Archive for Syntax

Don't let 'bigly' catch on

Scott Adams, the Dilbert cartoon creator and diehard Trump promoter, has taken to the semi-jocular practice of adopting the mishearing of Trump's much-loved adjunct big-league, and using bigly as if it were a real adverb ("I just watched the debate on replay. Trump won bigly. This one wasn't close"). Adams is kidding, I think, but the mishearing is very common: by May 5, bigly was getting over 70,000 hits in the Google News index. I'm worried it may catch on, and we'll wake up some morning not only with the orange-quiffed sexist boor in the White House but with bigly added to the stock of adverbs in standard English.

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Attachment ambiguity of the week

Oliver Darcy, "REBELLION: RNC staffers 'defying orders' to keep working for Trump, source says", Business Insider 10/8/2016.

So how are those staffers defying orders? Are they ceasing to work for Trump despite orders to continue? In that case, it's "orders to keep working for Trump" that they're defying. Or are they defying instructions (to stop), (in order) to keep working for Trump?

Aaron Dinkin points out that the headline is perfectly ambiguous in this respect. And interestingly, both meanings are consistent with what we know about disagreement and confusion within the Republican party.

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Rudy off the island (constraint)?

Nick Rossoll, "Giuliani Says Trump Better For US ‘Than a Woman'", ABC News 10/2/2016:

Speaking of reports that Donald Trump claimed a $916 million loss on his 1995 income taxes, Giuliani said: “Don’t you think a man who has this kind of economic genius is a lot better for the United States than a woman, and the only thing she’s ever produced is a lot of work for the FBI checking out her emails?”

Rudy Giuliani has gotten a fair amount of flack for this comment, partly for describing losing $916 million as "economic genius", and partly for (apparently) saying that "a man … is a lot better for the United States than a woman". But John Cowan thinks that the second criticism is unfair, and Rudy is only guilty of stumbling into a syntactic "island violation" and getting out of it in an awkward way.

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Topic comment

Yesterday, Buzzfeed published an article titled "This Woman Ate A Pork Bun In A Typhoon And Now Everyone Loves Her" (9/28/16).  It featured this drawing:

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Secret appearances

The Economist, in a leader last April about the Panama Papers revelation, which I really should have brought to your attention sooner (it fell through the cracks of my life), told us that "The daughters of Azerbaijan's president appear secretly to control gold mines."

They appear secretly? Where are these secret appearances? Are they scheduled in advance, or do they occur randomly? And how would a secret appearance help to control a gold mine?

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Choosing their pronouns for oneself

The following sentence can be found (as of 15 September 2016) in this Wikipedia article about the effects of rape on the victim:

Sometimes in an effort to shield oneself from believing such a thing could happen to their loved one, a supporter will make excuses for why the event occurred.

The clash in pronoun choice (the switch from one to their) makes this clearly anomalous. What exactly could have led to its being written? I think at least two unease-promoting factors are involved.

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Can Japanese read Chinese, and vice versa?

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Mixed literary and vernacular grammar

Radio Free Asia has published an article about a wheelchair ridden human rights activist named Li Biyun:

"Rights Activist 'Takes Refuge' in U.S. Embassy in Beijing: Relatives" (9/1/16)

The article is accompanied by this extraordinary photograph:

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Clueless Microsoft language processing

A rather poetic and imaginative abstract I received in my email this morning (it's about a talk on computational aids for composers), contains the following sentence:

We will metaphorically drop in on Wolfgang composing at home in the morning, at an orchestra rehearsal in the afternoon, and find him unwinding in the evening playing a spot of the new game Piano Hero which is (in my fictional narrative) all the rage in the Viennese coffee shops.

There's nothing wrong with the sentence. What makes me bring it to your notice is the extraordinary modification that my Microsoft mail system performed on it. I wonder if you can see the part of the message that it felt it should mess with, in a vain and unwanted effort at helping me do my job more efficiently?

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Annals of parsing

Two of the hardest problems in English-language parsing are prepositional phrase attachment and scope of conjunction. For PP attachment, the problem is to figure out how a phrase-final prepositional phrase relates to the rest of the sentence — the classic example is "I saw a man in the park with a telescope". For conjunction scope, the problem is to figure out just what phrases an instance of and is being used to combine.

The title of a recent article offers some lovely examples of the problems that these ambiguities can cause: Suresh Naidu and Noam Yuchtman, "Back to the future? Lessons on inequality, labour markets, and conflict from the Gilded Age, for the present", VOX 8/23/2016.  The second phrase includes three ambiguous prepositions (on, from, and for) and one conjunction (and), and has more syntactically-valid interpretations than you're likely to be able to imagine unless you're familiar with the problems of automatic parsing.

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The Festival are clear

One of the rare syntactic dialect differences between British and American English (there really aren't many) concerns verb agreement in present-tense clauses: British English strongly favors plural agreement with any singular subject noun phrase that denotes a collectivity of individuals rather than a unitary individual. And the extent to which it favors that plural agreement is likely to raise eyebrows with speakers of American English. This example, for example, from an email about a lecture at the Edinburgh International Book Festival:

The Festival are very clear that if you arrive after the start of the lecture you will not be admitted.

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To be ambiguous

Robert Ayers writes:

Headline: "Bill's role: To be determined". With a photo of  Bill Clinton looking … determined.

I wonder if I'm the only one who read the headline wrong the first time.

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Struck by a duck-rabbit effect

I was just reading along in the NYT today but had to pause at this sentence:

Mr. Trump has used bankruptcy laws to shield him from personal losses while his investors suffer.

I found myself puzzling over whether "him" was all right there or whether I wanted "himself", and even more puzzled that I was having trouble deciding. I would try out one, then the other, and the sentence kept shape-shifting on me. I didn't "feel" any particular ambiguity, and yet either choice would sound bad to me one second and good the next. Puzzled.

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