a case in point, from Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter X: Emperors Decius, Gallus, Aemilianus, Valerian And Gallienus.—Part II:

The Scythian hordes, which, towards the east, bordered on the new settlements of the Goths, presented nothing to their arms, except the doubtful chance of an unprofitable victory. But the prospect of the Roman territories was far more alluring; and the fields of Dacia were covered with rich harvests, sown by the hands of an industrious, and exposed to be gathered by those of a warlike, people.

As I read this passage on the plane to Helsinki, the part that I've put in bold struck me as characteristic of Gibbon's time, and foreign to contemporary prose style.

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Syntactic ambiguity of the week

Caitlin MacNeil, "Jackson Considers Withdrawing As VA Nominee As New Allegations Surface", TPM 4/26/2018:

Jackson denied the allegation that he crashed a government vehicle while drunk on Wednesday evening and told reporters he would press on in the confirmation process.

 

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"and himself jail"

In "More Cohen Businesses Coming to Light," on Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall writes:

The biggest taxi operator in New York, Evgeny “Gene” Friedman, now manages Cohen’s 30+ NYC medallions or at least did the last time we spoke to him. Friedman has been struggling for the last year to keep his taxi businesses out of bankruptcy and himself jail.

The final three words of the boldfaced clause present a weird, and dare I say unusual, case of double ellipsis. The semantic content communicated by those three words (in the context of the sentence) is richer than you'd think could be expressed by only three words, especially given that one of them is merely the conjunction and. That content can be represented as follows, with the struck-through text standing for the content that the reader must infer:

Friedman has been struggling for the last year to keep his taxi businesses out of bankruptcy and to keep himself out of jail.

There's nothing unusual about the first omission; I don't see anything wrong with the clause to keep his taxi businesses out of bankruptcy and himself out of jail. But the omission of out of strikes me as very strange, and what's even stranger is that to my ear, the clause is worse if to keep is put back:

* Friedman has been struggling for the last year to keep his taxi businesses out of bankruptcy and to keep himself jail.

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Prepositional phrase attachments of the week

By coincidence, today's email brought two contributions of links to remarkable examples of PP-attachment ambiguity.

The first one was the lede from this story — Jason Rosenbaum & Marshal Griffin, "Hawley: Evidence exists to charge Greitens for obtaining charity fundraising list", St. Louis Public Radio, 4/18/2018:

Attorney General Josh Hawley is asking the St. Louis circuit attorney to file criminal charges against Gov. Eric Greitens for allegedly illegally obtaining a fundraising list from a charity he founded for political purposes.

It took me a couple of re-reading to clarify the point that Mr. Greitens obtained the list for political purposes, not that he founded the charity for political purposes.

And in this headline, it's the man who was charged, not the woman he shot: "Man out of jail after 16 months for shooting Nashua woman charged with vicious beating of new girlfriend", NHangle.com 4/16/2018

[h/t John Lawler and Mark Mandel]

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Easy to Laugh

My friend James Cathey sent me an eyebrow-raiser this morning: “Here is a sentence that stopped me in my tracks: "Robinson, who has a warm voice and is easy to laugh, has a way of setting the record straight …"   (TIME: March 12, 2018, p. 50)"

Jim says he could never say "is easy to laugh" in any context that he can think of, and asks “What is going on here?”

I could never say that either, but then I was also surprised at some of the meanings Russian reflexives (and Polish, etc) can have — not only reflexive, reciprocal, and 'unaccusative' (the door opened, etc), but also transitives with missing object and a 'habitual' meaning — I heard it used standardly for 'that dog bites'.

So “easy to laugh” feels to me not totally impossible, and maybe related to the connection between 'These plates break easily' from a transitive and 'He laughs easily' from an intransitive. In the literature I've seen plenty of discussion of the 'break easily' cases and don't remember seeing any of the 'laugh easily' cases.

Maybe also relevant that “laughable” is one of the relatively few -able words formed from an intransitive? But the sense of “laughable” is very different, seems related to a transitive ‘laugh at’ sense, whereas this one is clearly based on intransitive ‘laugh’.

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PP attachment of the week

From the Washington Post:

Jan. 30, fine, but Jan. 31? Apology required.

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Wait, what?

At some point in the recent past, after a few long and fuzzy quasi-days checking annotations for the DIHARD challenge, I found myself dozing off while re-reading a random e-book that turned out to be Charles Stross's Halting State, and was caught short by this sentence:

They call this place the Athens of the North — there’s got to be something you can do by yourself on a summer night, hasn’t there?

I thought to myself, "That's got to be wrong, doesn't it?"

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Accentuate the negative

A curious case of a forced-choice sentence-completion question on a ninth-grade exam at a high school in Taiwan is briefly discussed on Lingua Franca today, for a very general non-linguist readership. It merits a slightly longer and more serious treatment, which I thought Language Log readers might appreciate. The exam question basically asks for a decision on the question of which one of these sentences is fully correct and which deserves to be called ungrammatical:

(a) Lydia knows few things, and so does Peter.
(b) Lydia knows few things, and neither does Peter.

Because continuation with neither does… is widely taken to be a test for negative polarity, this amounts to asking whether Lydia knows few things is a positive clause like Lydia knows everything or a negative one like Lydia doesn't knows anything. And a friend of mine in Taiwan reports having asked a number of English speakers, with a truly surprising result. He finds a split between the two great English dialect groups, the North American dialects (AmE) and the British and Australasian dialects (BrE). The AmE speakers that he asked all said (a) was correct, while the BrE speakers all said that (b) was correct.

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"Experience is different"

Zoe Williams, "With the NHS, reality has finally caught up with Theresa May", The Guardian 1/8/2018 [emphasis added]:

“If you look across the NHS, experience is different,” the prime minister flailed, as if the fact there wasn’t a stroke victim waiting for four hours in an ambulance outside every hospital was proof of her competence. “Experience is different,” she repeated, taking a moment’s refuge in a new evasive tic, of turning everything into a passive voice where nothing is the consequence of anybody’s actions. We’re just a nation of people having a set of experiences which are all different, and everybody’s working very hard because we all want things to be good.

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Annals of ambiguity

Michelle Goldberg, "Fifty Shades of Orange", NYT 12/22/2017:

At a televised cabinet meeting on Wednesday, Donald Trump, as is his custom, called on his appointees to publicly praise him. In a performance that would have embarrassed the most obsequious lackey of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Vice President Mike Pence delivered an encomium to his boss, who sat across the table with arms folded over his chest, absorbing abasement as his due.

Who was absorbing the abasement, "Vice President Mike Pence" or "his boss"?

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Hawaiian-style predicate inversion, Yoda uses

David Adger of Queen Mary University of London is using the new Star Wars movie as an opportunity to delve into the linguistics of Yoda-speak. He surmises that Yoda's native language involves predicate inversion a la Hawaiian, and that this Yodish syntactic pattern is then transferred into his second language, English. (Or is that Galactic Basic Standard?)


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