Making linguistics relevant (for sports blogs)

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The popular sports blog Deadspin isn't the first place you'd expect to find a lesson in inflectional morphology. So it was a bit of a surprise to see the recent post "Learn Linguistics the Latrell Sprewell Way," featuring this shot of a linguistics textbook:

If you're unfamiliar with the exploits of now-retired NBA star Latrell Sprewell, this ESPN article should get you up to speed on the notorious 1997 choking incident involving P.J. Carlesimo, then the head coach of the Golden State Warriors. (Sprewell was suspended by the NBA for a year and then came back to play with the New York Knicks and Minnesota Timberwolves.)

So who's responsible for these peculiar example sentences? After checking the likely suspects, I determined that the textbook in question is Relevant Linguistics (2nd ed., 2006), by Paul Justice. Paul explains the rationale for the book in a note to students in the book's preface:

For many first time students of linguistics, the subject is inaccessible, boring, and seemingly irrelevant. The purpose of this textbook is to make linguistics more accessible, more interesting and more obviously relevant to you.

Part of making linguistics accessible to students in general, then, is coming up with lively example sentences. These are certainly lively, though I wonder how many undergrads these days would be familiar with the '97 incident, especially since Sprewell retired in 2005. Since retirement, he's mostly been in the news for his financial troubles, so he's probably not count-ing his money right now.

Relevant Linguistics is hardly the first scholarly text to use colorful example sentences. Geoff Pullum describes a famous case in his 1987 article, "Trench-mouth comes to Trumpington Street" (Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 5:139-147, reprinted in The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax). Geoff recounts how Cambridge University Press tried to pull the plug on Georgia Green's 1973 book Semantics and Syntactic Regularity, based on fears that bluntly political sentences like They're going to kill a hippie for Reagan were defamatory. Even more innocuous sentences like Mary gave John a hickey were seen by CUP's lawyers as potentially libelous to people named Mary and John. (Though CUP never distributed the book, it was eventually published in unexpurgated form by Indiana University Press.)

In The Linguistics Wars, Randy Allen Harris explains how Green came out of a tradition of generative semanticists who exulted in dropping political and pop-cultural references into example sentences. Perhaps most notable in this regard was Green's advisor, James McCawley — along with his satirical alter ego Quang Phúc Ðông of the South Hanoi Institute of Technology, whose "English Sentences Without Overt Grammatical Subject" (1971) gave us such classics as Fuck Lyndon Johnson.

The Green story shows up rather unexpectedly on the TV Tropes website, which has a Textbook Humor page among its many delights. TV Tropes also mentions that the textbook Language Files repeatedly uses the sentence There is a platypus in the bathtub. (Platypus links to yet another fascinating TV Tropes page, "Everything's Better With Platypi.") Also worth checking out is the discussion thread, "awesome EXAMPLE sentences that make even linguists' heads explode!" on the Facebook group "I wish I were an anaphor so I could be bound in your domain." Ah, linguistics humor.


  1. Antti-Juhani Kaijanaho said,

    August 21, 2010 @ 12:09 pm

    Also, TV Tropes Will Ruin Your Life.

    A fair warning was in order, I think :)

  2. Sili said,

    August 21, 2010 @ 2:21 pm

    Congratulations for making it out of TVT alive.

  3. Kapitano said,

    August 21, 2010 @ 2:36 pm

    Jean Aichison is fond of the sentence "There is a dalek on my lawn."

    There's plenty of sentences commonly used to show the difference between syntax and semantics….

    "Hold the newsreader's nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers."
    – Stephen Fry

    "Colourless green ideas sleep furiously"
    – Noam Chomsky

    "Quadruplicity drinks procrastination"
    – Bertrand Russell

    "The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine."
    – French Surrealists c1925

    "The vertebral silence indisposes the licit sail"
    – Lucien Tesnière

  4. Ray Dillinger said,

    August 21, 2010 @ 3:30 pm

    Here are some of my favorite sentences, culled from tvtropes entry on "Refuge in Audacity." The page containing a graphic that some may consider offensive, I shall not post a direct link. You can find it if you really want to.

    Quoting RK Milholland's comic, Something Positive:
    "The key is to commit crimes so confusing that police feel too stupid to even write a crime report about them."

    Quoting Roger Ebert's review of the movie Shoot Em Up:
    "I may disapprove of a movie for going too far, and yet have a sneaky regard for a movie that goes much, much farther than merely too far."

    The first two sentences of the article itself are also amusing. The first might be an example of mid-sentence capitalization to mark the emphatic use of an idiom (itself a phenomenon largely ignored by language texts so far), and the second, although perhaps overly long,would be a good example of the use of the continuation comma in a list.

    "This isn't Getting Crap Past The Radar. This is crashing the crap through the front doors and out the back doors of the radar installation in an armored car with sunglasses-wearing flaming skull decals on every flat surface and a Hieronymus Bosch reproduction on the door, hood-mounted machine guns blazing, Motörhead blasting on the jury-rigged PA system, the tires leaving tracks painting sex and violence on the floor and walls and one arm hanging out of the window making a rude hand gesture."

  5. Leonardo Boiko said,

    August 21, 2010 @ 4:26 pm

    > "The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine."
    >- French Surrealists c1925

    That sentence makes perfect sense in our age of horror movies and a pop cultura full with zombies and vampires.

  6. Chris said,

    August 21, 2010 @ 4:55 pm

    My vote for clever, memorable and hilarious examples goes to Karen Elizabeth Gordon, who wrote The Well-Tempered Sentence: A Punctuation Handbook for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed. (And later sequels whose names I don't remember.)

  7. MattF said,

    August 21, 2010 @ 6:40 pm

    However, there's this cautionary tale about making textbooks 'accessible' and 'interesting'.

  8. Nicholas said,

    August 22, 2010 @ 12:21 am

    From Young & Morgan on Navajo, also illustrating the syntax-semantics difference: "I licked my elbow and fell out of the airplane."

  9. fs said,

    August 22, 2010 @ 6:41 am

    I wonder if this isn't a good opportunity to link to Omniglot's collection of translations of the sentence "My hovercraft is full of eels", which is from the "Dirty Hungarian Phrasebook" Monty Python sketch.

  10. Sili said,

    August 22, 2010 @ 7:02 am

    I can eat glass; it doesn't hurt me.

  11. a George said,

    August 22, 2010 @ 9:46 am

    Seeing all these interesting statements, I wondered what happened to the sentence "the ventious crapests pounted raditally", that I really loved in the 1960s. I googled it, only to find that the only website with the Latin alphabet that carries it is Google itself. It is retrieved on a couple of Russian websites, and one in particular seems very interesting (from a book; Chapter 3: О знаках, языке и обмене информацией). I can read the literature list and it warms my heart. I fished some Babel and found out that they use the sentence to demonstrate reduncancy in language.

    I am sure the owners of this blog will be able to supply much more information.

  12. Dan Lufkin said,

    August 22, 2010 @ 10:57 am

    I have a book Practical Tagalog by Franco Vera Reyes (Manila, 1938) that disposes of grammar and basic vocabulary in about 40 pages and devotes the rest of the book (160 pages) to Collection of Detached Sentences, a magnificent corpus of completely random utterances:

    I do not know how to remunerate you.
    Shall I speak with all frankness to you.
    If your books are not on the table, perhaps they are under it.

    In a German-Swedish phrasebook, there's supposed to be the handy sentence: Please inform the archbishop that his coachman has been struck by lightning.

  13. Ken Brown said,

    August 22, 2010 @ 11:52 am

    German-Swedish? "the postillion has been struck by lightning" has a long history as an example. None of which I can now remember. Google calls.

  14. Ken Brown said,

    August 22, 2010 @ 11:57 am

    And the first ghit for "postillion" is a very sensible-looking Wikipedia article about exactly this topic. With quotes from James Thurber *and* David Crystal.

  15. boustrophedon said,

    August 22, 2010 @ 12:05 pm

    I'd like to mention that both "awesome EXAMPLE sentences that make even linguists' heads explode!" and "I wish I were an anaphor so I could be bound in your domain" come from the same small group of University of Toronto linguistics students who I attended school with. So I guess we know where the fun linguistics is at.

  16. Alon Lischinsky said,

    August 23, 2010 @ 4:35 am

    I'll be a bore and ask one of the few non-saucy questions that might have come up from this post: what is the commonly-accepted explanation nowadays for what Dong/McCawley called "quasi-verbs"?

    I hope the answer is not to be found in TVTropes; it took me days to extricate myself from it last time.

  17. E said,

    August 23, 2010 @ 11:35 am

    Hi there– I happen to be the person who put the Georgia Green story (and the platypus example, and the ones from Lycan's Philosophy of Language) on the TV Tropes page. I'm pleased to see it show up here!

    I have another textbook (An Introduction to Language by Fromkin et al), which gives this example of "transformationally induced ambiguity" in the glossary: "George loves Laura more than Dick". Pretty tame compared to the political sentences of the generative semanticists, but still amusing.

  18. chris said,

    August 23, 2010 @ 2:26 pm

    The first might be an example of mid-sentence capitalization to mark the emphatic use of an idiom

    I think it's a custom peculiar to TVTropes: the name of another trope on the site is treated as a proper name, and capitalized as such, even when that capitalization is anomalous in the larger sentence.

    It generally ought to be a hyperlink as well; the fact that nearly every trope page has links to half a dozen (or more) others is one of the reasons TV Tropes Will Ruin Your Life (by sucking up all your free time into browsing from one link to another).

  19. Ginger Yellow said,

    August 24, 2010 @ 10:33 am

    I'd have thought that the Sprewell sentences had far more potential to be defamatory, not least because the case for identification is much, much clearer. It would be a bold judge (even in England) who would be willing to rule that "Mary" and "John" referred to specific real world people, let alone that it was defamatory to say one gave a hickey to the other. There is case law in England covering fairly loose identifications, but it would need a lot more context to apply here (eg dedication of the book to a Mary and a John).

  20. PJ said,

    August 24, 2010 @ 11:21 am

    Believe it or not, I (the author of the Spre data) never considered the legal liability of using such examples in my book; and the publisher never said a word about it, either. A potentially dangerous oversight on our part, I suppose.

    And Spre isn't the only real, high profile person featured in the data sets. I wonder how a judge would respond to defamatory data in the context of a matching exercise like this one from chapter 6:

    Quick Exercise 6.23
    Mix and match the following subjects and subject complements to form sentences in which the subject complement renames the subject. Use the linking verb “to be” in your sentences.

    subjects subject complements
    George Dubya Bush one smooth beer
    Pabst Blue Ribbon beer a canine wonder
    The act of underage drinking a good-old boy
    McGruff the crime dog a crime in every state

    On the one hand, the lack of explicit connections between the subjects and the complements should provide some degree of protection. But on the other, I find myself wondering if the Bush legal team might use Gricean maxims as the grounds for a suit.

  21. Monica Macaulay said,

    May 15, 2013 @ 6:10 pm

    Thank you, Matt F, for your contribution. I'd like to (very belatedly, since I realize this is a posting from 2010!) also point out this: Just sayin'.

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