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Today's Dilbert:


This reminded me of a recent Language Log comment. (All the Dilbert regulars are Language Log commenters, of course.) In "Come to set", 9/30/2012, I observed that the set of anarthrous status-nouns ("at church", "in school", "on stage", etc.) is extended in community-specific ways; and Wally (under the nickname MonkeyBoy) commented:

I would like to point out that "home", "church", "set", etc. in these examples ARE proper nouns and as such don't take a determiner.

The shift between common and proper is similar to a relation or role noun such as "mother" which can be used as the proper noun "Mother". This proper usage carries various in-group restriction on who can call any given mother "Mother".

That emphatic all-caps ARE was unexpected, given that no had previously argued that these examples are NOT proper nouns, or indeed had mentioned the concept at all. But now that the question has come up, how can we evaluate MonkeyBoy's proposal?

In the first place, what is a "proper noun"? Wikipedia, citing a couple of recent books as references, gives a primarily semantic definition:

A proper noun is a noun that in its primary application refers to a unique entity, such as London, Jupiter, Sarah, or Microsoft, as distinguished from a common noun, which usually refers to a class of entities (cities, planets, persons, corporations), or non-unique instances of a certain class (a city, another planet, these persons, our corporation).

On this definition, the school of "in school" and the church of "at church" don't make the grade. But Wikipedia notes that "The detailed definition of the term is problematic and to an extent governed by convention" — so could MonkeyBoy be onto something, under some alternative theory of nominal properness?

It's hard to see how. MonkeyBoy gives two arguments: lack of a determiner and "various in-group restriction[s] on who can call any given [proper noun by its name]".

It's true that proper nouns usually lack determiners, where similar common nouns would have them. Sandwich, the town in Kent, goes around without a determiner, claiming to be the place where the sandwich, with a determiner, was invented. But there are several other non-proper categories of nouns that may lack determiners in English. There are mass nouns like water and gravel; nouns denoting roles in certain constructions, like "become president" or "as dean"; nouns denoting times, like sunset or dawn; repeated nouns, like "day after day" or "bit by bit"; nouns in certain matched sets, like "from start to finish" or "mother and child".

And in the other direction, there are some proper names, headed by proper nouns, that normally take the definite article: The Hague, The Bronx, The Mississippi.

As for the idea that proper nouns have in-group restrictions, such as those on "who can call any given mother 'Mother'", this is clearly not true of proper nouns in general, nor does it seem at all relevant to examples like "in school" or "at sea".

But I'm sure that MonkeyBoy has an effective counter-argument:

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53 Comments »

  1. Eric P Smith said,

    October 7, 2012 @ 8:35 pm

    I have always felt that the rules of Scrabble take a misguided view of what is a proper noun. I can't use a word like CAMEMBERT because it is deemed to be a proper noun. Granted, in the sentence "Camembert is a town in France" it is a proper noun. But in the sentence "I spread some Camembert on my bread" surely it is a mass noun, not a proper noun? There seems to be a misguided view that it has to be a proper noun since it starts with a capital letter. A certain family member who had better remain anonymous, but who should have known better, taught me when I was a child that 'French' is a proper adjective and that 'I' is a proper pronoun.

  2. Chad Nilep said,

    October 7, 2012 @ 8:45 pm

    and of course e.e. cummings was a common poet

  3. Ellen K. said,

    October 7, 2012 @ 8:47 pm

    I think there's something to what MonkeyBoy says, that there's some similarity between these nouns and proper nouns that interconnects with their lack of an article. But I would not say they are proper nouns. Proper nouns are names, it seems to me. (Are there exceptions?) These, while they function kind of like names, they aren't names.

    And, despite being American, I'm wanting to throw hospital into the mix of these sort of nouns.

  4. Mike Aubrey said,

    October 7, 2012 @ 9:16 pm

    I'm pretty sure that the Cambridge Grammar, though I'm away from my copy to pull out a page number right now…

    Canadian and British English have a number of extra nouns that function like this. Ellen K. has already mentioned "hospital," and another common one is "university," as in, "Johnny just started attending university this week."

  5. M (was L) said,

    October 7, 2012 @ 9:31 pm

    Back to MonkeyBoy… "Mother" when used the equivalent of a name, is (in my, not at all ironically so-called) opinion a title, not unlike President or Doctor. Alternately, it might be seen as a nickname, not unlike Bud or Spike – or Mom, Mommy, Mum, etc.

    Used otherwise, it's a common noun.

    One doesn't need to be a member of the in-group to use Mother in that way, if "in-group" means her children or her family. You might way tell a child, "Yes, you can pet my dog – but first you have to ask Mother." It's a tad archaic in American usage, but not impossible.

    "The church" is a common noun, but it's not the presence determiner (as MYL points out about The Bronx) which makes it so; "the Church" is short for whatever organized denomination is in question – eg the Roman Catholic Church – or for its central organ.

    I don't have a better definition to offer than what's quoted above. I think at end all this, I must agree with it; although this is only my opinion.

    Linguistics, it seems to me – not unlike political science – is the study of opinion. We speak a certain way, those of us who don't formally study it, because in our opinion it sounds right to speak that way.

    (It also seem to me that people who do study it formally, speak the way they do because in their opinion, it's right to speak that way. It may be a more informed opinion, but if grounded on the study of the opinions of doofuses like myself, it's still a professional opinion of amateur opinions – not unlike that of physicians, in whose hands we place our lives because we think we might be sick. I do not scoff at opinion simply because it is opinion; but that's only my opinion.)

    FWIW.

  6. Mike Aubrey said,

    October 7, 2012 @ 10:12 pm

    @M (was L): You don't really know what linguists do, do you?

  7. Garrett Wollman said,

    October 7, 2012 @ 10:51 pm

    An article in "The Conversation" by Patrick Stokes, entiled "No, You Are Not Entitled to Your Opinion", has been making the Twitter rounds recently. I am not sure what the actual status of "The Conversation" is; it seems to be something like the Australian equivalent of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Brian Cox and Simon Singh seem to be the principal disseminators, at least outside of Australia. The link for the article in question is: http://theconversation.edu.au/no-youre-not-entitled-to-your-opinion-9978

  8. Alan Walker said,

    October 7, 2012 @ 11:10 pm

    @Eric P Smith: I've never seen a mention of proper nouns in any set of Scrabble rules. The rules simply exclude words always beginning with a capital letter – that the reason for this is to prohibit proper nouns is merely an inference.

    This rule can lead to some apparent illogicalities: "winter" is allowed, but "April" is not. However, it does give an unambiguous rule (given the selection of a dictionary) and eliminates the clash of opinions, informed or otherwise.

    French-speaking Scrabble players follow the same rule, so they are able to play "avril" and "americain", since names of months and nationalities are not capitalised in French. I don't know how German-speaking Scrabble players get on.

    Incidentally, "camembert" is written with a lower-case "c" by both the Australian Oxford and the New Zealand Oxford, while other Oxford dictionaries use a capital letter. I've noticed the same pattern with some other cheese varieties. Another dictionary using the lower-case "c" is the Macquarie, also Australian. Could it be connected with the fact that Australia and NZ are big exporters of dairy products? Perhaps we (I'm Australian) like to downplay links to the places where cheese varieties originated, in case somebody tries to stop us using those names for cheeses we produce?

  9. Gene Callahan said,

    October 7, 2012 @ 11:12 pm

    'Ellen K. has already mentioned "hospital," and another common one is "university," as in, "Johnny just started attending university this week."'

    Americans use "college" that way.

  10. Gene Callahan said,

    October 7, 2012 @ 11:12 pm

    'Ellen K. has already mentioned "hospital," and another common one is "university," as in, "Johnny just started attending university this week."'

    Americans use "college" that way.

  11. MonkeyBoy said,

    October 7, 2012 @ 11:16 pm

    We might call these possessive or familiar proper nouns. I think “home” is the prototypical example. As I said last time*, the difference between a house and a home is that a home has as part of it a family with familiar roles and activities. And this notion of family carries over to other similar nouns.

    Such nouns can incorporate possessive pronouns. “Home” can also incorporate prepositions and act like a prepositional phrase (sort of like “chez” in French), but everything else such as “school” can’t.

    However this incorporation is only valid when “home” is a sentential argument, not a sentential modifier.

    Argument:
    I was/stayed home for 3 days solid.
    I walked 0/to home. I arrived 0/at home at 3.
    I stayed at/*0 school. I walked to/*0 school.

    Modifier:
    I slept/ate at/*0 home.


    * I don't seem able to directly link my comment of a few days ago at

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=4223#comment-263193

  12. MonkeyBoy said,

    October 7, 2012 @ 11:37 pm

    oops, above I meant to say that familiar proper nouns incorporate possessive determiner not pronouns. And I should also note that I am using "incorporate" a technical sense as it was used in generative semantic like things years ago where one might say the verb "enter" incorporates "in(to)" thus giving the distinction

    I entered the room.
    I walked into the room.

    [(myl) It's an interesting idea that status nouns in the class "at home", "in church", "to school" lack determiners because they already "incorporate" a possessive determiner. (The idea doesn't seem correct semantically to me, but it's certainly worth talking about.) However, I don't see why this makes these words members of the class of proper nouns (e.g. England, Exxon, Mars), which surely do not "incorporate" possessive determiners. And if the only common feature is the usage in the singular without a determiner, then why link them to the class of proper nouns rather than to the class of mass nouns (e.g. oil, water, dirt)?]

  13. Rich Rostrom said,

    October 8, 2012 @ 2:04 am

    ISTM that "church" and "school" (when used with "to", "in", "at") become "mass nouns"; they refer to the entire category of churches or schools. The same with "hospital", "home", "bed", "class", "camp", "college", "university", "jail", "prison".

  14. nvb said,

    October 8, 2012 @ 4:17 am

    I remember chatting to my local newsagent a while back and he used the phrase "gone to mosque". This sounded strange to me, because I would have always used an article. But then I thought about it some more, and I would quite happily use "gone to church", so it makes perfect sense for a Muslim to use "gone to mosque".

  15. Circe said,

    October 8, 2012 @ 6:59 am

    @nvb: Depending upon who your newsagent is, it might also have been a literal translation from his first language. There are no articles, for example, in Hindi or Urdu.

  16. Jonathan D said,

    October 8, 2012 @ 7:02 am

    nvb, your comment reminds me that for me "gone to school/church/university" tends to have connotations of particular sorts of (mostly communal) events. If you were there for less obvious or more solitary activities, I'd be more likely to use/expect a 'the'.

  17. M (was L) said,

    October 8, 2012 @ 7:56 am

    > @M (was L): You don't really know what linguists do, do you?

    They study bumpkins like myself, certain a priori that we exhibit patterns which we don't know about, in the expectation that they can document them and draw conclusions about them. Like all scientists they begin with the a priori bet that they've backed the right horse. The best, or the luckiest ones, hit paydirt more often than others.

    Professional opinions are, as I said, often worth trusting your life to. Is a conclusion based on a statistical sample an opinion? No, it's probability, backed by an opinion on the methodology.

    As to the question in hand about proper nouns, I'm a bumpkin who uses them. My opinion is your data. Please ignore all the data that, in your opinion, you ought to ignore.

  18. Patrick King said,

    October 8, 2012 @ 7:56 am

    I have noticed that CBC presenters invariably say "in studio" where I would say "in the studio". They often say "on scene" as well.

  19. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    October 8, 2012 @ 8:06 am

    Regarding Ellen K's point (and possibly bearing on Jonathan D's as well): it's not as if 'to X' was an idiom, used only in special cases, while 'to the X' was just plain English. 'To the X', when one has no particular X in mind, is itself an idiom used only in special cases – in AmE 'to the hospital'; in BrE 'to the pub' and 'to the beach', and so on. We don't, I think, say 'let's go to the restaurant' unless we are thinking of a particular one. Hence in BrE 'to the hospital' would often actually sound wrong, as it would raise the question 'which one?' – though one can, of course, say 'I'm going to the hospital to see my aunt', since that refers to the particular hospital she is in.

  20. Joe Green said,

    October 8, 2012 @ 8:28 am

    Sandwich [...] goes around [...] claiming to be the place where the sandwich was invented.
    Splutter. Is no-one else going to take you to task on this? The sandwich may well have been invented by (or perhaps re-invented by or merely named after) the 4th Earl of Sandwich, but as far as I know there is no claim that he was in Sandwich at the time. I feel quite sure he was likely to be in London, whether at his desk or gambling. In the spirit of this entry, though, I must point out that this is my opinion and not based on hard data.

    [(myl) I made no assertion as to the truth of the claim, which I took directly from the Wikipedia entry: "Sandwich is a historic town and claims to be the inventor of the popular snack the 'sandwich'". In fact I felt that "...goes around claiming..." was a reasonable to way to express skepticism. The only real point was that sandwich can be either a proper noun or a common noun.]

  21. Yet another John said,

    October 8, 2012 @ 8:49 am

    @M (was L): In your first comment, you said: "Linguistics, it seems to me – not unlike political science – is the study of opinion." But based on your second comment, it's hard to see that there is any sphere of human knowledge which you would NOT consider to be "the study of opinion" ("… like all scientists they begin with the a priori bet that they've backed the right horse…"). Your opinions seem rather self-defeating.

    Given that, the way you stated your first opinion was a little misleading, no? A bit like singling somebody out, pointing to them, and saying, "You are mortal! (In my opinion, FWIW.)"

  22. Coby Lubliner said,

    October 8, 2012 @ 9:27 am

    I think there is some confusion about what phrases like "in school," "in church" or "in hospital" mean. To be "in school" means to be a student there; to be "in church" means to be attending a service; to be "in hospital" (UK) means to be a patient there. Any other physical presence requires an article: "a fire broke out in the school," "he is a deacon in the church," "I visited her in the hospital," and so on. Isn't that right?

  23. E Pinegar said,

    October 8, 2012 @ 9:30 am

    @Coby Lubliner

    I don't think so. "A fire broke out at school today" would be a perfectly legitimate way for a student to describe what happened. The fire was not a "student" nor "attending."

  24. M (was L) said,

    October 8, 2012 @ 10:09 am

    @Yet another John

    > But based on your second comment, it's hard to see that there
    > is any sphere of human knowledge which you would NOT consider
    > to be "the study of opinion" ("… like all scientists they begin with
    > the a priori bet that they've backed the right horse…").

    This is why research is reviewed prior to publication, to assure that others knowledgeable in the field assess the work as credible, well-designed, well-conducted, and well-described.

    > Your opinions seem rather self-defeating.

    You seem regard opinion as a bad thing, and not to get all Platonic or nothin' but here in this mortal plane it's all we got. Or a quibbler might say that I am getting all Platonic or nothin'.

    This touches upon my other point: Just because you use the word "opinion" as perjorative does not prevent others from using it neutrally or laudingly; nor does it universally redefine opinion as something bad.

    It defines opinion as something you may hold in low regard; sure enough. But that's rather universally defeating.

    I know, I know, opinion embarrasses and shames people who hear it from preachers. But why you cede them that word in the first place, is a matter on which I hold to be problematic anyhow.

  25. Russell said,

    October 8, 2012 @ 11:19 am

    For those with access, there's a Linguistic Inquiry squib by Jackendoff/Mailing/Zaenen titled "Home is subject to Principle A", where they argue (following up on Fillmore's LSA address) that home is an anaphoric element (which is at least at first blush getting at the same idea as that they "incorporate possessive pronouns"). I don't recall if they extended the argument to any of the P+N constructions at issue.

    (And I'll spare the link, but I argued in my dissertation that certain kinship terms (typically those indicating direct/lineal ancestors) can undergo conversion to "names". At least, their semantic and syntactic properties were well-captured by saying that they had whatever features proper nouns come with.)

  26. John Roth said,

    October 8, 2012 @ 11:23 am

    It doesn't seem to be at all consistent. "At home" and "at the office" seem to have the same relationship to the speaker – a listener would usually assume the speaker has one home and one office, and that's what she's talking about. "At the home" might mean a home for wayward cats, while "at office" just sounds weird (at least to me.)

  27. F said,

    October 8, 2012 @ 11:33 am

    The assertion in Wikipedia that the town of Sandwich claims to be the origin of the sandwich is fictitious, like so much else in Wikipedia.

  28. MonkeyBoy said,

    October 8, 2012 @ 12:09 pm

    John Roth: It doesn't seem to be at all consistent. …"at office" just sounds weird (at least to me.)

    What words function as familiar proper nouns has been lexicalized which means we are not looking for productive rules, but rather rules to explain the structure of the lexicon away from a default case where it is totally arbitrary.

    One reason we don't have "at office" is that "office" participates in the "office/work" distinction that corresponds to the "house/home" distinction.

    Thus if you want to refer to your office as a determiner-less social noun you wind up saying "at work". In other words we don't need a special lexical sense for "office" because "work" will work for that.

    So far I only know of "home" and "work" as distinct words for a social structure that is localized in a physical structure. The other examples such as "school" and "church" use the same word for both senses.

  29. Rod Johnson said,

    October 8, 2012 @ 12:51 pm

    @M (was L): Linguistics, it seems to me – not unlike political science – is the study of opinion.

    If you're actually saying that the data of linguistics is the opinions of speakers, I'd say you're wrong. Maybe you're making some subtler point, but I'm not understanding it.

    Linguists have a variety of types of data. There's actual behavior of language users, as you might use in conversational analysis or phonetics. There are various types of traces of behavior (texts, transcriptions, corpora) which can be studied statistically or distributionally. And there are speaker intuitions about acceptability or grammaticality or attributes of speakers (education, class, race, etc.).

    This last could be considered "opinion" but it's a stretch. If a speaker says "I don't consider that acceptable because that's a proper noun" I might accept the acceptability judgement as valid data about certain phenomena (or I might not), but I would certainly not accept the reason why. And more importantly, if I made use of those opinions in an argument, it would be as evidence about the person holding the opinion, not about the phenomena the opinion was about. That's key–grammaticality judgments are evidence about the speaker's internal grammar, not about the sentences themselves. So I think it's worth making a distinction between a judgment about whether something belongs in a set (of valid sentences, say) or not, and a hypothesis-cum-opinion about why, which is surely more of a rationalization than a reason.

    The kinds of opinions we usually see in Language Log threads about language phenomena would not be accepted as evidence abut those phenomena by any working linguist, I don't think. What kind of opinions are you thinking of?

  30. Bob Ladd said,

    October 8, 2012 @ 1:15 pm

    There are strongly analogous constructions to English in church or at school in both Romanian and Italian, where prepositional phrases with nouns that are semantically kind of definite (and common) nevertheless go without an article. I've always thought of the languages as being on a kind of scale, with English allowing the fewest such cases, Romanian the most, and Italian somewhere in between. In Italian there's the same sense people have been trying to articulate in these comments – that the noun has somehow become generic or proper or SOMETHING – but the specific nouns it applies to are not exactly the same as in English, and in general it applies to more nouns than in English. So you can say a scuola ('at school') or in ospedale ('in hospital') exactly as in (some varieties of) English, but you have to use the article in all'universita' 'at university', and you can omit it in in ufficio 'at the office' or in cucina 'in the kitchen'.

    Romanian is arguably a bit different, because MANY basic prepositions virtually require the object not to have an article, but because of the extensive use of such constructions in Italian I've always thought of this as a matter of degree.

    Incidentally, in Scottish English you don't say in bed but always in my/your/his/etc. bed.

  31. M (was L) said,

    October 8, 2012 @ 1:53 pm

    @Rod Johnson – I am thinking of precisely what you dismiss as "a stretch."

    Maybe I'm unusual, in that I think about what I say before I say it.

    But I don't think so. Anybody who has learned a second language, has thought it through until, eventually, a set of habits become engrained. That's an observation on how humans learn skills, if you've learned to drive or play piano you'll experienced what I'll call pre-fluency (for lack of a proper term – there may well be one).

    It may be that many native speakers, or fluent speakers of second languages, no longer think about how to speak. Certainly anybody who works in sales, or teaching, or law, or anything else involving addressing members of the public thinks, or ought to think, about how they say things.

    I choose how I express myself because it is my opinion that such expression is appropriate. I can assure that I've often been found inappropriate by others, indicating that my opinion is often flat wrong. But factually, it was my opinion all the same.

    But maybe your implication that only linguists, and not politicians and not journalists and not stand-up comics, have opinions about language, or think first then talk.

    If that's a stretch, I think I'm sufficiently limber.

    But of course that's only what I think.

  32. Rod Johnson said,

    October 8, 2012 @ 6:36 pm

    @M (was L)…. huh? I appreciate that you are careful in how you speak, or think you are, but that doesn't have anything to do with what linguists do. That seems like one big self-congratulatory non sequitur. What do mean when you say that linguistics is the study of opinion? Can you point me to an article or book written in this mode?

  33. Joe Green said,

    October 8, 2012 @ 6:44 pm

    @myl (and @F): which I took directly from the Wikipedia entry: "Sandwich is a historic town and claims to be the inventor of the popular snack the 'sandwich'" Well this is perhaps why I'm spluttering… Wikipedia says no such thing. Indeed it casts doubt on the circumstances. Perhaps someone changed it after reading all this? But I'm pretty sure it didn't yesterday either.

  34. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    October 8, 2012 @ 7:35 pm

    @Joe Green: Indeed, yesterday, the Wikipedia article began this way:

    > Sandwich is a historic town and claims to be the inventor of the popular snack the "sandwich" and civil parish on the River Stour in the Non-metropolitan district of Dover, within the ceremonial county of Kent, south-east England. It has a population of 6,800.

    [link; citation and links omitted]

    but the underlined part (if it's still underlined after I click "Submit Comment") was mere vandalism, added several days ago and removed several hours ago. Dr. Liberman merely had bad timing. (Though it wouldn't surprise me at all if the editor who reverted the vandalism were a Language Log reader, in which case waiting might not have helped.)

  35. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    October 8, 2012 @ 7:36 pm

    O.K., nope, WordPress filtered out the underlining during posting. Well, whatever, you can tell which part I mean. :-)

  36. Joe Green said,

    October 8, 2012 @ 8:13 pm

    @Ran Ari-Gur: thanks for the digging around. Though how an entity like a town can be said to claim anything is beyond me. The phrasing did indeed make it sound as though it was marching round (on several thousand tiny feet?) proudly making the claim, as myl originally suggested. An entertaining image.

  37. J. Goard said,

    October 8, 2012 @ 8:38 pm

    I've long wanted to do a study on practicing Catholics, Jews, and Muslims on the acceptance of zero article [go to {church/temple/mosque}]. I would predict that all groups would show equally high acceptance for [go to church], since it's such a frequent expression in the larger society, but that Jews and Muslims would show a higher acceptance for "temple" and "mosque" respectively when compared with other groups.

  38. M (was L) said,

    October 8, 2012 @ 9:38 pm

    @Rod – There is no such thing as spontaneous speech, save perhaps for small children and the greatly inattentive.

    Ergo the study of language is the study of considered behavior.

    If linguistics doesn't study a particular subfield of human behavior, then pray tell, what does it study?

  39. Jon Weinberg said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 7:22 am

    @J. Goard: Just to complicate things, no more than a third or so of American Jews go to temple — the rest go (or not) to shul or to synagogue or to services.

  40. Rod Johnson said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 7:58 am

    @M (was L): completely non-responsive, not to mention ungrounded in fact. Although your claim about spontaneous speech seems bizarre enough to me to warrant a whole subthread, the question is not about spontaneity. This is what you said: Linguistics, it seems to me – not unlike political science – is the study of opinion. In what sense does "opinion" play a role in linguistics? Not the linguistics you imagine, but actual linguistics as it is practiced.

  41. Mr Fnortner said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 9:08 am

    "Informed opinion" is an oxymoron. Opinions in practice, if not by definition, are uninformed. Were they informed, they would be statements of fact (perhaps right, perhaps wrong). If one does enough study to form an informed opinion, one's sentiment is actually an extrapolation of some fact or facts, and by rights one should be able to refer to those facts. A bare opinion is uninformed and thereby fact free.

  42. Rod Johnson said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 9:08 am

    I thought about this some more, and maybe I can see what you're saying.

    So let's stipulate that people behave in various ways linguistically, and that there's some disposition or capacity or "mental organ" or knowledge or something—I would call it a grammar but that's a pretty loaded term—that enables or guides them to do that. Is that fair? And you are seeing that as some body of propositions that a speaker consults and makes considered choices about when he or she produces speech. And those propositions can be thought of as "opinions," in the same way that a voter's political opinions guides their behavior in polls, at the ballot box, etc., which is where the analogy with political science comes in. Does that capture it?

    If so, then what I think you're talking about, instead of linguistics, is something like stylistics, which is what pundits argue about—questions like should I split the infinitive in this sentence? But that quickly breaks down when you realize that there are many things in language that are truly automatic and even invisible to speakers. To a large extent, that's what the history of structural linguistics in the 20th century was about uncovering. Speakers don't consider whether or not to aspirate a word-initial stop, or how to use vowel harmony in Turkish or tone sandhi in Luo, or which allophone of /l/ to use, or what order auxiliary verbs come in (could have been seen vs. *have been could seen), or whether it's possible to have coreference across the boundary of a complex NP, or whether prepositions come before their objects. There's a vast ocean of grammatical phenomena that is largely automatic where people are hardly conscious of even having a choice, much less making one, and the developmental and (neuro)psychological evidence for this is pretty strong. You're talking about the surface of this ocean, where some phenomena are somewhat unconstrained and thus available to choose (and argue and pontificate about), but you're mistaking that set of edge cases for the thing linguists study.

    Language is more like walking than politics. Walking is something that has a strong biological basis (e.g., a set of phases that people typically go through), but that is also acquired, and which thereafter becomes automatic (you don't consciously think about foot placement and your center of gravity whenever you walk or run), but also somewhat culturally constrained (gait), and which also has some degree of conscious control (you can look where you step, and decide where you go). A biologist was studying walking strictly in terms of route choice would be missing much of what's interesting about it. That doesn't mean it's not legitimate, but it's not everything there is to study.

    (Sorry for being so long-winded.)

  43. M (was L) said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 12:07 pm

    @Rod – I see your point, but especially in writing, I'm not sure that I buy it. I'm one who codeswitches several times a day, often inappropriately (but I'm working on that) but rarely unconsciously. Am I especially neurotic about such things? Perhaps I am.

    > Speakers don't consider whether or not to aspirate a word-initial
    > stop,

    I don't necessarily define it in those terms, I more likely chose to drop into whichever register (and rarely, language) I want to choose. Each of those carries its freight of altered phonemes, so I can argue that one as round or square – I don't think "I should aspirate this" but I do think "I'm going to speak in a given register" and what follows is some collection of mangled, street, nerdy, effete, or pompous affectations. Others, I presume, have a larger range ;-)

    I choose, based on my subjective assessment (and I can't see how that's other than "opinion") to pollute the airwaves in this way, or that way, or the other way.

    Your parallel to walking is instructive. When a soldier learns to march, it eventually becomes engrained. A running back does not run the same way as a marathoner, for all kinds of reasons (mainly to do with distance and tacklers). None of these are apt to walk from kitchen to dining room using those gaits.

    I think what I'm saying, in the parallel, is this: I choose which gait to assume, based on whatever assessment I make of the needs at hand, and I'm pretty sure that most people do. I have a choice of gaits that I've learned, from toddlerhood onward. Somebody else may have a different selection, in fact many do (I, for example, have never run a hurdle – others have).

    I make no claim that it's "everything there is to study." All the same, you can't study gaits without gaits.

    That said, I'm a walker. If somebody says "nobody walks a certain way" and in fact, I do walk that way; then it's a fact (or I'm mistaken, or I'm a liar). If I've known people to walk that way, then it's a fact – or I'm mistaken, or I'm liar.

    There's a funny kind of over-reach in description that's just as over-reaching as prescription; the difference being "nobody says X" vs "nobody should say X" – but if X is an overreach, they've both reached just as far. What real linguists really do may not be what they sometimes do on this board.

    > You're talking about the surface of this ocean, where some
    > phenomena are somewhat unconstrained and thus available
    > to choose (and argue and pontificate about), but you're
    > mistaking that set of edge cases for the thing linguists study.

    Quite possibly. Quite possibly I'm especially neurotic about all this, quite possibly I overthink all this to a depth just below the surface, a depth well shallower than linguists but deeper than most laymen. It might be half an inch deep, and that might be enough to meet these criteria.

    I tell you that I do think about a lot of details, but surely not all of them. Either it's so, or I'm mistaken, or I'm a liar. I tell you that I think others do think about a lot of details, and here the likelihood of "mistaken" probably increases – how can I know what others think about? But I know that immigrants think about their second language, often for many years – and that I've thought my way through several languages, eventually gaining a measure of fluency in some, not remotely close in others.

    So I know, first hand, what it is to think through every word, every syllable, every phoneme, every pacing and tone whatever else one controls or seeks to control. If you've learned a second language, or to drive, etc, then you'll know firsthand what that is also.

    Maybe I extend that experience neurotically back into my native language, I'll even stipulate that I do so. Maybe I project that experience onto others.

    Do I carry this "all the way to the bottom?" I don't imagine that I do; but please do not imagine that we are all automata, blind to everything we say or write. The surface may be deeper than you credit; that doesn't make it the depths of the ocean, but still.

  44. Rod Johnson said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 12:52 pm

    Fair enough. Thanks for elaborating. I think I'll bow out and see if anyone else has anything to say.

  45. peterv said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 1:08 pm

    M (was L) said (October 7, 2012 @ 9:31 pm)

    "Back to MonkeyBoy… "Mother" when used the equivalent of a name, is (in my, not at all ironically so-called) opinion a title, not unlike President or Doctor. Alternately, it might be seen as a nickname, not unlike Bud or Spike – or Mom, Mommy, Mum, etc.

    Two comments:

    When a group of people speaking British or Australian English share a pot of tea, it is common for one person to say "You be Mother" (or "I'll be Mother") to refer to the person tasked with pouring tea from the pot into individual cups. This usage seems to define a role, and so is akin to a title.

    James J. Angleton, long-time head of counter-espionage at CIA, was known to his colleagues as "Mother". This would count as a nickname, I imagine.

  46. practik said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 2:17 pm

    @ Alan Walker, pixels and pixels ago:

    I don't have a German Scrabble set in front of me, but according to Wikipedia* the following are forbidden:

    proper names of people and geographical objects, unless the word in question can also be a common noun (e.g. "Müller," which can be a surname or an occupation)

    brand names

    (I'm omitting the forbidden plays and word types not relevant to this discussion.)

    *http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scrabble#Was_nicht_erlaubt_ist

  47. Mark said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 3:00 pm

    @M (was L), @Rod Johnson;

    The best example I know that slices the conversation you're having about conscious choice/opinion in language is adjective ordering. A nice example would be: "He was a nice intelligent young man." Offer almost any English speaker the series (in random order each time): "He was nice", "He was young", and "He was intelligent" and ask them for a single sentence that conveys that information. You'll almost always get something like the first sentence with the adjectives in that order.

    Whenever you research something like this you are learning about their preferences and opinions on what sounds right and wrong. Either by directly asking them or by just noticing that basically no one other than foreigners ever picks any other order.

    I doubt you ever give much thought to class-level adjective order and for basically everyone in every language that has any type of adjective chaining and compounding there is a unconsciously-learned natural precedence. I and a Japanese friend were constantly helping each other learn these consciously in each others language.

    I totally understand why you might say that linguistics, in common with most other sciences, deals mostly with opinion.

    But, in my opinion, you're deliberately being obtuse and obnoxious to put it that way knowing that the majority of the people you are (theoretically) trying to communicate with will misunderstand it and react with confusion. Linguistically, I believe I can state with at least 99% certainty that a good word for that behavior is troll.

  48. M (was L) said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 3:13 pm

    @J Gourd

    > I've long wanted to do a study on practicing Catholics, Jews,
    > and Muslims on the acceptance of zero article [go to
    > {church/temple/mosque}]. I would predict that all groups would
    > show equally high acceptance for [go to church], since it's such a
    > frequent expression in the larger society, but that Jews and
    > Muslims would show a higher acceptance for "temple" and
    > "mosque" respectively when compared with other groups.

    Possibly so, and my intuition matches yours – except that in locations with a high degree of mixing, it might be that acceptances are more even. That is to say, Christians who live among and have a lot of contact with Jews or Muslims, may be more familiar with these expressions than Christians who do not. If so, it would (I think) back up the notion you're stating.

    But don't get into the question of who is a "practicing Jew" – the term doesn't correspond to "practicing Catholic" and will just involve you in arguments that you don't want to be involved in (and which won't help your research any). Besides, as Jon Weinberg pointed out "the rest go (or not) to shul…"

    That is to say, IME Jews pretty much say it the same way, whether they never miss or never set foot there. For that matter so also Christians and non-Christians and even vehemently ex-Christians all seem to use "in church" and "in the church" in the same way.

    It would also be interesting to see how other Christians besides Catholics use these. It may be that Catholics use a slightly different vocabulary and set of expressions from other Christians; in fact I'm pretty sure they do ("mass" – "confession" – etc).

    Whether it spills over into different use of "in (the) church" is a question. I don't think so, but Catholics (IME) will say "go to mass" but not "go to the mass" (unless drawing a special distinction); but will say that a priest either "celebrates mass" or "celebrates the mass" without any difference in meaning that I can discern.

  49. M (was L) said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 3:41 pm

    @Mark

    > Whenever you research something like this you are learning
    > about their preferences and opinions on what sounds right
    > and wrong.

    > I totally understand why you might say that linguistics, in
    > common with most other sciences, deals mostly with opinion.

    > But, in my opinion, you're deliberately being obtuse and
    > obnoxious to put it that way knowing that the majority of the
    > people you are (theoretically) trying to communicate with will
    > misunderstand it and react with confusion.

    Why, if you agree with my statement, do you find the word "opinion" to be so vulgar? Why, if you agree with my statement, do you think I confuse (I think you mean "offend") the majority of readers?

    My guess is, the word "opinion" has been so strongly associated with Creationists and other ideologues, that it has become a near-obscenity to people who pride themselves on evidence-based thinking.

    This question is akin, I think, to the "entitlement" thread.

  50. boris said,

    October 10, 2012 @ 10:46 am

    As a practicing Jew (of the Shul variety) living in the US, My personal feeling:
    Go to church – fine
    At church – fine
    Go to mass – fine
    At (in?) mass – wrong
    Go to mosque – marginal
    At mosque – wrong
    Go to temple – marginal
    In (at?) temple – wrong
    Go to synagogue – I can picture accidentally saying something like this when talking to a person who wouldn't understand "shul", but I think it's wrong
    At synagogue – see above
    Go to shul – fine
    At shul – fine

  51. MonkeyBoy said,

    October 10, 2012 @ 11:32 am

    myl: And if the only common feature is the usage in the singular without a determiner, then why link them to the class of proper nouns rather than to the class of mass nouns (e.g. oil, water, dirt)?

    Ummm, mass nouns do take determiners – “the dirt”. It is just that in their base sense that they don’t take count marking – “*a dirt”, and are mostly grammatically singular.

    I realize that I am using the term “determiner” is a sense that may differ from other usages. What I mean is an independent unit that marks something as having definite reference and will be using “determiner” in this sense. (In this sense “a” is not a determiner. I could digress here about how in some versions of markedness theory “a” does not mark things as not having a definite reference but instead marks singular count nouns.)

    Proper nouns have definite reference so if one incorporates a determiner that will block a separate surface expression of one. Thus one doesn’t normally find “*the Mark” because “Mark“ incorporates “the“. Actually the unit incorporated seems to be something I will call “theone” – which is definite with a count of one. (The “singular” determiner “this” is not restricted to count nouns, e.g. “this dirt”, and the existence of plural mass nouns such as “cloths” and “mashed potatoes” shows that grammatical number is not completely tied to count.)

    “Theone” incorporation can explain 2 facts.

    Plural proper nouns such as “The Smiths” can’t incorporate “theone” which means they need a separate surface determiner to mark their definite reference. (Are there really no exceptions to the rule that plural proper nouns must contain “the”?)

    As a seeming hack, “theone” incorporation can handle such “singular” lexical exceptions as “The Bronx” which do have a surface determiner. Just mark “Bronx” in the lexicon as a mass noun. This will block incorporation and force an explicit “the” to mark the definite reference.

  52. ajay said,

    October 11, 2012 @ 7:26 am

    "A fire broke out at school today" would be a perfectly legitimate way for a student to describe what happened. The fire was not a "student" nor "attending."

    But the person describing it was. I don't think that the fireman involved would be able to say the same: how was your day? Oh, a fire broke out at school. Surely he'd say "at the school" or "at a school".

    In general I think Coby's right. At/in without an article implies that you're involved. Someone is "in hospital" – they're ill. "In a hospital" – currently standing in a big building with patients in it. Similarly in school. Even "in dock" – I've been in a dock, but I've never been in dock.

  53. Mr Fnortner said,

    October 11, 2012 @ 7:23 pm

    Some friends of mine refer to being in the basement or cellar as being "down cellar," as in "Mother's down cellar doing the wash." This, after 50 years of hearing it, still sounds very very strange.

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