Archive for Syntax

R.I.P. Emmon Bach

Emmon Bach died at home in Oxford on November 28 of pneumonia-induced sudden respiratory failure. Emmon was born on June 12, 1929, in Kumamoto, Japan, the youngest of six children of Danish missionary parents Ditlev Gotthard Monrad Bach and Ellen Sigrid Bach who moved with their family from Japan to the U.S. in 1941, where he grew up in Fresno and Boulder. He did his undergraduate and graduate work at the University of Chicago, with a Ph.D. in Germanic Studies in 1959; his dissertation was Patterns of Syntax in Hoelderlin’s Poems. He taught at the University of Texas from 1959 to 1972, first in the German Department and then in Linguistics, then at Queens College and the Graduate Center of CUNY in 1972–73. From 1973 until his retirement in 1992 he was Professor of Linguistics, and then Sapir Professor of Linguistics, at UMass Amherst, where he served as Department Head from 1977 until 1985. Starting a few years after his retirement from UMass, he held an appointment as a Professorial Research Associate at SOAS (University of London), where he taught semantics and field methods. And in 2007 he became affiliated with Oxford University, where he gave graduate lectures in Semantics and participated in the Syntax Working Group.

He was President of the Linguistic Society of America in 1996 and President of SSILA, the Society for the Study of Indigenous Languages of the Americas, this year.

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"Closed minds": open to interpretation?

CNN International recently sent out this tweet, linking to an interview with Stella McCartney:

The headline, which also appears on CNN's website, left some people perplexed. Was Ms. McCartney saying that her parents closed minds, or did they open closed minds?

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No-excuses split infinitive in The Economist

I have grumbled on several previous occasions about the Economist's stubborn adherence to a brainless policy that its editors maintain: no adjuncts are to be located between the to and the verb in an infinitival clause, lest readers should get annoyed. That is, the magazine's style guide insists that the "split infinitive" construction should be avoided even though it is well known that the rule barring it is a 19th-century fiction and there is no serious rational ground for practicing the syntactic self-denial in question. The reason I grumble is that the more notable institutions like magazines or publishing houses insist on such silly rules the more money and time get wasted on enforcing compliance. So I was pleased to see this week that The Economist had slipped up and let one through. The court does not have nationwide jurisdiction, so the mogul is unlikely to ever be thrown behind bars said an article about the Pakistani blasphemy law on page 59 of the November 29th issue.

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Teenager found bed

Stan Carey writes "Here's a headline for you!":

"Mentally ill teenager held in police cell is found bed", BBC News Devon, 11/29/2014.

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Built site specific inducted

Macaulay Curtis writes: "This one isn't a headline, but it is mightily hard to parse. From a construction site in Brisbane, Australia. I walked past it in confusion every day for a week before realising that the company is called 'Built'…"

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Syntactic wigs

Bruce Rusk shared with me this photograph from a store in Vancouver’s Chinatown:


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Inches

The headline above this page at TheHill.com says Warren inches away from Obama. And Bob Ayers, who pointed it out to me, was surprised that anyone would judge Elizabeth Warren to be that close to Obama on the issues, since they disagree quite a bit. I agree with Bob: I also read the sentence that way (the wrong way) at first. But if you read the text you soon see that they must have meant inches as a 3rd-person-singular verb, not a plural noun, and that reverses the key entailment. She isn't a mere few inches away from the president; she is edging away from him.

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Returning to from A to B

From D.D.:

I'm a 30-yr NYC resident, and I've been speaking American English all my life, more than 50 years now. Even so, I had a hell of a time parsing the prepositions in this headline:

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The grammar of "Better Together"

The official name of the organization campaigning for a No vote in the upcoming Scottish independence referendum is "Better Together." That phrase was originally the campaign's main slogan. Much has been written in recent days about the campaign's evident signs of panic, but no one has commented on the stupidity of "Better Together" as a slogan. (It was actually ditched by the campaign in June, and replaced by an even more pathetic slogan: "No Thanks.")

Better together is an adjective phrase. Used on its own, without any logical subject or other accompanying noun phrases, it is apparently supposed to affirm that something will go better in some way for someone than something else if something is together with something else, but it doesn't specify any of these someones or somethings. Yet the cui bono issue (who benefits) is absolutely crucial to the debate. The ineptness of the sloganeering is almost unbelievable.

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Newspaper alleges passive voice correctly!

Today I came upon something truly rare: a newspaper article about a passive-voice apology that (i) is correct about the apology containing a passive clause, but (ii) stresses that the oft-misdiagnosed passive should not be the thing we focus on and attempt to discourage, and (iii) cites actual linguists in support of the latter view! What's going on? Is Language Log beginning to break through? Are journalists waking up to the fact that there actually is a definition of the notion 'passive voice' (though hardly anybody seems to know what it is)? The article is by Tristin Hopper of the National Post in Canada (August 8, 2014); you can read it here. Kudos to Tristin.

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Those X-ing Ys

From Stan Carey:

This ambiguity in a tweet from the British prime minister may be of minor interest:

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I want to / two fish

In the comments to "slip(per)" (7/22/14), we have had a very lively discussion on whether or not people would pronounce these two sentences differently in Mandarin:

wǒ yào tuōxié
我要拖鞋
"I want slippers."

wǒ yào tuō xié
我要脫鞋
"I want to take off my shoes."

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Because come on

Philip Bump's article about the initiative aimed at splitting Caifornia into six new states contains a cute example of a new playful extension of the use of because:

Happily, in this instance the federal government would have to sign off on the idea, which it will never do, because, come on.

It's not a real extension of the syntax that allows because to take imperative clause complements, of course; it's just a humorous way to dismiss the idea of federal approval, taking its structure from the kind of changes of plan that happen in casual talk. Here the plan for a preposition phrase with because is just abandoned, and the idiomatic "come on" injunction to get real is substituted. But it works very nicely.

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