Archive for Syntax

The dagnabbit effect strikes again. (Or, when the personal [dative] is political.)

The following is a guest post by Larry Horn, whose work on personal datives has been discussed on Language Log in the past. (See these posts from late 2009: "On beyond personal datives?," "Horn on personal datives," "Ditransitive prepositions?") It originally appeared on the American Dialect Society mailing list.


Elizabeth Warren is now being mocked left and (mostly) right on social media for her aside during her announcement for the presidency:  "I'm gonna get me a beer".

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (29)

NLLP: bag-of-words semantics?

The First Workshop on Natural Legal Language Processing (NLLP) will be co-located with NAACL 2019. The phrase "natural legal language processing" in the title strikes me as oddly constructed, from a syntactic and semantic point of view, though I'm sure that NAACL attendees will interpret it easily as intended.

Let me explain.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (14)

Attachment ambiguity of the week

Mark Puleo, "'Monster' earthquake shakes Anchorage, Alaska; Widespread damage reported", Accuweather 12/1/2018:

Gov. Bill Walker has issued a disaster declaration in Alaska in response to Friday’s earthquake, which was approved by President Donald Trump.

It's true that Senator Murkowski disagreed with President Trump on climate change, but approving an earthquake seems like a bit of an over-reaction.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (12)

Word, syllable, morpheme, phoneme

What is the basic unit of discursive, communicative language — word, syllable, morpheme, or phoneme?

This topic came up in the comments to the following posts:

"The concept of word in Sinitic" (10/3/18)

"Words in Vietnamese" (10/2/18)

"Diacriticless Vietnamese on a sign in San Francisco" (9/30/18)

"Words in Mandarin: twin kle twin kle lit tle star" (8/14/12)

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (37)

Trent Reznor Prize nominee

Today's nomination for the Trent Reznor Prize for Tricky Embedding:

Other examples here.

[h/t Ben Zimmer]

Comments (13)

"Misunderstand that …", "pessimistic that …"

In late June Lila Gleitman noticed a case of "A is pessimistic that S" meaning that A considers it likely that S will happen/turn out to be the case, and A considers S to be an unwanted outcome. Her example was "I am more pessimistic than I was two weeks ago about the trade war spinning out of control."

We agreed that we would both find it impossible to say "I’m pessimistic that the trade war will spin out of control", but differed on "pessimistic about": in my dialect, but not Lila’s, "A is pessimistic about a Republican victory in the fall" is OK, meaning that A fears that the outcome will be the one she doesn’t want — that there will be or that there won’t be, depending on her point of view.

Lila, by the way, said she could use “pessimistic that” in the case of losing hope in a good outcome: “I am more  pessimistic than I was two weeks ago that the prices of stocks will rise.” But I don't think I could use "pessimistic that" there either. (So the original speaker and Lila and I seem to have three different patterns of judgments about "pessimistic that".)

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (16)

Citizenship and syntax (updated, and updated again)

Last week the Washington Post published an op-ed by Michael Anton arguing that the United States should do away with birthright citizenship—the principle that anyone born in the United States is a U.S. citizen, even if their parents are foreign-born noncitizens. The op-ed has attracted a lot of attention from people on both the left and the right, and by “attention” I mean “condemnation”. (E.g., Garrett Epps at The Atlantic, Mark Joseph Stern at Slate, Dan Drezner at the Washington Post, Robert Tracinski at The Federalist, Alex Nowraseth at The American Conservative, and Jonathan Adler at Volokh Conspiracy. See also this Vox explainer.)

The criticism both on on Anton’s nativism, but also on his interpretation of the 14th Amendment, on which birthright citizenship is based. One of the interpretive moves for which Anton has been criticized is his handling of a statement made on the floor of the Senate while the proposed text of the 14th Amendment was being debated. And that dispute turns on the resolution of a syntactic ambiguity.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (34)

Extreme right node raising

Wikipedia explains that "right node raising" is "a sharing mechanism that sees the material to the immediate right of parallel structures being in some sense 'shared' by those parallel structures, e.g. [Sam likes] but [Fred dislikes] the debates."

This construction is alive and well in modern English, but it flourished to a much greater extent in centuries past. I believe that it was once more common, though I don't have quantitative evidence. But 18th-century authors certainly produced examples that seem to go beyond the boundaries of modern prose style.

Here's a case in point, from Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter X: Emperors Decius, Gallus, Aemilianus, Valerian And Gallienus.—Part II:

The Scythian hordes, which, towards the east, bordered on the new settlements of the Goths, presented nothing to their arms, except the doubtful chance of an unprofitable victory. But the prospect of the Roman territories was far more alluring; and the fields of Dacia were covered with rich harvests, sown by the hands of an industrious, and exposed to be gathered by those of a warlike, people.

As I read this passage on the plane to Helsinki, the part that I've put in bold struck me as characteristic of Gibbon's time, and foreign to contemporary prose style.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (21)

Syntactic ambiguity of the week

Caitlin MacNeil, "Jackson Considers Withdrawing As VA Nominee As New Allegations Surface", TPM 4/26/2018:

Jackson denied the allegation that he crashed a government vehicle while drunk on Wednesday evening and told reporters he would press on in the confirmation process.

 

Comments (9)

"and himself jail"

In "More Cohen Businesses Coming to Light," on Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall writes:

The biggest taxi operator in New York, Evgeny “Gene” Friedman, now manages Cohen’s 30+ NYC medallions or at least did the last time we spoke to him. Friedman has been struggling for the last year to keep his taxi businesses out of bankruptcy and himself jail.

The final three words of the boldfaced clause present a weird, and dare I say unusual, case of double ellipsis. The semantic content communicated by those three words (in the context of the sentence) is richer than you'd think could be expressed by only three words, especially given that one of them is merely the conjunction and. That content can be represented as follows, with the struck-through text standing for the content that the reader must infer:

Friedman has been struggling for the last year to keep his taxi businesses out of bankruptcy and to keep himself out of jail.

There's nothing unusual about the first omission; I don't see anything wrong with the clause to keep his taxi businesses out of bankruptcy and himself out of jail. But the omission of out of strikes me as very strange, and what's even stranger is that to my ear, the clause is worse if to keep is put back:

* Friedman has been struggling for the last year to keep his taxi businesses out of bankruptcy and to keep himself jail.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (31)

Prepositional phrase attachments of the week

By coincidence, today's email brought two contributions of links to remarkable examples of PP-attachment ambiguity.

The first one was the lede from this story — Jason Rosenbaum & Marshal Griffin, "Hawley: Evidence exists to charge Greitens for obtaining charity fundraising list", St. Louis Public Radio, 4/18/2018:

Attorney General Josh Hawley is asking the St. Louis circuit attorney to file criminal charges against Gov. Eric Greitens for allegedly illegally obtaining a fundraising list from a charity he founded for political purposes.

It took me a couple of re-reading to clarify the point that Mr. Greitens obtained the list for political purposes, not that he founded the charity for political purposes.

And in this headline, it's the man who was charged, not the woman he shot: "Man out of jail after 16 months for shooting Nashua woman charged with vicious beating of new girlfriend", NHangle.com 4/16/2018

[h/t John Lawler and Mark Mandel]

Comments (11)

Easy to Laugh

My friend James Cathey sent me an eyebrow-raiser this morning: “Here is a sentence that stopped me in my tracks: "Robinson, who has a warm voice and is easy to laugh, has a way of setting the record straight …"   (TIME: March 12, 2018, p. 50)"

Jim says he could never say "is easy to laugh" in any context that he can think of, and asks “What is going on here?”

I could never say that either, but then I was also surprised at some of the meanings Russian reflexives (and Polish, etc) can have — not only reflexive, reciprocal, and 'unaccusative' (the door opened, etc), but also transitives with missing object and a 'habitual' meaning — I heard it used standardly for 'that dog bites'.

So “easy to laugh” feels to me not totally impossible, and maybe related to the connection between 'These plates break easily' from a transitive and 'He laughs easily' from an intransitive. In the literature I've seen plenty of discussion of the 'break easily' cases and don't remember seeing any of the 'laugh easily' cases.

Maybe also relevant that “laughable” is one of the relatively few -able words formed from an intransitive? But the sense of “laughable” is very different, seems related to a transitive ‘laugh at’ sense, whereas this one is clearly based on intransitive ‘laugh’.

Comments (34)

PP attachment of the week

From the Washington Post:

Jan. 30, fine, but Jan. 31? Apology required.

Comments (14)