Archive for coordination

My garden path of the day

"Alligator Kills 69-Year-Old Woman in South Carolina", NYT 7/4/2023:

A 69-year-old woman was attacked and killed by an alligator on Tuesday as she was walking her dog in her neighborhood in Hilton Head Island, S.C., the authorities said.

The Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office said it was the second fatal alligator attack in the county in less than a year. […]

Jay Butfiloski, the furbearer and alligator program coordinator with the state’s Natural Resources Department, could not be reached on Tuesday.

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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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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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"and himself jail"

In "More Cohen Businesses Coming to Light," on Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall writes:

The biggest taxi operator in New York, Evgeny “Gene” Friedman, now manages Cohen’s 30+ NYC medallions or at least did the last time we spoke to him. Friedman has been struggling for the last year to keep his taxi businesses out of bankruptcy and himself jail.

The final three words of the boldfaced clause present a weird, and dare I say unusual, case of double ellipsis. The semantic content communicated by those three words (in the context of the sentence) is richer than you'd think could be expressed by only three words, especially given that one of them is merely the conjunction and. That content can be represented as follows, with the struck-through text standing for the content that the reader must infer:

Friedman has been struggling for the last year to keep his taxi businesses out of bankruptcy and to keep himself out of jail.

There's nothing unusual about the first omission; I don't see anything wrong with the clause to keep his taxi businesses out of bankruptcy and himself out of jail. But the omission of out of strikes me as very strange, and what's even stranger is that to my ear, the clause is worse if to keep is put back:

* Friedman has been struggling for the last year to keep his taxi businesses out of bankruptcy and to keep himself jail.

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Court fight over Oxford commas and asyndetic lists

Language Log often weighs in when courts try to nail down the meaning of a statute. Laws are written in natural language—though one might long, by formalization, to end the thousand natural ambiguities that text is heir to—and thus judges are forced to play linguist.

Happily, this week's "case in the news" is one where the lawyers managed to identify several relevant considerations and bring them to the judges for weighing.

Most news outlets reported the case as being about the Oxford comma (or serial comma)—the optional comma just before the end of a list. Here, for example, is the New York Times:

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On letting one's guard (and pants) down

Mark Liberman noted (as did Neal Whitman on his Literal-Minded blog) a case of syllepsis in an Atlantic piece by Conor Friedersdorf: "What conservative Washington Post readers got, when they traded in Dave Weigel for [Jennifer] Rubin, was a lot more hackery and a lot less informed about the presidential election." But Weigel offered up a nice syllepsis of his own on Twitter today:

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Syllepsis of the month

Conor Friedersdorf, "How Conservative Media Lost to the MSM and Failed the Rank and File", The Atlantic 11/7/2012:

Conservatives were at a disadvantage because Romney supporters like Jennifer Rubin and Hugh Hewitt saw it as their duty to spin constantly for their favored candidate rather than being frank about his strengths and weaknesses. What conservative Washington Post readers got, when they traded in Dave Weigel for Rubin, was a lot more hackery and a lot less informed about the presidential election.

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The wife and mother of two men killed in a fire

Local radio station WFCR on Thursday, October 11 started a report with a sentence that gave me a big double-take:

“The wife and mother of two men killed in a fire in Northampton has filed suit …”

And the next morning, October 12, I saw almost the same words in the local paper, the Hampshire Gazette:

Photo caption:

Alleged arsonist Anthony Baye has been sued by Elaine Yeskie, the widow and mother of the two men killed in a Northampton house fire he allegedly set.

Beginning of story:

The widow and mother of men killed in a house fire in 2009 filed a wrongful death lawsuit Wednesday against alleged fire-starter Anthony P. Baye. Elaine Yeskie, 77, is seeking monetary and punitive damages against Baye, …

The version under the photo caption makes the description an appositive phrase, so we already know that it’s a description of one person. But the beginning of the radio story really took me by surprise and made me grab my pen. I feel subjectively sure, though I could of course be wrong, that I could never say that that way. All the ways I could express it take more words; about the shortest acceptable version I can find is “The wife of one and mother of the other of two men killed in a fire …”

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Death of the Queen's English Society

The Queen's English Society (QES), mentioned only a couple of times here on Language Log over the past few years, is no more. It has ceased to be. On the last day of this month they will ring down the curtain and it will join the choir invisible. It will be an ex-society. Said Rhea Williams, chairman of QES, in a letter to the membership of which I have seen a facsimile copy:

At yesterday's SGM there were 22 people present, including the 10 members of your committee. Three members had sent their apologies. Not a very good showing out of a membership of 560 plus!

Time was spent discussing what to do about QES given the forthcoming resignations of so many committee members. Despite the sending out of a request for nominations for chairman, vice-chairman, administrator, web master, and membership secretary no one came forward to fill any role. So I have to inform you that QES will no longer exist. There will be one more Quest then all activity will cease and the society will be wound up. The effective date will be 30th June 2012

(Quest is the society's magazine.) Is this a sad day for defenders of English? Not in my view. I don't think it was a serious enterprise at all. I don't think the members cared about what they said they cared about. And I will present linguistic evidence for this thesis.

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The leader of the IMF and a possible candidate for president

The first sentence of this news report is perfectly fine, but it presents a linguistic puzzle:

The leader of the International Monetary Fund and a possible candidate for president of France was arrested Sunday in connection with the violent sexual assault of a hotel maid after being yanked from an airplane moments before it was to depart for Paris, police said.

The puzzle is how such a conjunction can denote a single person, as it clearly does in this sentence. It could even more easily denote two, but then we’d see “were arrested”, not “was arrested”.

First a descriptive query: do all languages allow such a conjunction of a definite and an indefinite singular noun phrase in subject position, interpreted as referring to a single person? And does English allow it quite generally, or is this a special newspaper style?

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Saving energy and you money!

A new Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market opened up in my corner of Language Log Plaza this week, and as I walked through the aisles on the day of the grand opening, I noticed signs that read "look up for savings". This company is apparently committed to green building, so they have a bunch of skylights on the ceiling that let in the abundant natural light that we have here in San Diego. The signs pointing this out continue: "our skylights save energy and you money". Others will no doubt disagree, but that conjunction between the direct object energy and the benefactive + direct object combination you money strikes me as very unnatural. I can't think of a single constituency test that establishes something like you money as a constituent to be coordinated, but then again I've been wrong about this sort of thing before.

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Coordination parsing challenge

Dan Bilefsky, "Hungarian Right, Center and Far, Make Gains", New York Times 4/11/2010:

Hungary’s center-right opposition party won first-round parliamentary elections here on Sunday, while a far-right party, whose black-clad paramilitary extremists evoke the Nazi era, made significant gains.

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A half-sentence?

Scott Timberg, "Maurice Sendak rewrote the rules with 'Wild Things' " (Los Angeles Times, October 11):

In "Wild Things," a single sentence can take pages to unfold, its meaning changing slightly with each image. And this book with numerous wordless pages ends with a half-sentence and no accompanying image. Sendak works similarly to the directors of the French New Wave, who used jump cuts and other techniques to dislocate their editing. (link)

Apparently this half-sentence has a dislocating effect. But what is this dislocating half-sentence? This, (1):

and it was still hot.

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