Archive for Syntax

Measure words for robots

Christian Horn was reading an article in Japanese Endgadget (8/11/21) about the introduction of a new kind of robot called a "Cyberdog".

Says Christian:

You don't need to know Japanese to understand the fascinating part:  in Japanese, when counting things, the type of "thing" you are counting is relevant.  So you count "flat things" differently than "long shaped" things.  Or machines, fish, or animals.

The article states that Cyberdog is aimed at developers, and is limited to "1000台(匹?)", showing hesitation over which measure word to use, dai 台 (counter for machines, including vehicles) or hiki 匹 (counter for small animals​; counter for rolls of cloth; counter for horses​).  If you use dai 台 as a measure word for counting Cyberdogs, it would indicate that you think of them as machines.  If you use hiki 匹 for counting them, it would indicate that you regard Cyberdogs as animals.

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"Is it the passive voice you don't like?"

Mary Harris, "Newsflash: Coronavirus Ain’t Going Nowhere", Slate 8/9/2021:

I was a little hesitant to speak with Dr. Bernard Ashby. Ashby works in Florida, taking care of COVID patients. He is bearing witness to that state’s record-breaking surge of infections at the moment. It’s not that I didn’t think Ashby would have interesting things to say. It’s just: How many times can you repeat the exact same thing? Wear a mask indoors. Get vaccinated. Support health care workers.

But when we got on the phone, Ashby sounded just as frustrated as I am: “The transmission rate is ridiculous down here. Patients are coming in by the boatload. They’re younger, they’re sicker. And unfortunately, we weren’t really prepared for the surge that we’ve gotten” […]

On Monday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Ashby about what it’s like inside Florida’s surge. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. […]

Ashby: This is indicative of our health care system as a whole. Vaccination rates have always been low in certain demographics prior to the pandemic. Access to care has always been an issue in certain demographics prior to the pandemic. We talk a lot about disparities, and I actually dislike those terms: disparities and inequality, all that, yada, yada.

Harris: Is it the passive voice you don't like?

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GE

The particle "ge 個/个" is one of the most frequent characters in written Chinese (12th in a list of 9,933 unique characters).  It is generally thought of as a classifier, numerary adjunct, measure word.  Indeed, it functions as the almost universal, default classifier when you're not sure what the correct / proper measure word for a given noun should be.  In addition, "ge" has more than a dozen other definitions and usages, for which see Wiktionary. However, I'm not sure that any dictionary or grammar accounts for a very special usage that I have long been intrigued and enchanted by, namely the "ge" in this type of sentence:

Wǒ máng de gè yàosǐ

我忙得個要死!

"I'm so busy I could die!", i.e., "I'm incredibly busy!"

Here de 得 is a particle marking the complement of degree.

Because I lived with a big household full of Chinese (Shandong) in-laws, I picked this construction up very early in my learning of spoken Mandarin, but I always had a visceral feeling that it was extremely colloquial and unlikely to be encountered in written texts and was probably not covered in conventional grammars.  So I asked around among colleagues and native speaker informants how they would explain this unusual "ge", grammatically or otherwise.  Here are some of the replies I received.

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WH-movement of the week

…or maybe of the year, since it comes from an article dated 11/11/2020 — Erik Engheim, "PC Users in Denial About Apple Silicon Performance" [emphasis added]:

  • The M1 in contrast contains:
    16-core Neural Engine. Which make machine learning tasks such as image and text recognition, various video and photo editing tasks up to 15x faster by Apple’s claims. […]
  • 8-core GPU at 2.6TFLOPS which makes it faster than any other integrated GPU by a large margin.
  • Fabric, which we don’t know what is for yet.
  • Secure Enclave and specialized AES encryption hardware. This allows encryption to be done without wasting CPU cycles.

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Bad poetry, bad translation

UC Santa Barbara’s Department of East Asian Languages and Cultural Studies just held “The Worst Chinese Poetry: A Virtual Roundtable" on June 1 and 2. It followed on “The Worst Chinese Poetry: A Virtual Workshop,” held in April.  Both events were organized by Thomas Mazanec, Xiaorong Li, and Hangping Xu.

Mazanec expects the roundtable to produce an anthology, “The Worst Chinese Poetry: A Critical Anthology,” which will feature selected bad poems and commentary that explains the issues that the poems raise about literary, social and political history, he said.

Source:  "Lyrical Losers,'The Worst Chinese Poetry: A Virtual Roundtable' will take a critical look at failures of the genre", By Jim Logan, The Current (UCSB) (Friday, May 28, 2021)

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NOUN(s) NOUN

The discussion of Boxer(')(s)(') Trail  ("Signs and wonders", 6/12/2021 ) brought up the question of plural forms in English nouns in structures like mouse trap, activities center, and iron bar, which has been much discussed in the linguistic and psycholinguistic literature — and also here on Language Log.

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Garden path of the day: Fish hearts as food?

I dimly remember a silly song about eating fish heads. And I'll confess to having used fish heads and other fillet leftovers to make soup. But I've never heard of eating fish hearts. In fact, I'm not sure that I've ever consciously seen a fish heart.

So I was taken aback by a recent (3/8/2021) MedPage Today headline that asked "Is Fish Heart Healthy Food? It Depends".

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"Guess that"

One of the benefits of checking linguistic hypotheses in real-world data is that you sometimes stumble on unexpected and potentially interesting patterns. This morning's Breakfast Experiment™ provides an example.

Yesterday, as I prepared for a seminar on prosody and syntax, the following passage caught my eye (in Gerrit Kentner and Isabelle Franz, "No evidence for prosodic effects on the syntactic encoding of complement clauses in German", Glossa 2019):

A language production experiment by Lee & Gibbons (2007) suggests that speakers use the unstressed optional complementiser that to maximise rhythmic alternation of weak and strong syllables, as it is more often produced when the top of the complement clause starts in a stressed (Lucy) as opposed to unstressed (Louise) syllable (1).

(1) Ian guessed (that) {Louise, Lucy} signed the contract

Since Kentner and Franz found a contrary result in their experiment, I thought I'd see whether the effect that Lee & Gibbons found was replicated in a more natural dataset. So I turned to Shuang Li's INTERVIEW: NPR Media Dialog Transcripts dataset, which contains 3,199,859 transcribed turns.

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The Passivator reborn

I've been resisting topics like "words for coup" and "the meaning of insurrection" — we'll see how long that resolve lasts — but this morning's distraction is the rebirth of something I wrote about many years ago, namely an online service for identifying instances of passive-voice verbs.

In my review of 'The Passivator" (4/6/2004), I noted that "though The Passivator is billed as a 'passive verb and adverb flagger', it just flags certain strings of characters — final "-ly" for alleged adverbs, forms of 'to be' for alleged passives". Never mind that to be is used for lots of other things, and there are plenty of adverbs that don't end in -ly, and not everything that ends in -ly is an adverb.

The "Passive Voice Detector" at datalyze.com uses a slightly less silly version of the same dumb algorithm — it flags forms of to be immediately followed by words ending in -ed. This leads to absurd false positives, e.g. when a form of to be is followed by a noun ending in -ed:

…and predictable false negatives, e.g. when an adverb intervenes between the auxiliary and the participle:

Update — other false negatives includes contracted forms of to be (e.g. "They're defeated") and irregular participles (e.g. "They were overcome.").

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Nominated for the Trent Reznor Prize

Over the years, we've periodically discussed the Trent Reznor Prize for Tricky Embedding. Today's nominee, submitted by Joe Stynes, comes from "The Hilaria Baldwin Story: 'I'm Living My Life'", NYT 12/30/2020:

“We’re all bored and it’s just seemed so strange to me that no one had ever come out and said it, especially for someone who gets so much media attention,” said the woman, who was granted anonymity by The New York Times because she said she was scared that Mr. Baldwin, who agreed to take an anger management course in 2019 in order to dispose of charges after a fight with a man over a parking spot and has been arrested, escorted from a plane and suspended from a job as an MSNBC host, all in the last decade, would punch her.

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Again, however

Looking through the Penn Parsed Corpus of Modern British English (PPCMBE2), I saw that one of its sources is Chapter 10 of Volume 2 of Jane Austen's Emma. I've been using seven or eight different audiobook versions of that novel as a source of examples and exercises in ling521 over the past few years, so I thought I'd take a look at the relationship between syntactic structure and performance prosody in that chapter.

Listening to the second sentence raises some interesting questions:

Busy as he was, however, the young man was yet able to shew a most happy countenance on seeing Emma again. [source]

Details aside, it seems clear that in this sentence

  • "however" is a kind of prosodic tag;
  • "however" is prosodically bound to the phrase that precedes it.

Thereby, however, hangs a tale or two.

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The Scalia/Garner canons: Departures from established law

Previously:
Robocalls, legal interpretation, and Bryan Garner
The precursors of the Scalia/Garner canons

In my last post, I talked about the precursors of the canons from Reading Law that are the primary subject of this series of posts. As I explained there, the Last Antecedent Canon and the Nearest Reasonable Referent Canon are adapted from what is generally known as the Rule of the Last Antecedent (which you should remember not to confuse with the Last Antecedent Canon). And the Series Qualifier Canon was inspired by the pronouncement in a 1920 Supreme Court case that “that “[when] several words are followed by a clause which is applicable as much to the first and other words as to the last, the natural construction of the language demands that the clause be read as applicable to all.”

The purpose of that exercise in intellectual history was to provide the background that’s necessary in order to understand the present post, which will talk about the ways in which the three canons depart from the law as it existed before Bryan Garner and Antonin Scalia wrote Reading Law. Although those departures probably aren’t especially significant in the case of the Last Antecedent and Nearest Reasonable Referent canons (putting aside the confusion and complication they cause), the same isn’t true with respect to the Series Qualifier Canon.

As we’ll see, the default interpretation that is prescribed by the Series Qualifier Canon in a big category of cases is precisely the opposite of what would be prescribed by the Rule of the Last Antecedent. That change is, as far as I’ve been able to determine, unjustified by the caselaw (including the caselaw that was the Series Qualifier Canon’s inspiration). Nor is there any other justification I can think of.

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Own goal of the week

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