Archive for Syntax

Awkward ambiguity

From David Morris:

The Sydney Morning Herald website  is currently showing a headline –  "How to not accidentally harass someone at the office party".

(So, how to deliberately harass someone …?)

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Sex with Senator Bob Taft?

Last Friday, Bill O'Neill decided to "speak up on the behalf of all heterosexual males" by posting this on Facebook:

Since O'Neill is a justice of the Ohio State Supreme Court, and a declared candidate for governor of Ohio, this occasioned a certain amount of commentary.

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538 snags Trent Reznor Prize nomination

Rick Rubenstein has nominated this sentence (from Oliver Roeder, "The Supreme Court Is Allergic To Math", FiveThirtyEight 10/17/2017) for the prestigious Trent Reznor Prize for Tricky Embedding:

Justice Neil Gorsuch balked at the multifaceted empirical approach that the Democratic team bringing the suit is proposing be used to calculate when partisan gerrymandering has gone too far, comparing the metric to a secret recipe.

Rick notes that "This passage from 538 took me several readings".

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Terror of singular 'they'

Joining a crowd of other recent fraudsters, Paul Roberts and Deborah Briton returned from their Spanish vacation and subsequently turned in a completely fake claim against the Thomas Cook package-vacation company, alleging that their time in Spain had been ruined by stomach complaints for which the hotel and the company should be held liable. They sought more than $25,000 in damages for the fictional malady. The judge sentenced them to jail. And in this report of the case my colleague Bob Ladd noticed that Sam Brown, the prosecuting attorney, showed himself to be so terrified of blundering into a singular they that he would not even risk using they with plural reference, preferring to utter a totally ungrammatical sentence:

*Sam Brown, prosecuting, said: "Both defendants knew that in issuing this claim he or she would be lying in order to support it."

Beware of struggling to obey prescriptive injunctions that don't come naturally to you; they can warp your ability to use your native language sensibly.

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Headlinese grammaticality

"Saudi king decrees women be allowed to drive", Reuters 9/26/2017:

Elika Bergelson writes:

This feels wrong — I can't substitute any other verb in to make it okay.
Saudi king announces/says/declares/rules all fall short…

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Anaphoric ambiguity of the week

Obeying the sign:

See also "Another step towards gender equality", 8/20/2006, "Dogless in Albion", 9/12/2011, and John Wells on "carrying dogs", 3/15/2013.

[From here via Carmen Fought]

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He lapsed into the passive voice

Mark Landler recently published an article in the New York Times under the headline "Where Predecessors Set Moral Standard, Trump Steps Back." Unlike his predecessors, he notes, the current president has rejected the very concept of moral leadership:

On Saturday, in his first response to Charlottesville, Mr. Trump condemned the violence "on many sides." Then he lapsed into the passive voice, expressing, as he has before, a sense of futility that the divisions between Americans would ever be healed.

"It's been going on for a long time in our country," he said. "Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama. This has been going on for a long, long time."

This incompetent, floundering president, who has never previously had to run an organization and is revealing that he is no good at it, is guilty of so many things that could have been mentioned. But passive voice?

Asking whether "the divisions between Americans would ever be healed" is passive voice, but that's not Trump, that's Landler, who's the accuser here. "It's been going on for a long time in our country" is not in the passive voice. Mark Landler is one more case (I have literally lost count) of someone who writes for a major print source and pontificates about other people's grammar but doesn't know the difference between active and passive.

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"North Korea best not…"

Donald Trump's "fire and fury" warning to North Korea, we now know, was unscripted, not the product of speechwriters and advisers. As some have suggested, Trump's aggressive language may have been (at least unconsciously) modeled on Harry Truman's announcement that the U.S. had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945.

Truman: If they do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.
Trump: North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.

Beyond the echo of Truman, Trump is particularly fond of the hyperbolic construction, "like the world has never seen," and variations on that theme. In the Toronto Star, Daniel Dale details Trump's past use of the phrase and wonders if "the president bumbled into the threat because he did not understand the ramifications of a favourite phrase he had in his head." (See also Mark Liberman's post from last year, "This is the likes of which I didn't expect.")

But what about the opening of the threat, "North Korea best not…"? Ben Yagoda said on Twitter that it "sounds like something from a bad Western." John Kelly thought it sounded more Southern. I was reminded of a famous line from the character Omar Little on the HBO series The Wire: "You come at the king, you best not miss."


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Scary good and scary bright

Victor Mair published a post yesterday under the title "Google is scary good", and reader Philip Taylor commented:

"Scary good" reads very oddly to me; would not "scarily" be more customary in such a context ?

The answer is that there are quite a few adjectives (or, perhaps one should say, adverbs homophonous with their related adjectives) that occur as modifiers of other adjectives in standard English: dead tired, cold sober, blind drunk, and plenty of others (the topic is briefly discussed by Payne, Huddleston and Pullum in this lengthy 2010 paper).

In the particular case of scary, I remember when I first heard it as a modifier, some 40 years ago, from a British linguist in Massachusetts (she had moved to America to do her PhD and never went back). She described another linguist, who at the time I had not met, as "scary bright". It registered permanently with me — one-trial learning of the construction — and I never again found it odd to hear scary as a modifier in an adjective phrase. And I never forgot the characterization.

I will now reveal who uttered the phrase, and which linguist she was describing. If you feel this is improper, or wouldn't want to know, or think candid remarks made in private by people other than Anthony Scaramucci should never be quoted in a public setting, or wouldn't like to discover that it was not who you think it was, then all I can suggest is that you resist the temptation to click on Read the rest of this entry. Just be strong: don't read on. Eschew gossiping and leaking. Preserve the privacy and anonymity of both linguists.

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English Verb-Particle Constructions

Lately I've been thinking about "optionality" as it relates to syntactic alternations. (In)famous cases include complementizer deletion ("I know that he is here" vs. "I know he is here") or embedded V2 in Scandinavian. For now let's consider the English verb-particle construction. The relative order of the particle and the object is "optional" in cases such as the following:

1a) "John picked up the book"
1b) "John picked the book up"

Either order is usually acceptable (with the exception of pronoun objects — although those too become acceptable under a focus reading…)

1c) "John put it back"
1d) *"John put back it"

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Becoming an adjective

A friend points out to me that according to this Abe Books description of a hardback copy of Jane Jacobs' classic book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, on the back cover it is reported that Toronto Life made the following assertion:

Jane Jacobs has become more than a person. She is an adjective.

If you care to read on, I will do my best to explain the meaning of this comment.

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Active seeming: dumb grammar fetishism yet again

Last January 21 The Economist actually printed a letter I wrote pointing out that how wirelessly to hack a car was a ridiculous way to say "how to wirelessly hack a car," and resulted from a perverted and dimwitted obeisance to a zombie rule. But did they actually listen, and think about changing their ways? They did not. I have no idea how they manage to publish a beautiful magazine every Thursday night when they are so mentally crippled by eccentric 19th-century grammar edicts that they will commit syntactic self-harm rather than go against the prejudices of a few doddering old amateur grammarians in the middle 1800s who worried about the "split infinitive." Take a look at this nonsense from the magazine's leader in the issue of April 22, about UK prime minister Theresa May's chances of having more flexibility after the general election she has called:

With a larger majority she can more easily stand up to her ultra-Eurosceptic backbenchers, some of whom seem actively to want Britain to crash out.

Seem actively??

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Or the arbitrary cat, horse, or pig

I think Mark Liberman may have been concerned that perhaps my post "Pronominal reference to the arbitrary dog" hinted at being tempted toward the Recency Illusion. Not true, of course: even when surprised by some point of usage that I notice, I never conclude I must therefore be the first to have encountered it. On encountering the use of singular they for a dog, I didn't say "This has never happened before"; I said "we should expect this sort of use to increase in frequency." But anyway, just in case, Mark sent me some other cases of animals being referred to with singular they. They presumably indicate that where sex is irrelevant, the use of it should nonetheless be avoided, because it might offend the animal.

https://www.bengalcats.co/why-do-cats-knead/
You see, the repetitive movement is not only serving as a way to promote milk flow, it also encourages maternal instinct and establishes a bond between a cat and their kittens.

http://www.ancientegyptonline.co.uk/cat.html
When a cat died, their human family would go into a deep mourning and shave their eyebrows.

[By the way, notice that the foregoing example is ambiguous (cat's eyebrows vs. family members' eyebrows), and the ambiguity is caused solely by the refusal to use it for the arbitrary cat. People will risk being incomprehensible rather than change their mind about whether they could compromise on a pronoun gender choice. Or maybe the point is just that people do not avoid, and do not know to avoid, or even notice, dangers of ambiguity for the hearer or reader.]

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