Archive for Syntax

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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McCrum's 100 best ways to ruin the 4th of July

The many Americans in the University of Edinburgh's community of language and information scientists had to celebrate the glorious 4th on the 3rd this year, because the 4th is an ordinary working Monday. I attended a Sunday-afternoon gathering kindly hosted by the Head of the School of Informatics, Johanna Moore. We barbecued steadfastly in the drizzle despite classic Scottish indecisive summer weather: it was cloudy, well under 60°F. Twice we all had to flee inside indoors when the rain became heavier. No matter: we chatted together and enjoyed ourselves. (I swore in 2007 that one thing I was not going to do was spend my time in this bracing intellectual environment grumbling about how the weather in Santa Cruz had been better. I'm here for the linguistic science, not the weather.) So it was a happy Fourth of July for me. Until this morning, the actual 4th, when people started emailing me (thanks, you sadistic bastards) to note that Robert McCrum had chosen America's independence day to make his choice for the 23rd in a series called "The 100 Best Nonfiction Books of All Time," in the British newspaper The Observer. He chooses The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White. For crying out loud!

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Brexit: Christmas or The Fourth of July?

Or, we could ask, is Brexit like Passchendaele or like The Somme?

I mean, of course, whether the noun Brexit should normally be used with a definite article ("Are you for or against the Brexit?") or without ("Are you for or against Brexit?").

We need to ignore all the constructions in which Brexit is a modifier of another noun: the Brexit vote, the Brexit campaigners, the Brexit turmoil, etc.  But when Brexit is the head of a noun phrase, I've been assuming that it's a strong proper name that should be anarthrous, like Christmas or Passchendaele or Language Log.

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Don't be awkward

Mark Liberman's discussion of an absurd modifier placement rule in the Associated Press Style Book reminded me of an ancient and not particularly funny joke that, the way I first heard it, is based on an offensive stereotype of gay men. I was going to explain on the Chronicle of Higher Education's language blog Lingua Franca a couple of months ago, but to my surprise I was forbidden to do so. The Chronicle lives in abject terror of offending gays or blacks or women or Asians or prudes or any other identifiable section of its readership that might take offense at something (and they may be right to be afraid: this week I was accused of ageism by a commenter for using the phrase "between 60 and 70 years old" as part of a description of an imaginary person). I'll tell you here on Language Log what I was going to say, and you can decide.

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What other people might put it

depp

Comedian Doug Stanhope is unable to sleep at night over the way his friend Johnny Depp is being pilloried as a wife-abuser by Amber Heard (she says he hit her in the face with a cell phone); so he did the obvious thing any friend would do: he submitted an expletive-laced article about his angst over the situation to The Wrap. (It has 9 shits, 7 fucks, and one asshole, all cloaked in partial dashification by The Wr––'s cautious c–nsors.) But this is Language Log, not Celebrity Embarrassment Log, and my topic here is syntax. Stanhope and his girlfriend Bingo "have watched Amber Heard f––– with him at his weakest — or watched him at his weakest from being f–––ed with," and he now believes it is time to "tell the f–––ng truth" about his friend:

Bingo and I were at Johnny's house for most of that Saturday until just before the alleged assault. We assumed initially that his dour mood was because of his mother's death the day before. But he opened up in the most vulnerable of ways that it was not only his mother, but that Amber was now going to leave him, threatening to lie about him publicly in any and every possible duplicitous way if he didn't agree to her terms. Blackmail is what I would imagine other people might put it, including the manner in which he is now being vilified.

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Nothing to fear but… what?

In advance of tonight's Game 7 in the NBA Western Conference finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Oklahoma City Thunder, the New York Times recalls a similar Game 7 faced by the Chicago Bulls in 1998:

That spring, the top-seeded Bulls were taken to a seventh game by the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals. Between Games 6 and 7, the Bulls’ coach, Phil Jackson, huddled with his players and told them not to fear failing.

“The fear is not losing,” Jackson told them. “The fear is not producing the effort needed.”

Phil Jackson is notoriously enigmatic (they don't call him the Zen master for nothing), but this pronouncement is particularly tough to unpack.

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