Archive for January, 2014

First Person Singular, Redemption Plea Edition

Benjamin Wallace-Wells, "The Narcissistic Drama of Chris Christie’s Apology", NY Magazine 1/9/2014:

"What does it make me ask about me?" the governor of New Jersey said about halfway through his press conference today, paraphrasing a reporter's inquiry, and even though the event continued long afterward, this question seemed to contain its essence, and in some way the essence of Chris Christie too. 

Frank Bruni, "The ‘I’ in Christie’s Storm", NYT 1/12/2014:

POLITICS boils down to three pronouns: I, you, we. The politician who has them in balance goes a long way. […]

In his news conference on Thursday [Chris Christie] found a way to spell apology with a thousand I’s.

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Pay for

It's common to nominalize already-lexicalized combinations of a verb and an intransitive preposition, like push-up, push-over, hand-out, walk-on, walk-out, and so on. It's less common to see nominalization of a semantically-transparent verb and transitive preposition, but a new one has recently (?) arisen in the halls of Congress. Thus George Nelson, "Brown Touts Benefits Extension, Job Creation Aid", Business Journal 1/8/2014:

“If we’re going to do a pay-for, we ought to look at what kind of pay-for actually creates jobs,” he continued. “The best kind of pay-for is one Senate Republicans have rejected repeatedly, to eliminate tax incentives that encourage companies to close plants in the United States and relocate those jobs overseas, he said.

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The meaning of nothing

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Sweat dance plugs noun pile

Katia Dmitrieva, "Madonna addicted to sweat dance plugs Toronto condos: Mortgages", Bloomberg News 1/10/2014 — Reader CD, a hardened journalistic veteran, calls this "a rare American noun pile headline":

It’s a spectacular garden path which turns out to be a noun pile. I’m pretty good at parsing headlinese but I had no idea what the story was supposed to be about, or even what the syntax was supposed to be, until I clicked through. I suppose it would have helped if I’d known the name of the song beforehand. I’m quite impressed by the flimsiness of the connection between the lead and the content of the story too, but that’s another matter.  

On the nationality question, it’s a Canadian story and possibly a Canadian writer, but Bloomberg has a very strict style guide for headlines regardless of jurisdiction, so I’m comfortable calling it American.

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The American Dialect Society chose because as its Word Of The Year, and thereby provoked an argument, here and elsewhere, about parts of speech. Most dictionaries and grammars see words like for, in, since, etc. as variously prepositions, adverbs, conjunctions, or particles, depending on how they're used. Geoff Pullum argues that they're all always prepositions, just used in different ways. (See "Because syntax", 1/5/2014, and "The promiscuity of prepositions", 1/8/2014, for some of Geoff's reasons.)

It's worth pointing out that the complex patterning of these words in contemporary English is the outcome of an even more complex historical process.

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Bean crud

Arnold Zwicky kindly called the following choice Chinglish label to my attention:

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The English passive: an apology

Listen, I need to apologise to thirty or forty of you (I don't really know how many). I'm really sorry. I've wronged you. Mea culpa.

You remember all those great examples you sent me of people alleging use of the passive voice and getting it wrong? Well, I have now completed a paper using many of them. It's basically about the astonishing extent of the educated public's understanding of the grammatical term "passive" and the utter lack of support for the widespread prejudice against passive constructions. It's called "Fear and Loathing of the English Passive," and you can get a 23-page single-spaced typescript in PDF format if you click on that title. It will appear this year in the journal Language and Communication; the second proofs are being prepared now. But (the bad news) my acknowledgments note (at the end, just before the references) will not contain a full list of the names of all of you who helped me. You deserved better, but don't blow up at me; let me explain.

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The promiscuity of prepositions

Some Language Log readers may have noticed that Gretchen McCulloch, at All Things Linguistic (see her post here), claims that certain peculiar restrictions on complements of because argue against its being a preposition even in the new use that caused it to become the American Dialect Society's Word of the Year for 2013: "the new 'because' isn't a preposition (but is actually cooler)," she claims. (As a result, Daniel Ezra Johnson even tweeted that the new use of because may be the first Word of the Year with the strange property that even the linguists who voted for it can't figure out how to analyze it.)

I have maintained, to the contrary, that because not only is a preposition now (since the rise of the because reasons construction over the past few years) but in fact always has been one, despite every dictionary on the market denying it (see my "Because syntax").

Who is right? All Things Linguistic, or Language Log? I won't toy with you; I won't leave you dangling, unable to decide. I will tell you the answer.

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The Franco-Prussian Readings

Wicky Tse and Cheng Fangyi both sent me this photograph taken in a bookstore located in the central business district of Xinjiekou, Nanjing, China:

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Science and scholarship jokes

There's some viral science and scholarship humor on #overlyhonestmethods (illustrated sample) and LOLmythesis.

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More on Bokmål

[During the last week or so of December, we had a vigorous, extended discussion on "Cantonese as Mother Tongue, with a note on Norwegian Bokmål".  The following is a guest post by Håvard Hjulstad that takes up many of the issues that were raised in that earlier post and and attempts to situate them in a more systematic and comprehensive framework.]

It isn’t simple to explain the Norwegian language situation in a few words, but I shall try.

The word “mål” means “tongue” (or “language”; it also means “voice”) in the case of “bokmål”. It is very close to synonymous with “språk”, and it is used both for spoken and written languages. The word “mål” = “goal” and “measure” is a homograph. So “bokmål” could be translated as “book language”.

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Because syntax

Many people will be somewhat surprised that the American Dialect Society's "Word of the Year" choice was because in its use with a noun phrase (NP) complement (though the Megan Garber's Atlantic Monthly article on it nearly two months ago should perhaps have been a tip-off). It seems to be unprecedented for a word in a minor category like preposition to be chosen rather than some emergent or fashionable word in one of the major lexical categories: recent winners have included 2012's hashtag (noun), 2011's occupy (verb), 2010's app (noun), 2009's tweet (noun and verb), 2008's bailout (noun), 2007's subprime (adjective), 2006's plutoed (past participle of verb meaning "downgrade in status"), and 2005's truthiness (noun). And it also seems to be unique in representing a new syntactically defined word use within a given category rather than a new (or newly trending) word. The syntax of because calls for a little discussion, I think, given that Megan Garber thinks the word has become a preposition for the first time, and every dictionary on the market is wrong in the part-of-speech information it gives about the word (write to me if you can find a dictionary of which this is not true: I'd love to see one).

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ADS WOTY: "Because"

I wasn't able to attend the ADS WOTY vote yesterday evening, but I understand it was a first-round landslide for because, beating out Slash, twerk, Obamacare, and  selfie. According to the ADS announcement,

“This past year, the very old word because exploded with new grammatical possibilities in informal online use,” [Ben] Zimmer said. “No longer does because have to be followed by of or a full clause. Now one often sees tersely worded rationales like ‘because science’ or ‘because reasons.’ You might not go to a party ‘because tired.’ As one supporter put it, because should be Word of the Year ‘because useful!’”

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