Archive for Syntax

An unusual way to celebrate

In the running for attachment ambiguity of the week is a photo caption from Simon Johnson and Ben Hirschler, "Beating Parasites wins three scientists Nobel Prize for medicine", Reuters 10/5/2015:

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Looking over pronouns

Henry Thompson wonders (by email) whether something is changing in English syntax:

This from a 30ish native speaker of American English, with a PhD, definitely literate.

"I had a quick glance at sections of the [xxx], and it does have
some good tips, so I'd encourage you to look over it:"

The issue is whether  a verb-associated intransitive preposition goes before or after a direct object. The standard view is that either order is possible with full noun-phrase objects, while unstressed pronominal objects can only precede the preposition:

Kim pointed out the mistake.
Kim pointed the mistake out.
*Kim pointed out it.
Kim pointed it out.

Henry has noticed (he thinks) an increasing number of violations of this pattern:

I first noticed this is spoken English, e.g. ripped off them, fucked over me, picked up it, in the 1970s, and I feel like it's been steadily occurring in my hearing since then.

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Typical options like “he� and “she�

Collin Binkley, "He? She? Ze? Colleges add gender-free pronouns, alter policy", AP 9/18/2015

Welcome to Harvard. Feel free to pick a pronoun on this form: __ He. __ She. __ Ze. __ E. __ They.

During the registration process at Harvard University, students are now allowed to indicate which pronouns they use, with suggested gender-neutral options like "ze" or "they." Harvard isn't the first college to embrace gender-neutral pronouns, but it's among a wave of major institutions that are widening their policies and pronouns to acknowledge transgender students, as well as "genderqueer" students, who don't identify as male or female.

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Economist sticklers trying to bug me

My favorite magazine is deliberately trying to annoy me. In the August 22 issue of The Economist there's a feature article about the composition of the universe (dark matter, dark energy, and all that, with a beautiful diagram showing the astoundingly tiny fraction of the material in the cosmos that includes non-dark non-hydrogen non-helium entities like us), and the sub-hed line above the title (on page 66) is this:

Of what is the universe really made?

Come on! Nobody who knows how to write natural English preposes the preposition when talking about what X is made of.

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Another victim of oversimplified rules

On page 4 of the Metro newspaper today (it's distributed free on all the Edinburgh buses, so whatever its faults, the price is right) I read this sentence:

A record number of companies has been formed by Edinburgh University in the past 12 months, taking the total created over the past five years to 184.

A grammar tragedy. It's a verb agreement error. The writer recalls being told sternly that the verb must agree with the head noun of the subject noun phrase, and number seems to be the head noun, so common sense has been thrown to the winds, and the verb has wrongly been put into the singular agreement form—which, of course, is what the simplistic how-to-write books seem to demand.

In this case the correct agreement form happens to be the one that comports with the meaning: the University of Edinburgh has not been forming a number over the past year; it is the companies that have been formed, a record number of them. The singular agreement makes no sense. Lesson: verb agreement is not as mechanical and syntactic as the oversimplified handbook versions would have you believe.

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Modern English Grammar

Richard Hershberger, who usually writes about baseball, has a recent post at Ordinary Times about "Modern English Grammar":

My post today is uncharacteristically devoid of baseball content. It is about grammar, one of my many unremunerative interests. Specifically it is about modern English grammar. I don’t mean by this (except incidentally) the grammar of modern English. Rather, I mean modern grammar of English. Also, modern grammars of English. 

It's great to see this evidence of interest in grammar (and grammars), and to see an argument for the relevant of 20th-century linguistics based on an insightful exploration of an interesting corner of English syntax. But it's less great that Mr. Hershberger fails to note that his crucial examples are actually a special case of a much more general pattern, and that the 53 comments go off in various interesting directions without noticing this. As usual in such cases, I blame the linguists, for allowing general education in grammatical analysis to fall into such a sorry state that smart people with an interest in such matters are generally not given the chance in school to learn more of the content and methods of the past sixty years or so of linguistic research.

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Trump's aphasia

The following word-stream (it cannot be called a sentence) was uttered by Republican presidential contender Donald Trump on July 21 in Sun City, South Carolina. As far as I can detect it has no structure at all: the numerous conditional adjuncts never arrive at consequents, we never encounter a main verb or even an approximation to a claim. The topic seems to be related to nuclear engineering, Trump's uncle, the Wharton School, Trump's intelligence, politics, prisoners, women's intelligence, and Iran. But it's hard to be sure:

Look, having nuclear—my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, OK, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart—you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, OK, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I'm one of the smartest people anywhere in the world—it’s true!—but when you're a conservative Republican they try—oh, do they do a number—that’s why I always start off: Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune—you know I have to give my like credentials all the time, because we're a little disadvantaged—but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me—it would have been so easy, and it's not as important as these lives are (nuclear is powerful; my uncle explained that to me many, many years ago, the power and that was 35 years ago; he would explain the power of what's going to happen and he was right—who would have thought?), but when you look at what's going on with the four prisoners—now it used to be three, now it’s four—but when it was three and even now, I would have said it's all in the messenger; fellas, and it is fellas because, you know, they don't, they haven't figured that the women are smarter right now than the men, so, you know, it's gonna take them about another 150 years—but the Persians are great negotiators, the Iranians are great negotiators, so, and they, they just killed, they just killed us.

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A thousand things to say… Not!

It is not clear to me whether Chris Lonsdale, the managing shyster director at the language-teaching company Chris Lonsdale & Associates, is an out-and-out liar or merely has pork for brains and believes the nonsense he spouts. But what is clear to me is that not enough people are paying attention to the conjecture I mention in one section of this paper: that almost all strings of English words are ungrammatical.

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Bad newspaper prose (yes, with passives)

Those who want a clear example of truly dreadful prose, dreadful in large part because of the use of the much-loathed agentless passive, should look at examples like this, from the UK Daily Mail website on Sunday, July 12:

The medical director of NHS England has disclosed that up to one in seven hospital procedures are unnecessary, it has been reported.

Sir Bruce Keogh is said to have described waste in the health service as "profligate" and called for it to be reduced.

According to The Sunday Telegraph, the former heart surgeon estimated that up to 15% of the NHS budget is spent on treatments that should not take place.

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Another passive-hating Orwell wannabe

I'm grateful to Peter Howard and S. P. O'Grady, who within an hour or so both mailed me a link to this extraordinarily dumb article by James Gingell in The Guardian. As Howard and O'Grady pointed out, Gingell's wildly overstated rant illustrates a point I have made on Language Log many times before: that when language is the topic you can pother at will in a national daily despite visibly having no knowledge or understanding of your subject, and failing to get your facts right, and lacking any defensible point. No editor of a national newspaper would let drivel of this sort get by if it were about politics or sport; but on the topic of language they all will.

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Linguist reads the paper: First sentence in Friedman's column begins "Let’s see, America is prepositioning battle tanks …" and before I got to the battle tanks I was surprised and wondering how 'preposition' could be used as a verb and what it could mean. (I'm of course seeing the word that starts with 'prep', had to be garden-pathed before I backtracked and saw the verb pre-position.)

I won't be surprised if readers of this blog had a similar first parse of my header –  its occurrence in this blog will probably make that even more likely.

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Disastrous ambiguity

Talking of the possibly impending Grexit, what an unfortunate sentence The Economist chose to conclude its leader article on the ongoing Greek monetary crisis:

This marriage is not worth saving at any price.

A quirk of English syntax and semantics makes this radically ambiguous.

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"A year ago, we don't win tonight".

Ron Stack writes:

Here is Manager Terry Collins on the Mets' victory over the Marlins last night: “A year ago, we don’t win tonight. It’s a different mentality in our clubhouse now."  

I'm almost certain LL has covered this time-shifted present tense but since I don't even know what to call it I couldn't do much of a search.  

So, what is it? And why does it sound right but look strange? And why does it seem (anecdotally, anyway) to be so popular among coaches and managers?

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