Archive for Syntax

A record-length phrasal modifier?

In our 1992 chapter "The stress and structure of modified noun phrases in English" (in Sag & Szabolcsi, Lexical Matters), Richard Sproat and I noted that

in some informal styles, various phrasal categories can be freely used as prenominal modifiers, with an appropriately generic meaning. […] This usage permits free inclusion of pronouns, articles and other things that are usually forbidden in modifiers. […] Examples are extremely common in certain journalistic styles, from which the following examples are all taken […]:

an old-style white-shoe do-it-on-the-golf-course banker, the usual wait-until-next-year attitude, a wait-until-after-the-elections scenario, a kind of get-to-know-what's-going-on meeting place, the like-it-or-lump-it theory of public art, state-of-the-union address, a 24-hour-a-day job, a 1-percent-of-GNP guideline, a run-of-the-mill meeting, a sweep-it-under-the-rug amendment, a middle-of-the-road format, the state teacher-of-the-year title, a take-it-or-leave-it choice, the yet-to-be-written 1987 bill, a certain chip-on-the-shoulder attitude, make-it-from-scratch traditionalists, Speak-Mandarin-Nat-Dialects Month, a rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul system, the nothing-left-to-chance approach, get-out-the-vote drives, the don't-trust-anybody-over-30 crowd, national clear-your-desk day

A few days ago, I happened on an example that sets a new length record of 14 words for such phrasal modifiers — at least among the examples that I've committed to memory.

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"They're more mask into"?

There's been a lot of political reaction to what Donald Trump said in  Chris Wallace's 7/19/2020 interview. But I haven't seen any reactions to a curious linguistic innovation — or maybe it was a mistake? — that happens at about 10:52 of the interview:

hey Dr. Fauci said don't wear a mask
our surgeon general terrific guy said don't wear a mask
everybody was saying don't wear a mask all of a sudden everybody's got to wear a mask
and as you know masks cause problems too
with that being said
I'm a believer in masks I think masks are good
but
uh I leave it up to the governors
many of the governors are changing they're more
mask
into
they like
the concept of masks
but some of them don't agree

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PP attachment of the week

"Trump Wanted to Sell Puerto Rico After Hurricane", Political Wire 7/11/2020:

President Trump raised the possibility of selling hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico to his Secretary of Homeland Security in late 2017, the New York Times reports.

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Accidental filmic poetry

Tonight we're rewatching The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in honor of Ennio Morricone, the composer of its iconic score, who died today. Deediedeedledee nwah nwah nwaaaaahhh

And I've just had a thought about the title that turns on the quite different interpretations of the-Adj constructions in English and Italian, which I mainly know about from this paper by Hagit Borer and Isabelle Roy .

In English, "the Adj" generally only allows a generic reading, and often refers to the class of humans characterized by the adjective, as in the poor, the rich, etc. In Italian (and French, Spanish, etc.) this isn't the case; the construction, although based on the same syntax, can also receive a particular referential singular interpretation. Borer and Roy ascribe this to the presence of identifying number and gender features on the determiner in those languages.

In the original Italian title of the movie, Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo ('The good.masc.sg, The ugly.masc.sg, the bad.masc.sg.) these 'The-Adj' sequences are referential; they refer to the three main characters Blondie, Angel Eyes and Tuco. The Italian title is more or less equivalent to English "The good guy, the bad guy and the ugly guy". 

In English, though, the grammatical structure of the title can only get the generic reading. The use of these forms in the film to refer to three protagonists, then, bestows an archetypal quality on those characters; they're metonymically interpreted as instantiating the whole classes of good people, bad people and ugly people respectively. And the kind of mythic force it imparts somehow fits so perfectly with the grandiose yet tongue-in-cheek quality of the whole film, to me it's really a fundamental part of its impact, humor and appeal.

My question is, do you think Leone and the scriptwriters understood this property of the English translation? Or did they read their English calque of the Italian grammatical structure just as they would have read the Italian? The Italian title, in fact, with its masculine singular marking, cannot be understood in the same way as the English is. To represent the English interpretation in Italian, apparently, the plural would be needed: i belli, i brutti, i cattivi. My guess is that neither the writers nor the director realized that the title read so differently in English. 

 According to Wikipedia, the Italian title was a last-minute suggestion of screenwriter Luciano Vincenzoni, and the title for the English version was determined by the studio after some alternatives were bandied about and rejected. I wonder if someone at United Artists recognized the different reading, and the epic quality it imparted, when they were discussing the choice!

Thanks to Roberta d'Alessandro and other Facebook linguists for Italian judgments and discussion!

 

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Love me, then do not terrify me

Posted to the Twitter thread that began with the Arabic menu full of spectacularly bad mistranslations into English featured here ("Accuracy of sheep meat" [5/26/20]):

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Dwindling measure words in Mandarin

Tweet from the University of Westminster Contemporary China Centre Blog @CCCblogUoW:

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Beneath modern Melbourne lie(s) clues

Bob Ladd sent in a screenshot from the Guardian, with the message:

I think this suggests that, except with auxiliary verbs, subject-verb inversion is not really something that is fully a part of English speakers' competence any more. The agreement discrepancy of "clues" and "lies" would be instantly detectable in most other contexts, but not when it's required by residual English verb-second constraints.

He notes that the screen shot came "from first thing this morning UTC, but it was still up and uncorrected at mid-afternoon UTC". And he suggests that things would be very different with a copula or auxiliary verb, e.g. "Beneath modern Melbourne is two of the richest hoards of pirate gold ever found".

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Begging control

This headline confused me until I read the story: Julian Chokkattu, "Email App Maker Begs Apple CEO to Get Back on the App Store", Wired 11/22/2019.

I couldn't figure out why an app maker wanted Tim Cook to "get back on the App Store", or indeed what it would even mean for Cook to be "on the App Store". But of course it's the app maker who wants to get back on the App Store, because Apple kicked them off.

This is an example of what syntacticians call control, the problem of assigning subjects to predicates.  The classical examples include things like

I persuaded Kim to leave. (Kim is the one who leaves)
I promised Kim to leave. (I'm the one who leaves)

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*Neither Sentence Nor Sentence?

Today in Seth Cable's seminar on Montague's Universal grammar, he gave out a problem set that included the task of adding "Neither Mitt smokes nor Barack smokes" to the little fragment of English that had been developed. And in the discussion of the problem set, it turned out that I was the only one in the class who seemed to have any doubts about whether the sentence "Neither Mitt smokes nor Barack smokes" was grammatical.
My own intuition was that it had to be "Neither does Mitt smoke nor does Barack smoke", though that sounded a little funny too.

So out of curiosity I just checked in the big Huddleston and Pullum Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. I was afraid the question was too arcane to be covered there; but to my happy surprise they do actually discuss it, on pages 1308-9 in their chapter on coordination.

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OED cites Language Log again

Back in September 2010, I reported that the Oxford English Dictionary had added an entry for eggcorn, a term that was coined right here on Language Log for an alteration of a word or phrase that makes sense in a new way (like acorn being changed to eggcorn). The earliest citation given for that meaning of eggcorn was, naturally enough, the 2003 post by Mark Liberman in which he relayed Geoff Pullum's suggested coinage.

2003   M. LIBERMAN Egg Corns: Folk Etymol., Malapropism, Mondegreen, ???: update in languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu 30 Sept. (blog, Internet Archive Wayback Machine 8 Oct. 2003)  Geoff Pullum suggests that if no suitable term already exists for cases like this, we should call them ‘egg corns’, in the metonymic tradition of ‘mondegreen’.

Now, in the latest batch of updates to the OED's online edition comes another Language Log citation.  Among the updates, the OED editors overhauled the entries for they, their, themthemselves, and themself to account for using these pronouns in the singular to avoid gender reference or for non-binary gender identities. And in the entry for their is a citation from a 2008 post I wrote about Facebook's use of singular they for non-gender-specific news feed items.

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Trent Reznor Prize nominee: Jamie Salter

From Ben Zimmer, a nomination for the Trent Reznor Prize for Tricky Embedding.

The nominee: Jamie Salter,  CEO of Authentic Brands Group.

The source: Jacob Bogage and Ben Strauss, "Sports Illustrated shaken by major layoffs and massive reorganization", WaPo 10/3/2019 —

Reached by phone Thursday and asked about the turmoil at SI, ABG chief executive Jamie Salter described the situation at the magazine as “awesome.”

“I can only tell you that we buy troubled companies that we think there’s enormous amount of value in the intellectual property in,” he said.

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Calling (a) moose

Headline from the Bangor Daily News (Feb. 13, 2019): "Maine now holds the world record for most people calling a moose at the same time."

Screenshot for posterity:

Update: The headline has been changed to read, "Maine now holds the world record for simultaneous moose-calling."

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The dagnabbit effect strikes again. (Or, when the personal [dative] is political.)

The following is a guest post by Larry Horn, whose work on personal datives has been discussed on Language Log in the past. (See these posts from late 2009: "On beyond personal datives?," "Horn on personal datives," "Ditransitive prepositions?") It originally appeared on the American Dialect Society mailing list.


Elizabeth Warren is now being mocked left and (mostly) right on social media for her aside during her announcement for the presidency:  "I'm gonna get me a beer".

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