Archive for Syntax

'That's'

From Breffni O'Rourke — David Alexander and Phil Stewart, "Nine officers removed, one resigns in Air Force cheating probe", Reuters 3/27/2014:

Nuclear critics say the problem is deeply rooted and has been going on for years, becoming increasingly acute since the end of the Cold War as the nuclear mission has increasingly come to be seen as a dead-end career that's relevance is in decline.

Breffni comments "I don't think I've come across that before. Maybe the writer was trying to avoid 'whose' with a non-human head?"

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The grammar of "Abide with me"

On Tuesday at my mother's funeral we sang "Abide With Me". It's a popular hymn for funerals, possibly because people like the line "Where is death's sting? Where, grave, thy victory?"; but as we sang the fifth verse (you can see the lyrics here) I couldn't help noticing a syntactic point.

No, don't be shocked that syntax could be on my mind on such an occasion. A linguist's brain does not cease making linguistic observations on entering a crematorium chapel. As I recently explained in a piece over at Lingua Franca, linguistics is not a task that one takes up only as necessary; it is more like a kind of affliction, making the afflicted person incapable of not noticing points of interest in linguistic material. Here is the stanza that I could not help noticing:

Thou on my head in early youth didst smile,
And though rebellious and perverse meanwhile,
Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee.
On to the close, O Lord, abide with me.

Perhaps you can immediately see what struck me about the first sentence (the first three lines)?

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Taking a selfie

In front of the window of a candy store in Peebles, a small town about an hour's drive south of Edinburgh, an elderly American woman approached a gentleman she didn't know and, holding out a cell phone, asked:

"Would you please take a selfie of my friend and I in front of this window?"

She was not aware that she had approached a linguist.

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Never uttered before

Last week a former Royal Marine who is the boyfriend of the model Kelly Brooks crashed into a bus stop while driving a van carrying a load of dead badgers.

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How to learn Chinese and Japanese

Some years ago (in 2008, as a matter of fact), I wrote a post entitled "How to learn to read Chinese".  The current post is intended as a followup and supplement to that post.

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Where to keep your pubic hair

The worst choice of preposition-phrase modifier placement anywhere in the world last week was probably the one at the E! online page. The headline read as follows:

Cameron Diaz Encourages Women to Keep Their Pubic Hair in Her New Book

Women of the world, listen to Language Log: stop keeping locks of your pubic hair pressed between the pages of Diaz's book. This whole craze is the result of a misunderstanding that should have been foreseeable. It is quite the opposite of what Ms. Diaz intended. The only fortunate thing about the incident is that it really does illustrate and underline the importance of syntax.

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Whom loves ya?

What a fool I've been, thinking all the time that the important stuff was about evidence and structure and the search for genuine syntactic principles — trying to find out through study of competent speakers' usage what are the actual principles that define (say) marking of accusative case on pronouns in Standard English. God, I've been wasting my life.

Wired magazine has published (just in time for Valentine's Day) a large-scale statistical study of what correlates with numbers of responses to online dating ads (and let me say here that I am deeply grateful to Charles Hallinan for pointing it out to me). Much of the survey relates to the words used in the ad. For example, mentioning yoga or surfing in your ad has a positive influence on the number of contacts that will result. Some of the discoveries are curious: for men, it is much better to refer to a woman using the word "woman", but a woman's ad will do better if she refers to herself as a "girl". And (the point that has turned my life around, made on the infographic here), it turns out that men who use "whom" get 31% more contacts from opposite-sex respondents.

This changes everything! It's not just about the inflectional marking of relative and interrogative pronouns any more, people; it's about getting more sex!

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Everything he was in he raised the quality

According to Metro, the UK free newspaper that I pick up each morning from a stack just inside the door as I get on a double-decker bus, Steve Coogan said this about the excellent film actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who sadly was found dead with a hypodermic in his arm yesterday:

Everything he was in he raised the quality of his film just by his presence.

Quite so. Or at least, sort of so. If I defocus my syntactic eyes a lot, I can sort of get a glimpse of what Coogan meant.

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"Because" with non-verbal complement

The American Dialect Society's recognition of because as Word of the Year has sparked a number of intriguing linguistic arguments. In its innovative use, because can take various different parts of speech as its complement: nouns, adjectives, interjections, and even adverbs. (See Tyler Schnoebelen's Idibon post for some corpus analysis.) While Geoff Pullum urges us to treat because as a preposition, regardless of its complement, Gretchen McCulloch has argued that we should be thinking of innovative because as a member of a "class of subordinating conjunctions that can relatively-newly take interjectionary complements." (The complements are "interjectionary" as long as they can serve as interjections, regardless of part of speech, like the adjective awesome or the adverb seriously.)

One of the most peculiar reactions to the ADS WOTY selection comes from "Stumblerette," a self-identified linguist who objects to the choice of because "because it is neither a word nor particularly zeitgeisty." Wait, because is not a word? In a previous post, Stumblerette explains that the selection "is stretching the meaning of the word 'word'" presumably because the innovative "because X" construction requires at least two words to work.

Or does it? On Facebook, Stephan Hurtubise shared a clip from last night's episode of "Parks and Recreation" demonstrating that because even works with non-verbal complements.

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'Concern troll' passives

You may have noticed that in a recent Washington Post blog post Alexandra Petri says "Concern trolls thrive on passive constructions the way vultures thrive on carcasses." I have briefly commented at Lingua Franca on the truly strange vulture metaphor and the whole cultural phenomenon of concern trolling. But this is Language Log, and you might be interested in more detail about whether she is correct in diagnosing the presence of passive constructions in the linguistic material she critiques. Don’t let me spoil it for you; try to guess before you read on.

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Ambiguous Mandarin sentences

Ambiguity exists in all languages, especially if an author is not careful to forestall it.  On the other hand, writers and poets sometimes intentionally court it for literary effect, in which case there are at least Seven Types of Ambiguity.

Two literary attributes that are perhaps more salient in Mandarin than in many other languages are ambiguity and rhyme, the former because Chinese words are not strongly marked grammatically (e.g., hóng 紅 ["red"] can be an adjective, noun, or verb [dōngfāng hóng 東方紅 {"the east IS RED"}]) and the latter because of the huge number of homophones in the language.

Currently, a set of seven sentences has been circulating on the internet.  They are preceded by a notation which states that a high level test for foreign students of Chinese in 2013 included the following sentences, each of which the students had to explain in two different ways.  Before listing and translating the sentences, I should mention that it is not immediately obvious that each of the sentences can be interpreted in two different ways.  To a certain degree, I would compare the effect of reading these sentences to that of looking at optical illusions; sometimes you have to look a very long time before you can see both versions of the illustration, and sometimes you never see more than one version, no matter how hard you look.

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Enlightened singular they

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The English passive: an apology

Listen, I need to apologise to thirty or forty of you (I don't really know how many). I'm really sorry. I've wronged you. Mea culpa.

You remember all those great examples you sent me of people alleging use of the passive voice and getting it wrong? Well, I have now completed a paper using many of them. It's basically about the astonishing extent of the educated public's understanding of the grammatical term "passive" and the utter lack of support for the widespread prejudice against passive constructions. It's called "Fear and Loathing of the English Passive," and you can get a 23-page single-spaced typescript in PDF format if you click on that title. It will appear this year in the journal Language and Communication; the second proofs are being prepared now. But (the bad news) my acknowledgments note (at the end, just before the references) will not contain a full list of the names of all of you who helped me. You deserved better, but don't blow up at me; let me explain.

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The promiscuity of prepositions

Some Language Log readers may have noticed that Gretchen McCulloch, at All Things Linguistic (see her post here), claims that certain peculiar restrictions on complements of because argue against its being a preposition even in the new use that caused it to become the American Dialect Society's Word of the Year for 2013: "the new 'because' isn't a preposition (but is actually cooler)," she claims. (As a result, Daniel Ezra Johnson even tweeted that the new use of because may be the first Word of the Year with the strange property that even the linguists who voted for it can't figure out how to analyze it.)

I have maintained, to the contrary, that because not only is a preposition now (since the rise of the because reasons construction over the past few years) but in fact always has been one, despite every dictionary on the market denying it (see my "Because syntax").

Who is right? All Things Linguistic, or Language Log? I won't toy with you; I won't leave you dangling, unable to decide. I will tell you the answer.

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Because syntax

Many people will be somewhat surprised that the American Dialect Society's "Word of the Year" choice was because in its use with a noun phrase (NP) complement (though the Megan Garber's Atlantic Monthly article on it nearly two months ago should perhaps have been a tip-off). It seems to be unprecedented for a word in a minor category like preposition to be chosen rather than some emergent or fashionable word in one of the major lexical categories: recent winners have included 2012's hashtag (noun), 2011's occupy (verb), 2010's app (noun), 2009's tweet (noun and verb), 2008's bailout (noun), 2007's subprime (adjective), 2006's plutoed (past participle of verb meaning "downgrade in status"), and 2005's truthiness (noun). And it also seems to be unique in representing a new syntactically defined word use within a given category rather than a new (or newly trending) word. The syntax of because calls for a little discussion, I think, given that Megan Garber thinks the word has become a preposition for the first time, and every dictionary on the market is wrong in the part-of-speech information it gives about the word (write to me if you can find a dictionary of which this is not true: I'd love to see one).

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