Archive for Syntax

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.

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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.

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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.

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A thousand things to say… Not!

It is not clear to me whether Chris Lonsdale, the managing shyster director at the language-teaching company Chris Lonsdale & Associates, is an out-and-out liar or merely has pork for brains and believes the nonsense he spouts. But what is clear to me is that not enough people are paying attention to the conjecture I mention in one section of this paper: that almost all strings of English words are ungrammatical.

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Bad newspaper prose (yes, with passives)

Those who want a clear example of truly dreadful prose, dreadful in large part because of the use of the much-loathed agentless passive, should look at examples like this, from the UK Daily Mail website on Sunday, July 12:

The medical director of NHS England has disclosed that up to one in seven hospital procedures are unnecessary, it has been reported.

Sir Bruce Keogh is said to have described waste in the health service as "profligate" and called for it to be reduced.

According to The Sunday Telegraph, the former heart surgeon estimated that up to 15% of the NHS budget is spent on treatments that should not take place.

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Another passive-hating Orwell wannabe

I'm grateful to Peter Howard and S. P. O'Grady, who within an hour or so both mailed me a link to this extraordinarily dumb article by James Gingell in The Guardian. As Howard and O'Grady pointed out, Gingell's wildly overstated rant illustrates a point I have made on Language Log many times before: that when language is the topic you can pother at will in a national daily despite visibly having no knowledge or understanding of your subject, and failing to get your facts right, and lacking any defensible point. No editor of a national newspaper would let drivel of this sort get by if it were about politics or sport; but on the topic of language they all will.

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Prepositioning

Linguist reads the paper: First sentence in Friedman's column begins "Let’s see, America is prepositioning battle tanks …" and before I got to the battle tanks I was surprised and wondering how 'preposition' could be used as a verb and what it could mean. (I'm of course seeing the word that starts with 'prep', had to be garden-pathed before I backtracked and saw the verb pre-position.)

I won't be surprised if readers of this blog had a similar first parse of my header –  its occurrence in this blog will probably make that even more likely.

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Disastrous ambiguity

Talking of the possibly impending Grexit, what an unfortunate sentence The Economist chose to conclude its leader article on the ongoing Greek monetary crisis:

This marriage is not worth saving at any price.

A quirk of English syntax and semantics makes this radically ambiguous.

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"A year ago, we don't win tonight".

Ron Stack writes:

Here is Manager Terry Collins on the Mets' victory over the Marlins last night: “A year ago, we don’t win tonight. It’s a different mentality in our clubhouse now."  

I'm almost certain LL has covered this time-shifted present tense but since I don't even know what to call it I couldn't do much of a search.  

So, what is it? And why does it sound right but look strange? And why does it seem (anecdotally, anyway) to be so popular among coaches and managers?

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Awful book, so I bought it

A long time ago (it was 2010, but so much has happened since then) I noted here that Greg Mankiw recommended to his Harvard economics students not just the little book I hate so much (The Elements of Style), but also William Zinsser's book On Writing Well. About the latter, I said this:

I actually don't know much about Zinsser's book; I'm trying to obtain a copy, but it is apparently not published in the UK. What I do know is that he makes the outrageous claim that most adjectives are unnecessary. So I have my doubts about Zinsser too.

Well, last Thursday, as I browsed the University of Pennsylvania bookstore (I'm on the eastern seaboard in order to give a lecture at Princeton on Monday), I spotted that a copy of the 30th anniversary edition of Zinsser was on sale at the bargain price of $8.98. Should I buy it? I flipped it open by chance at page 67: "Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb…" Uh-oh! More passivophobia. I've definitely got a professional interest in hatred of passives.

I turned the page and saw "ADVERBS. Most adverbs are unnecessary" and "ADJECTIVES. Most adjectives are also unnecessary." Of course! I remember now that I tried to skewer this nonsense in "Those who take the adjectives from the table", commenting on a quotation from Zinsser in a book by Ben Yagoda. Zinsser only uses five words to say "Most adjectives are also unnecessary," but one of them (unnecessary) is an adjective, and another (also) is an adverb.

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Coherence award for Stephen King

Jan Freeman, "Stephen King scores a grammar win", Throw Grammar from the Train, 3/20/2015:

Stephen King, novelist and resident of Maine and (sensible man!) Florida, has refuted the Maine governor’s claim that King had left the state to escape oppressive taxes.

"Governor LePage is full of the stuff that makes the grass grow green," the best-selling author told a local radio station. "Tabby and I pay every cent of our Maine state income taxes, and are glad to do it. We feel, as Governor LePage apparently does not, that much is owed from those to whom much has been given."

For me, that boldface sentiment is the news here: In its long quotation history, it has rarely been rendered grammatically. “From whom much is given, much is expected” – from John F. Kennedy Jr. — is just one mangled example. You'd think a Bible quotation would get some respect, but it turns out the human mind has a hard time supplying the right number of prepositions and pronouns to say what this maxim intends.

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Attachment ambiguity of the day

Prepositional phrase attachment is one of the hardest things for English parsers to get right: if I hit a man with a bag of groceries, was that bag of groceries the instrument of my action, or was it just something the guy was carrying when I attacked him?

And PP-attachment ambiguity is especially common in English-language headlines, since omitted forms of to be add additional ambiguous attachment points.

For example, Alex Barker, "EU reforms to break up big banks at risk", Financial Times 1/29/2015: Are the reforms at risk, or are the reforms on track to break up banks that are at risk?

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The manuscript they would have written

Here's a very nice case of modern sex-neutral pronoun-choice style, with the unusual feature that the antecedent for the two occurrences of singular they (which prescriptivsts hate so much) is not only a definite noun phrase, but a definite noun phrase denoting a unique individual. The sentence comes from a Buzzfeed listicle drawn from "Shit Academics Say" (@AcademicsSay) on Twitter. I underline the antecedent and the two pronouns:

We wish to thank Reviewer 2 for their critical feedback & sincerely apologize for not having written the manuscript they would have written.

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