Archive for Syntax

PP attachment of the week

From the Washington Post:

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

Comments (14)

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?"

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (61)

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (79)

"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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (20)

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"?

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (18)

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?)


Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (3)

More on grammar, punctuation, and prosody

From "In the Groove, Jazz and Beyond", 12/17/2017:

We also pay tribute to another tragedy; the murder of John Lennon with jazz covers of several of his tunes.

Prepositional phrases like "with jazz covers of several of his tunes" are multiply ambiguous. Thus with can be comitative ("They rode with Kim") or instrumental ("open the can with a screwdriver") or several other sorts of things; and then there's the question of "attachment", i.e. which part of the preceding material it modifies.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (23)

On when listening is better than talking: A call for contemplation and empathy

The following is a reply from Emily M. Bender, Natasha Warner and myself to Geoff Pullum’s recent posts (A letter saying they won, 12/4/2017; Courtesy and personal pronoun choice, 12/6/2017).


Respected senior linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum recently used the widely-read platform of Language Log to remark on the fact that his grammatical tolerance of singular they only goes so far (A letter saying they won, 12/4/2017). For Pullum, singular they cannot be used in reference to a personal name; example sentences such as Kimi said theyi were going to the store are ungrammatical for him. This fact is not in dispute, nor is the fact that this is a salient grammaticality judgment for Pullum. What is in dispute, however, is the appropriateness of a series of choices that Pullum has made in reporting this grammaticality judgment. Those choices have clearly hurt people. The following is an effort to explain the hurt that these choices have caused and to give Pullum — and everyone from his defenders to those who don’t see what all the fuss is about — another opportunity to respond with contemplation and empathy as opposed to defensiveness and continued disrespect.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (42)

Ask Language Log: with + nonfinite clause?

A staff member at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, responsible for providing guidance for journalists on pronunciation, terminology, grammar, and usage, has asked me about "a particular usage of with, which seems to be doing the job of a conjunction." He wonders whether the construction in question is correct English or not. He supplies these attested examples (all already published by ABC news, so one thing we know is that on this matter the usage train has left the station):

  1. "Same-sex marriage could be legal by the end of the day with Federal Parliament inching closer to a final vote." (found here)
  2. "Peter Creigh has asked for a non-publication order on his name to be lifted, with Newcastle Local Court told he was ready to have his identity revealed." (found here)
  3. "President Donald Trump introduced the plan alongside two Republican senators in the White House, with officials saying the plan was based in part on the Australian and Canadian immigration models." (found here)

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

Courtesy and personal pronoun choice

My most recent post started out as a very minor note of approval about the continuing spread of singular they in journalism. Then the person who sent me the quote realized that Phillip Garcia, named in the cited newspaper story, had a preference for being referred to with the pronoun they, which nullified the point. So I modified the post to acknowledge that. I added a side remark that this caused a difficulty for me: although I find singular they fully grammatical and entirely natural with many types of antecedent, that's not true for singular personal name antecedents. I didn't reject the notion of following Garcia's preference; I said "I'll do my best, but it will be a real struggle."

Ironically, on re-reading the paragraph I saw it was more of a struggle than I thought: within minutes of learning about Garcia's preference I had unintentionally disrespected it by using "he". So I went back and corrected myself, overtly, the way people do in speech ("Phillip Garcia's profile reveals that he is — sorry, that they are…"). It was not snarky; it was an honest admission that I had found it hard to make an instant change to my syntactic habits. But it prompted an angry and disappointed reader signing in as Cass to comment* that my post was "immensely transphobic", and failing an immediate apology, "Language Log needs to take him off this blog."

This is Language Log, so let's be careful with our word choices. What has transphobia got to do with this? My young friend Magnus, born about 18 years ago as the daughter of a good friend of mine but now militantly trans-identified and male, expects to be called "he". I respect his wishes, of course. The use of they under consideration here has (normally) nothing to do with being trans. It's the requested usage of those who (whether trans or not) hate the binary sex distinction that Magnus has rebelled against in his own way; they wish to be referred to in a way that does not assign them to a sex category at all. I have young friends of that persuasion too, and I do my best to avoid the gendered third person singular pronouns when talking about them. I respect their choice.

Yet for simply touching in passing on a slight problem for the they-preference, I am suddenly the conservative hate figure of the week, targeted for dismissal and subjected to streams of hostility in an intemperate guest post by Kirby Conrod and a welter of comments underneath it. This hostility is, to put it mildly, unmotivated and misdirected.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

If you can't say something nice…

This is a guest post by Kirby Conrod.


I'm sorry to see that the venerable Geoff Pullum is so desperately behind the times. I don't mean to be snarky, I genuinely am sad about it. It's not just a matter of being un-hip to the cool new language change in progress (singular "they" is making inroads syntactically in the types of antecedents speakers will use it with), but rather a methodological and disciplinary unhipness that really makes me feel bad.

First, let me address the rudeness: if a senior colleague of mine pulled this kind of self-conscious "he is–sorry, they are" on me in a professional setting, I'd file a complaint. If they did it in a casual setting, I'd have a nasty word for them. That's the kind of snide, intentional misgendering that I am not okay with. In writing, Pullum clearly has the ability to force a use of "they" even if he finds it distasteful. To do otherwise is profoundly disrespectful and borderline hostile, even as a supposedly self-effacing joke about his own grammar. It would've been easy to make the point of his difficulty in writing that sentence without using the wrong pronoun for anyone–and Pullum should seriously self-interrogate on why he thinks "he" would have been the alternative, anyways.

With that out of the way, I'll go into the linguistics first, then the methods.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (82)

A letter saying they won

Evidence continues to pile up that singular they is naturally used in standard English whenever the antecedent is indefinite or quantifier-like (not a personal name, for example) and the sex of whoever it might turn out to identify is completely immaterial. My correspondent Daniel Sterman thought, and I thought too, that there was evidence of this being true now even in the writing of journalists. Sterman spotted this in an article by John Bowden, writing in The Hill, concerning Temple University PhD candidate Phillip Garcia, who has won the position of judge of election in Ward 21, Division 10, Philadelphia:

A Philadelphia resident was shocked to receive a letter Friday saying they won an election earlier in the month — apparently because no one else cast a vote.

"I literally yelled 'what the hell' when I opened the letter," Phillip Garcia told The Hill. "I've written my name in a few times during elections when no one else is listed for a position. It's just been a thing I do, with no expectation of, like, actually making an impact on the vote."

But we were wrong here (this post has been corrected in the past hour).

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

Bump of Chicken

Photo by Ross Bender, taken near Osaka Castle last month:

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (18)