Archive for Syntax

Trent Reznor Prize nomination

Today we have a worthy nominee for the Trent Reznor Prize for Tricky Embedding — Lucy Mangan, "Digested week: Ducks in the garden and Wordle are my rocks in a sea of chaos and injustice", The Guardian 4/9/2022:

Growing up in Catford, southeast London, a short walk from the gun shop under Eros House (under whose umbrous overhang took place so much teenage fumbling that – as long as the Greek god’s scope includes Mere Genital Curiosity as well as the higher forms of human longing – could not have been more suitably named), I devoured books about the countryside and all its myriad natural delights.

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Sentence length and syntactic complexity

[This is a guest post by Don Keyser, in response to "Trends" (3/27/22).]

I do hope Sir Walter Scott is part of the study, as an outlier perhaps.  I still have nightmares going back to English class in an era when one still was obliged to diagram the sentences to establish to the satisfaction of the teacher that one truly and fully grasped the structure and meaning.  Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe was the acid test.  I'm not sure blackboards of the era were sufficiently large, or chalk sufficiently sturdy, to get through the diagram of a single sentence in Ivanhoe and other works.

I just checked online and found that there are free versions of Ivanhoe in ebook and .pdf format.

Some examples of all too typical sentences from that work:

On the other hand, such and so multiplied were the means of vexation and oppression possessed by the great Barons, that they never wanted the pretext, and seldom the will, to harass and pursue, even to the very edge of destruction, any of their less powerful neighbours, who attempted to separate themselves from their authority, and to trust for their protection, during the dangers of the times, to their own inoffensive conduct, and to the laws of the land.

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Singular verbs with plural nouns

From B.D.:

I recently moved to Zürich, and the experience of living in a German-speaking canton has made me aware of a linguistic oddity in English that I'm having difficulty explaining adequately.

My bank app sends me notifications like "100 CHF have been deducted from your account." The "have" in that sentence always reminds me that English is not the programmers' first language.

In German, you'd always use the plural verb form for more than 1 of a unit, but in English, you generally treat such quantities as mass nouns: 100 francs _is_ a lot, 100 kilos _is_ heavy, etc… Except that rule doesn't seem to work for liquids, and I'm not sure why.

You wouldn't say "3 gallons of milk is in the fridge", or "3 liters of water is in the pitcher," for example. I tried to rationalize the first case by saying I'm thinking of three physical gallon jugs of milk, but that doesn't work for water in a pitcher.

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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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