"… repeated violations of an act"

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Brian Mahoney, "NBA Sets Flopping Penalties; Players May Be Fined", AP 10/3/1012:

Stop the flop.

The NBA will penalize floppers this season, fining players for repeated violations of an act a league official said Wednesday has "no place in our game."

Those exaggerated falls to the floor may fool the referees and fans during the game, but officials at league headquarters plan to take a look for themselves afterward.

I had to read the second sentence of that story a couple of times. The problem was the use of the word violations: in "violations of X", X is usually the principle that's violated, as in "violations of the Internal Revenue Code" or "violations of food taboos". The fact that act can also refer to a statute ("the Migratory Bird Act", "Colorado's Organized Crime Control Act") then sent me right down the proverbial garden path.

It seems that the NBA will be fining players for violations of a new anti-flopping act (="rule"),  but a league official said that this rule "has 'no place in our game'"? No, it's obviously the act of "flopping" (i.e. pretending to  be knocked down by another player so as to draw a foul) that has no place in the game; but that's also what players will now be fined for doing. But not what they'll be fined for violating. I think.

The essential participants in a violation are the violator and the principle that's violated, and the commonest arrangement of them is

(VIOLATOR'S) violation(s) of PRINCIPLE

as in "the regime's violations of international law" or "his blatant violations of the canons of civility".

Sometimes you also see

PRINCIPLE violation(s) of VIOLATOR

as in "the human rights violations of the dictatorship", "wage and hour violations of the contractors they hire", "the environmental violations of his employees".

But you don't normally see the pattern

violation(s) of FORBIDDEN_BEHAVIOR

as in "violations of murder" or "violations of speeding". At least, it doesn't seem very likely to me. I don't generally trust such intuitions, including my own, but sure enough, I couldn't find any examples of this pattern in the 450 million words of COCA. (Though my scan of the 1456 intances of "violations of" was perhaps inadequately obsessive…) General web search does turn up a few, e.g.

The former is valid when the ultimate violations of murder or rape have taken place …
This bill differs from SB 26 by holding accountable staff, as well as visitors, for violations of smuggling contraband into hospitals.
Those offenses include violations of disregarding a stop sign, improper turn signal, public drunk, failure to stop for a blue light and two counts of driver's license violations.

And that's expected, I guess, because one of the general interpretations of "P of Q" is something like "P consisting of Q", as in "the act of eating" or "the fact of her being American".  The English language gives us many ways to confuse people.

Parsers can now learn to analyze these relationships by training on the OntoNotes corpus, in which (among other things) "the arguments of each predicate are annotated with their semantic roles in relation to the predicate" (see here for documentation of this aspect of the annotation). So in principle, an automatic text analysis program can get just as confused as I was.

The obligatory screen shot:


  1. Ø said,

    October 4, 2012 @ 6:57 am

    Whenever I get caught parking illegally in Providence, the authorities want me to write down (on the envelope containing my payment) my car's registration number and the state in which the car is registered. They express this by saying "Registration Number and State of Violation".

    Well, the violation occurred in the state of Rhode Island; otherwise it would be none of their business. I think they mean "{Registration Number and State} of Violation", but that still doesn't quite make sense to me unless they are referring to me or my car as the "violation". Which always hurts my feelings a bit.

  2. Ø said,

    October 4, 2012 @ 7:08 am

    If that little story has any relevance, it is in the vague suggestion that there may be something like nerdspeak at work here, "violation" becoming such a common piece of shorthand in the mouths of those who enforce the rules that it begins to be used in ways slightly unfamiliar to the rest of us.

    [(myl) There's a sense of violation used in sports, especially basketball, which MW glosses as "an infringement of the rules in sports that is less serious than a foul and usually involves technicalities of play". (For example, "defensive three-second violation". This sense get extended figuratively by people who are used to it, and I've noticed that non-sports-fans are sometimes taken aback by this, since in other contexts "violation" is a fairly serious word.]

  3. Andy Averill said,

    October 4, 2012 @ 8:06 am

    Isn't a violation in US law a relatively minor offense? The kind for which you get a ticket rather than jail time. So it sounds like it has approximately the same weight in sports.

    [(myl) That's true, but (for instance) if we look at the actual uses of "violations of" in the NYT over the past week, we see "wrongful sexual conduct and other violations of military law", "violations of consumer protection laws", "violations of the law of nations", "brazen violations of basic conflict of interest laws", "violations of state law that involved millions of taxpayer dollars", "violations of international norms … like piracy and attacks on ambassadors", "extreme violations of human rights", etc. No doubt this is because parking tickets don't get into major newspapers, but still, for many people the associations of the word "violation" are fairly dire.]

  4. Mr Punch said,

    October 4, 2012 @ 8:18 am

    "[V]iolations of murder and rape" is not the same formation, I think – these acts are in themselves violations, of the victim rather than the law.

  5. M (was L) said,

    October 4, 2012 @ 8:29 am

    I think the phrase that pays is 'repeated violations [by the committing] of an act [which] a league official said Wednesday has "no place in our game." '

    The act of flopping, in other words, has "no place in our game" and is a violation.

    Oddly, many fouls and violations have an accepted, or at least tolerated, place in the game. "Giving a foul" – purposefully committing an obvious foul in order to trigger a stop in play and accepting the penalty as a tactically favorable exchange – has a long history in basketball. "Drawing a foul" by trapping an opponent into committng one, has a similar "place in the game."

    "Flopping" on the other hand does not, at least in the view of "a league official."

    Note that "official" here suggests somebody in the league office, not an on-court referee – often termed an "official" also.

  6. MattF said,

    October 4, 2012 @ 9:09 am

    Some years ago I saw a sign in the parking lot of a courthouse in Kalamazoo, Michigan: "No Parking, Prosecutors Will Be Violated"

  7. Mike G said,

    October 4, 2012 @ 10:51 am

    Along a similar, although not identical, vein: I've noticed that the phrase "foul on" can be bidirectional. Imagine the following scenario: Player X has possession of the ball; Player Z attempts to gain the ball and may or may not illegally contact Player X; Player X acts as if Player Z did illegally contact her. The commentator says, "That was a clear foul on Player X." The guilty party could be either player.

    Option 1: Z is guilty. Z struck X, insofar as the foul is "on X" it is because X is the one that was struck.

    Option 2: X is guilty. Z did not strike X, and X violated the rules of fair play by flopping/diving/simulation. The foul is "on X" because X is the one who perpetrated the transgression.

    Like "foul," "violations" seems to be able to refer either to the act that breaks the rule or to the existential fault heaped upon one for doing so. Mr. Mahoney probably would've been clearer had he used "perpetrations" rather than "violations."

  8. M (was L) said,

    October 4, 2012 @ 11:26 am

    @Mike G –

    > Mr. Mahoney probably would've been clearer had he
    > used "perpetrations" rather than "violations."

    Not to basketball fans, players, refs, etc, who are the most important audiences.

    If Mahoney says that, then a basketball person asks, "what's a perpetration?"

  9. Mike G said,

    October 4, 2012 @ 11:44 am

    @ M (was L): A good point. I stand in violation of audience awareness.

  10. M (was L) said,

    October 4, 2012 @ 11:57 am

    @Mike G – I would like to amend my post to read "..who are the most important audiences of discussions of the rules of basketball."


    Question: If a marble-mouthed sportscaster (not the case here, but bear with me) says something in a garbled manner, which sports fans understand directly but educated linguists stumble over, then who has the poor monkey brain?

    I'd say none of the above.

    Put in another way: Suppose you were Whitey Ford, pitching for the NY Yankees in the 1950s. And suppose you had trouble with a batter. And suppose that your catcher and manager came out to the mound to discuss it with you. And suppose they were Yogi Berra and Casey Stengel. Now, here's my question: what do you do with the rosin bag?

  11. Ralph Hickok said,

    October 4, 2012 @ 1:34 pm

    The rules of American football refer to "infractions" rather than "violations." For example, being offside is an infraction which calls for a penalty of 5 yards. For as long as I've been following the sport (and I became a follower when I was about 6 years old, since I grew up in Green Bay), there's been confusion between the words "infraction" and "penalty."

    E.g., a sportscaster might say "The umpire called a holding penalty on the middle linebacker" when, strictly speaking, the umpire called a holding infraction. There's no penalty until the team that was offended against agrees to accept the penalty and the referee spots the ball accordingly.

    Note that I said "strictly speaking." The sportscaster's statement is perfectly understandable to every listener and there's no reason to change it.

  12. Chandra said,

    October 4, 2012 @ 2:08 pm

    I agree with Mr. Punch that "the ultimate violations of murder or rape have taken place" is not in the same problematic category. Something about the word "ultimate" changes the function of the word "of", and I have no trouble reading it as meaning something like "the ultimate possible violations – those violations being murder and rape – have taken place".

  13. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 4, 2012 @ 2:57 pm

    In a slightly more genteel age, I believe that "violate" and derived forms were not infrequently used in newspaper stories and similar contexts as a euphemism for "rape," which may be one reason the "ultimate violations of murder or rape" text is easy to follow (apart from the fact that "of" can be so polysemous in English). I think you can break down the "violation of PRINCIPLE" category into "violation of RULE" (e.g. "the Internal Revenue Code") and "violation of THING-RULE-IS-SUPPOSED-TO-PROTECT" (e.g. "integrity"). I'm not sure a whole lot hangs on a lumping versus splitting approach there, but I have an inchoate intuition that these are somewhat different uses and simply treating them as diferent instances of what can be characterized as the same thing at a higher level of generality may not be the best analysis.

  14. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 4, 2012 @ 4:18 pm

    Among the possible explanations for this mistake: The author realized after writing "violations" that two meaning of "act" were relevant and was witty enough to want to use the word, but not careful enough to see how he needed to change what he'd already written.

  15. M (was L) said,

    October 4, 2012 @ 6:05 pm

    I'm still intrigued by the need to state that a breach of rules "has no place in our game."

    As I noted above, this makes perfect sense, especially in basketball where certain rules violations are routinely and openly tolerated, even rewarded.

    Words like "foul" and "violation" begin to lose their earlier meaning and perhaps begin to evolve towards a new and different meaning. We may be witnessing an early-stage change.

  16. OrenWithAnE said,

    October 4, 2012 @ 9:27 pm

    @Ø, I believe under "State of Violation" you should put "intermittent".

  17. maidhc said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 2:37 am

    I would take it as a reduced form of something like "violations consisting of an act". I would put it in the same box as "I could care less", and maybe also something I heard someone say today, "I forgot to not mention that …".

  18. Michael Watts said,

    October 7, 2012 @ 5:45 pm

    Studying Chinese will do this, but I'm inclined to parse "three violations of an act" here in the same way I parse "three loaves of bread". The act is being measured out in violations.

  19. Michael Watts said,

    October 7, 2012 @ 5:46 pm

    Why did I say three? I don't know.

  20. blahedo said,

    October 7, 2012 @ 10:48 pm

    This reminds me of a parse ambiguity I've had trouble with recently: since I've moved to Virginia, I've seen the phrase "towing enforced" as a standard phrase, as in signs that say, "No Parking / Towing Enforced". It struck me as bizarre that they'd be telling me that they'd enforce towing—that seems to be the towing company's problem. Right? The complement of "enforce" is the rule, not the penalty.

    It took me nearly a year of seeing this all over before it dawned on me that it was grammatical if I read it with a hyphen: the parking restrictions are towing-enforced rules, i.e. they enforce the rules *by towing*. Frankly, I still find it weird (I'm used to the formulation "Violators will be towed"), but at least I found a frame for the verb that let me not see all these signs as weirdly ungrammatical. :)

  21. Graeme said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 5:34 am

    To avoid such garden pathways, we lawyers capitalise 'Act' to refer to any particular legislative 'act' (I'm writing from Australian / UK tradition).

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