Archive for Syntax

He lapsed into the passive voice

Mark Landler recently published an article in the New York Times under the headline "Where Predecessors Set Moral Standard, Trump Steps Back." Unlike his predecessors, he notes, the current president has rejected the very concept of moral leadership:

On Saturday, in his first response to Charlottesville, Mr. Trump condemned the violence "on many sides." Then he lapsed into the passive voice, expressing, as he has before, a sense of futility that the divisions between Americans would ever be healed.

"It's been going on for a long time in our country," he said. "Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama. This has been going on for a long, long time."

This incompetent, floundering president, who has never previously had to run an organization and is revealing that he is no good at it, is guilty of so many things that could have been mentioned. But passive voice?

Asking whether "the divisions between Americans would ever be healed" is passive voice, but that's not Trump, that's Landler, who's the accuser here. "It's been going on for a long time in our country" is not in the passive voice. Mark Landler is one more case (I have literally lost count) of someone who writes for a major print source and pontificates about other people's grammar but doesn't know the difference between active and passive.

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"North Korea best not…"

Donald Trump's "fire and fury" warning to North Korea, we now know, was unscripted, not the product of speechwriters and advisers. As some have suggested, Trump's aggressive language may have been (at least unconsciously) modeled on Harry Truman's announcement that the U.S. had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945.

Truman: If they do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.
Trump: North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.

Beyond the echo of Truman, Trump is particularly fond of the hyperbolic construction, "like the world has never seen," and variations on that theme. In the Toronto Star, Daniel Dale details Trump's past use of the phrase and wonders if "the president bumbled into the threat because he did not understand the ramifications of a favourite phrase he had in his head." (See also Mark Liberman's post from last year, "This is the likes of which I didn't expect.")

But what about the opening of the threat, "North Korea best not…"? Ben Yagoda said on Twitter that it "sounds like something from a bad Western." John Kelly thought it sounded more Southern. I was reminded of a famous line from the character Omar Little on the HBO series The Wire: "You come at the king, you best not miss."


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Scary good and scary bright

Victor Mair published a post yesterday under the title "Google is scary good", and reader Philip Taylor commented:

"Scary good" reads very oddly to me; would not "scarily" be more customary in such a context ?

The answer is that there are quite a few adjectives (or, perhaps one should say, adverbs homophonous with their related adjectives) that occur as modifiers of other adjectives in standard English: dead tired, cold sober, blind drunk, and plenty of others (the topic is briefly discussed by Payne, Huddleston and Pullum in this lengthy 2010 paper).

In the particular case of scary, I remember when I first heard it as a modifier, some 40 years ago, from a British linguist in Massachusetts (she had moved to America to do her PhD and never went back). She described another linguist, who at the time I had not met, as "scary bright". It registered permanently with me — one-trial learning of the construction — and I never again found it odd to hear scary as a modifier in an adjective phrase. And I never forgot the characterization.

I will now reveal who uttered the phrase, and which linguist she was describing. If you feel this is improper, or wouldn't want to know, or think candid remarks made in private by people other than Anthony Scaramucci should never be quoted in a public setting, or wouldn't like to discover that it was not who you think it was, then all I can suggest is that you resist the temptation to click on Read the rest of this entry. Just be strong: don't read on. Eschew gossiping and leaking. Preserve the privacy and anonymity of both linguists.

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English Verb-Particle Constructions

Lately I've been thinking about "optionality" as it relates to syntactic alternations. (In)famous cases include complementizer deletion ("I know that he is here" vs. "I know he is here") or embedded V2 in Scandinavian. For now let's consider the English verb-particle construction. The relative order of the particle and the object is "optional" in cases such as the following:

1a) "John picked up the book"
1b) "John picked the book up"

Either order is usually acceptable (with the exception of pronoun objects — although those too become acceptable under a focus reading…)

1c) "John put it back"
1d) *"John put back it"

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Becoming an adjective

A friend points out to me that according to this Abe Books description of a hardback copy of Jane Jacobs' classic book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, on the back cover it is reported that Toronto Life made the following assertion:

Jane Jacobs has become more than a person. She is an adjective.

If you care to read on, I will do my best to explain the meaning of this comment.

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Active seeming: dumb grammar fetishism yet again

Last January 21 The Economist actually printed a letter I wrote pointing out that how wirelessly to hack a car was a ridiculous way to say "how to wirelessly hack a car," and resulted from a perverted and dimwitted obeisance to a zombie rule. But did they actually listen, and think about changing their ways? They did not. I have no idea how they manage to publish a beautiful magazine every Thursday night when they are so mentally crippled by eccentric 19th-century grammar edicts that they will commit syntactic self-harm rather than go against the prejudices of a few doddering old amateur grammarians in the middle 1800s who worried about the "split infinitive." Take a look at this nonsense from the magazine's leader in the issue of April 22, about UK prime minister Theresa May's chances of having more flexibility after the general election she has called:

With a larger majority she can more easily stand up to her ultra-Eurosceptic backbenchers, some of whom seem actively to want Britain to crash out.

Seem actively??

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Or the arbitrary cat, horse, or pig

I think Mark Liberman may have been concerned that perhaps my post "Pronominal reference to the arbitrary dog" hinted at being tempted toward the Recency Illusion. Not true, of course: even when surprised by some point of usage that I notice, I never conclude I must therefore be the first to have encountered it. On encountering the use of singular they for a dog, I didn't say "This has never happened before"; I said "we should expect this sort of use to increase in frequency." But anyway, just in case, Mark sent me some other cases of animals being referred to with singular they. They presumably indicate that where sex is irrelevant, the use of it should nonetheless be avoided, because it might offend the animal.

https://www.bengalcats.co/why-do-cats-knead/
You see, the repetitive movement is not only serving as a way to promote milk flow, it also encourages maternal instinct and establishes a bond between a cat and their kittens.

http://www.ancientegyptonline.co.uk/cat.html
When a cat died, their human family would go into a deep mourning and shave their eyebrows.

[By the way, notice that the foregoing example is ambiguous (cat's eyebrows vs. family members' eyebrows), and the ambiguity is caused solely by the refusal to use it for the arbitrary cat. People will risk being incomprehensible rather than change their mind about whether they could compromise on a pronoun gender choice. Or maybe the point is just that people do not avoid, and do not know to avoid, or even notice, dangers of ambiguity for the hearer or reader.]

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"I want to God bless America"

Donald Trump has developed the habit of ending his speeches with the formula "Thank you, God bless you, and God bless America". Thus from his 2/6/2017 speech at CENTCOM:

And from his 4/21/2017 Weekly Radio Address:

But at the end of an event yesterday, things got a bit tangled, perhaps because these were spontaneous remarks rather than a prepared speech — "President Trump Signs Financial Services Executive Orders", whitehouse.gov 4/21/2017:

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Pronominal reference to the arbitrary dog

Following Bean's guest post about being scorned by an 8-year-old child for not using singular they when it was appropriate, Language Log now presents the first evidence (to my knowledge) of a newspaper abandoning the usual use of it to refer to animals, and instead using singular they for an unknown arbitrary animal. This is from an article in the Metro (a free UK daily) on what to do if you find someone's dog close to death because it has been locked in a car on a hot day; I boldface the pronouns of interest:

Get the dog out of the car and move them to a shaded, or cooler area. Then, douse the dog with cool water and let them drink small amounts of it. Make sure the water is cool but not cold, to avoid shock.

If the dog is not displaying signs of heatstroke, let them rest while you establish how long they were in the car, and make a note of the vehicle's registration.

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Schooled on singular "they"

[This is a guest post by Bean]

My eight-year-old daughter in conversation with me last night:

Scene: I am giving her a sock, which she had brought home, only to find she already had both of her socks. So it logically must belong to some other girl (it's obviously a girl's sock).

Me: So, bring this lost sock back to school, and put it in the lost and found. Do you remember who was wearing it? Well, anyway if the other girl is looking for it she can find it. I'm assuming it was a girl so I'm going with "she".

Daughter [scornfully]: You mean "they".

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Grammatical diversity in the New York Times crossword

Monday's New York Times crossword is the handiwork of Tom McCoy, an undergraduate member of the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project. I wouldn't've thought it possible, but he's managed to make a coherent theme out of a nonstandard grammatical variant in American English.

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"Far beyond unconventional levels of dishonesty"

For the Washington Post opinion blog The Plum Line, Greg Sargent wrote: "The events of this week are revealing with a new level of clarity that President Trump and the White House have ventured far beyond unconventional levels of dishonesty."

Obligatory screenshot:

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Court fight over Oxford commas and asyndetic lists

Language Log often weighs in when courts try to nail down the meaning of a statute. Laws are written in natural language—though one might long, by formalization, to end the thousand natural ambiguities that text is heir to—and thus judges are forced to play linguist.

Happily, this week's "case in the news" is one where the lawyers managed to identify several relevant considerations and bring them to the judges for weighing.

Most news outlets reported the case as being about the Oxford comma (or serial comma)—the optional comma just before the end of a list. Here, for example, is the New York Times:

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