Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Attachment ambiguity’ Category

Sleep Like Death, Death Like Sleep

Posted by Neal on May 19, 2014

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

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

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

Did you hear that? She said:

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

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

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

Dead, or Just Resting?

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

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

Sara Squint

Posted by Neal on February 21, 2014

In an issue of Entertainment Weekly a few weeks ago, I read an article about Sara Bareilles, a name I recognized from a music video that used to play on the overhead TVs at the gym, back when I used to go to the gym. The song was called “King of Anything,” and aside from having a good hook, it piqued my interest with the mismatch between its title and its lyrics. The title suggested “free-choice anything,” as in “I can do anything I want!” But in the song, it turns up in a line in the chorus: “Who made you king of anything?” Bait and switch! This is negative polarity anything! I even considered blogging about it at the time, but never got around to it.

However, this article wasn’t about “King of Anything.” It was about “Brave,” a song Bareilles released last year, and which was nominated for a Grammy. I found it, listened to it, and bought it. Not only is it a great tune with inspiring lyrics, but as a bonus, there is linguistic commentary to be made on it.

First of all, there’s the Lehrer-worthy rhyme in the first verse:

You can be amazin’, you can turn a phrase in-
to a weapon or a drug.

Love that enjambment!

As you can tell from the title, the theme of this song is bravery, but it always appears (as in the title) as the adjective brave, even in this line, where Bareilles shamelessly turns brave into a noun:

Show me how big your brave is!

By itself that’s not worth a blog post, but since I’m blogging anyway, there it is. The main things I wanted to comment on were from the chorus, which goes like this:

Say what you want to say
And let the words fall out
Honestly
I want to see you be brave!

The first time she sings it, she leads into it smoothly from the last line of the previous verse, like this:

I wonder what would happen if you
Say what you want to say

I was just talking to my ESL students about open and remote conditionals last week, after having them watch my video about them. What tense is would, I asked them? Right, past. And what time is this sentence talking about? The future. So what kind of conditional is it? Remote: We’re talking about something that’s not likely. Since what would happen is the main clause of a remote conditional, we also expect a past tense in the if clause, to continue showing this remoteness. What we get, though, is say what you want to say, in the present tense: an open conditional. Why did Bareilles say that instead of said what you want to say? The students came up with several good answers:

  1. The way Bareilles does it, you get the repetition of say at the beginning and end of the line.
  2. It’s easier to put emphasis on say, with its open syllable, than on the closed syllable said.
  3. Maybe it’s a stand-alone sentence, not part of an if-clause. (This is definitely true for the later repetitions of the chorus; for here, it’s probably done for consistency.)
  4. In addition to all that, maybe she’s aiming for the semantic difference, starting with a phrasing showing that something is unlikely to happen, and then changing her mind and ending with more confidence that it can and will happen. (OK, that one was mine.)

Finally, let’s look at the Honestly in the chorus. It’s a squinting modifier! Or as I like to call these constructions, a forwards-backwards attachment ambiguity. Should we parse it as

And let the words fall out honestly

or as

Honestly, I want to see you be brave!

Both parses make sense. The song is about telling the truth, so you could easily take honestly as a manner adverb to modify let the words fall out. However, honestly also works as a sentential adverb, like frankly or seriously, so the second parse works, too. In fact, this is the first squinting ambiguity I’ve seen in which the adverb works as both a manner adverb and a sentential adverb.

So which one is it? You don’t get a clue from timing, because in the song there’s a pause both before and after honestly. Of the few written versions of the lyrics that I looked up, most don’t have punctuation there, but they do break the lines so that honestly goes with I want to see you be brave, so I suspect they’re going with the sentential-adverb parse. But honestly, I think the manner-adverb parse is better.

Posted in Ambiguous song lyrics, Attachment ambiguity, Conditionals, Music | Leave a Comment »

Don’t Follow to Unfollow

Posted by Neal on February 9, 2014

“Don’t follow to unfollow,” said the last line in the Instagram profile.

What did that mean? It seemed to be saying, “To unfollow me, simply don’t follow me!” But that interpretation didn’t make sense!

Morphologically and semantically, the prefix un- doesn’t work that way. When you attach it to a verb, it refers to reversing an action. So unfollowing someone wouldn’t mean simply not following them; it requires that you follow them first. In fact, even that verb meaning makes sense only with the reversible social-media sense of follow: In Instagram, Twitter, or whatever app you’re using, follow means “click a button once to add someone’s updates to your news feed”; unfollow means to click again to remove them. In real life, though, following isn’t a reversible action. The closest you can come is to stop following someone. The reverse of following would be … what? Following their footsteps backward to find out where they started? In any case, you can’t unfollow someone on social media without first following them.

But wait, you say: Untied shoes can be shoes that were never tied! The unopened can of chocolate-covered peanut brittle like the one my wife gave me tonight had never been opened. (It’s open now.) This is true, and it’s because of the other way that un- can be used: It can prefix an adjective to form the negation of that adjective. So untied is not the verb untie with the suffix -ed turning it into an adjectival past participle; it’s the adjectival past participle tied, with the prefix un- giving it the meaning “not having been tied”. As for the verb untie, you don’t untie something by leaving it alone. It has to be in a knot already, and you remove the knot. For more on all this, read Ben Zimmer’s 2009 Boston Globe column.

“Don’t follow to unfollow”–was it a Zen thing? Kind of like “The only way to win is not to play”? I decided to ask Doug and Adam, who are more familiar with the latest trends in this area.

“Oh, I hate when people say that!” Doug said. “Some will even say, ‘Don’t unfollow, I have the app.’ “

What?

Some people, Doug explained, advertise that they will follow anyone who follows them; “follow back,” in the parlance. Right, I said.

Some other people, Doug went on, will follow those people, and then when those other people follow these followers back, the original followers will turn around and unfollow the people they just followed.

Why?

To get their follower-to-following ratio up! So when people say “Don’t follow to unfollow,” what they mean is, don’t pull this kind of funny business.

Suddenly, it clicked into place for me. It was an attachment ambiguity. I had been interpreting to unfollow as a purpose infinitive modifying the imperative Don’t follow, as in the diagram on the left. In actuality, to unfollow was modifying just the verb follow, as in the diagram on the right.

The reading I was getting

The reading I was getting


The reading I was supposed to get

The reading I was supposed to get

Even if I had parsed the sentence correctly, though, my interpretation wouldn’t have been right. In my grammar follow to unfollow makes even less sense than my earlier interpretation. It means, “In order to unfollow me, follow me!” The intended meaning is really “Don’t [[follow to get me to follow you back] and [then unfollow me]]. A shorter phrase that would probably also work: Don’t [follow only to unfollow later]. Actually, that does get a few Google hits, but only 28, compared to the thousands for “Don’t follow to unfollow.”

But all this really brought home a kind of sad side of social media that I hadn’t been aware of. First of all, that there are people who care so much about their following size, and believe that so many others share the sentiment, that they promise to follow everyone back. They don’t care how dull or stupid anyone’s stream of content is; they just want that person to follow them. Second, that some of these people try to break the rules of this pitiful game by buying a follower and then stopping payment. Third, that players of this game are so invested in their bogus follower numbers that they send out pre-emptive threats: “Don’t follow to unfollow; I have the app.” The app, I’m assuming, is Who Unfollowed Me? or something like it, as the guy in the video describes. These apps typically advertise how easy it is to unfollow those that unfollow you, as if that’s just naturally the next step to take when you find out that someone unfollowed you. What next? Apps that find out who unfollowed you, and then force them to refollow you?

Now that I understand Don’t follow to unfollow better, I guess my original interpretation could work after all. The users who don’t want me following and then unfollowing really would prefer that I did my unfollowing by never following in the first place: To unfollow, don’t follow.

Posted in Attachment ambiguity, Lexical semantics, Morphology, Negation | 5 Comments »

Stop Creating!

Posted by Neal on January 13, 2014

You know, I really liked the first film I saw Shia LaBeouf in, and the second one wasn’t too bad. I was always a bit bugged by the clear misspelling of his last name, which I knew from high school French II should have been LaBoeuf, but I wouldn’t let a petty thing like that cause me to boycott a movie. But I’ve been increasingly incredulous of the unfolding story about LaBeouf and a graphic novelist named Daniel Clowes, and I’m inclined to boycott LaBeouf now. Here’s the recap for those who haven’t been following it:

  1. LaBeouf produced a movie titled Howard Cantour.com.
  2. Daniel Clowes observed that large portions of the dialogue were plagiarized from his book Justin B. Damiano.
  3. LaBeouf apologized on Twitter.
  4. LaBeouf apologized numerous other times on Twitter, plagiarizing other notable apologies.
  5. LaBeouf apologized via a message in skywriting over LA.
  6. LaBeouf then tweeted a storyboard, supposedly for his next movie project, which clearly plagiarized from another of Daniel Clowes’s works.
  7. Clowes’s lawyer sent LaBeouf a cease-and-desist letter demanding that “he must stop all efforts to create and produce another short film that misappropriates Mr. Clowes’ work….”

You can read more about this here, here, and here, but here’s where the story takes a linguistic turn, so this is our stop.

Ben Zimmer emailed me to tell me about how LaBeouf was deliberately misreading the cease-and-desist letter. He sent along a few links that I’ll share. First, here’s an image of the original letter, along with LaBeouf’s edited version:

And here’s another message he delivered via skywriting:

In addition to copping out with the bullshit claim that all authorship is plagiarism, LaBeouf’s carryings-on exemplify two argument techniques that really get under my skin. One is the deliberate cutoff, exemplified in the classic dialogue:

A: Why did you do this?
B: Well, I didn’t think I–
A: That’s right! You didn’t think!

The other is the straw-man technique, which I often get from my sons. Take a demand from your opponent, amp it up to its most extreme, idiotic version, then belittle your opponent for being so naive as to make such an extreme, idiotic demand. In this case, “stop creating a particular kind of thing” becomes “stop creating (anything)”.

Thinking about the syntax of the butchered sentence, though, I wonder if LaBeouf has realized that he can carry his half-ass mis-parsing even further, to arrive at a completely grammatical parse that’s even more to his liking. Here’s the structure of the intended parse:

A conjoined verb

The and is joining the smallest constituents it can join: the verbs create and produce. The shared direct object is another short film that misappropriates the word of Daniel Clowes. But LaBeouf wants to break the connection between create and produce, and have create its own verb phrase, meaning “engage in any kind of creation.” Well, in that case, what do we do with the and? Instead of hooking up the two single verbs, it will have to hook up the next larger constituents: the verb phrases stop all efforts to create and produce another short film…. So the parse would be like this:

Coordinated verb phrases

So if he wanted to, LaBeouf could argue that this letter actually requires him to produce another short film that misappropriates the work of Daniel Clowes. Syntactically, it’s impeccable. Semantically, there’s the problem that the verb produce in the movie-making sense entails creating, so he couldn’t satisfy both requirements. Pragmatically, there’s the oddity of requiring that someone do something that involves lawbreaking (i.e. misappropriation). But hey, it’s about as logical as what he’s been doing already, so what the heck?

Posted in Attachment ambiguity, Coordination, Movies, Pragmatics | 5 Comments »

How Bad Girls Get

Posted by Neal on June 25, 2013

Last night I got to meet Bill Walsh, the Washington Post copy editor and book author, whom I’ve mentioned in several blog posts. He was in town promoting his latest book, Yes, I Could Care Less, and had a reading and Q&A session at the home of his colleague Mark Allen. During the talk, Walsh mentioned the ambiguity in this line from “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” by the Police (you can hear it at about 1:17 in the video at the end of this post):

You know how bad girls get.

I knew instantly what he meant. First, there’s the “Girls can become so bad!” reading:

Those girls can get so bad!

Then there’s the “Those bad girls–you know how they can be!” reading:

Bad girls; you know how they are.

I’m surprised I never got around to blogging about this line before, what with ambiguous song lyrics being a recurring theme here. Heck, I’ve even written about another ambiguity in a song by the Police somewhere here. Where is it? … Really, where is it? I know it’s here somewhere? Why isn’t it showing up in my search?

Oh yeah! It was the subject of my very first blog post, back on my brother’s blog, Agoraphilia! Back before I discovered how to put pictures in a blog post. Back before I made nifty syntax diagrams for you to read, and just used nested brackets. Wow.

But back to the current ambiguity. This one reminds me of a joke I read in a joke book back in second or third grade. It went like this:

Do you know how long cows should be milked?

Find the answer below the fold:

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Ambiguous song lyrics, Attachment ambiguity, Music | 5 Comments »

Found in the Wild

Posted by Neal on September 6, 2012

On the August 30 episode of Kevin Allison’s Risk! podcast, I heard two examples of syntactic phenomena that I’ve written about before, that supposedly don’t occur much in actual written or spoken English. Not to say that they never happen, but they’re rare enough to have caught my attention.

As Allison says during each episode, Risk! is the podcast where “people tell true stories they never thought they’d dare to share.” It’s labeled “Explicit” on iTunes, and I should note that they don’t mean explicit in the way that a good mathematical proof or instruction manual should be. They mean sexually explicit, and some of the episodes truly are. Allison himself did a story spanning three episodes called “Kevin Goes to Kink Camp,” which I didn’t care to listen to past the middle of the Part 2. But if you want to hear a depressing yet hilarious story featuring not only sex, but also excrement and vomit, there was this other episode that’s got to be from sometime in August, but I can’t seem to find it again. Other stories are completely family-friendly, like the one from a couple of years ago involving a standardized test and a squirrel. Sometimes I’ll take a risk (as Allison likes to recommend) and listen to the latest episode in the car while Doug and Adam are with me, and hope it’ll be one of the clean episodes like that one. Sometimes it is.

Anyway, like many podcasts, Risk! has sponsors, which Allison promotes wholeheartedly. I liked when he talked up one sponsor, an online sexual accessories store, in a gravelly, old-tar sailor’s voice, telling us, “Yer gonna buy yer lube an’ yer condoms anyway, so ye might as well get ‘em from….” In recent episodes, the sponsor hasn’t been nearly as interesting: an online purveyor of postage. But Allison gushes over it gamely, and on the August 30 episode, he said

There’s a lot more mailing that should have been being done before that is being done now….

A nice example of a past perfect progressive passive, a kind of verb cluster that I’ve also written about in passing in this post, and as the main topic in this Visual Thesaurus column.

Shortly after that utterance, Allison gave his usual spiel on how to take advantage of a special offer on that website, and make sure that his show got credit for referring you:

So go to [sponsor] before you do anything else, click on that little radio microphone at the top of the home page, type in R-I-S-K, and get going.

So we have four main clauses, coordinated:

  1. Go to [sponsor]
  2. click on that little radio icon,
  3. type in R-I-S-K
  4. get going

Then there’s one subordinate clause: before you do anything else. The way Allison says it, there’s no pause between the first main clause and this subordinate clause, and there is a pause between anything else and click. So it sounds like the before clause modifies Go to [sponsor]. That could work, if he truly means for me to visit this website. On the other hand, the utterance makes more sense if the before clause is modifying click on that little radio icon. If you click the radio icon before you do anything else on that website, Risk! gets the credit.

In short, we have a phrase that could look backwards to modify something, or forwards to modify something. It’s a forward/backward attachment ambiguity, better known (to some at least) as a squinting modifier! Here’s what the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage has to say about squinting modifiers:

[T]he squinting modifier is more of a theoretical possibility — with, it must be admitted, a catchy title — than a real problem.

Maybe so, but there it is, in the wild!

Posted in Attachment ambiguity, Syntax | 5 Comments »

Ask the Cashier

Posted by Neal on March 4, 2012

I’ve been teaching academic writing at Ohio State University’s ESL Composition Program this quarter (hence the sparse blogging). After class one day last week, I stopped at a coffee shop that was right inside the building to get a Coke to go with my lunch. As I handed my money to the cashier, I noticed the sign on the register:

Ask him if I’d like a receipt? What was I supposed to say, something like “Uh, would I like a receipt?”

What kind of weird question was that? Then, to use a phrase I’ve used before, like a Necker cube flipping inside out, the phrase shifted to match its meaning. I’d been parsing it like in the diagram on the left, when really it was intended to be read like the one on the right:

In the diagram on the left, the subordinate clause if you want a receipt is a complement to the verb, just like the cashier. The role the cashier plays is the person who gets asked something, and the subordinate clause has the role of whatever question is to be asked. You can parse it this way because if is something like an honorary wh word, so subordinate clauses it heads up can go with verbs like ask or wonder: I asked {what he was doing / where they were going / whether there was any pizza left / if we were free to go}.

In the diagram on the right, on the other hand, the verb ask only has one complement: the cashier. The question that gets asked goes unspoken, and you have to get it from the context, the same as you would in sentences like Ask mom. The if-clause, meanwhile, modifies the whole thing, saying under which conditions you should ask the cashier whatever question you have. We can parse it this way because if can also be used in its regular old “if” conditional sense.

So the intended meaning was this: If the circumstance arise in which you want a receipt, ask the cashier something. From context, the most obvious question is, “May I have a receipt?”

Meanwhile, the food court in the new student union has it right:

Posted in Attachment ambiguity, Lexical semantics | 3 Comments »

Keep Your Promises to Yourself

Posted by Neal on May 22, 2011

I got an email from my gym, advertising some online system they have for tracking calories, planning your exercises, and who knows what else. In the message, they said using this system would help you with “keeping your promises to yourself.” That’s a great idea for what to do with my promises. If I keep them to myself, no one else will know about them, and there will be fewer embarrassing questions about whether I’ve accomplished them.

Posted in Attachment ambiguity | 7 Comments »

We Do What We Do

Posted by Neal on March 4, 2010

And now for a semantics-focused post on National Grammar Day. Actually, my syntax-focused post was drifting into semantics territory, when I talked about the likely and unlikely intended meanings for the sentence I was talking about. That’s OK: Although this post is mostly about an ambiguity in a sign, I’m going to use some syntactic diagrams. It’s hard to separate the two at times.

So, the sign I have in mind is one I saw for a mortgage broker. It had these encouraging words:

We do what we do to help people realize their dreams of home ownership.

The first time I read it, my reaction was, “Well, no kidding!” The sign seemed to be saying to me, “You know those things we do to help people realize their dreams of home ownership? Well, we do them.” Then the re-parse came through, and I arrived at the intended meaning: “You know those things we do? Well, we do them to help people realize their dreams of home ownership.”

The sentence was in perfectly good Standard English grammar, but there were two possible ways to structure it (i.e. two parses). The way that I happened upon first was the one diagrammed below. The tents above the words show how they clump together into phrases. Down at the bottom, the purpose infinitival phrase to help people… modifies the verb phrase (VP) do 1. (The 1 is a stand-in for the what that appears at the front of the fused relative clause.) The diagram shows this modifying relationship by having the to help people tent and the do 1 tent coming together under a bigger VP tent for do to help people. Then whole phrase what we do to help people… is the direct object of the do in the VP higher up in the diagram.

The purpose infinitival attaches to the smaller VP

The more sensible parse is this next one. Here, the infinitival phrase modifies not the little VP do 1, but the big VP do what we do. The diagram shows this by having the tent for the do what we do VP and the tent for to help people coming together under a tent for a big VP that houses them both: do what we do to help people.

The infinitival phrase attaches up high.

Enjoy the rest of National Grammar Day, and come back soon! If you have questions about grammar, send them to me at nealwhitman@yahoo.com, or address them to @LiteralMinded on Twitter. Some of them may find their way into future posts.

Posted in Attachment ambiguity, Fused relatives | Leave a Comment »

Before It Starts

Posted by Neal on February 14, 2010

Regular reader Adrian Morgan (you know him as the Flesh-Eating Dragon of The Outer Hoard) wrote to me about playing a game called MindTrap with some members of his family. He said:

During this game one player read me a puzzle in which the protagonist can tell people the score of any football game before it starts. The puzzle was to figure out how.

I asked whether the answer involves an ambiguity in the English language. The other player replied that it did not. I remarked that this rules out the answer I was thinking of, that the score of any football game before it starts is always 0-0 because the game hasn’t started yet. The other player replied that this is the correct answer, but that he would not have said it involves an ambiguity in the language.

Adrian, of course, was right. This is an attachment ambiguity involving the phrase before it starts. I’m going to follow Geoff Pullum’s analysis of subordinating conjunctions like before, and classify them as prepositions that can take either noun phrases or sentences as their objects. So before it starts will be a prepositional phrase. Under the “how is that possible?” reading, it attaches up high, to the entire verb phrase tell people the score of any football game, as in this diagram here:

The How-is-that-possible? parse

Under the “who cares?” reading, it attaches down low, modifying the nominal score of any game. (I’ve accidentally labeled score of any game as N instead of Nom, but I’m not going to redo it now.)

The Who-cares? reading

Adrian continues:

To me, it’s a mystery how someone could deny that this involves an ambiguity in the language, when to my way of thinking it involves a rather prototypical example of one. What do people think “ambiguity in the language” means? I can only suggest that the incident supports Geoff Pullum’s observation that most people think of language as a big bag of words — hence, to them, an ambiguity in the language can only mean an ambiguity in a word.

[I]t’s interesting as an example of how most people are not accustomed to thinking about language in the way that a linguist would: they think of it in terms of vocabulary rather than syntax. Later in the game there was another puzzle of which [the other player] remarked that he would say it involved an ambiguity in the language: but in that case it was a simple case of polysemy, which reinforces my interpretation of the incident.

Posted in Attachment ambiguity | 2 Comments »

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 443 other followers