Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Tense Travel

Posted by Neal on October 14, 2014

My wife called me in to her office last night to make me watch this segment of The Big Bang Theory, in which Sheldon, Leonard, Raj, and Howard are watching Back to the Future, Part ii. Harrison Tran has helpfully bootlegged it onto YouTube, complete with a transcript:

Howard: Wait, hold on. Pause.
[music stops]
Howard: Something doesn’t make sense. Look. In 2015 Biff steals the Sports Almanac and takes the time machine back to 1955 to give it to his younger self. But as soon as he does that he changes the future, so the 2015 he returns to would be a different 2015. Not the 2015 that Marty and Doc were in.
Leonard: This is Hot Tub Time Machine all over again. Look. If future Biff goes back to 2015 right after he gives young Biff the Almanac, he could get back to the 2015 with Marty and Doc in it. Because it wasn’t until his 21st birthday that 1955 Biff placed his first bet.
Sheldon: But whoa, whoa. Is placed right?
Leonard: What do you mean?
Sheldon: Is placed the right the right tense for something that would’ve happened in the future of a past that was affected by something from the future?
Leonard: [thinks] Had will have placed?
Sheldon: That’s my boy.
Leonard: Okay. So, it wasn’t until his 21st birthday that Biff had will have placed his first bet and made his millions. That’s when he alters the timeline.
Sheldon: But he had will haven’t placed it.
Howard: What?
Sheldon: Unlike Hot Tub Time Machine, this couldn’t be more simple. [laugh track] When Biff gets the Almanac in 1955, the alternate future he creates isn’t the one in which Marty and Doc Brown ever used the time machine to travel to 2015. Therefore, in the new timeline, Marty and Doc never brought the time machine.
Leonard: Wait, wait, wait. Is brought right?
Sheldon: [thinks] Marty and Doc never had have had brought?
Leonard: I don’t know, you did it to me.
Sheldon: I’m going with it. Marty and Doc never had have had brought the time machine to 2015. That means 2015 Biff could also not had have had brought the Almanac to 1955 Biff. Therefore, the timeline in which 1955 Biff gets the Almanac is also the timeline in which 1955 Biff never gets the Almanac and not just never gets: never have, never hasn’t, never had have hasn’t.
Raj: He’s right.

I love that Harrison included the laugh track in his transcript.

So of course all this is just a good excuse to combine two kinds of geekery: sci-fi and grammar. The main way Sheldon and Leonard twist the verb-tense syntax is to allow auxiliary have to take complements that it doesn’t take in monolinear-time Standard English. First, they put it with the modal will, when modal auxilaries are always the first in a series of auxiliary verbs, even in outlandish strings such as will have been being eaten. Second, they put it with itself, in had have had brought and had have hasn’t.

Another kind of auxiliary combination we don’t get in monolinear-time Standard English is the past tense (or past participle) auxiliary had after a modal, in could not had have had brought. In our English, modals always take a base form, not a past-tense form.

Finally, there’s the combination of the negative contraction haven’t with will in will haven’t placed. In our English, the contraction has to come in the first auxiliary verb: won’t have placed.

But never mind the seeming syntactic violations. In a world with time travel, the language will have to evolve. My question was whether Sheldon and Leonard’s new syntactic rules for these tenses were semantically consistent with each other. In short, they’re not.

The main situation Sheldon and Leonard are discussing is an event time (young Biff placing a bet) that occurs later than a reference time (when young Biff receives the Almanac), but before the time of utterance (2014, in Sheldon and Leonard’s apartment). Ordinarily, this kind of situation would call for the so-called “future in the past“: Biff would place his bet sometime later. The complication is that the event time and the utterance time are now in separate timelines. Even for this situation, though, ordinary English has an appropriate choice: the perfective version of this future in the past: would have placed. But there’s one more complication: We’re talking about an event that not only did not happen in our own timeline, but also did happen in an alternative timeline. So how do Sheldon and Leonard propose to designate such an event? They use the past-tense form had, followed by a normal future perfect tense (will have had), to get had will have had. Let’s call this the alternate future in the past tense. This tense also puts its negative contractions in a different place, as noted earlier: had will haven’t placed.

However, Sheldon and Leonard don’t follow these rules the very next time they discuss an event that occurs later than a reference time but before the time of utterance, in an alternative timeline: Doc and Marty’s trip in the time machine. By the rules created so far, it would be never had will have brought (or if they wanted to use a negative contraction, had will haven’t brought), but instead, they go for the stacking of forms of have instead, leading to Sheldon’s culminating string never have, never hasn’t, never had have hasn’t. These are elliptical forms, which I surmise would all finish with gotten if they were fully spoken.

Still amusing, but it would have been funnier if these tenses had turned out to be consistent with each other, even after my poking at them.

Don't panic.

The grammar problem posed by time travel was also explored in 1980, in Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. I was inspired to look up what he wrote, and was hoping to compare his tenses with Sheldon and Leonard’s. After reading the first paragraph below, I was excited to notice that Adams’ subscribed to the view of time travel in which you cannot alter timelines, unlike the Back to the Future scenario in which you can. Would this differing assumptions be reflected in the hypothetical grammars?

Sadly, no. Although Adams imagines more kinds of twisted temporal situations than Sheldon and Leonard discuss, he never bothers creating new verb tenses. Instead, he chooses to leave them to the readers’ imaginations, while using funny grammar jargon to name them. Here’s the relevant part, from the beginning of Chapter 15:

One of the major problems encountered in time travel is not that of accidentally becoming your own father or mother. There is no problem involved in becoming your own father or mother than a broad-minded and well-adjusted family can’t cope with. There is no problem about changing the course of history–the course of history does not change because it all fits together like a jigsaw. All the important changes have happened before the things they were supposed to change and it all sorts itself out in the end.

The major problem is quite simply one of grammar, and the main work to consult in this matter is Dr. Dan Streetmentioner’s Time Traveler’s Handbook of 1001 Tense Formations. It will tell you, for instance, how to describe something that was about to happen to you in the past before you avoided it by time-jumping forward two days in order to avoid it. The event will be described differently according to whether you are talking about it from the standpoint of your own natural time, from a time further in the future, or a time in the further past and is further complicated by the possibility of conducting conversations while you are actually traveling from one time to another with the intention of becoming your own mother or father.

Most readers get as far as the Future Semiconditionally Modified Subinverted Plagal Past Subjunctive Intentional before giving up; and in fact in later editions of the book all the pages beyond this point have been left blank to save on printing costs.

These two examples are the only pieces of pop culture I know of that specifically deal with new verb tenses to handle time travel, although collisions between time travel and ordinary English verb tenses have their own page on TV Tropes and Idioms.

Posted in Books, TV, Verb tense | 2 Comments »

He’ll Be None the Wiser

Posted by Neal on October 9, 2014

Since I began this blog in 2004, I’ve been vague about where in central Ohio I live, but tonight I’m proud to say that I live in Reynoldsburg, where phenomenal community support for our public school teachers has seen them through a summer of appalling disrespect from the local board of education (except for one notable member) and superintendent, who did everything they could to cause a teacher strike. That strike began on September 19, and might finally be ending today, if a tentative agreement is approved by the teachers.

In other news, Doug and Adam, who have been sick this entire time, might finally be showing signs of recovery. In the mornings, I’ve still been packing a lunch for Adam before I head to work. It’s not that he can’t get himself lunch, but if I don’t make him one, he’ll end up just eating Cheerios for every meal. So a couple of days ago, I opened the bag of bread and pulled out the three slices that were left: two heels and a whatever-you-call-a-slice-that’s-not-a-heel. Dang it, it had happened again!

I remembered a conversation from a month ago, when I had been encouraging Adam to make his own sandwich for a change, and he said he couldn’t, because he’d have to use a heel.

“That’s not a problem,” I told him. “Just do what I do. I put the pieces of bread together, like this, and turn the heel crust-side-in, like this. Then I grab these kitchen shears and cut off the edges of both pieces of bread, like I always do.” (Yes, I cut off the crusts. I don’t have to anymore, because Adam has recently started to eat his sandwiches with the crusts left on.) “Then I spread the peanut butter on the crusty side of the heel, finish making the sandwich, and you’re none the wiser.”

“Oh, I most certainly am the wiser!” Adam said. “Every time you do that, my sandwich tastes funny.”

Almost as interesting as the fact that Adam was, and had been, hip to my trick, was his phrasing I am the wiser. At first I thought he had used a negative polarity item in a positive polarity context, you know, like he did when he was four years old, during another sandwich-related occurrence. But as I thought about it more, I realized that the plus any comparative did happen outside negations and questions, in phrases like all the better and even somewhat the wiser. In any case, you can use NPIs in positive contexts if you’re really emphasizing them, as in Yes, I do give a damn!, and Adam was definitely emphatic. Well, maybe it was because Adam used the wiser without a specifier saying how much the wiser he was: No somewhat, no all, not even very much. But a specifier isn’t necessary, either: I could just as easily have said: You’re never the wiser. So maybe it was the combination of his using the wiser with positive polarity and without a specifier. I don’t know, so that’s one reason I never wrote it up here. Besides, delivering “We Support Reynoldsburg Teachers” yard signs, going to rallies, passing around petitions, writing letters, and picketing the residences of members of the board of education on top of my actual job made it tough to find the time.

Anyway, here I was again, making a sandwich out of a heel. So I put the pieces of bread together, turned the heel crust-side-in, grabbed the kitchen shears and cut off the edges of both pieces of bread, like I used to do. I spread the peanut butter on the crusty side of the heel, sliced the banana on top of it, and laid on the top slice of bread. I put the whole thing in a sandwich container, and stuck a note to the top. The note read, “He’ll be none the wiser.”

When I arrived home that afternoon, Adam had eaten the lunch I’d made. On the table, he’d left my note, with an edit:

Oh, heel naw!

Ha! The linguistic hook of my potential post about the syntax and semantics of none the wiser had just become a post about the homophony of he’ll and heel … or rather, the homophony of he’ll and hill outside of careful speech, and not in a dialect that lowers [i] to [I] before [l] as a matter of course. My guess is that it’s a frequency effect, because he’ll is such a common word. Similarly for we’ll/will and she’ll/shill, but not for Neal/nil.

Posted in Adam, Food-related, Negative polarity items, Ohioana, Syntax | 4 Comments »

Backshifted Conditionals

Posted by Neal on October 6, 2014

A few posts back I wrote about some unusual conditional sentences that didn’t fit neatly into a neat 2×2 grid of open-vs-remote, nonpast-vs-past conditional sentences. Now, after teaching my ESL composition students about English conditionals and having them search for real examples in published academic papers, I’ve come across another kind of off-the-grid conditional. Two students each found an example of it. Here’s one of them:

The letter sent home to parents indicated that if the second-grade children did not have African American attire, they could come dressed as zebras, tigers, lions, and so on. (link)

(It came from a paper on education, but I didn’t have the students provide source information, and a quick Google search hasn’t turned it up. If I find out the source later, I will link it.) On the surface, it looks like a present-time remote conditional, like the example If he were sorry, he would apologize in that 2×2 grid in the earlier post. Oh, what the heck, I’ll just paste it in again here:

Open and Remote Conditionals

Open and Remote Conditionals

But it doesn’t seem to have the meaning of a remote conditional. Whereas If he were sorry implies that he’s not sorry, if the second-grade children did not have African American attire doesn’t imply that they actually do have it. It seems to be an open conditional: if they have it, they wear it; if not, they dress as safari animals. So where does it fit in?

I realized that a past-tense function that I hadn’t included in the grid was coming into play. You’ll notice that the light green squares at top right and bottom left each use past tense. In the bottom left, the past tense is performing its usual function of showing past time. In the top right, it’s performing its secondary function of showing modal remoteness (aka unlikelihood or impossibility). But there’s a third function of the past tense, known as backshifting. That’s the reason for the was in a sentence like He said his name was Biff, even if his name still is Biff. The is of My name is Biff gets pulled into the past tense when this sentence becomes reported speech and the main verb in the past tense. The same thing is happening here; compare the original quotation with its non-backshifted counterpart:

The letter sent home to parents …
a. … indicates that if the second-grade children do not have African American attire, they can come dressed as zebras, tigers, lions, and so on. (present-time open conditional, not backshifted)
b. … indicated that if the second-grade children did not have African American attire, they could come dressed as zebras, tigers, lions, and so on. (present-time open conditional, backshifted)

Here’s the example the other student found:

Knowing that they might lose their work permits if they left Germany for more than three months, many immigrants decided to stay. (link)

Again, it looks like a present-time remote conditional, but we know that it’s talking about a historical time period, so it’s not present-time. Again, backshifting provides the explanation. Here’s the comparison:

Knowing that …
a. … they may lose their work permits if they leave Germany for more than three months, many immigrants decide to stay. (present-time open conditional, not backshifted)
b. … they might lose their work permits if they left Germany for more than three months, many immigrants decided to stay. (present-time open conditional, backshifted)

This example is a little more complicated, because it’s not immediately apparent what the verbs in the conditional sentence are backshifting to match. But if we expand the reduced participial clause Knowing that… to a finite clause, we can see that the conditionals are backshifting in response to the understood time frame of Knowing:

a. Because they know they may lose their work permits if they leave Germany for more than three months, many immigrants decide to stay. (present-time open conditional, not backshifted)
b. Because they knew they might lose their work permits if they left Germany for more than three months, many immigrants decided to stay. (present-time open conditional, backshifted)

Where do these off-the-grid, backshifted conditionals fit into the picture? We need to bring backshifting into the diagram, moving it into the third dimension to make a 2x2x2 cube of conditionals: open-vs-remote cutting one way; nonpast-time-vs-past-time another; backshifted or not cutting a third way. As it turns out, though, not all of those eight cells are filled. I’ll have more on this in a future post, when I hope to have an updated conditionals diagram that incorporates backshifting. In the meantime, though, I’ll finish by taking the two open conditionals in the diagram and backshifting them for you:

She says that if he knows the answer, he will tell us. (present time, not backshifted)
She said that if he knew the answer, he would tell us. (past time, backshifted)
She says that if he knew the answer, he never told us. (present time, not backshifted)
She said that if he had known the answer, he never had told us. (past time, backshifted)

Posted in Conditionals | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

Willing and Able

Posted by Neal on August 19, 2014

Nine years ago, I was inspired to write a post after hearing a flight attendant give the pre-flight safety presentation, and say, “Please move from the exit rows if you are unwilling or unable to perform the necessary actions without injury.” On my most recent flight, instead of listening to the attendant, I tried to pick up some Spanish vocabulary by reading the safety-information card from the seatback in front of me. And what do you know, inspiration struck again, when I read this Spanish sentence on the very same topic of sitting in the exit rows:

Toda persona que esté sentada en un asiento de salida debe estar dispuesta y ser capaz de realizar las siguientes funciones.
Every person who is seated in an exit seat must be willing and be able to execute the following functions.

SerEstar

Once again, the interesting part comes from trying to coordinate the adjectives for “willing” and “able”. If you’ve taken even first-year Spanish, you’ve had to learn about the two Spanish verbs that both mean “be”: ser, and estar. The former usually goes with what semanticists call individual-level predicates: properties that are generally true of someone, and less subject to change, such as hair color or nationality. These predicates stand in contrast to stage-level predicates, which are true of someone only for a limited time, such as emotional state or physical location. Now if I had thought of it when I was learning about ser and estar in junior high school, I would have tried to stump the teacher by asking something like, “What if you want to say that someone is Chinese and happy? Do you use ser or estar?”

It looks like the answer is that you don’t choose one or the other; you use both, each laying claim to one of the adjectives: estar dispuesta “be willing”; ser capaz “be able”. What a burn! English speakers don’t have to say be twice, but Spanish speakers do! A similar thing happens in French. If you like your salad with oil, it’s à l’huile (literally “at the oil”). If you like it with with vinegar, it’s au vinaigre (“at the vinegar,” with “at the” collapsed into the single word au). But if you’re like me, and like your salad with oil and vinegar, do you choose à or au? Neither! You have to use them both: à l’huile et au vinaigre.

On the subject of prepositions, though, I realized I needed to take a closer look at the adjectives dispuesto and capaz. The single preposition de goes with both of them in this sentence, but is de actually the preposition that typically goes with dispuesto in Spanish? A bit of Googling indicates that it’s not; the typical collocation seems to be dispuesto a. So why didn’t the translation have to use both a and de, along with both ser and estar, like this?

estar dispuesta a y ser capaz de realizar las siguientes funciones

One possibility is that for adjectives that take complements with mismatching prepositions, you just choose the one that goes with the closest adjective, in the same way in English we say Neither you nor I am the winner, because the closer subject is I. (This kind of solution is known as a resolution rule.) Another possibility is that both prepositions should have been used, and the translator simply made a mistake by using only one.

If we’re considering that possibility, though, maybe Spanish uses a rule of resolution to choose between ser and estar, too, and the translator should have just used the one appropriate for the nearest adjective, dispuesto.

So now I’m curious. I ask my Spanish-speaking readers, which of the following sounds best?

Posted in Other weird coordinations | 2 Comments »

Seldom Is Heard a Discouraging Word

Posted by Neal on August 2, 2014

The wife has spent numerous hours planning the itinerary for a trip we’re going to take out west later this summer. She has tricks up her sleeve that I never would have thought of for finding the best prices for airfare, car rentals, and hotels, so I bow to her travel-savvy. But all our discussions about the American West did get me to do some intense thinking of my own.

So you know the song “Home on the Range”? When I first heard it sung, on Captain Kangaroo when I was probably four or five years old, there were two lines in it that nagged at me. One was Where the skies are not cloudy all day, with its strange scope interaction between the negation of not and the universal of all. (Only cloudy some of the day? Uncloudy all day?) The other was the line that came right before it:

Where seldom is heard a discouraging word

Seldom was not in my vocabulary yet, but whatever it meant, it apparently must be a real bummer of a word to hear. Why might that be? And why would you be so likely to hear it? Were people out west in the habit of just walking up to one another and saying this particular discouraging word? “Hey, guess what!” “What?” “Seldom! Ahahaha!”

Some years later I learned what seldom meant, and eventually plugged the meaning into the “Home on the Range” lyrics. Then I was able to parse the line as a kind of negation inversion along the lines of Never have I ever…, Only rarely is he in his office, or Not a word did she speak. Mystery solved!

Or was it?

Let’s start off by taking out the seldom, an dputting this line into non-inverted, ordinary English word order of subject verb complement:

(no inversion) A discouraging word is heard.

If the line in the song were the same kind of negation inversion as in my examples, I’d expect the negative-like word first, then the auxiliary verb (which in this case is also the main verb, is), and then the subject and any complements, like this:

(Negative inversion) Seldom is a discouraging word heard.

…instead of what we actually have:

Seldom is heard a discouraging word.

Compared to the typical negative inversion, the subject and the complement have swapped places. This seems more like copular inversion, where a subject and a complement connected by a finite form of be switch places. This is the kind of inversion we get in utterances like Of greater concern is the fact that you lied, or Absorbent and yellow and porous is he. But this doesn’t get us our desired output, either. If we take a discouraging word as the subject (as we’ve been doing), and take the phrase seldom heard to be the complement (instead of just heard, as we’ve been doing), we get this:

(Copular inversion) Seldom heard is a discouraging word.

To sum up: two kinds of inversion, and neither of them produces the relevant line in our classic American folk song. At least, not individually…

Together, copular inversion and negative inversion can get us what we want, if we just assume that seldom doesn’t get into the picture until step 3:

  1. (no inversion) A discouraging word is heard.
  2. (copular inversion) Heard is a discouraging word.
  3. (negative inversion) Seldom is heard a discouraging word.

I find it interesting that this negative inversion can do its work on whatever appears in the typical subject position, whether or not it’s a subject. Does this really happen in other examples? Let’s try another one:

  1. (no inversion) The man who finds wisdom is happy.
  2. (copular inversion) Happy is the man who finds wisdom.
  3. (negative inversion) ??Seldom is happy the man who finds wisdom.

That one doesn’t work so well, so now I’m not sure I’ve identified what’s going on in “Home on the Range.” Maybe there’s some locative inversion with the where going on as well, like what Robert Burns has in his poem “Tam O’Shanter”. The poem is about how this guy and his friends like to have fun drinking together, and don’t worry about how late they’re going to arrive home,

Where sits our sulky sullen dame.
Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.

I’ve tried locative inversion, though, and haven’t found a satisfactory combination of moves to get the desired output yet. Now isn’t that a discouraging word?

Posted in Inversion, Music | 8 Comments »

Open Conditionals with the Past Perfect

Posted by Neal on July 8, 2014

Flashman and the Redskins

When Glen and I were kids, for a couple of years our family would read aloud from novels after supper. I remember we did a few that you’ve probably never heard of, plus a Hardy Boys mystery and Johnny Tremain. But by the time we hit junior high school, the habit had kind of fizzled out, which was too bad. As regular readers know, we do a lot of reading aloud here, from Dr. Seuss and books about barnyard animals when they were in preschool, to Henry Huggins, Harry Potter, and other YA stuff when they were older. Now that Doug and Adam are teenagers, I can at least say that I’ve maintained the tradition for longer than it lasted from my childhood. And now I can read them R-rated stuff that I could never have read them a few years ago–for example, our current selection: Flashman and the Redskins.

This is one of my favorites in the Flashman series, so I’m having fun re-reading it now, complete with a British accent that I wouldn’t dare do within earshot of any actual British people. As I was reading from it a few days ago, my eye was caught by this sentence, which had seemed unremarkable in 1993, when I first read the book:

If the Apaches had posted sentries, I suppose they had been dealt with. . . .

What was the big deal? Well, a few years ago I wrote this post about conditional sentences. Following the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, I divided them into open conditionals (describing situations that might actually happen in the future, or may have happened in the past), and remote conditionals (describing situations that are unlikely to happen, or probably did not happen). Also following CGEL, the past tense can show actual past time (see the bottom left corner), or remoteness in the present or future time (see the top right corner). What it can’t do (at least in Standard English) is show both past time and remoteness simultaneously. For that, you need the past perfect tense. This is what you get in the dark green, bottom left corner: If he had been sorry, he would have apologized. In my diagram, that’s the only place the past perfect tense appears.

Open and Remote Conditionals

Open and Remote Conditionals

But I got to thinking later on… You could have open conditionals where both sentences were in the present tense, like If he’s sorry, why isn’t he apologizing? You could have open conditionals in the past tense, as in If he was sorry, he never apologized. And there were even possibilities that I hadn’t put on the diagram; for example, why couldn’t I have an open conditional with present perfect tense? Something like … If Doug has finished his homework, then he has definitely left the house by now. If I could do an open conditional with the present perfect, why couldn’t I do one with the past perfect? Why couldn’t I have an ordinary, open conditional, in which the past perfect wasn’t showing a combination of past time and remoteness, but was just performing its usual function of showing a past time prior to another past time? I imagined sentences and contexts like these:

Back in those days, Doug liked to go out and ride his bike at every opportunity. I was coming home from work and wondered if he would be home. I knew that if he had finished his homework, then he had certainly already left the house.

Back in those days, when we went to Adam’s weekly violin lesson, I could always tell if Adam had practiced earlier in the week. If he had practiced, then he wasn’t nervous. [Actually, this one is a mixed past-time/even-further-past-time conditional.]

So now you can see why the Flashman example caught my eye. It was a real example of an open conditional with past perfect tenses. In fact, it isn’t the only one I’ve found. I’ve collected a couple of others, but this most recent example gave me three, which made enough to post about. One was from an article in New Scientist entitled “How did we lose a 1400-tonne ocean liner?” They wrote about a plane searching locations where radar had registered an object:

But the plane dispatched to the position of another smaller blip found nothing. If there had been a lifeboat, it had sunk.

The other one came from a book Glen gave me a few years ago, The Experts’ Guide to 100 Things Everyone Should Know How to Do, edited by Samantha Ettus. One of the essays is “Make Conversation,” by Morris L. Reid. One of his rules was to keep up with current events in order to be able to have topics of conversation. He gave this analogy:

What happened in school if you hadn’t read the previous night’s assignment? You most likely had nothing to say.

And now to finish with a more typical conditional with a past perfect tense: If I hadn’t been thinking about open conditionals, I wouldn’t have noticed anything interesting about these three examples!

Posted in Books, Conditionals | 8 Comments »

How to Create a Metaphor with Like

Posted by Neal on June 2, 2014

Doug and Adam are happy to be out of school for the summer, but one of the last things Doug did during the school year was to miss the morning bus one day, and I had to drive him in. As he settled into the passenger seat, I noticed that he was wearing shorts and a T-shirt for the relaxed dress code of the final week, but was also carrying a jacket on his lap.

“Why the jacket?”

“Because even though it’s a warm day, my homeroom is like the Antarctic,” Doug said.

Or did he? Maybe he really said, “Because even though it’s a warm day, my homeroom is, like, the Antarctic.”

“Hey, whoa up there, Doug,” I said. “Did you just use a simile on me, saying that your homeroom is like the Antarctic, or did you bust out a metaphor, saying that your homeroom is the Antarctic, and using a conversation-filler like?”

“Ah, I see what you did there,” Doug informed me.

“From simile to metaphor via punctuation,” I said. Between you and me, I think it’s a metaphor. I heard just enough of a pause before and after the like to make the call.

“Anyway, the math room and the Spanish room are usually OK,” Doug went on, “but then I get to band and it’s, like, a furnace.”

There he goes again!

By the way, if the simple presence or absence of like strikes you, as it did me in elementary school, as a preposterously thin difference to hang a whole conceptual distinction on, read or listen to this guest episode I did for Grammar Girl, which goes into how metaphors are so much more than similes without a like or as.

Posted in Doug, Semantics | Leave a Comment »

Sleep Like Death, Death Like Sleep

Posted by Neal on May 19, 2014

The boys, the wife and I watched the latest episode of the rebooted Cosmos last night. About 10 minutes in, Neil deGrasse Tyson began talking about the idea that life on Earth may have begun by arriving on meteorites. It’s known that rocks from Mars, for example, have ended up on Earth this way. It’s also known that some bacteria are able to survive in space, as proven by bacteria that survived a stint traveling on the outside of the International Space Station. Finally, it’s known that some bacteria can survive for a long time without a food source. On this point, Tyson talks about some recently revived bacteria found in Antarctic ice:

Even more amazing are these creatures, awakened from a death-like sleep of eight million years…

I was interested to hear Tyson put it that way, because I’ve also been hearing another person talking about death-like sleeps recently, but she phrases it differently:

Did you hear that? She said:

Before the sun sets on her sixteenth birthday, she will fall into a sleep like death!

Both phrases are talking about a sleep, not about death. We know this from the context, and from the fact that the verbs fall and awaken collocate more strongly with sleep than with death. But they’re phrased in completely opposite orders from each other! Furthermore, it’s syntactically possible for each phrase to be referring to death, not to a sleep. No, I haven’t actually found any examples of this, but it could happen, OK?

Here are the structural differences all sorted out. The diagrams on the left refer first to a death that is like sleep, and then to a sleep that is like death. In these parses, the adjective like is looking for a noun-phrase complement on its right to form an adjective phrase. The diagrams on the right refer to a sleep that is death-like, then to a death that is sleep-like. Here, the adjective like forms a compound adjective with the noun phrase on its left.

Dead, or Just Resting?

The situation reminds me of Shel Silverstein’s “snake eating cake”.

Posted in Attachment ambiguity, Compound words, Diagramming, Movies, TV | Leave a Comment »

Chemicals, Castro, and Last Year’s Jeans

Posted by Neal on May 8, 2014

Here are a few items I recorded some time ago, and just found lying in my stash of draft posts.

Doug and Adam each spontaneously uttered a double passive within a day or two of each other sometime in the past year. Here’s Doug’s:

… standing in front of a chemical plant that‘s threatened to be bombed.

I don’t even remember what the context was for that. It’s a good thing I wrote this down, or it’d be a memory lost forever, like all that thing he did that one time that I didn’t bother putting in his baby book, or that other thing he did that other time that I never put in a diary or anything. Anyway, if the clause about the chemical plant were in the active voice, it would be something like “a chemical plant that someone threatens to bomb.” But if you don’t know who made the threat, how do you say this? You do like Doug did, and use the passive voice. The trouble is, you have two verbs to deal with: threatened, and bomb. Which one do you make passive? Option 1 below

just doesn’t make any sense. Option 2 is grammatical, but it removes the human agency from threaten. It sounds like conditions are such that the chemical plant is likely to be bombed, in the same way that It’s threatening to rain means, “Conditions are such that it’s likely to rain.” So he went with option 3, making both verbs passive.

  1. *a chemical plant that is threatened to bomb
  2. a chemical plant that threatens to be bombed
  3. a chemical plant that is threatened to be bombed

Now, on to Adam’s double passive:

Fidel Castro has been attempted to be assassinated over 600 times.

I think he got this off a history website or something, like maybe this Mental Floss article.

Robin Dodsworth sent me the weirdest case of possible right-node wrapping that I’ve seen. I’ve come to believe that nonparallel coordinate structures such as

wash and put the dishes away

are actually part of many people’s English grammar. Usually they consist of an ordinary transitive verb (e.g. wash) and a phrasal transitive verb (put away) taking a single direct object, with the preposition from the phrasal verb coming after the direct object. Phrased as a parallel coordinate structure, this would be “Wash the dishes and put them away.” Robin’s example, though, is different. An old high school friend wrote on Facebook:

Scariest moment of the year — the first cool day of Fall when you have to put on (and find out) if last year’s jeans still fit.

Put into a parallel structure, this would be “Put on last year’s jeans and find out if they still fit.” So instead of being a direct object with respect to the parts I’ve colored red and green in the quotation, it’s a direct object for put on, and an embedded subject in find out if ___ still fit. This is so unlike other RNW examples that I suspect it was just a mistake, but I don’t know. Does it sound comparable to wash and put the dishes away to you?

Posted in Adam, Double passives, Doug, Right-node wrapping ("Friends in Low Places" coordinations) | 6 Comments »

Ceramic Tins

Posted by Neal on April 20, 2014

Two ramekins

A couple of years ago, we would sometimes order take-out pizza from Boston’s in the Columbus Arena District. It was very good, but even so, since learning last year that the best pizza in Columbus is Natalie’s Coal-Fired Pizza, and we haven’t been back to Boston’s since. But we still have a few reminders of when Boston’s was our main source for take-out pizza. They would always send along a little container of red pepper flakes with our order, one of those little plastic cups with a snap-on lid, the kind that’s also used for salad dressing or Parmesan cheese. I didn’t really have a good name for this kind of cup until a server at a restaurant referred to one of them as a ramekin. It was slightly bigger, and made of ceramic, but it seemed like the same basic idea. Anyway, I’d keep these ramekins of red pepper flakes. We used them in a few recipes, so it didn’t make sense to throw them away. Now we’re finally on the last one, and then we can go back to using the pepper flakes in the bottle that came from the grocery store.

It was Doug’s turn to make supper one day last week, and he was looking for the ingredients for the dish he’d selected.

“Where are the red pepper flakes?” he asked. “Oh, wait. Here?” he held up the bottle of pepper flakes.

“I usually use the flakes in that plastic ramekin there,” I said.

Doug looked where I was pointing. “Oh, I use the flakes in that ceramic tin for ramen noodles,” Doug said, and continued looking for the remaining ingredients.

An eggcorn, born!

The word ramekin was as unfamiliar to Doug as it had been to me when I first heard it. But whereas I had just accepted it, Doug tried to make sense of it. Hearing [ræməkɪn], he perceived it as /səræmɪk tɪn/. The funny thing about eggcorns and folk etymologies (i.e., eggcorns that become widespread and part of the language) is that they still might not make much sense. They only have to make more sense than no sense. Ramekin is just a string of syllables until you attach them to a referent, but ceramic tin is two common English nouns. Never mind that ceramic tin is a contradiction in terms, and is even sillier when you consider that I was talking about a “plastic ceramic tin.”

Wait a minute … maybe there is such a thing as a ceramic tin, after all…

Posted in Doug, Folk etymology, Food-related, Ohioana | Leave a Comment »

 
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