Gender is the least of it

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A.C. sends in this opening sentence from a story in his local (NZ) paper:

The former lover of a murdered British jeweler was in his bed when he and his new girlfriend arrived at his villa on the Costa del Sol.

The players on the referential scorecard are:

(1) the former lover
(2) a murdered British jeweler
(3) his bed
(4) he
(5) his new girlfriend
(6) his villa

In the end, the co-reference chain is easy: (2)=(3)=(4)=(5)=(6). And once you get that "his bed" belongs to the "murdered British jeweler", the rest of goes pretty smoothly.

But it's natural to start (1)=(3) — "the former lover […] was in his bed", and then things get tangled up quickly. The former lover was in his bed when he and his girlfriend arrived at his villa? Say what?

As a famous computational linguist once said to me, "CoRef is hard. Or really, it's easy except when it isn't."

The obligatory screenshot (OK, page image):


  1. exackerly said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 7:20 am

    I was thinking maybe the jeweler was female, and it all went downhill from there.

  2. Bill Taylor said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 7:35 am

    The temporal ambiguity doesn't help either. I assumed the murder took place before the "arrived at his villa" – so if all the pronouns refer to the jeweler, then this would be one of those stories where dead men show up with new girlfriends to haunt their former lovers in Spanish villas. Worthy of Shakespeare – or Raymond Chandler.

  3. phspaelti said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 7:44 am

    Actually I'm still not following. How did the murdered jeweler make it all the way to the Costa del Sol?

  4. Rube said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 7:48 am

    I don't suppose it raises any serious linguistic issues, but I love the quote: "As far as we are concerned that crazy, psycho bitch is still running around Spain with a gun."

  5. dw said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 8:44 am

    This appears to be another version of the story (apologies: it's the Daily Mail).

  6. Ellen K. said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 8:45 am

    If you assume heterosexuality it's pretty easy to figure out, since that leaves just one male. Though it may require backtracking (after getting to "his girlfriend") to work it out, since there's no way to work out who's male when you get to the first "his".

    And I do dislike having to make that assumption to follow the sentence. Though, to be fair, the article does give us better information in the next sentence/paragraph.

  7. Brett said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 9:16 am

    I was more interested in Mark's use of "screenshot" to refer to a photo of a traditional, dead tree newspaper page. Usually, the obligatory image in that position in a post would indeed be screenshot, and this is an interesting illustration of the how the seeming autopilot that takes over the mind when completing fairly familiar tasks applies to word choice as well.

  8. Eric P Smith said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 9:31 am

    Little to do with gender, but much to do with sex.

  9. D.O. said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 10:22 am

    Headline helps a lot if you read it first.

  10. Mr Punch said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 2:39 pm

    I like the "crazy, psycho bitch" quote too – but what about that comma? Back in grade school I learned that "crazy psycho bitch" shouldn't have a comma because no one would say "psycho, crazy bitch"; i.e., it's not a list.

  11. un malpaso said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 4:21 pm

    My first thought was that he (the former lover) was driving one of those new-fangled moving bed-cars. They're all the rage on the Mediterranean coast.

  12. J Silk said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 4:23 pm

    well, according to google, at least 17,300 people (ghits) *do* say "psycho, crazy bitch". (even if the comma is important to you, some of the hits on the very first page indeed have it).

  13. chris said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 4:44 pm

    The headline is strange too: how could he find anything (in his bed or anywhere else) if he had been murdered? That makes just as little sense as a murdered person arriving at a villa.

    After thinking it over a bit, the most likely explanation is that he was murdered sometime *after* all these other events took place. (Which also seems consistent with the second paragraph.)

    But you have to impose that on your interpretation of the sentences based on your outside knowledge — it's not evident from the sentences themselves. After all, if you said "a hungry man arrived at the villa", you'd probably interpret that as meaning that the hunger and arrival were contemporaneous, not that the man arrived at the villa and was hungry at some unspecified other time.

  14. Jim Breen said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 5:48 pm

    Did Mark deliberately change the usual British/Aus/NZ spelling of jeweller in the newspaper article to the US form (jeweler)? Or was the edit done by AC? After all, it was a verbatim quotation, and I would expect original spellings to be maintained.

    Just curious.

    [(myl) I thought I just cut-and-pasted from A.C.'s email, but apparently I "fixed" the spelling at some point.]

  15. John Roth said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 5:49 pm

    @ Mr. Punch. The punctuation rule you mention is closer to: "insert a comma between two adjectives if you could insert a conjunction (e.g. and) without it sounding ungrammatical," although I learned it as "insert a comma between two adjectives of the same type." "Crazy" and "psycho" are certainly of the same type.

  16. Mark Mandel said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 6:05 pm

    Does not compute.

    (1) the former lover
(2) a murdered British jeweler

    (3) his bed

    (4) he
(5) his new girlfriend

    (6) his villa
    In the end, the co-reference chain is easy: (2)=(3)=(4)=(5)=(6).

    This chain of equalities means

    The [murdered jeweler]₂ was in [jeweler₂'s own bed]₃ when [jeweler₂]₄ and [jeweler₂'s new girlfriend]₅ arrived at [jeweler₂'s villa]₆.

    He was in his own bed when he and his new girlfriend arrived at the villa. un malpaso has the right of it… according to this.

    What's the former lover doing in the sentence at all?
    What are the italics for? All I can see is that every "his" is italicized, and nothing else is.

  17. Mark Mandel said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 6:10 pm

    Oh, all right. I finally got it after reading the Daily Mail article. Sorry for the previous comment.

  18. Chris Waigl said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 8:18 pm

    Hm, I thought either the jeweller was female (most likely) or the former lover is bisexual, and he arrived in a sleeper train. I still have a hard time forcing it to a different reading.

  19. dainichi said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 8:52 pm

    @Ellen K.

    "If you assume heterosexuality it's pretty easy to figure out"

    I only agree with you if you also assume that the jeweler is male.

    For me the problem is that after "The former lover of a murdered British jeweler", I still don't know the gender of either. One way that would have worked for me is to switch "lover" and "girlfriend":

    > The former girlfriend of a murdered British jeweler was in his bed when he and his new lover arrived at his villa on the Costa del Sol.

  20. Chris Waigl said,

    April 11, 2014 @ 12:15 am

    Ahh, what dainichi said. It's so much clearer when switching "lover" and "girlfriend". Apparently the paper assumes that murdered British jewellers are male and straight, because you need this assumption to untangle the mess.

    The other problem I had, however, was using "a murdered British jeweler" as the antecedent of pronouns governing verbs like "arrived" — dead people don't usually arrive at their former place of living with new girlfriends in tow.

  21. AntC said,

    April 11, 2014 @ 1:06 am

    @Brett screenshot, yeah.

    This was a syndicated piece attributed to The Times. I couldn't find that wording on The Times' website — perhaps it was behind their paywall. The piece never came up on my local paper's website — presumably because it would thereby evade The Times' paywall.

    So I had to resort to the dead tree version.

    @D.O. re the headline. Does it help? Is the bed the ex-lover's or the murdered Brit's? One or the other or both could be male.

  22. Graham Fitz said,

    April 11, 2014 @ 5:32 am

    Having recently discovered Language Log, I thoroughly enjoy a lot of the contributions. However, I do get a bit ticked off by the comma police. There aren't actually any rules for the comma in English, except to say that it is used as it was intentionally intended, i.e. to indicate a pause. It therefore follows that you use commas in a list; but not because it's a list, but rather because there is a series of natural pauses. It therefore follows that the "Oxford comma", used before the "and" at the end of a list, is neither wrong nor compulsory, depending purely on the way one says a sentence. The evolution of our language is a wonderful thing, so let us never forget that we use grammatical rules to try to explain that language to our students, not to restrict it.

  23. Ellen K. said,

    April 11, 2014 @ 9:28 am


    No, one doesn't have to assume the jeweller is male, if one assumes the new girlfriend is the girlfriend of the jeweller. (Which, come to think of it, makes the jeweller male by pronoun choice in addition to assuming heterosexuality.)

    @AntC, I think the headline helps because we are likely to give it the correct reading, assuming the bed belongs to murdered Brit, thus making the murdered jeweller male.

  24. John Ankarström said,

    April 12, 2014 @ 2:45 pm

    In Swedish, this would be much easier to interpret, because, in addition to "han" (he), it has the reflexive pronoun "sig" (either himself, herself, itself, or themselves) (genitive "sin"), which refers back to the subject of a sentence.

    The former lover of a murdered British jeweler was in his bed when he and his new girlfriend arrived at his villa on the Costa del Sol.

    Den förre detta älskaren till en mördad brittisk juvelerare var i hans säng då han och sin nya flickvän anlände vid hans villa på Costa del Sol.

    The first highlighted "hans" (his) definitely does not refer to the lover (the subject), and must therefore refer to the jeweler.

    After that, it's a little tricky, even for me, a native Swedish speaker. In speech, I would probably say "han och hans" instead of "han och sin," but I wrote the latter in order to make it clear that the girlfriend indeed belongs to that "han." Who that "han" refers to is uncertain.

    Lastly, the reason I wrote "hans villa" instead of "sin villa" is that "sin" would refer to both "han och sin," that is, both him and his girlfriend (their villa).

    It's one of those rules that Swedes commonly break, like using "han" as object (when it's really the subject form) instead of "honom" (the actual object form), although that has etymological reasons, in that "han" used to be the accusative pronoun whereas "honom" was dative in Old Swedish (as well as Modern Swedish, if I recall correctly—not to be confused with contemporary Swedish).

  25. Ross Presser said,

    April 15, 2014 @ 4:06 pm

    "A British jeweller, arriving at his villa in the Costa del Sol with his girlfriend, was murdered by his former lover, who lay in wait for him in his bed."

  26. Quendus said,

    April 15, 2014 @ 6:59 pm

    I'm still tending towards an interpretation where the former lover is simultaneously in bed and arriving at the villa with his new girlfriend.

    More seriously, I get the impression from both the headline and the first sentence that the article is not the first this paper has published on the events. In particular, I think "murdered Brit" and "a murdered British jeweller" both imply that the reader has heard of them before, and the writer may have been relying on this assumed knowledge to make the meaning clear. On the other hand, the headline also does that job quite well.

  27. Ray Dillinger said,

    April 19, 2014 @ 3:37 pm

    The way I read it, the jeweler's former lover was in his (or her) own bed when the murdered jeweler's body, in the care of the murdered jeweler's current girlfriend, was brought to the former lover's villa – presumably in preparation for a funeral.

    It sounded like the setup for an awkward wakeup call, followed by one of those commiserations-mixed-with-jealousy that tend to result in lifelong friendships or enmities depending on the people involved.

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