Archive for Syntax

"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


… I say go for it.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (11)

"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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (21)

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (6)

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!

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (9)

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."

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (10)

"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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (12)

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:

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (21)

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (32)

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (22)

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (27)

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off