Archive for Syntax

"It eats salty": middle voice on "Top Chef"

On a recent episode of Bravo's competitive cooking show "Top Chef" ("Spines and Vines," 12/10/15), the contestants had to make a dish with uni (sea urchin) and pair it with a wine. One contestant, Angelina Bastidas, received the following less-than-glowing appraisal of her dish from the show's host, Padma Lakshmi, and guest judge Dana Cowin, editor-in-chief of Food & Wine.

AB: Over here it's a play on an Italian cacio e pepe. I made uni butter. And the wine that I chose today is chardonnay.
DC: The uni obviously has a lot of salt.
PL: Yeah.
DC: It's one of the characteristics, and the dish…
PL: It eats salty.
AB: Sorry about that. I apologize.
PL: Thank you.

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Waste bin misnegation

I saw a sticker on the lid of a pedal-operated hospital waste bin that said this:


THIS SACK HOLDER IS SPECIFICALLY DESIGNED TO BE FOOT OPERATED ONLY. THE LID MUST NOT BE HAND OPERATED AND PUSHED PAST THE POINT WHERE IT WILL NOT AUTOMATICALLY RETURN TO THE CLOSED POSITION.

Everyone who uses the bin sees this notice; maybe some even read it and try to respect it; but perhaps only Language Log readers will notice that it contains a misnegation — another sign that the number of negations within a sentence that our poor monkey brains can successfully handle averages out at little more than 1.

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Glenn Frey and the band with the anomalous name

Singer-songwriter-guitarist Glenn Frey died two weeks ago, and I found myself reflecting on the poetry of the songs he wrote with Don Henley for a Lingua Franca post (see it here). Working on that caused me to bump up against the odd fact that the band Frey and Henley co-founded had a name that nobody ever gets right.

Steve Martin reported in his autobiography Born Standing Up that Frey insisted the name was "Eagles", not "The Eagles." Thus the band had settled on a name that was supposed to be what The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL) calls a strong proper name like Azerbaijan, which takes no the, not a weak one like (the) Azores, which must have a the. (Language Log, by the way, is a strong proper name.)

Everyone feels they need to supply a definite article for Eagles. And there's a reason for that. Once you look at the relevant grammatical constraints of English you see that Frey was really swimming upstream.

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What are the chances of sustaining life at the Sydney Opera House?

Stephen Bullon sent a link to an article in the Guardian — Ian Sample, "Most threats to humans come from science and technology, warns Hawking", 1/18/2016 — and pointed to a picture caption that reads "Stephen Hawking reflects on the Earth’s chances of sustaining life at the Sydney Opera House / earlier last year".

Stephen's comment:

Seems to me that if you can't sustain life at the Sydney Opera House, the rest of Australia has got no chance.

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Some linguistic notes on the Taiwan election

Taiwan has just concluded its general elections with some amazing results.

From a long-term resident in Taiwan;

A twenty-five point victory for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the presidential election!

Tsai Ing-wen: 56.1%
Eric Chu (KMT): 31.0%
James Soong (PFP): 12.8%

A huge, emotional crowd in Taipei for Tsai.

A very, very good day for the DPP, which will also control the Legislature for the very first time.

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Annals of singular 'they': another case with known sex

Karen Thomson, a Sanskritist and antiquarian bookseller living in Oxford, wrote to me to point out the following very significant example of singular they in a Financial Times interview with TV writer and director Jill Soloway:

People will recognise that just because somebody is masculine, it doesn't mean they have a penis. Just because somebody's feminine, it doesn't mean they have a vagina. That's going to be the evolution over the next five years.

You see what makes this not just a dramatic claim in terms of sexual politics but a linguistically very revealing example?

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"Hastily diagrams sentence"

Thoreau, "I don’t cry for yesterday; there’s an ordinary world", Unqualified Offerings 10/22/2015:

Ah!  Clinton vs. Bush with an insane billionaire in the mix and the latest Whitewater/Vince Foster sequels already brewing!  It’s 1992 all over again.  Except this time I’m not single and trying to work up the courage to ask a girl out.  Things are much better for me.

Comment by mds:

Except this time I’m not single and trying to work up the courage to ask a girl out

[HASTILY DIAGRAMS SENTENCE]

… I say go for it.

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"Often more [difficulty] than in this chosen pair"

We've often complained about the ignorant aftermath of E.B. White's ignorant 1959 incitement to which-hunting, which launched the idea that restrictive (or integrated, or defining) relative clauses in English should always and only be introduced by that, while non-restrictive (or supplementary, or non-defining) relative clauses should be introduced by which. (See "Reddit blewit" 12/24/2012 for details and additional links. Note that for simplicity, I'm considering only relative clauses with inanimate/nonhuman heads, though the fundamental point remains the same when we add who to the mix.)

My point today is that the whole distinction is a false one.

More exactly: The traditional restrictive/non-restrictive dichotomy merges distinct morphological, syntactic, semantic, prosodic, rhetorical, and psychological questions; the correlation among these different dimensions is loose at best; several of the relevant distinctions are gradient rather than categorical; and some of the distinctions are sometimes a matter of pragmatic vagueness rather than grammatical ambiguity.

If I'm right, then modern linguists have been committing White's sin in a less extreme form, trying to impose an over-simplified rationalist taxonomy on a more complex linguistic reality.

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Gun oil

In "The Stress and Structure of Modified Noun  Phrases in English" (Sag & Szabolsci, Eds., Lexical Matters, 1992), Richard Sproat and I discussed the semantic ambiguity or vagueness of English noun compounds:

We now turn to N0 compounds where a paraphrase links the two words in the compound with a predicate not implicit in either one. We are limiting this category to endocentric compounds, so that their English paraphrase will be something like 'an N1 N2 is an N2 relative-clause-containing-N1,' e.g., 'an ankle bracelet is a bracelet that is worn on the ankle,' or 'rubbing alcohol is alcohol that is used for rubbing'. The range of predicates implied by such paraphrases is very large. Since this type of compound-formation can be used for new coinages, any particular compound will in principle be multiply ambiguous (or vague) among a set of possible predicates.

Consider hair oil versus olive oil. Ordinarily hair oil is oil for use on hair, and olive oil is oil derived from olives. But if the world were a different way, olive oil might be a petroleum derivative used to shine olives for added consumer appeal, and hair oil might be a lubricant produced by recycling barbershop floor sweepings.

We go on to discuss the wide range of relationships involved in such cases, and the difficulty of automating their analysis.

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Grammarians, Whores, Buffoons

From an anonymous colleague:

I'm currently auditing Jennifer Houseman Wegner's class on Cleopatra. Today, in a Powerpoint lecture on Ptolemy IV, she showed the following quote from Edwyn Bevan's "A History of Egpyt under the Ptolemaic Dynasty": (Metheun, 1927, p.233)

"Agathocles and Agathoclea still, as before, ruled the king's [Ptolemy IV] corrupt affections. The palace swarmed with literary pretenders, poets, grammarians, whores, buffoons, philosophers."

Somehow put me in mind of Language Log.

Heavens!  What a motley crew!

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Rand Paul's "dumbass" comment

Two years ago, I posted about a flubbed joke on Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update," wherein Taran Killam as historical critic Jebidiah Atkinson slammed FDR's Pearl Harbor address as "a speech that was so boring-ass." The joke as originally written probably referred to a "boring-ass speech," because "[adjective]-ass" almost always occurs attributively (pre-modifying a noun or noun phrase) and not as a predicate adjective. (Acceptability judgments of the predicative use will vary, of course.)

Attributive vs. predicative use of "[adjective]-ass" is relevant again this week, after Sen. Rand Paul was captured on camera being snarky about a daylong livestreaming event his campaign was recording. Asked if he was indeed still running for President, he said:

"I don't know — wouldn't be doing this dumbass livestreaming if I weren't. So yes, I still am running for President. Get over it."

Paul told Fox News today that the comment was intended to be sarcastic. As Talking Points Memo reported,

Paul, who took flak this week for a subdued appearance in a day-long livestream video produced by his campaign, told Fox's "America's Newsroom" that he was joking when he called the exercise "dumbass."

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"He spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to do so"

Dan Lamothe, "U.S. Navy to China: We’ll sail our ships near your man-made islands whenever we want", WaPo 10/8/2015 [emphasis added]:

U.S. officials could soon send a Navy ship steaming by a chain of man-made islands that China has built in the South China Sea, Pentagon officials said, potentially exacerbating tensions in an area in which Beijing is expanding its presence.

China set up a territorial limit around the islands, effectively claiming international waters as their own. Washington does not recognize those claims, prompting the Navy to develop plans to send at least one ship within 12 nautical miles of the islands, a defense official said.

The Navy sending ships through the disputed areas would require approval from the White House, and underscore that the United States will not let China limit freedom of navigation at sea, the official added. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to do so.

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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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