Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Adam’ Category

Chemicals, Castro, and Last Year’s Jeans

Posted by Neal on May 8, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, on to Adam’s double passive:

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

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

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

wash and put the dishes away

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

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

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

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

When We Get Married

Posted by Neal on July 9, 2011

It’s been light blogging during the past week, since my parents were visiting. Pretty much all I did was check in on the Grammar Girl giveaway a few times and put links to relevant GG podcasts or blog posts (here or elsewhere) for topics people asked about that I probably won’t choose because they’ve already been covered. The puzzling entries are the ones that say something like, “I’d love to win one of these books!” and nothing else. I don’t think they read the post as closely as they should have.

Anyway, one night while Mom and Dad were here, we went out to eat to celebrate their 45th anniversary (from a few days earlier) and my wife’s and my 15th anniversary (that day). Dad made a comment about our anniversaries being 30 years apart but so close to the same day. Adam spoke up.

“Maybe someday when Doug and I get married, we’ll get married in July, too!”

“Oh, you couldn’t do that!” I said. “He’s your brother! And you’re both boys!” (OK, so that last part might not be a problem in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Washington, D.C., or who knows where else in a dozen years.)

“Adam, these guys are really literal!” my wife said.

Yes, to interpret Doug and Adam get married to mean that they’re marrying each other is a literal interpretation. But it’s also a literal interpretation to interpret it the way Adam meant it: that Doug is getting married to some woman (or man, I suppose), and Adam is getting married to some other woman (or man, yes, OK). The ambiguity isn’t a matter of literal vs. figurative; it’s just that marry (or more commonly, get married) participates in the understood reciprocal object alternation. So do the verbs kiss and fight, but not hit or kick,. (I realize I’ve written enough posts about these kinds of verbal diathesis alternations to give them their own category, which I have now done.)

As I wrote in 2007 about Amelia Bedelia, it’s not about going for the unintended literal meaning of something; it’s about choosing, in the face of ambiguity, the maximally funny reading, be it literal or not. I remember a time about sixteen years ago when the “married to someone else” interpretation was the funnier one. It was around the time of my wife’s and my negative-first anniversary. I was introducing her to Mom and Dad, and telling them that we were going to get married. Then I added, “To each other!”

Posted in Adam, Lexical semantics, The darndest things, Verbal diathesis alternations | 6 Comments »

Father’s Day Polysemy

Posted by Neal on June 20, 2011

Yesterday I sat and opened the Father’s Day gifts (yes, plural) that the wife and the boys had gotten me. Most of them were shirts and shorts. Doug was saying he thought at least one of those boxes would have been clothes that were just disguising the real gift, but no, every box with clothes in it was actually a gift of clothes. I explained that clothes really were a good gift.

“Do you know what happens when people don’t give you clothes as gifts?” I asked.

“What?”

“It means you have to go out and buy them yourself. Or if you don’t, the clothes you have keep getting more worn out and crummy-looking, and then you have to buy more clothes yourself anyway.”

Yes, for me, a gift of clothes is as much a gift of time as a gift of stuff to wear. But as it turned out, my family had one more gift after all the clothes were stacked on the table and the wrapping was lying on the floor with cats crawling underneath it.

“Doug got annoyed with me,” my wife said, “when I kept saying things like, ‘Let’s give your dad his Father’s Day.’”

“I’d say, ‘Do you mean Father’s Day presents?’” Doug explained.

“Ah, nice polysemy!” I said.

My wife picked up again. “But Adam, meanwhile, would say things like, ‘After Father’s Day, we’re going out to lunch?’”

Wow, even more polysemy! In addition to referring to the day itself, my family was using Father’s Day to refer not only to gifts given for the occasion, but to the giving and receiving of those gifts, too. And most interesting of all, I thought, was that it wasn’t Adam, on the autism spectrum, who was insisting on the more literal meaning, but Doug. Adam was extending the polysemy even further than his mother was taking it.

Posted in Adam, Doug, Polysemy, The wife | 1 Comment »

Whose Camera…?

Posted by Neal on June 10, 2011

As I was saying in the last post, last weekend Adam and I went on his Cub Scout pack’s spring campout. This year it was at Flint Ridge State Memorial, a place I’d never heard about before now, but where I learned not only that flint was a sedimentary rock (I’d have guessed metamorphic off the top of my head), but also that the current thinking is that it was formed from crushed and compressed sponges. When we took the tour of the visitor center, the guide mentioned that any flint found at the site had to stay there, and asked why. Adam volunteered that eventually there would be no flint left.

“Right,” the guide said. “If–”

But Adam wasn’t done yet. “And then they’d just have to call it ‘Ridge’.”

At one point during the weekend, a couple other parents and I were sitting in the shade on a picnic table while our scouts practiced making a fire in the 90-degree weather. Fred, the Cubmaster, came over to take a seat, too, but noticed my camera lying on the table. He asked me, “Is this your camera?” I said yes. Moving it aside, he said, “I didn’t want to sit on it.”

Well, that was nice of him. He didn’t want to sit on my camera. But what was the connection between his hesitation to sit on it and the fact that it was mine? I wondered silently if he would he have sat on it if it had been someone else’s camera. More specifically, I thought the words

*Whose camera would you have sat on it if it was __?

I didn’t say it out loud, though, because the syntax was so bad. The meaning was sensible, but it’s difficult or sometimes impossible to make this kind of question in English. This unspoken sentence is an example of something called an island violation. If you consider the sentence to be a piece of land, the wh word or phrase at the beginning of an interrogative or relative clause is sometimes thought of as having been “moved” from its more usual location to the front of the sentence. For example, in Whose camera would you have sat on __?, the wh phrase whose camera has been “moved” from its position as the object of on to the front of the sentence. But there are some constructions that are like islands, surrounded by water that a wh phrase can’t move over in order to get to the front of the sentence. The moved phrase is also sometimes called the filler, and the place it moved from is called the gap.

The island violation in my sentence was the “adjunct island violation”. Adjunct refers to a phrase that modifies another something; in this case, the adverbial clause if it was (whose camera) modifies the clause would you have sat on it. The adverbial clause (i.e. the adjunct) is an island that doesn’t allow whose camera to escape and go to the front of the sentence.

As for why islands exist, linguists still argue. For this one, my impression is that this sentence crashes because you start out parsing it as Whose camera would you have sat on, assuming that whose camera fills in a gap after on, but then comes an it, and you have to look farther and deeper for the gap that whose camera is to fill. But other times, islands do allow things to escape; for example, there’s the subtype of adjunct island called the relative clause island that I discuss in this post.

Trying to think of a workaround phrasing for my sentence, I came up with

Which person X is such that if the camera had belonged to X, you would have sat on it?

Yeah, that works, especially the person X is such that part!

One other highlight from the campout: Adam got his first taste of Spam. He liked it.

Posted in Adam, Fillers and gaps, You're so literal! | 18 Comments »

Adam’s Free Time

Posted by Neal on February 15, 2011

Every summer when Doug and Adam take swim lessons (at the pool I’ve talked about before), I put up with the instructors calling the crawl “freestyle,” bringing up yet another generation of kids to think that freestyle means crawl. I can understand this usage in the Olympics, because there, freestyle really does mean you can choose your stroke, and it’s just that for most swimmers, you’d be a fool to choose anything but the crawl. And as a linguist, I can understand the process by which freestyle undergoes this semantic narrowing. But as always, I don’t have to like it, and what the swim teachers call freestyle, I continue to call the crawl.

So what got me thinking about swimming, here in the middle of winter? Conversations I have with Adam, which go something like this one:

Me: OK, time to do your homework.
Adam: But I haven’t had any free time today!
Me: Sure you did! You slept until almost noon this morning.
Adam: I mean I haven’t had any video game time!

Or this one:

Me: All right, let’s do some violin practice.
Adam: So you’re saying I get no free time at all? Because after this it’ll be time for showers and get ready for bed!
Me: You had an more than an hour of free time between when you got home from school and supper.
Adam: But Doug was on the P[lay]S[tation]3 almost that whole time!

No. No R-based narrowing of free time on my watch. In my house, it will continue to refer to time you can spend as you wish, regardless of whether you spend it playing video games.

Posted in Adam, Quantity and Relevance | 5 Comments »

I Fruck Out

Posted by Neal on August 13, 2010

If you’ve clicked over here after reading my guest script for Grammar Girl on swearing, thanks for visiting! You might enjoy browsing the categories Taboo and Potty On, Dudes!

It’s funny that that episode should have gone out today, in light of a turn the conversation took at lunch today. Doug was telling Adam about making his way past some guards in a videogame, and mentioned how he “snuck” past them. That reminded me of various discussions I’ve read about the word snuck, like this one at Language Log, and this one from Sentence First (which I linked to a few months ago). The interesting thing about it, I told Doug and Adam, is that it’s a verb that started out with a regular past tense, sneaked, and recently developed an irregular one, instead of the more usual opposite direction.

“The subject came up on Twitter,” I said, “and one guy said something like…”

Turns out ‘snuck’ is a relatively recent Americanism. When I learned that, I totally fruck out.
(From dbarefoot)

“That sounds too much like the F-word,” Adam said.

“You’re right. Maybe that’s why it hasn’t caught on,” I said. In writing the Grammar Girl episode, I wanted to say something about this phenomenon of taboo words contaminating phonetically similar but semantically and etymologically unrelated words, such as feck, niggardly, or Uranus, but had to cut the material for length considerations. It’s interesting that taboo can have such an effect, but it doesn’t always take, as attested by the continued use of words such as ship, sheet, puck, fact, fax, flack, flak, and fleck. (Although the phonetic resemblances have certainly served as the basis for taboo-related puns, like “Let’s make like a hockey player, and get the puck out of here!”) As far as I know, no one has a good explanation for the occasional absence of this taboo effect.

In the same vein, if a word’s multiple meanings include a taboo meaning, that meaning can come to drive out the non-taboo meanings. This can happen whether the word in its taboo sense is actually considered vulgar (for example beaver), or socially acceptable (for example, arouse). Linguistics textbooks will sometimes point out the case of cock and ass, whose jobs had to be taken over by rooster and donkey. But on the other hand, hello, dam, damage and damp haven’t suffered.

The ironic thing is that even people who have no problem with using actual cuss words will often avoid taboo-contaminated words. Are there words you won’t use because they sound too close to an obscenity, a profanity, or even an acceptable word for a taboo topic?

Posted in Adam, Doug, Irregular verbs, Taboo | 10 Comments »

Doug and Adam Say Peyton

Posted by Neal on February 15, 2010

A couple of posts back, I wrote about my pronunciation of Peyton and similar words. My ordinary pronunciation, you may recall, was [pʰejʔtn] or [pʰejʔn], illustrated in the spectrogram below:

My ordinary pronunciation of Peyton

(Sound file: My normal pronunciation of Peyton)

My wife says it the same way. Here’s a spectrogram of her saying Peyton; note the 75nmilliseconds of silence, highlighted in orange, where she has a glottal stop:

My wife's pronunciation of Peyton

I discussed two other pronunciations as well, which I called the careful pronunciation and the weird pronunciation. Commenter Dw said:

Another possible pronunciation in words like “Peyton” is an alveolar stop with nasal release (in IPA, [pʰejtn]). That is the one I myself would most likely use in normal conversation. One could easily imagine it becoming [pʰejʔn] over the generations.

In other words, my only pronunciations where the final vowel dropped out and the final [n] became syllabic also had the insertion of the glottal stop [ʔ]. Dw is pointing out that you don’t have to insert a [ʔ] in order for that to happen. I responded to Dw:

Funny you should mention this other pronunciation. … Despite this physical possibility, I’d still thought that only people who inserted the glottal stop did the syllabic [n] … until I learned someone very close to me was an exception.

I promised a follow-up, and here it is. Take a look at Doug’s pronunciation of Peyton below. When I recorded him saying it, it sounded like he was pronouncing it the same way as I did. But when I created a spectrogram for it, I was in for a surprise:

Doug's pronunciation of Peyton

(Sound file: Doug’s pronunciation of Peyton)

As best I can tell, the ey and syllabic [n] parts are as labeled, leaving only the teeny little sliver of silence between them. I think this is where he says his [t]. In any case, there’s definitely no stretch of silence corresponding to a glottal stop like there is in my and my wife’s spectrograms. Once I realized this, I wanted to get a recording of Adam, too, to find out if his pronunciation was more like Doug’s, or my wife’s and mine. Here’s a spectrogram of Adam saying Peyton:

Adam's pronunciation of Peyton

(Sound file: Adam’s pronunciation of Peyton)

Adam’s spectrogram is even harder to read than Doug’s. There doesn’t quite seem to be an area of silence, so I’ve made my best guess at where his [t] is. But as with Doug’s spectrogram, one thing is clear: There’s no glottal stop in there.

So is it coincidence that the two adults in my house insert a glottal stop in Peyton and the two kids don’t? Is Doug and Adam’s pronunciation like those of their peers? What about when they pronounce pate? So many questions…

Posted in Adam, Doug, Phonetics and phonology | 18 Comments »

Nick Impersonates Charlie

Posted by Neal on January 18, 2010

Doug and Adam like visiting their Aunt Carrie and Uncle Mark, because they have a flat-coated black retriever named Charlie that Doug and Adam like to play with. They’ll usually bring him a new toy, and Charlie is always eager to get it. He comes bounding up to the car, sniffing at us as we get out. My wife will pull the new toy out of the bag it’s in, and throw it into the yard for Charlie. He’s so used to the routine that it caused a problem one time when we didn’t bring a new toy — but did bring one of Doug and Adam’s stuffed animals. Charlie was so excited and so eager to get to work on that stuffed animal that we had to hide it in a bedroom drawer.

“Aw, Charlie,” the wife and sons were saying, “That’s not a toy!”

“Ooh, goody, let me have my new toy!” Carrie was saying, speaking as Charlie. Doug, Adam, my wife, and I sometimes put words into Charlie’s mouth, too. The Charlie voice is somewhat like the voice of the Abominable Snowman in the Looney Toons cartoons, the one who picks up Daffy Duck and says, “I will hug him and squeeze him, and call him George.”

I was reminded of this when I listened to Deborah Tannen’s invited talk at the LSA conference. She’s done a study on how family members will use other family members in order to change the tone of a tense interaction. For example, I’ve sometimes asked Doug or Adam, “What would your mother say if she knew you were walking around in the cold house with no socks or slippers on?” It’s kind of a weenie’s way out to fob off the sock requirement on my wife, but hey, it makes me look a little less like the bad guy. And besides, she really would tell them to put on socks or slippers!

Other times, people will actually imitate the other person’s voice, instead of just invoking them like I did. And it turns out that a really popular target of this kind of ventriloquizing is the family pet. Tannen had several examples of people doing this, and even wrote a separate paper just on this more specific topic, called “Talking the Dog”.

One of Tannen’s main points about talking in another person’s (or animal’s) voice is that along with the voice comes a whole set of personality traits belonging to the voice’s owner, traits that a speaker can temporarily assume in order to change the power dynamic between them and who they’re speaking to.

It was the point about a voice coming along with certain personality traits that reminded me of the Charlie voice. Trouble comes when we’re back at home, and Doug has the occasion to speak as our cat Nick. When he ventriloquizes Nick, he uses the Charlie voice. My wife can’t abide this. Nick and Charlie have two such different personalities that giving them the same voice is simply unacceptable. It bugged her so much that she even had me create separate voices for Nick and our four other cats. But Doug can’t do the Nick voice, so he’ll still sometimes use the Charlie voice for Nick. “No Charlie voice!” my wife tells him.

Well, maybe he’s not giving Nick Charlie’s voice. Maybe when he imitates Nick, he’s imitating a Nick who’s imitating Charlie! I’ll have to drop this suggestion to Doug and see how it goes over with his mother.

Posted in Adam, Cats, Doug, LSA, Pragmatics, The wife | 7 Comments »

Adam Discovers Singular They

Posted by Neal on December 16, 2009

For the past six months, Doug has been keenly interested in birds and other wildlife. He’s had us take him to local (and not-so-local) nature centers, installed with our help an elaborate configuration of bird feeders in the back yard, and been reading his collection of field guides (acquired mostly in one go, for his birthday) more or less cover to cover. He and his mom will have conversations about what they saw at the birdfeeder during the day.

“I saw a hairy!” he’ll say.

“And I saw a downy and a red-bellied,” his mother will tell him.

“And I saw a couple of woodpeckers!” I’ll put in. Other birds than woodpeckers come, too. We’ve had mourning doves, juncos, starlings, purple finches, nuthatches, titmouses, cardinals, and sparrows, which I’m slowly learning to identify. But more often, if I see something interesting at the feeder, I’ll say, “Look at that!”, and Doug will say, “What is it?”, and I’ll say, “A bird!”

Meanwhile, last week we got our annual letter of concern from Adam’s school, notifying us officially that he’d missed more than ten days of class. This happens just about every year, because Adam gets sick so much. As if to celebrate the occasion, Adam announced on Sunday afternoon that he felt bad, and had a fever of 100.5 to back it up. So now he’s spent two more days home sick, and I’ve been prompting him at every turn to get through some more of the makeup work he still has stacked up from his earlier absences, especially now that I’m picturing two more days’ worth piling up on his desktop at school.

As he was completing the questions on his worksheet about the prefix dis-, he suddenly said:

Sometimes they can be singular.

“Oh?” I said, trying not to divulge anything. “Give me an example.”

Adam showed me the question: “What might cause you to distrust someone?” His answer was, “One thing is if they let you down.” Someone was singular, and the they was talking about that someone, so they was singular here.

“You’re right, Adam!” I said. This was amazing to me. It was only a few weeks ago that his teacher gave them all a worksheet on personal pronouns, summarizing facts for case (e.g. I vs. me), person (e.g. I vs. you or he/she/it), and number (e.g. I vs. we). I’d gone over the worksheet with Doug and Adam during supper one night, and I suspect Doug forgot about it as soon as he knew he wasn’t in danger of me asking another question about it during the next five minutes. But Adam had evidently kept the information, and was now realizing that it didn’t completely match what he knew about his language. He made my day!

“You’re thinking like a linguist!” I told him. Doug, meanwhile, was just as amazed that Adam could notice this kind of stuff as he was that I could.

“You know what I think of when I think about me and sentences and pronouns and stuff?” he asked me. “I think of you and birds!”

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Posted in Adam, Pronouns | 3 Comments »

Odd Ones Out Are Not Like the Others

Posted by Neal on July 8, 2009

I see an odd one out!One Sunday morning not long ago, I was making breakfast for everyone. The grits were almost ready to dish up, but before I did that, I had to heat up the water for Doug’s instant oatmeal, because he doesn’t like grits! And after I’d cut wedges of watermelon my wife and Doug and me, I got out a banana for Adam, because for some reason he didn’t want any watermelon that morning. Then I got juice for Doug and Adam and myself; I didn’t have to get any for my wife, because she was just going to keep drinking the Diet Coke she’d popped open. So finally all the different combinations of food and drink were on the table, and we sat down to eat. That’s when Adam observed:

“Doug’s the odd one out because he’s having oatmeal.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Adam, Doug, Food-related, Morphology, The wife | 12 Comments »

 
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