Archive for Syntax

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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Officer-involved passives

Radley Balko's Washington Post article "The curious grammar of police shootings" begins by reminding us about "mistakes were made" (an utterance so famous that it has its own Wikipedia page), and proceeds to quote a description of a shooting that is not by a policeman ("The suspect produced a semi-automatic handgun and fired numerous times striking the victim in the torso"). He comments with approval: "Note the active voice. We have a clear subject, verb, and direct object."

So far so good: the suspect is clearly identified as the agent. But that reference to the "active voice" clearly implies an upcoming allegation that the police use the passive voice when talking about their shootings. And the article signally fails to establish this. One quoted police report says: "The suspect then ran towards the officers still armed with the sword and an officer-involved-shooting occurred." Another says: "When the suspect continued to advance on the officer while refusing to comply with his repeated commands, an officer-involved shooting (OIS) occurred." I grant you that this phrase "officer-involved shooting" (it even has its own abbreviation!) is a weird piece of slippery and evasive bureaucratic jargon. But the examples given are just as much in the active voice as the earlier one where the suspect does the shooting.

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Fatter for longer (sigh)

Here's a doubly embarrassing confession. First it involves my use of a construction that I love to make fun of. Secondly my spontaneously generated example is unfortunately also a true sentence.
I was trying on four dresses that have been stored in the attic for a while to see if I could avoid having to shop for a formal dress in Chicago on Friday for the Friday black tie dinner that precedes the Saturday honorary doctorate. I didn't think I was going to be able to fit into any of them, since I've gained back all the weight I lost around 2008-9 and am now close to an all-time maximum. But to my in some ways happy surprise, I found that I could sort of fit into two of them, including the best one. And my surprise was expressed (just talking silently to myself, but obviously in real sentences, since this sentence immediately caught my attention as soon as I "said" it) as "Gosh, I've been fatter for longer than I thought". (The happy part is I may not have to go shopping on Friday, or at least it won't be obligatory to buy a new dress, which takes off the pressure that accompanies last-minute obligatory shopping.)
I still reject that sentence, even though I said it .

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Wondering who did Frank think he was talking to?

Biking home listening to an old Fresh Air podcast from my backlog, I was amused to hear the story of Frank Sinatra giving a grammaticality judgment. Sammy Cahn describes how Sinatra objected to his lyric for the song "The Last Dance."

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Here's the relevant bit of the transcript from the Fresh Air site:

CAHN: So when you speak, you would say they're wondering just when we will leave. You wouldn't say, they're wondering just when will we leave. So he said that one, just when we will leave. I said no, it isn't – hold it. I said they're wondering just when will we leave. But till we leave. He said what kind of cockamamie word is…

(LAUGHTER)

CAHN: I said no one speaks like that. I said no. I said no one speaks like that, but we aren't speaking, Frank, are we? We're singing, aren't we, Frank? And that's the only time we ever kind of good-naturedly quarreled about a line.

Apparently Cahn shared the judgment but justified the inversion on artistic grounds. Sinatra subsequently did it Cahn's way, not his way.

I also love Cahn's bisyllabic pronunciation of "aren't" here.

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I wouldn't be surprised if few have yet to realize this

Lauren Collins, "Haiku Herman", New Yorker 3/31/2014:

When asked later about the role that poetry had played in Kiev's Independence Square — protesters waved portraits of the nineteenth-century poet Taras Shevchenko —  Van Rompuy said, "I wouldn't be surprised if this struggle and this tragedy had not inspired people there."

Sometimes, as in that example, the construction "I wouldn't be surprised if X had not Y'ed" means something like "I believe that X probably Y'ed", with the extra not presumably due to some combination of negative concord and the difficulty of keeping track of multiple negations. But about equally often, it means roughly the opposite: "I believe that X probably didn't Y". For instance, "Cup final booklet sold for £3,000", BBC News 9/26/2008:

Auctioneer Andrew Bullock said: "The amazing thing about this programme is its condition.

"It was tucked inside a book published in 1906 and I wouldn't be surprised if it had not seen the light of day since the game was played almost 100 years ago.

The versions with negative concord are quite idiomatic, and are used by some excellent writers — thus Graham Greene, The Third Man:

"She claims to be Austrian, but I suspect she's Hungarian. She works at the Josefstadt. wouldn't be surprised if Lime had not helped her with her papers. She calls herself Schmidt. Anna Schmidt. You can't imagine a young English actress calling herself Smith, can you? And a pretty one, too. It always struck me as a bit too anonymous to be true."

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