Archive for Parsing

The importance of proper parsing and punctuation

Currently circulating on Facebook and on Chinese social media are seemingly impenetrable sentences with the same character repeated numerous times.  When you first look at them, your eyes glaze over and you can't make any sense of them.  But if you slow down and think about such sentences, you usually can figure them out without too much effort.  In fact,  I could read some of the following right off upon first encounter.  Others required more effort before I was able to crack them.

Although it looks formidable, of the six sample sentences treated in this post, this one was easiest for me.  I could understand it at one go.  [N.B.:  In my treatment of these sentences, I first give the Pinyin with spaces between each syllable, then repeat the Pinyin with requisite parsing and punctuation.]

1.

míng míng míng míng míng bái bái bái xǐ huān tā dàn tā jiù shì bù shuō

明明明明明白白白喜欢他但他就是不说

Míngmíng míngmíng míngbái Báibái xǐhuān tā, dàn tā jiùshì bù shuō.

"Mingming clearly knew that Baibai liked her, but he just wouldn't say it."

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"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.

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Pinyin in 1961 propaganda poster art

From Geoff Dawson:

On display in a current exhibition at the National Library of Australia.

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A polysyllabic character that can be read in two different ways

Photo taken in Hangzhou by Nikita Kuzmin's Chinese teacher:

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"Intelligent transportation communication systems"?

This morning's email brought an invitation to contribute to a "Special Issue on Intelligent Transportation Communication Systems" (for this journal). It took me a little while to figure out that conversing with cars (which I'm definitely in favor of) was not what they had in mind. And this process  reminded me of how difficult it can be for humans — never mind machines — to figure out how to parse complex nominals in English. (See "The Stress and Structure of Modified Noun Phrases in English" for some antique thoughts on the subject…)

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Resisting reunification

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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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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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The foreign carrot regime problem

English translation of the title of a Japanese book for sale on Amazon:

Japanese lost sight of "nation" – the essence of foreign carrot regime proble

From the Japanese version the book seems to be a collection of excerpts from mostly right-wing / ultra-nationalistc writers (but why is the Japanese Communist Party there?).

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Waste bin misnegation

I saw a sticker on the lid of a pedal-operated hospital waste bin that said this:

THIS SACK HOLDER IS SPECIFICALLY DESIGNED TO BE FOOT OPERATED ONLY. THE LID MUST NOT BE HAND OPERATED AND PUSHED PAST THE POINT WHERE IT WILL NOT AUTOMATICALLY RETURN TO THE CLOSED POSITION.

Everyone who uses the bin sees this notice; maybe some even read it and try to respect it; but perhaps only Language Log readers will notice that it contains a misnegation — another sign that the number of negations within a sentence that our poor monkey brains can successfully handle averages out at little more than 1.

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Rooster Caponizing Competition

Sign at the Hakka Cultural Museum in Kaohsiung, Taiwan:

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God is concerned about air quality

During the past week, this phrase kept popping up on the Chinese internet, on WeChat, on blogs and microblogs — it was just everywhere (1,850,000 ghits), and people were wondering exactly what it meant:

zhǔ yào kàn qì zhí 主要看气质 ("main / primary — want — see — gas / breath / spirit / vital energy — quality / substance / nature")

I have intentionally not aggregated the syllables into words.  The lack of a disambiguating context for this phrase — it tended to just show up by itself — permitted several different readings.

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Drunk [on] US dollars

On June 9, 2012, Clement Larrive wrote:

I stumbled upon this sign while on a trip from Wuhan, Hubei to Shanghai.
Do you have any idea about what it really means ?

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