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Archive for the ‘Gerunds and participles’ Category

Adjective, Participle, or Gerund?

Posted by Neal on January 18, 2013

In my last post, I talked about present participles that aren’t adjectives, in examples such as are frightening the cats or is running for his life. In this post, I’m going to follow the practice of CGEL and refer to these simply as present participles. In my last post, I also talked about present participles that are adjectives, such as frightening (without a direct object), exciting, daring, scathing, etc. Following CGEL, I am not going to call these participles anymore. I will refer to them simply as adjectives, and if I need to distinguish between these adjectives and adjectives that were not derived from verbs by adding -ing, I will speak of participial adjectives.

All the examples in my last post, whether they involved participles or adjectives, used these words in a predicative position — that is, following a linking verb. The diagnostic I used to separate the adjectives from the participles was the adverb very. Unlike most adverbs, very can modify only adjectives or other adverbs, so if you know that X is either an adjective or a verb, and very X is grammatical, then X must be an adjective. Using the very test, we know that frightening is an adjective in The kids are (very) frightening, as well as in The kids are (very) frightening to the cats. We also saw that very didn’t work in *The kids are very frightening the cats (unless you’re Freddy Mercury or Junie B. Jones). This could mean that frightening is not an adjective in this sentence, or that it is an adjective but for whatever reason can’t be modified by very. Given the results of some other diagnostics that I won’t go into right now, it’s more sensible to conclude that frightening is not an adjective, but a participle.

Now I want to use the very test on adjectives and participles in an attributive position — right next to a noun, as in the frightening kids. Here, too, frightening passes the very test, indicating that it is well and truly an adjective:

the very frightening kids

But some verbs, such as playing, fail the very test in that same position:

*the very playing kids

But wait! Both frightening and playing are modifying kids in these examples; doesn’t that mean they’re both adjectives? Not according to the very test, it doesn’t. It took me a while to get my head around this. I reminded myself: You can modify a noun with things other than an adjective phrase. You can modify it with a prepositional phrase: the kids in the pool. You can modify it with another noun: the school kids. And you can also modify it with a verb, in the form of a participle.

At this point, you might consider the possibility that playing actually is still an adjective, and that it fails the very test for some other reason. However, look what you can do with playing but can’t do with frightening: You can modify it with a just-for-verbs adverb, such as carefully:

*the carefully frightening kids
the carefully playing kids

Playing is definitely acting more like a verb than an adjective here.

Are there -ing verb-derived words that modify nouns and fail both the very and the carefully tests? Sure! Here’s one:

my jogging shorts
*my very jogging shorts
*my carefully jogging shorts [unless you have shorts than like to jog]

And with that, we’ve moved from participial adjectives to participles to gerunds. Here’s a summary of our progression, in convenient flowchart form. (In the chart, “AD-VERB” is my way of indicating an adverb that modifies only verbs, such as carefully.)

Posted in Gerunds and participles | 7 Comments »

Very Frightening

Posted by Neal on January 12, 2013

Life, as we know, is full of tough decisions.

Participles are often described as “verbal adjectives,” but recently I was called on to be more specific with a participle: was it a verb, or an adjective? (Sorry, I can’t tell you why I had to do that; it’s TOP SECRET.)

In high school, I was unconflicted: Participles were a kind of adjective, end of story. Even in a sentence like The kids are frightening the cats, I considered frightening to be an adjective, and frightening the cats to be an adjective phrase, just as proud of themselves is an adjective phrase in The kids are proud of themselves. I was annoyed to lose a couple of points over it in a quiz. However, I wasn’t looking at the bigger picture. I wasn’t considering the other properties of adjective phrases that frightening the cats didn’t have, such as these that I read about in CGEL.

First of all, you can’t make the head participle comparative or superlative, the way you can with typical adjectives. You can’t modify it with very, either:

  • The kids are prouder/proudest of themselves.
  • *The kids are more/most frightening the cats.
  • The kids are very proud of themselves.
  • *The kids are very frightening the cats.

It’s for reasons like these that frightening the cats is considered to be a participial phrase — i.e., more verby than adjectivey.

On the other hand, with frightening by itself, you can make comparatives and superlatives and use very:

  • The kids are more/most frightening.
  • The kids are very frightening.

So by itself, frightening can be considered simply an adjective.

In fact, frightening can even be an adjective inside an adjective phrase. The key is that you can’t just go putting a noun phrase complement (such as the cats) after it, the way you’d do with a verb. Instead, you give it a complement more suitable for an adjective; namely, a prepositional phrase. Here’s how it shakes out with the PP to the cats:

  • The kids are more/most frightening to the cats.
  • The kids are very frightening to the cats.

Frightening is actually an unusual case: It’s a participle that in one guise has completely crossed over to become an adjective, but in another still works as a verby participle in progressive tenses. Other participles like this are loving, (for)giving, disturbing, and amazing. In contrast, participles such as running never pass the comparative/superlative/very adjective tests: Sam is more/most/very running.

So with all that said, now we can talk about what the fictional kindergartner Junie B. Jones has in common with the glam rock group Queen. From Junie B. Jones and the Yucky Blucky Fruitcake, by Barbara Park:

The creamy filling was very squishing between my toes. (p. 25)

From Queen, of course, we have this line from “Bohemian Rhapsody”, with our much-discussed participle frightening:

Thunderbolt and lightning, very, very frightening me! (~3:18 in the video)

In both examples, the very tells us to take the participle as an adjective, but other factors force us to take it as a non-adjectival participle. In the Junie B. Jones example, it’s the context of a progressive tense that does it; in the Queen example, the NP complement me.

I wonder why I’ve never heard anyone complain about this aspect of Junie B. Jones’s grammar, when these books have certainly been criticized for daring to have a six-year-old over-regularize her past tenses and use accusative pronouns where nominatives are called for. Probably it’s because the other grammar complaints are so easy to make, while this one requires some analysis in order to put your finger on the problem. (JBJ uses very with other non-adjectival participles, too, such as watering and practicing, also from JBJ:YBF.) As for “Bohemian Rhapsody,” that song is weird in too many other ways, I think, for people to have focused on the grammar of that one line that comes just between the “Scaramouche” and “Galileo” bits.

There’s more to come about participles, adjectives, and even gerunds, in my next post!

Posted in Books, Gerunds and participles, Kids' entertainment, Music | 3 Comments »


Posted by Neal on December 8, 2012

The white-glove test

It’s been more than four years since Doug and Adam got the game Hyper Crush Bros. Knockdown-Dragout for the GameCube. (The GameCube!) But they still play it, as well as the sequel game that came out for the Wii a couple of years later. For all the first-person shooters that Doug plays (which he calls FPSs), with realistic weapons like submachine guns (SMGs), he has said more than once that the best party videogame is this one. Adam agrees. And just tonight, they were down in the basement playing Hyper Crush on the GameCube, because of a glitch that Adam read about today.

The most formidable opponent in the game, the final boss at the end of some mode of play or another, is nothing but a giant hand that can pound you, smack you, drill you into the fighting platform, or just flick you away into the vast reaches of space. Adam found out about a glitch that would let you actually play as this Master Hand, not just face it as a boss.

I hadn’t remembered that Master Hand was a non-playable character, so I asked, “Oh, you couldn’t play as Master Hand before?”

“Oh, no,” Doug answered;

Think about it; he’d be overpowered.

With the meaning of overpowered that I’ve used most of my life, this sentence is completely contrary to what I know Master Hand. It means that playing as Master Hand, you’d be quickly and easily defeated. But with the meaning that Doug standardly uses when talking about characters in his FPSs that have too many weapons and abilities, it means that nothing could defeat you.

The ambiguity comes down to the ambiguity of the -ed suffix. Its the past participle suffix, of course, so for a verb like overpower, the -ed suffix gives us the overpowered that means (in the words of the OED) “Subdued or overcome by a superior force or influence; overwhelmed.”

But -ed can also attach to nouns, to give us adjectives that mean “having [NOUN],” as in a one-eyed, one-horned flying purple people eater. Attach it to the noun power, and you get powered with the meaning “having power”. Of course, power is also a verb, so you can get the homonym powered “having been supplied with power”, which means pretty much the same thing as noun-derived powered. But here’s where things get different. When you attach over to the noun-derived powered, you get Doug’s meaning of overpowered. As it turns out, this definition is in the OED, too: “Having a greater than usual or excessive degree of (mechanical) power.” They have attestations going back to 1971:

  • 1971 A. Diment Think Inc. iv. 56 Fast acceleration because Corvairs are overpowered if anything which is definitely the right way to be.
  • 1990 Good Housek. May 7/2 (advt.) And because it powers a more efficient vacuum cleaner, it doesn’t need to be overpowered.
  • 2000 J. Doyle Taken for Ride xxii. 440 The industry moved from four- to six-cylinder engines in the the overpowered Pontiac GTO and Dodge Charger muscle cars of the 1960s and 1970s.

The OED even agrees with my morphological analysis. Look at its etymology for my meaning of overpowered and for Doug’s:

  • [verb-derived] Etymology: < overpower v. + -ed suffix1.
  • [noun-derived] Etymology: < over- prefix + powered adj.

Or in the presentation style that I prefer, here is the latest in a list of English contronyms, joining cleave, sanction, and all the rest:

I'm defeated!
I'm invincible!

Posted in Gerunds and participles, Kids' entertainment | 5 Comments »

Un-Nibbled by Cats

Posted by Neal on August 2, 2011

One day last week, Doug got up at 7:00, in an attempt to be able to fall asleep faster that night. He’d been trying to do it for several days, without success. He would just turn off his alarm without even waking up. I suggested the low-tech solution I’d used in college: Put the alarm clock on the opposite side of the room, so he’d have to get up out of bed to turn it off. And it worked. Now, here he was, up and dressed by 7:30, eating toaster waffles and microwave bacon.

Adam, though, was still asleep at 8:00. I put the remaining two slices of bacon back in the microwave to keep them out of our cats’ reach until Adam could get to them. I had also spooned some yogurt into a bowl, and had a piece of proto-toast in the toaster for him. I wanted Adam’s breakfast to be ready for him when he got up, because I would be running an errand by then. I didn’t want him to just come downstairs and skip breakfast in favor of playing video games.

So where to put the yogurt? Back in the fridge? OK, but the bacon had to stay in the safe. Room-temperature bacon is all right, but not refrigerator-cold bacon. And what about the toast? Darn it, by the time Adam came down, it would probably be stale. All right, I decided. Adam would just have to get up and get his butt downstairs for breakfast before he got dressed or anything else, that was all. I placed all three items on his placemat, and then went up to knock on his door.

“Who is it?” I heard a muffled voice ask.

“It’s me. Hey, I’m going to run an errand. Your breakfast is on the table. You might want to come down and eat it while…

…the toast is still warm, the yogurt’s still cool, and the bacon is still un-nibbled by cats.”

Awright! I was just trying to get my breakfast-making duties out of the way, but in doing it, I had spontaneously created a bracketing paradox!

Here’s the deal. Un-, everyone agrees, is a prefix. It can attach to one adjective to create another adjective. In this case, it’s attaching to the adjective (more specifically, past participle) nibbled to create the adjective un-nibbled, i.e. “not nibbled”. Then the prepositional phrase by cats attaches to that to give us the adjective phrase un-nibbled by cats, as shown in the diagram below:

Going by the morphology

But wait. Can PPs do that? Can they just attach to an adjective to give you an adjective phrase? Sure, if you have the right kind of adjective. Fond forms an AdjP when it attaches to an of-PP; so do great and with child. But un-nibbled isn’t an adjective that takes a PP, any more than, say, green or scary are. Green by cats? Scary by cats? What would those phrases even mean?

The meaning we’re after is, “It is not the case that the bacon is nibbled by cats,” so why not parse the phrase so that nibbled by cats forms a chunk, and then let the un- attach to that? Something like this:

Going by the semantics

Great! Now the negation clearly takes scope over the entire part about being nibbled by cats. But now un- isn’t a word prefix anymore. It might as well be the free-standing word not, the way it’s sitting outside the phrase nibbled by cats. Hence, the bracketing paradox.

Now there is one other parse of un-nibbled by cats, one that isn’t a bracketing paradox. It exists because of a peculiarity of the prefix un-. As Ben Zimmer wrote in a 2009 “On Language” column:

Ever since Old English, the un- prefix has come in two basic flavors. It can be used like the word “not” to negate adjectives (unkind, uncertain, unfair) and the occasional noun (unreason, unrest, unemployment). Or it can attach to a verb to indicate the reversal of an action (unbend, unfasten, unmask).

So if we take un- in its guise as a verb prefix, then we can parse un-nibbled by cats this way:

Taking "un-nibble" as a verb

Unfortunately, a completely different meaning comes with this parse. And not only is it not the meaning I want; it’s a meaning that can’t even happen in this world. Living with five cats, I can tell you that they never un-nibble anything!

Posted in Cats, Food-related, Gerunds and participles, Morphology | 6 Comments »

Time for the Saving of Daylight

Posted by Neal on March 13, 2011

Nancy Friedman tweeted last week,

Now that we have daylight saving time 8 months of the year, shouldn’t it be renamed “standard time”?

I immediately retweeted, since this is what I’ve been thinking for months. In fact, I’d probably say it’s my biggest objection to the extension of daylight saving time. Gordon Hemsley responded to us both with this complication I hadn’t considered:

Then we’d have to rename the other 4 months Daylight-Losing Time.

Daylight-losing time … no one wants that. On the other hand, there wouldn’t be any confusion over whether to call it daylight-losing time or daylight-losings time, since losings isn’t nearly as common a word as savings. To tell you the truth, I’d been saying “daylight-savings time” for years, until I listened to this episode of Grammar Girl and learned that the original and preferred term is daylight-saving time. The form is saving and not savings because it’s just an ordinary gerund, turned into a compound noun by putting a direct object in front of it, the same as you do with hog-killing, cherry-picking, and pie-eating.

I didn’t believe it at first. I figured whatever usage guides GG had been looking at must have had some prejudice against the pluralia tantum (“plural only”) noun savings. True, savings usually refers to money, but I didn’t see any problem extending the concept to time, since you can certainly do that with the verb save. You can save both money and time, and the money or time that you save can be referred to as your savings, right?

But the story checked out, as I found when I went searching through the Google News Archive. Garner’s Modern American Usage confirms it, too: “the singular form daylight-saving time is the original one, dating from the early 20th century…. So my question is why people started calling it daylight savings time. Garner proposes this explanation:

The rise of the plural form (daylight-savings time) appears to have resulted from the avoidance of a miscue: when saving is used, readers might puzzle momentarily over whether saving is a gerund … or a participle….

In other words, we don’t want readers asking themselves, “Does this mean ‘the time for saving daylight’ or ‘the time that saves daylight’?”

Here’s my problem with calling it daylight-saving time. The way you pronounce this kind of noun phrase, with a compound gerund modifying a noun, is that you put primary stress on the first word, and secondary stress on the modified noun. So with this pattern, we getting HOG-killing time, PIE-eating contest, BABY-sitting service. In fact, this is generally how you put stress on compound nouns composed of words A, B, and C, where A and B form a compound that modifies C. Other examples are ANGEL food cake and BABY-butt legs, or INCOME tax time. But I don’t put primary stress on daylight; I put primary stress on saving(s), and as far as I know, most other speakers do, too. (If I’m wrong about you, comments are open.)

Why do I pronounce it as daylight SAVING(S) time? Actually, I don’t know. Even if I was interpreting it as “time that gives you a savings of daylight,” that would still mean that daylight and savings formed a compound that in turn modified time, so it would still be pronounced as DAYLIGHT savings time, wouldn’t it? Going by the examples of model DOGhouse and gourmet CAT food, I would expect the pronunciation daylight SAVINGS time to mean “a savings time that has to do with daylight” — maybe a time when you save money during the day but not at night.

Maybe it’s significant that daylight saving(s) time is a compound word, while model doghouse and gourmet cat food are still transparently compounds (doghouse, cat food) modified by a third word (model, gourmet). Or maybe the stress is landing on saving(s) because speakers are thinking of it as contrastive focus: STANDARD time as opposed to daylight SAVING(S) time, with the initial-S commonality subtly encouraging this.

Whatever the reason, this stress pattern is very ingrained with me, and if I use it while saying daylight saving time, I end up with daylight SAVING time, which sounds really goofy. It sounds like another contrastive focus: daylight SAVING time as opposed to the gloomy daylight LOSING time that Gordon brought up.

Posted in Gerunds and participles, Prescriptive grammar, Stress and focus | 7 Comments »

What She’s Doin’ Now Is Tearin’ Me Apart

Posted by Neal on March 3, 2011

Back in January I wrote about an unusual sentence with a fused relative clause (aka a free relative). At the time, I wrote, “This reminds me of one of those great intentional ambiguities in a country song; this one involves a fused relative and a pseudo-cleft. Wait till you hear it; it’s great. But it’ll have to wait for another post.”

Looks like I haven’t gotten around to it yet, so here we go. The song is “What She’s Doing Now,” performed by Garth Brooks on his 1990 album No Fences. The title shows up in the lyrics, when Brooks sings that the season of the year

…makes me wonder
What she’s doin’ now.

Nothing remarkable so far. What she’s doing now is the indirect-question form of What is she doing now?, serving as the complement of the verb wonder. But in the chorus, Brooks sings

… what she’s doin’ now is tearin’ me apart
Fillin’ up my mind and emptyin’ my heart

Now we’ve got ourselves an ambiguity, and it’s partly attributable to the ambiguity of the -ing form of any verb. Let’s take the phrase blogging about linguistics in two sentences:

My hobby is blogging about linguistics.
I’m blogging about linguistics right now.

In the first sentence, blogging about linguistics is a noun phrase (more specifically, a gerund phrase), and is is identifying it as my hobby. In the second sentence, blogging about linguistics is a participial phrase; it hooks up with is to form a verb phrase that talks about someone blogging.

Now let’s go back to the sentence in the chorus, and take tearin’, fillin’, and emptyin’ as gerunds. In that case, the meaning is basically

Let X = the thing that she’s doing now. X = the act of tearin’ me apart, fillin’ up my mind, and emptyin’ my heart.

We’ll call this the specificational meaning. (Free relatives in this kind of specificational construction are also known as pseudo-clefts.) On the other hand, if we take tearin’, fillin’, and emptyin’ as participles, then what we have after the is is a great big participial phrase, which joins with the is to form a verb phrase. The meaning in this case would be

Let X = the thing that she’s doing now. Whatever X may be, it is in the process of tearin’ me apart, fillin’ up my mind, and emptyin’ my heart.

We’ll call this the predicational meaning. This is the easier reading to get, in my opinion.

The other thing that makes this specificational/predicational ambiguity possible is the fact that both people and abstract things are capable of tearin’ one apart, fillin’ up one’s mind, and emptyin’ one’s heart. If we replace those verbs with something that only a human (or at least something animate) can do, then we only get the specificational meaning:

What she’s doin’ now is drinkin’, smokin’, and partyin’ all night. (X = the act of d., s., and p.a.n.)

If we replace it with something that doesn’t make sense with a human subject, we get only the predicational meaning:

What she’s doin’ now is disturbing and possibly illegal. (Whatever X is, it is d. and p.i.)

So how about that, eh? I told you you’d love this ambiguity! Was I right, or was I right? (This is pretty much the same ambiguity, by the way, that I discussed in 2006 for What we waste is a disgrace.)

However, now that I look back on the lyrics, I wonder if the chorus was actually intentionally ambiguous. I’ve always assumed it was, and gotten a linguistic thrill out of hearing it, the same as I get with If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?, but I don’t really see anything in the song as a whole anymore that would suggest the writers wanted you to get both meanings. What do you think?

Posted in Ambiguity, Fused relatives, Gerunds and participles, Music | 7 Comments »

Dangling Predicative

Posted by Neal on February 9, 2011

I don’t comment too much about dangling participles or misplaced modifiers, but today I just can’t resist. For a traditional take on them, read these episodes of Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl podcast. But if you don’t want to read through all that, here’s an excerpt that illustrates with a good example:

A dangling modifier describes something that isn’t even in your sentence. Usually you are implying the subject and taking for granted that your reader will know what you mean—not a good strategy. Here’s an example:

Hiking the trail, the birds chirped loudly.

The way the sentence is written, the birds are hiking the trail because they are the only subject present in the sentence.

The way that the authors of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language look at these constructions is a bit different. First of all, they call them predicative adjuncts — predicative because they have understood subjects (and an understood be linking them to the relevant phrases like hiking the trail), and adjuncts because they modify the sentence instead of having some grammatical function like subject or direct object. These linguists don’t call them participles specifically, because predicative adjuncts can include prepositional phrases, noun phrases, and other kinds of adjective phrase. They don’t call them modifiers because predicates don’t modify their subjects; they predicate things of them. Second, as Geoff Pullum writes in this Language Log post,

The line we take on examples of this kind … is not that they violate the syntactic correctness conditions for English — they are simply too common for that to be the case. Roughly, what we think is that the syntax of English leaves things open for you to design your paragraphs in such a way that preposed non-finite adjunct clauses will, in context, be easily and naturally linked up with suitable understood subjects. And as always when you are left some freedom to do things whichever way you judge to be appropriate, you can screw it up. You can write something stunningly inept that baffles the heck out of an intelligent reader for several seconds.

I paraphrase this point of view briefly in this review of Fogarty’s first book. Predicative adjuncts are looking for a subject; the easiest ones to use are the overt NPs in the rest of the sentence, especially the subject. And at least for me, the subject of the sentence can grab on surprisingly tightly to the predicative adjunct, no matter how pragmatically ridiculous the resulting meaning is.

So the background on today’s bungled predicative adjunct is that last November a seriously messed up guy committed a gruesome, cold-blooded triple murder in Knox County, and compounded it with the kidnapping and rape of the teenage girl he allowed to survive. He has just been sentenced to life in prison, and now the newspaper is publishing the details of the investigation that led to the man’s arrest. One of the stranger details is that the murderer had millions of leaves in his house, many of them stuffed into plastic grocery bags that he had used to completely cover the walls of one room. What were they for? Here’s what The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch says:

Already a convicted arsonist, maybe the leaves had another purpose [i.e., a possible accelerant; NW] (link)

I’m familiar with the idea of leaf monsters, thanks to a Calvin and Hobbes strip, but the only danger they posed was that they might consume kids who jumped into them. That they might burn down your house is a new one to me.

Posted in Gerunds and participles, Ohioana, Prescriptive grammar, Syntax | Leave a Comment »

The People Will Uprise!

Posted by Neal on December 5, 2010

Governor-elect John Kasich has been quite blunt about some of the things he’s going to do after taking office — quite a change from the consistently, persistently, insistently vague answers he gave during the campaign about issues like how he would balance the state’s budget without raising taxes. This week he talked about a couple of his predecessor’s executive orders that he plans to rescind; specifically, orders that allowed home-care providers and child-care providers to join unions. I’m not sure what the big deal is about allowing these workers to join unions, but Kasich feels strongly about it. He’s said the orders will most likely be “toast”. His less than diplomatic statement has angered these people, and the leader of one of the home healthcare unions had this to say:

“Act as a reckless and irresponsible governor, and plan to be a one-term governor, because you are just going to cause workers in the state to uprise,” she said. (link)

Nice backformation, I thought. From the phrasal verb rise up, we get the gerund-headed compound noun uprising, and from there via the usual process of stripping off the -ing, we get a brand-new backformed verb: uprise. The Corpus of Contemporary American English has an attestation from 1991, but don’t trust it:

Even some of them, they ask the Iraqi people to uprise, to go up and get rid of Saddam Hussein, but when Iraqi people go and have uprising in all parts of Iraq, they walked away and they said this is an internal affair, we don’t interfere.

Notice how the even is used to comment on the entire sentence, meaning more or less, “It’s was even true that some of them asked the Iraqi people…”? Semantically, it’s sensible, but syntactically, it just doesn’t work. In English, we have to put the even after the subject: Some of them even…. This is clearly a passage from a non-native speaker. When I checked it, I found that it was uttered by a (one assumes) Iraqi named Mahmoud-Osman-Kur. However, this 1993 example from Rolling Stone is more believable:

Oh, this is going to upset people, ignite people. They’re going to riot, they’re going to uprise.

When I checked the OED, I was surprised to find uprise as a verb going back to the 1300s. However, it had a more literal meaning of physically rising up with attestations talking about the sun rising, people rising out of bed, and people rising from the dead. There was also a figurative meaning of attaining a higher social position or position of greater power. The current meaning of “rebel” isn’t listed.

I’d be interested in hearing the word pronounced. Does it have stress on both up and rise, the way that its source uprising does? Or is the up unstressed? If it is, then I’d expect the p to reassociate itself from the end of the first syllable to the beginning of the second one, in accordance with Maximal Onset, making the word homonymous with apprise. If this word is in your active vocabulary, let us know how you say it.

Posted in Backformation, Gerunds and participles, Ohioana, Phonetics and phonology, Politics | 7 Comments »

Happy Gerund Appreciation Day!

Posted by Neal on November 26, 2010

“And that’s the end of the chapter,” I say, closing the book. “Now, boys, time for the brushing of the teeth. No circumflatulating!”

I could have told Doug and Adam, “Time to brush your teeth” (and I sometimes do). I could also have said, “Tooth-brushing time” (and I sometimes do). But I like using the gerund phrase the brushing of the teeth. It somehow lends more gravitas to the process.

It’s strange how in English, there are two ways of putting together a gerund phrase. The way I used in time for the brushing of the teeth was to put the direct object of brushing (or at least, what would be the direct object if this were a verb instead of a gerund) in an of prepositional phrase. But it could also have been just time for brushing your teeth, without an of. Get rid of the of, and it takes the definite article with it: *the brushing the teeth is no good. That’s some of the stuff I get into in my latest guest script for the Grammar Girl podcast, which was released today. For a Thanksgiving-related grammar piece, I figured gerunds were a good way to go, given that the name of the holiday is not only a gerund. In the podcast I wrote about how even though all gerund phrases act syntactically as nouns (or noun phrases), you can still draw a distinction between those that are more noun-like (for example, the brushing of the teeth) and those that are more verb-like (e.g brushing your teeth). Here, I want to talk about some interesting properties of gerunds that I ended up leaving out of the podcast script.

In one draft of the script, I noted that “nouny” gerunds put the verb’s direct object in an of prepositional phrase, and its subject in a possessive determiner. Using the tooth-brushing example again, I could talk about Doug and Adam’s brushing of their teeth. But then I realized that it was more complicated than that. Sometimes the subject can be realized either as a possessive or in an of prepositional phrase. With an intransitive verb like meow (which doesn’t take a direct object), you could say the cats’ meowing or the meowing of the cats, with the subject in either place. The contestant’s singing or the singing of the contestant. The subject doesn’t even have to be doing something willfully, as it does with so-called unergative verbs like meow and dance. With an unaccusative verb (that is, a verb whose subject is filling a patient role), such as suffer, you can say either Christ’s suffering or the suffering of Christ.

Even though either slot will work for a subject, you have to choose one. You can’t put in two subjects, one in each slot. Even if Doug and Adam like to imitate cats by meowing, and one day they and the cats are all meowing at once, Doug and Adam’s meowing of the cats doesn’t work. Nor does the cats’ meowing of Doug and Adam. I didn’t asterisk them as ungrammatical, but only because you could interpret meow as the transitive “cause someone to meow”, and have in mind Doug and Adam forcing the cats to meow, or even stranger, the cats forcing Doug and Adam to meow.

Now just because a verb is intransitive doesn’t mean you can put its subject into an of PP in a gerund phrase. Eat can also be an intransitive verb, in sentences like He’s always eating. But no matter how you set up the context, I think a sentence like The bomb scare interrupted the eating of the students in the cafeteria is going to sound like the students are getting eaten.

Trying to sum up when you can realize a verb’s subject in an of PP in a gerund phrase, I guess you’d have to say something like this:

  1. If the verb has both agent and patient semantic roles, the agent must be realized as a possessive determiner in a gerund phrase, and the patient (if expressed at all) in an of PP.
  2. Otherwise, the lone semantic role can be realized either as a possessive determiner or in an of PP.

Of course, I haven’t even touched the issue of when a verb’s subject can be realized in a gerund phrase as just an ordinary nominative form: Doug and Adam’s brushing their teeth vs. Doug and Adam brushing their teeth. And I haven’t looked too closely at verbs with semantic roles other than agent or patient. That’ll have to wait for some other post.

Posted in Gerunds and participles, Syntax | 8 Comments »

Fried Eggs in Bacon Grease

Posted by Neal on November 23, 2010

Adam and I went on his Cub Scout pack’s annual fall campout last weekend. For our Saturday and Sunday breakfasts I packed bacon and eggs in our cooler. But as I assembled our camp stove on Saturday morning, I suddenly realized that I’d forgotten to pack any butter (OK, margarine).

“Shoot!” I said to myself. “Now what am I going to fry the eggs in?”

Then it hit me: I could fry the eggs in the bacon grease! The way eggs were meant to be fried in the first place! We’ve been using the convenient microwave packets of bacon for so many years that I’ve gotten used to never having any bacon grease to fry eggs in, and using margarine instead. But this weekend, on this campout, with no microwaves in sight, I’d fry our bacon the old-fashioned way, and have fried eggs the way Dad used to make them.

As I fried the eggs, I thought about the phrase frying eggs in bacon grease. I was thinking about it because frying eggs in bacon grease reminded me of a quotation from Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Entertainment Weekly a number of years ago, where she said she liked eating “fried eggs in bacon grease”. Now that, to me, sounded disgusting. Eggs that had been fried in some substance — maybe bacon grease, maybe butter, maybe oil — now sitting in a bowl, in a matrix of gray, congealed bacon grease.

Why does frying eggs in bacon grease set my mouth to watering, while a similar phrase with the same verb, same noun, and same prepositional phrase — in the same order — has me curling my lip in revulsion?

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Food-related, Gerunds and participles, Semantics, Syntax | 8 Comments »


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