Archive for Pragmatics

ADJECTIVE NOUN!

I recently learned by email that an acquaintance is planning to return from London to Philadelphia, and started to close my response with "Bon voyage!" Then I thought about using English instead, but realized that "Good trip!" doesn't work at all. So I chose "Safe travels!", which does work.

This made me wonder about the usage patterns involved — why does French "Bonne chance!" translates to "Good luck" but "Bon voyage" doesn't work as "Good trip"?

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (44)

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (13)

Peaceful protesters

Nick Montfort, "'Peaceful Protesters' but no 'Peaceful Police'", 6/7/2020:

About four million Google hits for “peaceful protesters,” only about 55,000 for “peaceful police.” Anyone who has been reading the news will have seen the phrase “peaceful protesters” again and again—and probably will not have seen this other phrase. Does that mean peaceful protesters outnumber peaceful police 80 to 1? Or at least that we think and speak as if this is the case? […]

The phenomenon here is that of markedness, having a default form and a marked form. “Actor” can be a generic term for anyone who acts, but “actress” is used only for the special, marked case—women. As Edwin L. Battistella discusses in The Logic of Markedness, there are exceptions: “male nurse” is the marked case for this profession, because of “the social fact that nurses are most commonly female.”

“Peaceful protesters” is the marked case. It’s understood implicitly that “protesters” are not generally peaceful.

So when the news media speaks or writes about “peaceful protesters,” they are using the marked case. It’s understood implicitly that “protesters” are not generally peaceful. The exceptional ones are the peaceful ones, like the small percentage of male nurses. This is quite evidently false, but doesn’t prevent journalists from using the phrase again and again.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (18)

"The information we're getting is that … Yeah. No."

Comments (9)

Ominous "Umm"

A nice example of "um" as a discourse particle — from Jennifer Rubin, "What might finally ensnare Trump", WaPo 9/20/2019 [emphasis added]:

This would be the perfect example of conduct that might not technically be a crime but is obviously and blatantly a violation of the president’s oath of office and a threat to our democratic system. Former prosecutor Renato Mariotti tweeted, “If Trump promised foreign aid to Ukraine in exchange for investigating Biden’s son, that is obviously corrupt and should meet any definition of a ‘high crime’ for impeachment.”

Meanwhile, Giuliani made a wild appearance on CNN. Amid the accusations and insults, he acknowledged that “of course” he asked Ukraine to look into Biden. Umm. That’s a problem.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (7)

ESL spam scam? (updated)

I just got an email from WordPress notifying me of a comment awaiting approval at LAWnLinguistics. Here is the comment, in full:

This is Pam, and English is my 1st language. I'm for real, and would like you to get back in touch with me.

The comment makes four assertions:

  1. This is Pam
  2. English is my 1st language.
  3. I'm for real,
  4. and would like you to get back in touch with me.

It's almost certain that three of those four assertions are false. Does anyone want to guess which is the one that is true?

CLARIFICATION (after reading the first five or six comments, all guessing wrong): For the benefit of those who want to submit a guess, note that what prompted this post was the content of the comment, not anything about its word choice, syntax, punctuation, etc.

HINT (after reading more wrong guesses): Pragmatics.

HINT IN THE FORM OF A QUESTION (after reading still more guesses that are not only wrong but aren't even close): How often have you encountered a situation in which, upon your initial contact with someone who is a complete stranger, the first thing they say after introducing themself is "English [or some other language] is my 1st language?

Comments (29)

Gricean (im)politeness

Does Paul Grice's "cooperative principle" enjoin politeness? Jessica Wildfire sees it that way ("Maybe you’re not rude after all", Splattered 6/29/2018):

A teacher sent me home for showing my underwear in fifth grade. The same year, I also got in trouble for asking a classmate about their gender identity. Stuff like that was always happening. I always managed to break some invisible rule out of social blindness. […]

I was a real trouble maker. So rude. Why couldn’t I just be polite, like everyone else? […]

And then linguistics happened. Halfway through college, I started taking courses in language theory.

That’s when I started to learn something important. Something that changed my life forever.

Most of our politeness rules are bullshit.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (21)

Indirect question marks?

Theresa May's 2/10/2019 letter to Jeremy Corbyn includes a sentence ending in a question mark that caught Graeme Orr's attention:

As I explained when we met, the Political Declaration explicitly provides for the benefits of a customs union – no tariffs, fees, charges or quantitative restrictions across all sectors and no checks on rules of origin (paragraph 23). However, it also recognises the development of the UK's independent trade policy beyond our economic partnership with the EU (paragraph 17). I am not clear why you believe it would be preferable to seek a say in future EU trade deals rather than the ability to strike our own deals? I can reassure you that securing frictionless trade in goods and agri-food products is one of our key negotiating objectives (for precisely the reasons you give – protecting jobs that depend on integrated supply chains and avoiding a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland). The fundamental negotiating challenge here is the EU's position that completely frictionless trade is only possible if the UK stays in the single market. This would mean accepting free movement, which Labour's 2017 General Election manifesto made clear you do not support.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (22)

Scalar implicature reversal of the week

From "How to Complain at a Restaurant? Just Ask Our Critic", NYT 2/5/2019:

In general, the more specific your complaint, the more likely it is to be understood. The worst, most useless and potentially dangerous complaints are broad, sweeping condemnations.

“There is complaining that makes you think about what you’re doing, and there is complaining where everybody thinks they’re entitled to say anything,” said Rita Sodi, the chef and owner of the Tuscan restaurant I Sodi in Manhattan. “Saying, ‘This is terrible’ is not complaining. That is being rude. It’s like, ‘You’re ugly.’ It’s telling me that I’m ugly. It’s personal. It’s my food.”

Even when the person you’re grousing to did not cook your pasta personally, you should proceed gently, in nonconfrontational terms. It may be helpful to imagine that you are speaking with an air traffic controller trying to land 20 jets during a snowstorm; you would try very hard not to add to the overall stress level in the tower, even if your child was on one of those jets.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (23)

Whose values?

The subhed of this opinion piece made me do a double take — Bari Weiss, "A Massacre in the Heart of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood: The values that drove Robert Bowers to murder my neighbors are the ones we cherish — and will continue to live by", NYT 10/27/2018.

At least, that's how the piece originally ran:

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (17)

An xkcd for Geoff Nunberg

Comments (22)

Colorless green vaccine-laced M&Ms

Commenting on the (7/12/2016) headline "US government plans to use drones to fire vaccine-laced M&Ms near endangered ferrets", Joyeuse Noëlle on Tumblr noted that

The best part of this title is that in the second half, each new word is completely unpredictable based on what comes before it.

“US government plans to use drones to fire” okay, I see where this is going

“vaccine-laced” wait

“M&Ms” what

“near” not ‘at’?

“endangered” what

“ferrets” what

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (4)

Slurs inside idioms are still slurs

Below is a guest post by Josef Fruehwald:


Earlier this week (August 29, 2018, for readers in the future), Ron DeSantis, the Republican candidate for the governor of Florida, said of the victorious candidate of the Democratic Party, Andrew Gillum, that voters shouldn’t “monkey this up” and elect the left leaning Gillum. This has caused some controversy, since Gillum is a black man while DeSantis is white, and the discursive association of Black people with non-human primates is a longstanding racist trope.

A prominent linguist (anonymized here just in case he wouldn’t like his politics publicized like this) expressed a conflicted feelings between his political joy that DeSantis has gotten into hot water, and his knowledge of the non-denotative properties of idioms. That is, “kicking the bucket” and “buying the farm” refer to dying, not to buckets nor farms. Some of the conversation that ensued was about the nuances of idioms, and how prosodically prominent the world “monkey” was in context. This is, in fact, reminiscent of a controversy from last summer surrounding a British MP who used an idiom to refer to “an overlooked problem” that includes an explosive racial epithet that I won’t retype here, for reasons to be clarified below.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (55)