Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Ohioana’ Category

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 »

Unexpected Glottal Stops

Posted by Neal on April 2, 2014

It began a couple of months ago, as I would listen to the morning news on the radio. Whenever this one guy from the Ohio Statehouse News Bureau signs off, he says, “Andy Chow, Statehouse News Bureau,” but he pronounces Statehouse as [steɪʔhɑus], realizing the /t/ as a glottal stop, instead of turning it into a tap, like I do: [steɪɾhɑus]. I thought it was just a one-time pronunciation glitch the first time I heard it, but the next day, he did it again. I started to listen for more of Andy Chow’s unexpected glottal stops, and they were there: whenever a word ended with a stressed syllable followed by /t/, and the following word also began with a stressed syllable, possibly with an /h/ at the front.

This is not where I expect glottal stops in American English. In a post on his now-discontinued but still great Phonetiblog, John Wells quotes himself from his Longman Pronunciation Dictionary on glottal stops in American English:

ʔ is found as an allophone of t only
• at the end of a syllable, and
• if the preceding sound is a vowel or sonorant

Provided these conditions are satisfied, it is widely used in both BrE and AmE where the following sound is an obstruent

football ˈfʊt bɔːl → ˈfʊʔ bɔːl
outside ˌaʊt ˈsaɪd → ˌaʊʔ ˈsaɪd
that faint buzz ˌðæt ˌfeɪnt ˈbʌz → ˌðæʔ ˌfeɪnʔ ˈbʌz

or a nasal

atmospheric ˌæt məs ˈfer ɪk → ˌæʔ məs ˈfer ɪk
button ˈbʌt ən → ˈbʌʔ n
that name ˌðæt ˈneɪm → ˌðæʔ ˈneɪm

or a semivowel or non-syllabic l

Gatwick ˈɡæt wɪk → ˈɡæʔ wɪk
quite well ˌkwaɪt ˈwel → ˌkwaɪʔ ˈwel
brightly ˈbraɪt li → ˈbraɪʔ li

This has been my understanding of American English glottal stops up until now. I take it to be an indication of the novelty of this pronunciation that even John Wells, who has made a career out of knowing this stuff, doesn’t mention it at all.

The next phase began when I heard Doug refer to that classic 1990s comedy cartoon duo, Beavis and Butthead. He pronounced Butthead as [bʌʔhɛd] instead of [bʌɾhɛd]. Once I heard him say that, I started listening more closely, and now know that he regularly produces a glottal stop in such words as butthole and pothole as well. Just a couple of days ago, he was making spaghetti sauce, and said,

I [heɪʔ] how the brown sugar gets so hard.

(Yes, we put 2 tablespoons of brown sugar in our spaghetti sauce. So what?)

Finally, I drove from Ohio to Northern Virginia a few weekends ago for the funeral of the wife of oldest friend. On the way back, I listened to this episode of This American Life, which was devoted to a single story reported by Susan Zalkind. As I drove, I realized that Zalkind had this pronunciation, too. Every few minutes, she’d do it again, in a string like met Eric or shot Ibragim. But having an entire episode to listen to, I decided to listen closer, to hear if there were places where she had the opportunity to make one of these glottal stops, but realized her /t/ as a tap. It turned out there were, and that they had just been slipping by, undetected because they sounded so normal.

When I got back home, I re-listened to the podcast, and wrote down every example of /t/ that occurred at the end of a word before a word that began with a vowel or /h/ plus a vowel. I kept a list of /t/ realized as [ʔ] and /t/ realized as [ɾ], put them in a table, and was surprised to find that the two columns were just about equal. The glottal stop hadn’t completely taken over this phonetic environment after all.

So then the question was whether Zalkind (and others with this pronunciation) used it randomly, or there was some rule that could predict when she would use it. It didn’t seem to matter whether the following word began with a stressed syllable (e.g. at all) or unstressed (e.g. about it), or what vowel the second word began with. But I was able to make one generalization: When the second word began with /h/–in other words, the very environment that I’d noticed with Andy Chow’s Statehouse and Doug’s butthead–the /t/ was almost certain to be realized as a glottal stop. Out of 17 examples of /t/ at the end of a word before a word beginning with /h/, 15 of them realized /t/ as [ʔ]. Furthermore, if that second word began with a stressed vowel, chances of a glottal stop were 100%. (The /h/ examples appear at the bottoms of their respective columns.) In other words, a phrase like beat him up was likely to contain a glottal stop, and a phrase like got home was certain to.

In thinking about this pronunciation, I’ve begun to wonder why I should consider it such a natural environment for speakers like me to have a tap. The canonical location for [ɾ] is between a stressed and an unstressed vowel. This isn’t the case in a word like statehouse, where the vowels on both sides of /t/ are stressed, and we have an intervening consonant, /h/. In fact, having a glottal stop before /h/ would allow Wells’s rules to be stated more concisely. Instead of referring to “obstruent, nasals, semi-vowels, and syllabic /l/,” it could refer to “all consonants”. Well, make that, “all consonants except /r/”. Even so, this pronunciation that sounds so strange to me can be seen as just a step in the direct of regularity.

If you have encountered this pronunciation or use it yourself, leave a comment! (And not just any comment; a comment on the pronunciation. But of course, you knew that from the Maxim of Relevance.)

Posted in Consonants, Ohioana | 9 Comments »

Getting Away Without It

Posted by Neal on January 27, 2014

When the previous blast of arctic air passed through last week, it put enough snow on our driveway and sidewalk that I really should have shoveled it, but it wasn’t enough to force me to do it in order to get the car from the garage to the street. And, you know, I was in a hurry… I knew I’d regret it later, as I backed the car down the driveway and looked at my tire tracks cutting through the blanket of snow. It would be icy and compacted there when I eventually did shovel.

But when I got home that afternoon, I saw that someone had shoveled our sidewalk! I guessed it was good karma kicking in from the times I’d shoveled the sidewalk in front of our next door neighbors’ houses. No more snow had fallen, and this snow was kind of the dry, crunchy kind, so it wasn’t really a slipping hazard on the driveway and walk to the front door… And a couple of days later, it was even starting to melt!

Then the weekend came, and the current cold snap hit us, kicking off with another couple of inches of snow. I drove Doug to school on Tuesday morning, and as we backed down the driveway, I looked at the fresh set of tire tracks in the fresh layer of snow.

“Until last night,” I said to Doug, “I was like, ‘Wow, I totally got away without shoveling the driveway!’ “

Thirty seconds later, I asked Doug, “Would you have said ‘got away without shoveling,’ or ‘got away with not shoveling’?”

“‘Got away with not having to shovel,’ ” Doug said.

Interesting. On the one hand, we have a division between the string get away with and the thing that you’re not supposed to do: not shoveling. That’s right, you’re not supposed to not shovel. On the other hand, I took the with from one side of the break, and the not from the other, and combined them into the negative version of with: without. Could I do that? Is getting away without something even a thing?

The OED has the expression get away with as a piece of American slang dating to the 1878. As I had imagined, the earliest examples have get away in its sense of escaping some situation, and to “get away with X” meant to make your escape while in possession of X, often something you’re not supposed to have. Here’s the OED‘s example from 1886:

They got away with the pennant three successive seasons.

The modern examples have a more abstract meaning of simply not being punished for something, without a physical escape from a place required. The nouns that show up in them are more abstract, too, such as shoddy work or murder. To further tease out the meaning difference between this usage and the current one, let’s compare how they can be paraphrased:

  1. Newer use
    1. He got away with (doing) shoddy work.
    2. She gets away with (committing) murder. [Note: Inserting the gerund takes away the figurative meaning, so that we're saying she gets away with actual murder. However, this is often the case with idioms, and the literal meaning is available with both phrasings.]
  2. Older use
    1. He got away with (*doing, *making) $1,000,000.
    2. She got away with (*doing, *making) the artifact.

In short, the meaning has shifted from escaping a place while possessing something you shouldn’t possess, to escaping punishment for doing something you shouldn’t do. The OED‘s first attestation of get away with with this more abstract meaning is this one from 1912:

In the Elizabethan days you could assault the watch..and have a jolly set-to with the blades in any convenient angle of a wall and ‘get away with it’.

As for get away without X, that goes back to about the same time as get away with X. I found this example in Google Books from 1882:

Was it a clean job if he was caught in the act, or if he got away without being caught? If he got away without being caught it was a cleaner job. (Link)

Two things to notice about this early example of get away without X:

  1. Even though it already has an abstract noun for X (being caught), it still has a comparably literal meaning to the older get away with X: something like, “escape from a situation without X occurring.”
  2. It just means not getting caught; it does not mean not getting caught and never suffering undesirable consequences for it.

For comparison, here’s a more modern example of get away without X from 2011:

Likewise, it is an affront to honest taxpayers that one, let alone most, of the clients of John Mathewson’s Cayman Islands bank got away without paying.
(Link)

Going through the above two points in this later example:

  1. It has followed the same concrete-to-abstract path as get away with X: The meaning here doesn’t involve physical escape.
  2. Unlike the 1882 example, it doesn’t just mean the clients didn’t pay; it means they never suffered undesirable consequences for not paying.

Summing up, it looks like getting away without X is indeed a thing, and whether you choose it over getting away with X depends on whether you think of X as something you shouldn’t do or something you should do. If I had been thinking of not shoveling snow as an act in itself that I should not do, get away with not shoveling might have been the better choice. But thinking in terms of shoveling snow being something I should do, I chose get away without shoveling. The only choice that’s not available is referring to X with the pronoun it if you’re using the without version of the expression: You can’t “get away without it.”

In any case, I’m not getting away with not shoveling or without shoveling anymore. After the additional six inches we got over the weekend, I’ve now shoveled our walk and driveway twice in 48 hours!

Posted in Ambiguity, Ohioana, Syntax | Leave a Comment »

Being or Resembling

Posted by Neal on October 3, 2011

An elementary school in Westerville (a Columbus suburb) was evacuated last Friday when a kid brought in a WWII grenade. I was delighted with this sentence from the final paragraph in the newspaper story the next day:

After the incident, the … principal reminded students about the importance of, one, telling an adult if they see or hear of anything like this, and, two, not bringing anything to school that is or resembles a weapon of any kind” ….

It brought back memories of my dissertation. One of the topics that I explored had to do with the predicational and specificational meanings of be. As I wrote in this post a few months ago,

Predicational be takes its subject and declares it to be in some set of things. For example, in Osama bin Laden is dead, the is declares Osama bin Laden to be in the set of things that are dead. The be in progressive tenses is a kind of predicational be. For example, in Osama bin Laden was living in Pakistan, the was declares Osama bin Laden to have been in the set of things that live in Pakistan.

The question I had was: Is it possible for a single token of be to be both predicational and specificational? This was interesting theoretically, because predicational and specificational be don’t merely have different meanings; they have different types of meanings, and some linguists believe that when that’s the case, you can’t have both meanings at once (unless you’re aiming for a humorous effect, as in a pun). So under that assumption, sentences like this one are a problem:

Otis is kind, considerate, and the funniest guy you’ll ever meet.

For kind and considerate, we’re dealing with predicational is: Otis is in the set of entities that are kind and the set of entities that are considerate. But the funniest guy you’ll ever meet is a single entity, so for this coordinate, is has to be specificational, right? Not necessarily. It has been proposed that clauses like Otis is the funniest guy you’ll ever meet can be cases of predicational be after all. The is is still declaring that Otis is a member of a set — the singleton set containing the funniest guy you’ll ever meet.

So let’s go with that for now, and assume that be really does have a single meaning, and that the meaning of its complement will always be a set. In that case, the problem resurfaces when, instead of having coordinated complements to be, you have be coordinated with an ordinary, transitive verb that takes an individual, not a set, for its direct object. For example, there’s the VP is or resembles a weapon. Now it’s the shared complement a weapon that has to have two kinds of meaning. Taken with is, it has to be a set, but taken with resembles, it’s an individual. So whether you’re facing coordinations like is a Republican and proud of it (to use a popular example from the linguistics literature) or like is or resembles a weapon, one way or another your theory has to allow for a single word or phrase to have multiple meanings active simultaneously.

When I was writing my dissertation, I looked for examples of be coordinated with a transitive verb, but had to settle for a made-up example of be or meet (followed by a celebrity’s name). To find out which now-disgraced celebrity I chose, you can check out my handout from LSA 2002, when I did a talk on the subject. Since that time, I’ve come across a few other examples in the wild. There was the sign in Doug’s kindergarten class: “Be and Do Your Best.” I think there was also a do/be coordination spoken by Sam Gamgee at the end of the movie of The Return of the King. I remember noting it at the time, but don’t remember the exact wording. There was a line in a column by (I believe) Ellen Goodman, which said “if you are or have a teenager.” This is or resembles example is a nice addition to the collection.

Posted in Coordination, Ohioana, Semantics | 9 Comments »

Sorry, Eliot!

Posted by Neal on June 5, 2011

As the wife and kids and I took our seats in Boston’s Pizza, I caught sight of a guy sitting one booth forward of us. It looked like one of those linguists on Twitter I met at LSA 2011 in Pittsburgh back in January. What was his name? I knew his Twitter handle was jeliot, but didn’t remember what the J stood for. In fact, I couldn’t remember much about him at all, other than that we’d met briefly a couple of times during informal linguist tweetups. Didn’t remember what he studied, or where — though apparently he was one of the Ohio State University linguists, enjoying a Sunday evening in the Columbus Arena District, just a mile or so south of the OSU campus. I graduated in 2002, so there are a lot of grad students there now that I haven’t met, or know only on Twitter (for example, KatCarmOSU). Or in this case, met in a tweetup and didn’t remember that they were studying at OSU.

All this was assuming I had the right guy, of course. As soon as we’d ordered drinks, I took out my smartphone and brought up my Twitter app to look for this jeliot and see if the profile photo matched the face that my wife’s face was intermittently obscuring. If it did, I could check the profile for his full name. I did my search and brought up the jeliot page, and found I didn’t even need to check the profile. His latest tweet said:

It was him! I got up, walked over, and said, “I thought that looked like you,” showing him his tweet that I’d just read.

“Wow! What are you doing here?” he asked.

“Having dinner with my family.” I pointed out the wife and kids, who were turning around to see who I was talking to. I introduced myself to his dining partner as Neal.

“I’m sorry,” I confessed. “I don’t remember your real name; I just remembered that you were jeliot on Twitter. Is it Jim, or Jacob … ?”

“It’s Eliot,” he said. “I go by my middle name.”

Oh, one of those weirdos, I thought. Like E. Gordon Gee, or John Calvin Coolidge, or M. Lynne Murphy. “Hey,” I said, “I go by my middle name, too! My first name’s Philip.” Well, that explained why I’d had trouble getting his name straight with the brief words we’d had at LSA.

“So do you live here?” Eliot asked.

“Yeah!” I replied. “Well, in __________,” the nearby city I actually live in. “Anyway, nice to see you. I’ll let you get back to your dinner.” I went back to our booth, where Doug and Adam were asking, “Who was that?”

“He’s an OSU linguist that I met at LSA,” I told them. Then it was time to order our pizza. Half an hour later, we got up to walk around the block to the Arena Grand theater to see the X-Men movie. Eliot and I waved goodbye to each other as I left.

In the theatre, I brought up the Twitter app again to look at Eliot’s Twitter profile again, but first saw that someone had mentioned me in a tweet. I clicked over to check it out, and saw that it was Eliot tweeting about me:

A small world? Oh-kay. Not that that wasn’t true, but the situation didn’t seem to meet the felicity conditions for uttering that it’s a small world. You’re only supposed to say that when you meet someone that in ordinary circumstances you wouldn’t expect to meet, because you live so far apart and haven’t seen each other in so long. It wasn’t that much more unusual for him to run into a fellow Buckeye linguist while out and about in Columbus than it was for me to occasionally see Brian Joseph at the airport, or Bob Levine at a recital for the violin school that his son and Adam go to. Was it?

Clicking over to Eliot’s timeline, I saw that his other recent tweets were a little odd, too. Two hours before our conversation, he’d tweeted:

That’s something I’d expect from someone who hadn’t lived here very long. Or … from someone who’d come to take his town for granted, and had suddenly had his eyes opened by something like the slide I’ve seen in the Arena Grand Theater’s pre-shows, which touts Columbus as the home of the nation’s best zoo, best library, best cancer hospital, etc. Maybe that was it.

Then I finally clicked over to Eliot’s profile page. He had listed himself as J. Eliot DeGolia, of Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh! That’s right! He was one of the local linguists who’d shown us out-of-towners some of the locally popular places to eat. Now those tweets made sense, as well as his surprised question, “You live here?” And right within his hearing, I’d been telling me family, as if I’d known him a lot better than I actually did, “He’s an OSU linguist!” I hope he didn’t take offense.

Wait! Why should he? Isn’t it a compliment to be mistaken for an OSU linguist? In any case, sorry for my conclusion-jumping, Eliot, and treating our encounter as offhandedly as something that might happen any old time I visited the OSU library or linguistics department. If I’d remembered you were from Pittsburgh, I’d have asked what brought you to Columbus. I hope you had a good time while you were here. It looks like you did.

Posted in Ohioana, Pragmatics | Leave a Comment »

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 »

Serious Charges

Posted by Neal on September 22, 2010

On the front page of the Columbus Dispatch today, I read about a raid on a marijuana farm in Muskingum County. I was interested to read the following in the third paragraph:

[A]uthorities arrested 10 Mexican nationals and charged them with conspiracy to cultivate marijuana in two carefully tended fields about 90 miles apart.

Actually, that was part of the third sentence in the article, but this is a newspaper we’re talking about, so sentences and paragraphs amount to the same thing.
Anyway, those are serious charges: conspiracy to cultivate marijuana in two carefully tended fields about 90 miles apart. Consider what the authorities could have charged the growers with:

  • conspiracy to cultivate marijuana
  • conspiracy to cultivate marijuana in two fields
  • conspiracy to cultivate marijuana in two carefully tended fields
  • conspiracy to cultivate marijuana in two fields 90 miles apart

But no, they threw the book at these guys, and charged them with conspiracy to cultivate marijuana in two carefully tended fields about 90 miles apart. What would they have charged them with if they had had a conspiracy to cultivate marijuana in three fields, two of them 30 miles apart, two of them 40 miles apart, and two of them 20 miles apart, with two fields carefully tended and one haphazardly tended?

Posted in Ohioana, You're so literal! | 10 Comments »

Stool School

Posted by Neal on June 15, 2010

Over the weekend, Adam and I went on his Cub Scout pack’s summer camping trip. The highlight of the trip was a visit to the Wilds, an exotic-animal preserve operated by the Columbus Zoo in eastern Ohio, on lands reclaimed from strip-mining operations. Riding on the safari bus, we saw Bactrian camels, giraffes and rhinoceroses, and something I’d never seen before called the Sichuan takin. The tour guide said that there were also some North American animals there; in particular, they knew that bobcats were starting to recolonize the area, but they were very hard to observe.

“So,” our guide Alex told us, “they use specially trained dogs to look for bobcat scat. Do you know what scat is?”

The scouts knew: “Poop!”

“That’s right!” Alex continued with details about how you teach dogs to sniff out bobcat poop: “You put a piece of it under one of several cups, and reward them when they knock over the right one. So now, they can go out in the field and find where the bobcats have been, because if bobcat poop is there, then a bobcat has been there. And you know what else they can do? They can put that poop under a microscope to find out what kind of things the bobcats have been eating.”

“Wow, smart dogs,” I said to my seatmate Ron, the father of one of Adam’s fellow scouts. “I didn’t know dogs could use microscopes.”

Our guide had switched without warning from anaphoric they (which referred back to the dogs she was already talking about) to generic they to talk about what anyone with the skills and curiosity could find out from bobcat excrement. It had taken me a second to make the switch along with her.

All the talk about dogs and stool samples reminded Ron of a favorite family story involving both. When his daughter Jenny was about four or five years old, he told me, he and his wife Pauline had had to collect a stool sample from their dog to take to the vet. Jenny wanted to know why.

Ron and Pauline explained that the vets were going to send the poop to a lab to find out what was wrong with their dog.

Jenny just couldn’t get this. “But I don’t understand!” she kept protesting. Ron and Pauline tried to explain that labs had microscopes they could use to examine the stool sample and get clues about the dog’s condition.

“But I don’t understand! How can they do that?” Jenny asked. At one point she was almost in tears, Rick recalled.

Finally she burst out, “But how do they teach those dogs to do that!?”, and Ron and Pauline finally realized that all the time they’d been saying “labs,” Jenny had been hearing “Labs”.

And, I might add, when her parents were using generic they to refer to whoever worked at the labs, Jenny was taking it as an anaphoric they, with Labs as its antecedent. It made sense, in a four-year-old kind of way, Ron admitted: Who more appropriate to send your dog’s stool sample to than another dog? Dogs sniff other dogs’ stool samples all the time!

Posted in Ambiguity, Lexical semantics, Morphology, Ohioana, The darndest things | 5 Comments »

The Walking Trail

Posted by Neal on May 25, 2010

Another place we went on our trip two weekends ago was to Magee Marsh, on the shore of Lake Erie in northwestern Ohio, for the tail end of the Biggest Week in American Birding. Yes, there is a biggest week in American birding, Doug and his mother have learned during this past year. It’s the week of the peak of the warblers’ northern migration, as they stop to rest and feed at the shore of Lake Erie before continuing on to Canada. Doug and his mom actually went there the week before, and spent two days looking for birds and listening to talks about birds! Adam and I opted out of that trip. But now, a week later, Doug had read that a Kirtland’s warbler had been sighted at Magee Marsh after his visit, and he was hoping he could see it himself if he took another walk along the boardwalk there. At the trailhead there was this sign:

It reminded me of an error I’ve seen a few times in grammar books or discussions; for example this one. The question is: What part of speech is the word walking in the nominal walking trail? Some (like the author of the book I linked to above) seem to be following this line of reasoning:

  1. Adjectives modify nouns.
  2. Walking modifies the noun trail.
  3. (Invalid conclusion) Therefore, walking is an adjective.

This is like saying, “Dogs dig holes. The guy who’s putting in my swimming pool digs holes. Therefore, the guy who’s putting in my swimming pool is a dog.” The missing piece of information here is that nouns can modify nouns, too. Of course, there is crossover sometimes, when a noun modifier is reinterpreted as an adjective and treated accordingly (see fun and key).

So why not just say that anything that modifies a noun is an adjective? For one thing, you’ve just made it harder on yourself to distinguish between adjectives that can do things like have comparative and superlative forms or be modified by adverbs, and adjectives like walking, which can’t. (Well, you might be able to say “walkingest,” but it would have to refer to something that walks the most. You couldn’t say “the walkingest trail” to mean the trail that is best for walking.) For another, that leads to further reasoning like this:

  1. Verbal adjectives are participles.
  2. (Invalid premise) Walking is a verbal adjective.
  3. Therefore, walking is a participle.

So why is this conclusion bad? Well, now how are you going to explain the difference between a trail that walks and a trail for walking? How will you explain why walking trail in its intended, non-ridiculous meaning means the same thing as trail for walking, where walking is a noun (i.e. gerund)? Calling walking a gerund instead of a participle here is sloppy analysis.

Now lest you think I went all the way to Magee Marsh with my family, only to get carried away by grammar issues that the trail sign reminded me of, let me say that I did learn something about birds, and warblers in particular. I pronounce warble like this: [warbL]. (I’m using [L] to represent syllabic /l/, that is, /l/ that functions as a syllable.) But when I attach the -er suffix, the [L] stops being syllabic, and turns back into a true consonant, so that I pronounce warbler as two syllables: [warb.lR]. (Now I’m using [R] to represent syllabic /r/.) In more ordinary English spelling, I guess it’d be warb-ler. But when Doug says warbler, I was surprised to learn, he doesn’t un-syllabify that [L]. He pronounces it with three syllables: [warb.L.R]. In somewhat regular spelling, that would be warble-er. However, he did cop to shortening it to two syllables, the way I pronounce it, when he’s talking fast. How about that?

Posted in Gerunds and participles, Ohioana, Semantics, Syntax, The darndest things | 2 Comments »

 
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