Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Syntax’ Category

Thoughts on Just Because X Doesn’t Mean Y

Posted by Neal on April 4, 2014

On her Grammar Girl podcast this week, Mignon Fogarty is running a guest script that I wrote on the just because X doesn’t mean Y construction, a thriving piece of English syntax that has come into its own in the last 50 years or so. My favorite example of JBX-DMY is

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

In this post, I go into some of the details that didn’t make it into the script. First off, quite a bit has been written about this construction; the sources I read while writing the Grammar Girl script are:

Weird syntax
JBX-DMY is so common that it’s easy to overlook that it doesn’t follow the regular syntactic or semantic rules. On the syntactic side, what’s the subject of doesn’t mean? Is it the just because clause? Or is it an understood subject that sometimes gets pronounced, as in Just because it’s easier to raise VC money, that doesn’t mean you should, or Just because it’s wrong, it doesn’t mean it’s not funny?

Weird semanticsFor comparison, let’s look at more regular sentences that contain just because. For example, think about the scope of the “cause” meaning and the negation meaning in Bill isn’t speaking to me, just because I served him a cat-food sandwich as a joke. Depending on the intonation, we can get two readings. I’ll illustrate them by using the notation CAUSE(A)(B) to mean that A caused B. With the intonation suggested by the comma I put in the sentence, we get this reading, with CAUSE taking scope over the negation:

CAUSE(serve cat-food sandwich)(NOT(speaking to me))
(i.e. my serving Bill the CFS caused him to not speak to me)

Without a pause before the just because, and with a a rise-fall intonation at the end of the sentence, we get a reading with a wide-scoping negation:

NOT(CAUSE(serve cat-food sandwich)(speaking to me))
(i.e. Bill is speaking to me, but for reasons other than my serving him a CFS)

However, when we put the just because clause in front, as in Just because I served him a cat-food sandwich as a joke, Bill isn’t speaking to me, the only reading we get is the wide-scoping CAUSE.

Now consider just because X doesn’t mean Y. In passing, let’s note that just because is now not talking strictly about cause and effect, but about inference. This is not unusual in and of itself, because “inferential because” is a well-known phenomenon. For example, you can say, “Classes just let out, because the hallways are full of students,” but not mean that the crowded hallways caused classes to let out. What you really mean is that the fact that the hallways are full of students allows you to infer that classes have just let out. But what’s interesting about just because X doesn’t mean Y requires that NEG scope wider than (inferential) CAUSE, just the opposite of our cat-food sandwich example:

NOT(CAUSE(X)(Y))

Variations on the just because and the doesn’t mean
Another point made in several of the articles is that JBS-DMY requires neither just because nor doesn’t mean to work. You can do it with simply because, or in the right context, plain old because. And instead of doesn’t mean, you’ll also hear other negations, such as is no reason to, or doesn’t make, or even rhetorical questions that imply a negative answer.

Just because with of complements, and “because X”
By analogy with ordinary because and because of, Kanetani observes, the just because construction now has a variant with just because of, as in

Just because of his dominance doesn’t mean they’re going to win games of footy or win or the clearances. (link)

The much-talked-about because X construction (in which X is something other than a full clause, such as a noun phrase, an adjective, a participle, or an interjection) has also now been folded into the analogy. Taking the top result from Tyler Schnoebelen’s listing of the most common words to appear in tweets after because, I did a search for “just because YOLO doesn’t mean” and found numerous examples like Just because YOLO doesn’t mean you can act like a moron.

Origin?
Hilpert believes that the origin of the unusual semantics of JBX-DMY followed a sequence like this:

  1. Unremarkable sentences beginning with just because were already in the grammar, and some of them happened to have negated main clauses; for example, Just because I served him a cat-food sandwich as a joke, Bill isn’t speaking to me.
  2. Such constructions eventually came to be used with the inferential CAUSE meaning rather than a pure causation meaning.
  3. Finally, the inference-denying meaning of today’s JBX-DMY.

There’s a problem, though. In step 1, the semantics has CAUSEcausation>NOT, as discussed earlier. In step 3, the semantics has NOT>CAUSEinference. So there are two changes that have to happen in between: the scope change, and the change from causal to inferential just because. Whichever of those changes happens first, we end up with something that doesn’t seem to have the appropriate meaning, as illustrated below:

NOT>CAUSEcausation
Just because he’s my nephew I didn’t hire him!
(Desired meaning impossible: that I hired my nephew for non-nepotistic reasons.)
CAUSEinferential>NOT
Just because the streets are wet, it didn’t rain.
(Desired meaning impossible: that the sole fact of wet streets allows us to infer that it rained.)

I think a more likely progression is suggested by Bender and Kathol’s paper. Noting that there is flexibility over how the DMY part gets negated, imagine a sentence like this, in which the speaker seems to question the validity of an inference:

Just because I let him borrow my computer once, he seems to think he is allowed to use it any time he wants to.

The semantics here is the straightforward one you’d expect: For the sole reason that I let him borrow my computer once, he thinks he can use it whenever he wants. The negation, which is unspoken, permeates the whole utterance: This guy is wrong to think he can borrow my computer any old time now. From here, it’s a short step to turn that implied negative he seems to think into an actual one:

Just because I let him borrow my computer once, he shouldn’t think it’s his to borrow whenever.

Now we have NOT>CAUSEcausation, which we couldn’t get in our nepotism example. From here to that doesn’t mean doesn’t seem quite such a jump now. Subsequent elimination of the overt subject that or it, Hilpert argues, was due to the mostly empty meaning of the pronouns, plus the phonetic similarity of their final /t/ and the beginning /d/ of doesn’t. This part of his argument I’m inclined to believe.

Update, April 14, 2015: Doug was re-watching Iron Man this afternoon, and I heard this line of dialogue, uttered by bad guy Obadiah Stane to Tony Stark:

Do you really think that just because you have an idea, it belongs to you?

Without the framing rhetorical question of Do you really think…?, this is a straightforward instance of causal just because: if you have an idea, that makes it yours. But inside the rhetorical question, the clear meaning is that simply having an idea doesn’t make it yours. It’s an example, in the wild, of the type I was describing in the original post.

Posted in Scope ambiguity, Syntax | 2 Comments »

What She Cooks Like

Posted by Neal on March 9, 2014

One day last month, Doug and his classmates watched part of a Disney movie during one of the many wasted class periods he’s had this year (thanks to the busiest, most pointless, and most disruptive standardized-test schedule I’ve ever seen). He liked it, he said, and he’d figured out that the person who voiced a dragon in the movie was that guy who had done Donkey in Shrek.

“Oh! Mulan!” I said. “That’s one of the last movies your mom and I saw before you were born.” I also clued him in on the name of “that guy who did the voice of Donkey,” as he and his classmates think of Eddie Murphy. He wanted to put it on our Netflix queue so he could see the rest, so we did.

Chien-Po

I didn’t tell Doug my secret reason for putting Mulan in the queue: a line in one of the songs that I’ve occasionally considered blogging about, but hadn’t wanted to go to the trouble of watching the movie again so I could get the exact wording. But if Doug wanted to watch the movie anyway, I could conveniently accomplish the goal.

So last weekend, I saw Mulan for the second time. Adam pointed out that the voice of Mulan herself was done by one of the stars of Agents of SHIELD. Doug noticed that the enemies that were clearly supposed to be Mongols were actually referred to as Huns, probably because Huns was easier to rhyme in a song than Mongols. (They rhymed it with sons.) The wife noticed an “American Gothic” reference she hadn’t remembered. And I got to hear the line in the song I’d been trying to remember. I had to pause and rewind a couple of times before I could write it all down, but luckily, nobody minded.

It comes in the song “A Girl Worth Fighting For,” as the members of the Chinese army who are prominent enough to have names sing about their dream women. About 40 seconds into the song, the baby-faced big fat one, named Chien Po, sings

I couldn’t care less what she’ll wear or what she looks like.
It all depends on what she cooks like.

Hah! Looks like … cooks like! Oh, and notice the standardly negated couldn’t care less, too. But still: You can say someone looks like a god, or cooks like a chef, so why is looks like … cooks like so funny?

In the question what she looks like, the what corresponds to the missing object of like. But the key, I think, is that what she looks like has essentially the same meaning as how she looks, where how could be standing in for an adjective (she looks good) or a prepositional phrase (she looks like a statue). With these two equivalent sentences available, we can set up an analogy:

how she looks : what she looks like :: how she cooks : X

What does X equal? what she cooks like, naturally! But why is it so funny?

How is the question word we use in order to ask about a predicate adjective. Questions like How do you feel?, How does it taste?, How did they sound?, and How does she look? are typically answered with adjectives: great, good, bad, swell, or maybe prepositional phrases such as like a million bucks. But how is also the question word we use to ask about the manner in which something was done. Questions like How did he do it? and How does she cook? are typically answered with an adverb, like well or poorly, or some other kind of phrase that tells how something was done: with a ball-peen hammer, for example. Only the how corresponding to an adjective means the same thing as what … like, and the analogy that gets us what she cooks like totally ignores this fact.

Posted in Kids' entertainment, Movies, Syntax | Leave a Comment »

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 »

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 »

Gerund Movie Titles Revisited

Posted by Neal on January 4, 2014

Tom Hanks will save you!

We had a few friends over near the beginning of Doug and Adam’s winter break. The conversation turned to movies, and my wife said that two movies she really hoped to see over the holidays were American Hustle and Saving Mr. Banks.

“I don’t want to see that,” I said. “It’s already got a couple of strikes against it because of the title. It’s another gerund-plus-proper-noun cliche.”

“What, is that ungrammatical?” asked our guest Brian.

“No, it’s grammatical, just lazy and overdone,” I answered, and listed a few of the examples I’ve written about before.

“But it’s been getting good reviews!” my wife said. “Can you just ignore the title?”

“Here’s the thing,” I said, moving aside to let Adam get to the fridge. “Clearly, the producers’taste is not good enough for them to avoid this lame title. So I have to question their artistic judgment in other aspects of the movie.”

“Is this about Saving Mr. Banks again?” asked Adam.

Well, I couldn’t help it. This title is particularly annoying because the gerund is saving. Along with being and finding, that’s the most overdone gerund in this worn-out title template. Worse, Tom Hanks seemed to be making a habit out of starring in movies titled Saving someone, what with Saving Private Ryan from 1998.

Later on, I checked Tom Hanks’s acting credits on IMDB, and found to my surprise that in the 71 entries, Saving Private Ryan and Saving Mr. Banks were the only movies with GPN titles. So the good news is that Tom Hanks usually isn’t associated with gerundially-titled movies. Even so, he’s still in these two, both of them with saving

In a guest script for Grammar Girl a couple of years ago, I talked about two kinds of gerunds, one that behaved more like a verb, and one that behaved more like a noun. I illustrated with this example:

  • the quick defusing of the bomb
  • quickly defusing the bomb

The first kind is the more nounlike gerund. It can take an article (in this example, the); it is modified by an adjective instead of an adverb (quick), and the complement NP the bomb is introduced by an of. This kind of gerund is sometimes called a nominalization.

The second kind is the more verblike gerund. It does not take an article; *the quickly defusing the bomb is ungrammatical. It is modified by an adverb instead of an adjective (quickly); and its complement NP the bomb comes directly afterward, just as it would if we were dealing with a plain form (defuse the bomb) or a tensed form (defuses the bomb).

I hadn’t really thought about this difference when I was thinking about movie titles, but I notice now that the movie titles that drew my attention all involve the verby kind of gerunds. That is, we have Saving Mr. Banks and not The Saving of Mr. Banks. I did a search on IMDB for “the *ing of”, and found only one result, The Rican-ing of the White Boy (2012). An anonymous plot summary explains what Rican-ing is:

What happens when a paternally adopted forty seven year old schmuck from Queens, New York, sets out for the first time to meet his long lost Puerto Rican family, after being raised by a tribe of white people?

However, I know there are at least two more nominalization-style movie title from recent years: The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009), and The Haunting of Hill House (1999) (though this title came from Shirley Jackson’s 1959 story). I don’t know why it didn’t show up in the search results. If you have some other examples that the search didn’t find, leave a comment.

I wondered what the GPN movie titles would sound like with nominalizations, and started going through the list I’d put in my earlier blog post: The Finding of Nemo, The Chasing of Amy, The Driving of Miss Daisy… Then I realized that some of these titles couldn’t be rephrased as a nominalization:

  • *The Becoming of Colette (1991)
  • *The Becoming of Mozart (1998)
  • *The Being of John Malkovich (1999)
  • *The Being of Julia (2004)
  • *The Being of Flynn (2012) [a new one!]

It seems that linking verbs that take an NP complement don’t work as nominalizations. This is probably something that syntacticians have known about for a long time, but I haven’t found it in CGEL, or in a classic paper by Noam Chomsky, “Remarks on Nominalization“. If anyone knows of research that has been done on this, I’d love to hear about it.

Anyway, since I’ve moved beyond gerund+proper noun titles and into nominalizations, I might as well finish with a nod to nominalizations without an of phrase following them. These are the mark of a horror movie: The Shining, The Haunting, The Howling, The Fruiting, and others.

It’s late now, though, so as I told Doug and Adam earlier tonight, it’s time for the going-to of bed.

Posted in Movies, Syntax | 2 Comments »

Blue Christmas Cannibalism

Posted by Neal on December 19, 2013

Looking through the community newspaper, I saw an announcement of the various Christmas-related services that a local church was having. One of them caught my eye:

A tradition from Canada?

I liked the creative use of the song title “Blue Christmas” to name a service for, I assumed, people grieving for departed loved ones or maybe with serious health problems. Pretty clever name, I thought, for a service that I hadn’t heard of before but which sounded like it filled a need. Then I looked across to the facing page of the newspaper, saw another listing of Christmas services from another church, and among the services, saw listed another Blue Christmas service. So apparently this wasn’t an original naming, but a more widespread thing. On the American Dialect Society email list, Dan Goncharoff found two attestations from 1998, both from Canada, and both describing it as a service “for those grieving and in pain at Christmas.” If you’ve heard of Blue Christmas services earlier than that, let me know in the comments.

However, that’s not what I really wanted to comment on. I was more interested in the description in the newspaper:

for those whom Christmas is a difficult time to celebrate in the traditional fashion

It’s another example of prepositional cannibalism! The larger phrase is basically for certain people. And who are those certain people? They are people such that

Christmas is a difficult time for them to celebrate in the traditional fashion

Turning that into a relative clause, we would expect

those for whom Christmas is a difficult time to celebrate in the traditional fashion

Putting it all together, we should have

for those for whom Christmas is a difficult time to celebrate in the traditional fashion

But the writer, I suspect, second-guessed themself and figured there must be something wrong with the lineup of for those for. In the earlier post that I linked to, I noted that the two prepositions had to be the same, but actually, that might not be true. In the widely mangled proverb

Of those to whom much is given, much is expected.

the of at the beginning is often lopped off. Why the of instead of the to? I don’t know, but I notice that in these two examples, the preposition that survives is the one that points to the beneficiary role: the person who is given much, the person the service is intended for.

They seem to have left off an S here

On an unrelated note, for a few hours after I read the announcement, I had “Blue Christmas” running through my head, and not just any version, but the version from Elvis’s Christmas Album, including the wah-wah-wah-waah ostinato that was drilled into my head through Dad’s numerous playings of the album over the years. What’s the linguistic connection? Also on that album is “Santa Bring My Baby Back,” which I first heard at age 4, when Dad had just bought the album and was playing it for us. “Listen, Neal-o, he wants Santa to bring his baby back,” he told me. At that age, I knew nothing of the lexical ambiguity of baby; I just wondered why jolly old Santa had taken away this man’s child.

Posted in Christmas songs, Christmas-related, Relative clauses | 1 Comment »

We and They

Posted by Neal on October 7, 2013

I was asking Doug about his classes a couple of weeks ago, and a little tingle of anticipation went up my spine when he told me that in English class that day, his teacher had been talking about grammar. Yes! It was about time for some grammar, after all that business with their summer reading project, and this “narrative” thing they were starting to write. What kind of grammar?

“We were learning to say things that sound wrong.”

Things that sound wrong? Like “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”? This might be shaping up to be the best high-school English class ever.

“Like ‘we and they,’” Doug said. “She said, ‘I know people don’t actually talk like this, but you gotta learn it.’”

So much for best high-school English class ever. But, Doug — we’ve talked about this before! Don’t you remember? You were in fourth grade! I can remember it as clearly as if I’d written a blog post about it…

For those of you who didn’t follow the link, Doug lost a few points on a grammar worksheet when he was given the sentence “him and her take ice skating lessons on wednesday” to correct. He sidestepped the issue of the coordinated pronouns and corrected it like this: “They take ice skating lessons on Wednesday.” As I wrote at the time, “She had wanted them to change him and her to he and she, Doug said, but that sounded weird.”

But this time around, I noticed, the pronouns were plural. It wasn’t the typical he and I instead of him and me, or she and he instead of him and her. This time it was we and they. It occurred to me that I didn’t really know if some speakers tended to say us and them where Standard English would call for we and they. If they do, it certainly isn’t enough to land injunctions against us and them are in the grammar manuals, much less enough to give us hypercorrections like between we and they. I decided to take a look at COCA to see how often coordinations like we and they actually did come up.

I searched for all coordinations involving clearly plural animate personal pronouns (we/us, they/them) coordinated with pronouns that were clearly singular (I/me, he/him, she/her) or clearly plural. (In other words, no you.) I searched for coordinations of nominative with nominative (e.g. we and they), and accusative with accusative (e.g. us and them). I also looked for both mixed cases (for example, we and them and us and they), but didn’t get any hits there. Here are the results:

Coordinated pronouns
All nominative COCA hits All accusative COCA hits
I and we 1 me and us 3/0
we and I 0 us and me 0/0
I and they 0 me and them 32/1
they and I 15 them and me 22/0
he and we 13 him and us 19/0
we and he 3 us and him 7/0
he and they 35 him and them 18/0
they and he 4 them and him 8/0
she and we 9 her and us 5/0
we and she 2 us and her 2/0
she and they 8 her and them 10/0
they and she 3 them and her 2/0
we and they 9 us and them ~115/0
they and we 19 them and us 61/0

The first thing to notice is that people do use coordinated nominative personal pronouns, at levels comparable to the use of coordinated accusative personal pronouns. This is especially true when you consider that there are more occasions to use accusatives than nominatives. You use the accusative forms for direct objects, indirect objects, objects of prepositions, and (for all but the most insistently archaic rules) complements of be — not to mention pronouns in isolation. The only thing the nominatives are used for is subjects.

The second thing to notice is the slashes between the numbers in the accusative hits column. The first number represents attestations for which Standard English rules would prescribe accusative (for example, between us and them). The numbers after the slashes represent the examples for which the rules would prescribe nominative (for example, us and them are… instead of we and they are). (I counted complements of be as a context where we would expect the accusative case.) The numbers show that not only do speakers use nominative forms like we and they where they’re called for; they generally don’t use accusative forms like us and them in those places. In all the coordinations I tested, I found only one nonstandard example: “Yeah, me and them are buds,” I said.

By comparison, if you do a COCA search for the coordination of singular pronouns me and him, in the first page of results, you’ll find example after example of it being used as nonstandardly as a subject, and hardly any examples of it being used standardly as an object.

Here is a list of examples of each kind of coordinated nominative personal pronoun I found:

  1. I was assured that as long as I created scenes, behavior and dialogue consistent with the way they were depicted in the book — which resulted in a lawsuit — that I and we would be safe.
  2. In the middle of apologizing to them, I decided they and I needed to accept the reality
  3. disease

  4. He needed killing, and he and we needed it to be accomplished at the hands of Americans.
  5. He proceeds back to the doorway, where we and he see Fell,
  6. Was Hitler not fully Hitler, the Nazis the Nazis, until he and they annexed Poland?
  7. the passion and release that they and he crave so much.
  8. As you know, George, both she and we agreed to party rules
  9. the many meetings and public hearings on this issue in which we and she have participated
  10. Perhaps she and they somehow missed the last 50 years of Eastern European history.
  11. As she followed the frustrated felines she noticed that they and she had left footprints in the dust on the steps.
  12. We and they thank you for your cooperation in this time of national crisis,
  13. They and we have a right to expect better excuses for wrong-doing from our government

Why such a marked difference between coordinations of two singular pronouns and those involving a plural? Thomas Grano‘s 2006 honors thesis has a hell of a lot of other research about all kinds of coordinations of English pronouns with other pronouns and full NPs, but doesn’t seem to address this situations. Grano does develop a principle of frequency-based prescriptive conformity, which says that the more frequently some nonstandard form shows up, the more likely it is to be exposed to “prescriptive pressure” and changed to the standardized form. However, nonstandard us and them and the other coordinated accusative pronouns don’t seem to be very frequent at all, so the principle is silent here.

Meanwhile, I need to try to elicit some coordinations involving plural pronouns from Doug and Adam. If we and they sounds wrong to them, but us and them as a subject is so rare in the language input they’ve been hearing, what will they actually say?

Posted in Coordination, Pronouns | 2 Comments »

Wet Hornets

Posted by Neal on September 18, 2013

Recycle Bin

Last Saturday morning, I drove out to pick up Adam from a sleepover at his friend R.J.’s house. It’s just inside the Columbus city limits, at the end of a dead-end street. I parked on the street, and as I got out of the van, there it was. Among the honeysuckle and poison ivy, tipped on its side with a ripped-off tree branch thrown on top of it, a few feet away from a No Dumping sign, I saw a blue, 30-gallon, wheeled recycle bin.

As it happens, I’ve been wanting a new 30-gallon wheeled recycle bin for quite some time. We’ve been using ours for at least ten years, and it has huge cracks down the back, which we have mended several times with duct tape. Even now, the cracks have ripped right through the third or fourth layer of tape. We could call for a new 30-gallon bin, but we’d have to rent it, because our city doesn’t issue those bins to residents anymore. They’re back to using the dinky red 10-gallon bins. But apparently, in Columbus, they’re still using them, and someone hadn’t wanted this one. I thought about these things as I walked up the driveway to ring the doorbell.

Ten minutes later, as Adam was buckling into his seat, I tried to get a closer look at the bin. No cracks in the side; both wheels in place as far as I could see. I picked my way through the weeds, placing my feet in the patches of ground where the poison ivy wasn’t, until I was close enough to open the lid. No dead bodies inside. No maggots. Not even a few random pieces of paper that had gotten stuck to the bottom of the bin. Just one still-bagged copy of the suburban newspaper. And what luck! I had driven the van that morning, because my wife had taken the car to run some errands.

I lifted up the bin and backed out of the weeds with it. I opened up the back of the van, collapsed the seats, and tried to fit the bin in the cargo area. It was too tall, so I turned it sideways and laid it on top of the collapsed seat backs. A clump of mud fell off one of the wheels onto the seat back.

“What are you doing, Dad?” Adam was asking me.

“I’m rescuing a recycle bin,” I said. I told him we didn’t need to let his mother know about it if she called. She’d want to know the details, and she’d be worried about what was in it and where it had been, and who it belonged to. She’d probably be remembering my story about when my friend Jason and I shared an apartment, and had furnished it with a couch we carried in from the curb. We sat on it that night while we watched a rented video. I kept feeling a stinging on my thigh, until I finally got up, removed the couch cushion, and saw a few dozen black ants crawling around on the base of the couch. My wife has always been disgusted by this story, even though I’ve told her that once Jason and I sprayed the couch with bug killer, everything was fine for the rest of the time we lived in that apartment. No, it would be better for her just to see the recycle bin, bright and almost-new, all cleaned up, sitting in our garage when she got home.

“There’s a bug flying around in here,” Adam said.

“No problem, when we get home and take the recycle bin out, it’ll fly away.”

At home, I wheeled the bin around to the side of the house and set to hosing it down. As I removed the newspaper from inside the bin, I noticed that there were also a few wasps in there that I hadn’t seen earlier. Should I get them to fly away by kicking the bin? Or should I just take the nozzle and start spraying the leaves and dirt at the bottom of the bin? Would spraying them with water make them more likely to attack? Probably so, I thought. After all, people probably didn’t say “Mad as a wet hornet” for nothing.

He's mad, but not particularly so.Wait a minute! People don’t say that! They say “Mad as a hornet” or “Mad as a wet hen“! If there had been live chickens in that recycle bin, maybe I’d have had a problem, but since it was just wasps, who cared? I turned on the nozzle.

I figured I couldn’t be the only one who had combined those two expressions, and it turns out I wasn’t.

Anyway, garbage day is tomorrow! Once that old recycle bin gets emptied, it’s time is done! Now I just have to figure out how to recycle the recycle bin. Maybe I can go the re-use route instead, and push it onto one of our neighbors who are still stuck using those crummy red bins…

Posted in Syntactic blending | 14 Comments »

Bradbury RNW

Posted by Neal on September 8, 2013

I heard a snippet from the beginning of the above video on NPR a few days ago, which consisted of this line:

They walked down the hall of their soundproofed Happylife Home, which had cost them thirty thousand dollars installed, this house which clothed and fed and rocked them to sleep and played and sang and was good to them.

Unless the writer meant that the Happylife Home clothed them to sleep and fed them to sleep, we have here a right-node wrapping. Semantically, it coordinates two ordinary transitive verbs, clothed and fed, and one phrasal transitive verb, rocked … to sleep; but syntactically, the to sleep part of the phrasal verbs gets shut out of the coordination. All we have before we hit the shared direct object them is clothed, fed, and rocked.

When I got home, I Googled clothed, fed, and rocked them to sleep, and found that it was from the Ray Bradbury short story “The Veldt” from 1950. Actually, you can tell from the capitalization that this story was not written recently: Had it been, “Happylife” would have been written “HappyLife”. Anyway, I was a little surprised, because I’d read this story, I think in The Illustrated Man back in high school, but hadn’t noticed anything unusual about the line back then. At least, I don’t think I did. I guess my syntax-sensitivity was just developing.

Posted in Books, Right-node wrapping ("Friends in Low Places" coordinations) | Leave a Comment »

Before You Drink That

Posted by Neal on August 8, 2013

As Adam was getting the DVD cued up and the subtitles turned on, I saw Doug walk in with his movie snacks: a bowl of chips and a tall glass of milk. A tall glass of milk! I had to speak up, fast:

Hey, Doug, before you drink that milk, you want to go for a run after the movie?

Doug’s response, naturally, was “What?” The before bit and the after bit were clashing with each other. What sequence of events was I proposing? Movie first, then run, then milk? But then how could he drink his milk while watching the movie?

But I’d bought myself enough time that I could explain what I’d meant. Doug had been wanting to do some running, in preparation for the grueling physical conditioning that he knew he was in for in band camp. Sometimes I would go running with him. The other relevant fact was that Doug had discovered that drinking a big glass of milk before he played a game of soccer or went on one of these runs usually wasn’t such a good idea. I just wanted to suggest the possibility of going running so that he could make his decision right now, and then drink the milk or save it for later accordingly.

In other words, before you drink that milk wasn’t modifying go for a run; it was modifying the whole sentence do you want to go running after the movie?. Actually, even that isn’t entirely accurate. Before you drink that milk was modifying the entire utterance. It was as if I was saying,

Before you drink that milk, I ask you: Do you want to …?

Cribbing from the introduction of a paper by Chris Potts, I see that modifiers like these have been called utterance modifiers, second-order adverbs, and pragmatic adverb, and illocutionary adverb. Others include frankly, just between you and me, and the oft-criticized usage of hopefully. Potts himself notes that they have a “metalinguistic” feel, using a word that I used in a recent post, and which my brother Glen asked me about in the comments. Metalinguistic describes something whose meaning isn’t part of the ordinary meaning you get from a phrase by using ordinary rules of grammar; rather, the meaning is about the speaker’s attitude. The best-known example of metalinguistic stuff is probably metalinguistic negation, a term coined by Larry Horn to describe utterances such as, “It’s not a shtraw, it’s a straw.” The speaker is not denying that the object is a straw; they’re objecting to someone’s pronunciation of the word straw.

So I had sandwiched the heart of the clause do you want to go running with an utterance modifier Before you drink that milk at the beginning and a VP modifier after the movie at the end. Doug, however, had taken them both as VP modifiers.

Here’s a diagram of just Do you want to go running after the movie?. You know after the movie is modifying the VP go for a run because the two phrases are under one roof, which is the bigger VP go for a run after the movie.

Watch the movie, then run.

Now here’s a diagram of just Before you drink that milk, do you want to go for a run? with the before clause modifying the entire utterance, as I intended. (I don’t have a way of distinguishing sentential modifiers such as probably and utterance modifiers like frankly, but since that difference isn’t the main point of this post, I won’t worry about it.) You know that before you drink… is modifying the entire sentence do you want… because the two chunks combine to form another, bigger sentence.

Before you drink that, lemme ask you a question

Now here it is modifying just the VP go for a run. It looks almost the same as the earlier diagram, but there’s one difference. Notice that the PP label for before you drink… has a subscript 1, and that next to go for a run, there’s an empty place where you might find an adverb phrase, labeled GAP, with a matching subscript 1. This is the syntactic structure of a sentence with a so-called “extracted adjunct”; i.e. a verb modifier put at the beginning of the sentence instead of the usual place for VP modifiers.

So how do we parse before you drink… as modifying go for a run? Like this:

Run first, then drink

Now what happens if we try to parse a clause with both an extracted VP modifier and one in situ? It’d look sumpm like this:

Movie, run, drink; what's the problem?

Here, after the movie is modifying the VP go for a run, and before you drink that milk is modifying the larger VP go for a run after the movie.

In any case, Doug didn’t want to go for a run that day, so he drank his milk, ate his chips, and watched the movie. He did fine at band camp, by the way. He’s quite happy with the six pack that has begun to appear on his torso, and has surprised himself with how many pushups he’s become able to do in one go.

UPDATE, 10 Aug. 2013: What the hell happened?! The post that readers were commenting on up until now is not what I thought I had published! The whole bit about two PPs trying to fill the same spot is, as Randy noted, not a problem, and I thought I had taken that whole paragraph and diagram out. Furthermore, there was other stuff that I added, which did not appear in what got published. I have re-done the revisions that apparently didn’t stick last time, and the post in its current form is what I intended to publish.

Posted in Ambiguity, Pragmatics, Syntax | 15 Comments »

 
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