Archive for coordination

On letting one's guard (and pants) down

Mark Liberman noted (as did Neal Whitman on his Literal-Minded blog) a case of syllepsis in an Atlantic piece by Conor Friedersdorf: "What conservative Washington Post readers got, when they traded in Dave Weigel for [Jennifer] Rubin, was a lot more hackery and a lot less informed about the presidential election." But Weigel offered up a nice syllepsis of his own on Twitter today:

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Syllepsis of the month

Conor Friedersdorf, "How Conservative Media Lost to the MSM and Failed the Rank and File", The Atlantic 11/7/2012:

Conservatives were at a disadvantage because Romney supporters like Jennifer Rubin and Hugh Hewitt saw it as their duty to spin constantly for their favored candidate rather than being frank about his strengths and weaknesses. What conservative Washington Post readers got, when they traded in Dave Weigel for Rubin, was a lot more hackery and a lot less informed about the presidential election.

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The wife and mother of two men killed in a fire

Local radio station WFCR on Thursday, October 11 started a report with a sentence that gave me a big double-take:

“The wife and mother of two men killed in a fire in Northampton has filed suit …”

And the next morning, October 12, I saw almost the same words in the local paper, the Hampshire Gazette:

Photo caption:

Alleged arsonist Anthony Baye has been sued by Elaine Yeskie, the widow and mother of the two men killed in a Northampton house fire he allegedly set.

Beginning of story:

The widow and mother of men killed in a house fire in 2009 filed a wrongful death lawsuit Wednesday against alleged fire-starter Anthony P. Baye. Elaine Yeskie, 77, is seeking monetary and punitive damages against Baye, …

The version under the photo caption makes the description an appositive phrase, so we already know that it’s a description of one person. But the beginning of the radio story really took me by surprise and made me grab my pen. I feel subjectively sure, though I could of course be wrong, that I could never say that that way. All the ways I could express it take more words; about the shortest acceptable version I can find is “The wife of one and mother of the other of two men killed in a fire …”

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Death of the Queen's English Society

The Queen's English Society (QES), mentioned only a couple of times here on Language Log over the past few years, is no more. It has ceased to be. On the last day of this month they will ring down the curtain and it will join the choir invisible. It will be an ex-society. Said Rhea Williams, chairman of QES, in a letter to the membership of which I have seen a facsimile copy:

At yesterday's SGM there were 22 people present, including the 10 members of your committee. Three members had sent their apologies. Not a very good showing out of a membership of 560 plus!

Time was spent discussing what to do about QES given the forthcoming resignations of so many committee members. Despite the sending out of a request for nominations for chairman, vice-chairman, administrator, web master, and membership secretary no one came forward to fill any role. So I have to inform you that QES will no longer exist. There will be one more Quest then all activity will cease and the society will be wound up. The effective date will be 30th June 2012

(Quest is the society's magazine.) Is this a sad day for defenders of English? Not in my view. I don't think it was a serious enterprise at all. I don't think the members cared about what they said they cared about. And I will present linguistic evidence for this thesis.

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The leader of the IMF and a possible candidate for president

The first sentence of this news report is perfectly fine, but it presents a linguistic puzzle:

The leader of the International Monetary Fund and a possible candidate for president of France was arrested Sunday in connection with the violent sexual assault of a hotel maid after being yanked from an airplane moments before it was to depart for Paris, police said.

The puzzle is how such a conjunction can denote a single person, as it clearly does in this sentence. It could even more easily denote two, but then we’d see “were arrested”, not “was arrested”.

First a descriptive query: do all languages allow such a conjunction of a definite and an indefinite singular noun phrase in subject position, interpreted as referring to a single person? And does English allow it quite generally, or is this a special newspaper style?

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Saving energy and you money!

A new Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market opened up in my corner of Language Log Plaza this week, and as I walked through the aisles on the day of the grand opening, I noticed signs that read "look up for savings". This company is apparently committed to green building, so they have a bunch of skylights on the ceiling that let in the abundant natural light that we have here in San Diego. The signs pointing this out continue: "our skylights save energy and you money". Others will no doubt disagree, but that conjunction between the direct object energy and the benefactive + direct object combination you money strikes me as very unnatural. I can't think of a single constituency test that establishes something like you money as a constituent to be coordinated, but then again I've been wrong about this sort of thing before.

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Coordination parsing challenge

Dan Bilefsky, "Hungarian Right, Center and Far, Make Gains", New York Times 4/11/2010:

Hungary’s center-right opposition party won first-round parliamentary elections here on Sunday, while a far-right party, whose black-clad paramilitary extremists evoke the Nazi era, made significant gains.

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A half-sentence?

Scott Timberg, "Maurice Sendak rewrote the rules with 'Wild Things' " (Los Angeles Times, October 11):

In "Wild Things," a single sentence can take pages to unfold, its meaning changing slightly with each image. And this book with numerous wordless pages ends with a half-sentence and no accompanying image. Sendak works similarly to the directors of the French New Wave, who used jump cuts and other techniques to dislocate their editing. (link)

Apparently this half-sentence has a dislocating effect. But what is this dislocating half-sentence? This, (1):

and it was still hot.

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A deeply flawed character

When phrases are coordinated, readers infer that the the juxtaposed elements are in some way parallel. Careless coordination produces unwanted inferences. Today's Daily Beast serves up an object lesson:

Stunned colleagues Friday described veteran CBS News producer Joe Halderman—who was arrested outside the network’s West 57th Street offices Thursday in the alleged scheme to blackmail David Letterman—as a rogue and a womanizer, a lover of literature, a “smart frat boy,” a swashbuckling journalist, and an occasional barroom brawler who distinguished himself in dangerous war zones and occasionally displayed a certain reckless streak.

Fucking literature lovers.

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Ask Language Log: an and ambiguity

In this morning's mail:

My friend and I are avid Language Log readers. We were recently conversing over IM, and she was telling me about her boyfriend's great-aunt. Among the things she mentioned:

"She worked when women didn't work very much and never got married."

I interpreted her statement as my friend alluding to a time when women both didn't work and did not get married. After a few moments, I realized she was telling me that the great-aunt had a job and never got married; "when women" only modified "didn't work very much." We are unsure which reading is technically correct and therefore decided to ask.   Any insight you could provide would be greatly appreciated.

I'm not a syntactician, but I usually take the morning shift here at Language Log Plaza, so I'll do my best with this one — luckily, it seems pretty straightforward.

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Agreement with disjunctive subjects

A reader writes to ask about disjunctive subjects in English and how subject-verb agreement works in cases like the following:

Neither Barbara nor I ?am ?is ?are able to …
If you or I ?am ?are there, …

As it happens, I posted on the subject to ADS-L some years. I intended to post a version on Language Log, but I seem not to have gotten around to it. Until now.

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Woody outside the syntactic box

Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona has now reached Edinburgh, and made a wonderful movie for a Valentine's Day date yesterday. (A wonderful film, too; the whole script is interesting and intelligent as well as funny and appealing, and Penelope Cruz's electric, chew-up-the-scenery portrayal of a deranged artist is incredible — near Oscar level.) But what a strange syntactic move Woody made in naming the picture. The three names are just concatenated: Vicky is one of the girls, Cristina is the other, and Barcelona is the city where most of the the action is located. There's absolutely no grammatical warrant for that at all. For example, although you can interpret Celery, apples, walnuts, grapes as an asyndetic coordination (a conjunction without an overt and), the commas are obligatory in written English: *Celery apples walnuts grapes is not grammatical at all. And similarly, it would be possible to interpret Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona as a coordination with three coordinates; but the string Vicky Cristina Barcelona doesn't have that privilege. It's got the written-English syntax of a single personal name. (Dougal Stanton, here in Edinburgh, noticed
today that the people running the Cameo on Home Street were confused enough to abbreviate it to "Vicky C. Barcelona" on their large signs — exactly as if it were somebody's name.) Woody is thinking right outside of the syntactic box. (Which is OK, of course, for an artist. This is an observation about innovative syntax, not a correction or a criticism.)

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What is putatively inviolable but it got violated anyway?

I was busy throwing out works by Jerry Fodor today (one really has to, every year or two, or one's whole office would eventually become clogged and unusable) when I noticed that the title of his December 2005 Presidential Address to the Eastern Division of the (published in Proceedings and Addresses of The American Philosophical Association 80:2 [November 2006], 11-24) is a violation of the Coordinate Structure Constraint:

What Is Universally Quantified and Necessary
and A Posteriori and It Flies South in the Winter?

You might think it would embarrass a famous defender of the idea that we have innate knowledge of universal grammar if he unreflectingly wrote and published a sentence that violated an important constraint of universal grammar. But it won't.

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Everett on the Pirahã in The Guardian

The Guardian interviewed Dan Everett while he was in the UK recently for lectures in Edinburgh and London, and has published a piece about Dan and the Pirahã. The Language Log fan who was the first to point it out to us (thanks, Rachele) asks about its example of recursion. It says:

Chomsky … recently refined his theory to argue that recursion — the linguistic practice of inserting phrases inside others – was the cornerstone of all languages. (An example of recursion is extending the sentence "Daniel Everett talked about the story of his life" to read, "Daniel Everett flew to London and talked about the story of his life".)

Is that recursion? Well, unfortunately the matter isn't clear. Let me explain.

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Both support as well as being ready

"It's essential that we take action to both support the banking system as a whole — as well as being ready to intervene in particular cases when it's necessary to do so", said the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling to reporters yesterday. Ungrammatically, I think.

Forget the fact that to both support is an instance of the so-called "split infinitive": modifiers have been placed between to and the verb in an infinitival clause, by good writers, throughout the history of English. (Those who jump on them as "errors" don't know as much about English grammar as they would like you to think they do.) No, it's the fact that the both never gets its correlated and. For me, the construction both X as well as Y (for any phrases X and Y), though common in unplanned speech, is not syntactically well formed. Particularly not when X is a plain-form (bare infinitive) verb phrase and Y is a gerund-participial verb phrase. That is (to invent a shorter case of the same sort), *to both survive as well as flourishing seems to me like an error of sentence planning, where what was intended was to both survive and flourish.

Of course, there could be people who differ, and see no slip in the Chancellor's remark. (Recall the surprising number of commenters on this post of mine who judged my ungrammatical example to be grammatical — though in that case I was able to determined that the original writer of the sentence agreed with me.) Not every expert user of Standard English has exactly the same judgments of grammaticality as every other user. But even a man who finds both support … as well as being ready ungrammatical may blurt it out when speaking under conditions of extreme stress.

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