Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

How to Talk to Drug-Free Kids

Posted by Neal on January 18, 2014

I was listening to Terry Gross interview Gabriel Sherman, the author of a book on the history of Fox News founder Roger Ailes. Sherman was talking about TVN, a precursor to Fox News that ran for a time in the 1970s. Its producers wanted to provide a counterweight to the liberal media, and consulted extensively with conservative groups as they tried to hammer out how they would run the program. Summing up, Sherman said,

They were basically saying, “How do we package the news that is going to appeal to a conservative audience?” (13:34)

If it’s news that already appeals to a conservative audience, I thought. why is how to package it such a big question? In the context of the story, of course, the actual meaning was “How do we package (any) news in such a way that it will appeal to a conservative audience?”

I remembered the title of an article I’d seen advertised on the cover of a Reader’s Digest one time:

How to raise drug-free kids

Step one, I had thought at the time: Acquire some kids who are drug-free. Step two: Raise them. Like the sentence from Gabriel Sherman, this sentence was ambiguous between two readings:

    How to VERB NOUN with PROPERTY X

  1. (Intended meaning) Let y be a NOUN; how to VERB y such that y comes to have PROPERTY X
  2. (Stupid meaning) Let y be a NOUN with PROPERTY X; how to VERB y

But standing in the checkout line, looking at a Reader’s Digest cover, I had been in an ornery mood, looking for an obtuse reading of the title. The intended meaning was one that the grammar licensed, even though I was overlooking it for my own amusement. Listening to the interview with Gabriel Sherman, I was just interested in hearing about this Roger Ailes guy, but the goofy reading was still the one that jumped out at me. In fact, now that I think about it, I don’t think the quotation was ambiguous after all. The only available reading is the unintended one, and the intended, resultative meaning is delivered only by sheer force of context, in the same way that I’d know that We had a talk about our son with drugs actually meant “We had a talk with our son about drugs.” So my question is: Why are both readings available with the Reader’s Digest title, but not with the Gabriel Sherman quotation?

Here are the syntactic and semantic differences between the two quotations that I notice:

  1. finite (do we package) vs. infinitive (to raise)
  2. relative clause (that is…) vs. adjective phrase (drug-free)
  3. creation nature of verb: package (no) vs. raise (yes)
  4. definite noun (the news) vs. generic (kids)

Flipping these conditions one by one in the Sherman quotation, I judge that the resultative reading becomes available when package is swapped for a verb whose meaning involves creating something. Red font indicates that the resultative meaning is unavailable; green font that it is available:

  1. (original) How do we package the news that is going to appeal to a conservative audience?
  2. (finite > infinitive) How to package the news that is going to appeal to a conservative audience
  3. (relative clause > adjective phrase) How do we package the conservative-appealing news?
  4. (ordinary verb > verb of creation) How do we create the news that is going to appeal to a conservative audience?
  5. (definite noun > indefinite noun) How do we package news that is going to appeal to a conservative audience?

How about when we do the same thing to the Reader’s Digest title? When does the resultative reading here become unavailable? As expected, it looks like replacing the creation-verb raise with a non-creation verb (talk to) bars the resultative meaning. Furthermore, changing the indefinite drug-free kids to the definite the drug-free kids also makes the goofy reading the only one available.

  1. (original) How to raise drug-free kids
  2. (infinitive > finite) How do we raise drug-free kids?
  3. (adjective phrase > relative clause) How to raise kids who will stay off drugs
  4. (verb of creation > ordinary verb) How to talk to drug-free kids
  5. (indefinite > definite) How to raise the drug-free kids

To sum up, you need a verb of creation and an indefinite direct object in order to be sure of having a resultative reading in sentences like these. Sometimes you can get the resultative reading even with a definite object (as in How do we create the news that…), but it doesn’t always work (as in how to raise the drug-free kids). I still don’t know why the definiteness of the direct object makes a difference, at least in these two examples, but that’s as far as I’m pushing the issue tonight.

SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT

Ten years ago today, I published my first blog post, on my brother Glen’s blog, where I continued to post for several months. In June of 2004, I had the opportunity to be a guest on The Volokh Conspiracy, and used the platform to announce my own blog, on the Blogger platform. A year or so later, I moved the blog to WordPress, where it has been ever since. (And the old Blogger web address has been taken over by a spam blog, which remains there to this day, with a final, spammy post from November 21, 2007 up top.) Thanks to all the readers over the years, and especially to those that have been reading the whole time, or close to it: The Ridger, Ellen K, Ran Ari-Gur, Ingeborg Norden, Ben Zimmer, Gordon Hemsley, and Glen are those that come most immediately to mind, as I post my 806th post today.

Posted in Ambiguity, Lexical semantics, Politics | 1 Comment »

Illegal Immigrants

Posted by Neal on October 15, 2012

With the recently re-ignited debate over the term illegal immigrant, I have heard all the arguments against using the term, including:

  1. It is politically divisive or inflammatory.
  2. It presumes guilt before due process has been done.
  3. It is inaccurate in characterizing people who entered legally but overstayed their visa, or did not come here of their own accord.
  4. It is nonsensical, because illegal refers to acts, not to people.

I will grant (1), and add that the same applies to the euphemistic undocumented immigrant (and the dysphemistic illegal alien). I will also grant (2), but add that this is fixable with the well-accepted use of alleged in cases where there is doubt. I will also grant (3). But as for (4), this argument is just plain silly, and grasping at straws.

I will grant that when illegal modifies a noun, that noun usually refers to an action. I will further grant that when it does modify a noun that refers to a thing, it usually means that the thing is illegal to possess, as in illegal drugs and illegal weapons. Using those collocations as analogies, we would expect illegal immigrant to mean an immigrant that it is illegal for someone to possess–in other words, a victim of human trafficking. That, of course, is not the meaning that it has.

In fact, that is a good argument (in addition to arguments about dehumanization) for abandoning the term illegal alien. However, that still doesn’t mean that illegal immigrant is nonsense. When the noun is the agentive form of a verb, and the adjective is the morphological analog of a manner adverb, there is a common, productive rule of semantic composition that gets you to the accepted meaning. Let me illustrate with an example unburdened by controversy. If I were to say, “Sandy is a deep thinker,” it would be willfully obtuse to say, “Hey, wait a minute! People can’t be deep!” If I were to tell you, “Lee is a beautiful dancer,” I could be telling the truth even if Lee’s face, when covered by a paper bag, could still make clocks lose two minutes per hour. In short,

dances beautifully : beautiful dancer :: thinks deeply : deep thinker :: immigrates illegally : illegal immigrant

Object to the term illegal immigrant on ethical, political, or legal grounds if you want to. But don’t resort to claiming the term embodies sloppy semantics, when it’s the most natural way to refer to someone who immigrated illegally. That just makes it look like you’ll accept any old argument that favors your side, and weakens the more valid ones.

Update, Oct. 16, 2012: Changed list item #2 from “were born here” (which I’ve known since elementary school automatically confers citizenship) to what I meant to say: “entered legally but overstayed their visa”.

Posted in Lexical semantics, Morphology, Politics | 17 Comments »

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 »

Like a Dog Ellipsis

Posted by Neal on September 18, 2010

I’ve been thinking about President Obama’s much-criticized “They talk about me like a dog” remark. You can read what Language Log had to say about it here. It’s a bit out of the news cycle by now, but Ben Zimmer’s current “On Language” column got me thinking about it again.

So what was it about They talk about me like a dog that struck people as odd about it in the first place?

For a while, I was looking for syntactic reasons. Like a dog is a case of ellipsis, a clause with some stuff left unpronounced that we are to recover from the context. One way to interpret it would be to treat a dog as the subject, and supply the V(erb) P(hrase) talk about me from the first clause:

They talk about me like a dog (talks about me).

This would be no big deal syntactically; it’s the same way you’d interpret You throw like a girl (throws), or Walk like a man (walks). Semantically, of course, it doesn’t work. Dogs don’t talk, and if they did, they wouldn’t talk about Obama.

Another way to interpret it this kind of ellipsis, although it won’t work for this particular example, would be to take a dog to be a direct object. To do that, you’d have to find a transitive verb in the context to fill in the blank. For example, it could work in a sentence like this:

They treat me like (they treat) a dog.

But since that won’t work for Obama’s sentence, we have to dig a little deeper for something to put together with a dog to make a clause. The solution is to supply the entire chunk They talk about, and use a dog as the object of the preposition about:

They talk about me like (they talk about) a dog.

Well, that works pretty well! All we have to do now is accommodate (i.e. accept as true for the sake of the conversation) the proposition that people don’t talk about dogs in a complimentary manner. So what’s so strange about that? Is it so unusual to have this kind of ellipsis? No; it’s the same kind of ellipsis as you get in lie in it like a bed, sleep in it like a hammock, or step on him like a bug.

I thought that maybe this kind of ellipsis was harder when the preposition is used in an abstract way, as about is, instead of in a more physical-location way like in or on in the above examples. But I can also find examples of depend on it like a crutch. So I don’t think that’s it, either.

When I taught ESL composition, sometimes I would mark a phrase on a student’s paper with the word “unidiomatic”. The phrasing didn’t break any syntactic rules, but it just wasn’t how a native English speaker would put something. It’s like saying, “If I’d known you were coming, I’d have baked a pie” instead of “If I’d known you were coming I’d have baked a cake”, or “I’m going to punch you a new asshole” instead of “I’m going to tear you a new asshole.” Zimmer’s latest column is about how much of the language we learn is set phrases, idioms, collocations, “chunks” of words. These chunks conform to the rules, more or less, and some of them even allow variation in the choice of words they contain; for example give me a break and cut me a break. But their existence makes a language inhospitable to similar chunks with similar meanings but with words that are not in the accepted set of components.

The perceived problem with They treat me like a dog, I think, is not that it breaks any grammar rules, but it’s a little too much like the idiom treat [someone] like a dog in form and meaning, with the unexpected phrasal verb talk about where treat should be. Maybe if he’d used some other noun than dog, like in these examples here, it would have been different enough to escape notice.

Posted in Ambiguity, Ellipsis, Politics | 6 Comments »

You Lie!

Posted by Neal on September 11, 2009

While watching President Obama’s address to Congress two nights ago, I heard someone off screen interrupt when Obama said the healthcare plan he envisioned would not provide health insurance to illegal aliens immigrants. I couldn’t hear everything the unseen speaker said; all I heard was, “Lie!” For all I knew, that might have been the entire utterance, in which case it could mean several things. One possibility was that the speaker was commanding the president to knowingly state falsehoods. Not very likely. Or he could have been telling Obama to pronate or supinate himself on the House floor, but that’s even less likely, since the more idiomatic way of saying that would be “Lie down.” So going back to the realm of false statements, “Lie!” could also have been just a noun, thrown out as a tag for the hearers to tie to Obama’s claim. That, I decided, was the most likely interpretation if all the speaker had said was “Lie!”, and it had probably been the end of a longer statement like “That’s a lie!”

The next day, of course, I learned that the speaker was a representative from South Carolina, who offered an actual apology (not a non-apology) for this breach of respect, only to say later that he’d done it because his party leadership made him, and is now winning big political points from his constituency and others.

I also learned that the full utterance was not “Lie!”, or even “That’s a lie!”, but in fact, “You lie!” So lie was a verb after all. In between wondering why exactly people think the statement that Obama’s hoped-for healthcare system won’t cover illegal aliens is a lie, I’ve wondered why this representative chose this particular wording.

You lie is in the simple present tense, which in modern English is used to represent habitual action. (At least, it does for verbs that denote actions, such as hurl, disrupt, and lie. For verbs that denote states, like know or seem, the simple present tense is the normal choice.) For action that’s happening at the time of the utterance, what you want is the present progressive tense. So instead of “You lie!”, why didn’t this representative yell out “You’re lying!” to the president?

It’s true that You lie is shorter than You’re lying by one syllable, but I’d hesitate to conclude that’s a strong enough reason. It also seems to me that You lie somehow carries more vehemence, maybe because it sounds like archaic language, from a time when the progressive tenses weren’t as developed, language that’s only pulled out now for special and serious occasions. Not too archaic — Thou liest! would just sound like a joke — but just archaic enough. Or maybe You lie is stronger because even though it’s not saying that you’re lying right now, it carries that implication — in addition to the actual assertion that you habitually lie. “You lie a lot,” the utterer claims, leaving it to the hearer to fill in the rest: “And you’re lying right now!”

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Posted in Politics, Semantics | 12 Comments »

 
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