Archive for Syntax

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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The precursors of the Scalia/Garner canons (updated)

Previously: Robocalls, legal interpretation, and Bryan Garner

All three canons that are in play in Facebook v. Duguid (the Last Antecedent, Series Qualifier, and Nearest Reasonable Referent Canons) have precursors in U.S. and English caselaw. That’s no surprise, given that all 57 canons in Reading Law are presented as being  well established in the law. But as my last post noted, each canon departs from the previous caselaw in one respect or another. And in the case of the Series Qualifier Canon, the departure is quite substantial.

To lay the groundwork necessary in order to describe those departures, this post will summarize the prior law from which the three canons deviate.

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Robocalls, legal interpretation, and Bryan Garner (the first in a series)

A few weeks ago, Mark’s post “Lawyers as linguists” alerted me to Facebook v. Duguid, a case now pending before the Supreme Court, which grabbed my attention for several reasons. First, the case presents an interesting linguistic issue. Second, the parties on both sides have framed their linguistic arguments in terms of three of the canons of interpretation in Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts (2012) the book coauthored Bryan Garner and the late Justice Antonin Scalia, and I’ve previously criticized the canons at issue (e.g., here). Finally, Garner himself is on the legal team representing the plaintiff, Noah Duguid.

An unusual confluence of circumstances.

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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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