Archive for Syntax

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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NLLP: bag-of-words semantics?

The First Workshop on Natural Legal Language Processing (NLLP) will be co-located with NAACL 2019. The phrase "natural legal language processing" in the title strikes me as oddly constructed, from a syntactic and semantic point of view, though I'm sure that NAACL attendees will interpret it easily as intended.

Let me explain.

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Attachment ambiguity of the week

Mark Puleo, "'Monster' earthquake shakes Anchorage, Alaska; Widespread damage reported", Accuweather 12/1/2018:

Gov. Bill Walker has issued a disaster declaration in Alaska in response to Friday's earthquake, which was approved by President Donald Trump.

It's true that Senator Murkowski disagreed with President Trump on climate change, but approving an earthquake seems like a bit of an over-reaction.

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Word, syllable, morpheme, phoneme

What is the basic unit of discursive, communicative language — word, syllable, morpheme, or phoneme?

This topic came up in the comments to the following posts:

"The concept of word in Sinitic" (10/3/18)

"Words in Vietnamese" (10/2/18)

"Diacriticless Vietnamese on a sign in San Francisco" (9/30/18)

"Words in Mandarin: twin kle twin kle lit tle star" (8/14/12)

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Trent Reznor Prize nominee

Today's nomination for the Trent Reznor Prize for Tricky Embedding:

Other examples here.

[h/t Ben Zimmer]

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"Misunderstand that …", "pessimistic that …"

In late June Lila Gleitman noticed a case of "A is pessimistic that S" meaning that A considers it likely that S will happen/turn out to be the case, and A considers S to be an unwanted outcome. Her example was "I am more pessimistic than I was two weeks ago about the trade war spinning out of control."

We agreed that we would both find it impossible to say "I'm pessimistic that the trade war will spin out of control", but differed on "pessimistic about": in my dialect, but not Lila's, "A is pessimistic about a Republican victory in the fall" is OK, meaning that A fears that the outcome will be the one she doesn't want — that there will be or that there won't be, depending on her point of view.

Lila, by the way, said she could use "pessimistic that" in the case of losing hope in a good outcome: "I am more  pessimistic than I was two weeks ago that the prices of stocks will rise." But I don't think I could use "pessimistic that" there either. (So the original speaker and Lila and I seem to have three different patterns of judgments about "pessimistic that".)

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Citizenship and syntax (updated, and updated again)

Last week the Washington Post published an op-ed by Michael Anton arguing that the United States should do away with birthright citizenship—the principle that anyone born in the United States is a U.S. citizen, even if their parents are foreign-born noncitizens. The op-ed has attracted a lot of attention from people on both the left and the right, and by "attention" I mean "condemnation". (E.g., Garrett Epps at The Atlantic, Mark Joseph Stern at Slate, Dan Drezner at the Washington Post, Robert Tracinski at The Federalist, Alex Nowraseth at The American Conservative, and Jonathan Adler at Volokh Conspiracy. See also this Vox explainer.)

The criticism both on on Anton's nativism, but also on his interpretation of the 14th Amendment, on which birthright citizenship is based. One of the interpretive moves for which Anton has been criticized is his handling of a statement made on the floor of the Senate while the proposed text of the 14th Amendment was being debated. And that dispute turns on the resolution of a syntactic ambiguity.

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Extreme right node raising

Wikipedia explains that "right node raising" is "a sharing mechanism that sees the material to the immediate right of parallel structures being in some sense 'shared' by those parallel structures, e.g. [Sam likes] but [Fred dislikes] the debates."

This construction is alive and well in modern English, but it flourished to a much greater extent in centuries past. I believe that it was once more common, though I don't have quantitative evidence. But 18th-century authors certainly produced examples that seem to go beyond the boundaries of modern prose style.

Here's a case in point, from Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter X: Emperors Decius, Gallus, Aemilianus, Valerian And Gallienus.—Part II:

The Scythian hordes, which, towards the east, bordered on the new settlements of the Goths, presented nothing to their arms, except the doubtful chance of an unprofitable victory. But the prospect of the Roman territories was far more alluring; and the fields of Dacia were covered with rich harvests, sown by the hands of an industrious, and exposed to be gathered by those of a warlike, people.

As I read this passage on the plane to Helsinki, the part that I've put in bold struck me as characteristic of Gibbon's time, and foreign to contemporary prose style.

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