Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Coordination’ Category

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 »

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 »

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 »

Come In, Be Productive, or Just Relax

Posted by Neal on May 29, 2013

My sister Ellen got married this past weekend, and we’re all happy for her. (You know, the one whose father read to her when she was young, who was subjected to stupid linguistic humor from her brothers as a girl, who graduated from UTexas, earned her MD, and is now doing her residency?) One thing I’ve admired about Ellen since she started dating is that she doesn’t tolerate whiny or disrespectful guys. She dated some losers along the way (and who doesn’t?), but when their true nature became apparent, she dumped ‘em. This guy has passed her filter, and we’re glad to have him in the family.

Anyway, during our layover in Charlotte, North Carolina, on the way back home, I noticed this sign outside a lounge that classier people than you get to hang out in:

Choose one. No, two! But not the last two.

Syntactically, this coordination is unremarkable. No weird multiple-level stuff going on, no right-node wrapping, or gapping, or other weird non-parallelisms or coordinations of different kinds of phrases. We have three imperative clauses joined by or: come in, be productive, just relax. Semantically, though, it doesn’t work for me. I think this was supposed to be a nested coordination, like this:

[Come in and [be productive or just relax]].

Unless, of course, the intended meaning is a three-way choice between coming in and doing whatever; staying out and being productive; and staying out and relaxing.

In other coordinations that seem to be missing a conjunction (i.e. the multiple-level coordinations such as sick (and) twisted and smells like old socks), the missing conjunction is the same as the one that isn’t missing. But here, the missing conjunction is and, while the audible one is or. So now the question is whether this is simply a mistake, or a variation in grammar as widespread as multiple-level coordinations? Since it’s the first example of its kind that I’ve found, I’m calling it an error. What do you think?

Posted in Multiple-level coordination, Other weird coordinations, Semantics | 7 Comments »

Pillaged for Dead

Posted by Neal on April 2, 2013

Time for a few more right-node wrapping coordinations that I’ve been accumulating. The most recent one, the one that completed the trio I’m posting today, I got via an online issue of the University of Texas alumni assocation’s newsletter. You’ll hear it in this video created by Jon Cozart, a UT theatre sophomore. He sings a capella parodies of the (mostly) “I Wish” songs from Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and Pocahontas, accompanying himself with himself as three backup singers (complete with visual reactions to each other). In the final Pocahontas parody, he sings the line

They pillaged, raped, and left us all for dead.

Laying aside the question of whether pillage can take people rather than towns or villages as its direct object, the meaning seems to be that they (1) pillaged us all, (2) raped us all, and (3) left us all for dead. However, if this were a syntactically parallel coordination, it would mean that they “pillaged us all for dead” and “raped us all for dead”, too. But since for dead just doesn’t go with those verbs, we know that the first reading was the intended one.

A month or so ago, I read this sentence in a magazine that my genealogy-enthusiast Aunt Jane gave me a gift subscription to:

Creating a reproduction of the original heirloom … means every family member can hold, own, or view it on a computer. (Denise May Levenick, “Dear Diaries,” Family Tree Magazine, Jan/Feb 2013. p. 28.)

This case is a little less clear-cut. The meaning seems to be that every family member can (1) hold it, (2) own it, or (3) view it on a computer. To parse it as a parallel structure, you’d have to take it to mean that family members can hold it on a computer, and own it on a computer. Although they’re a bit unidiomatic, you could parse these phrases this way if you were really determined to. However, having read the article, I say that my non-parallel, RNW-style parse gives the author’s intended meaning.

The earliest of the trio comes from the October 11, 2012 episode of the Freakonomics podcast. It’s about the so-called “Cobra Effect,” whereby placing a bounty on any nuisance you want to encourage people to eliminate simply encourages them to create more of these nuisances in order to kill them and collect more bounties. One segment was about wild boars in Texas, and contained this sentence:

They spend a lot of time trapping and removing pigs from the base.

Parsing this as a non-parallel structure, you get that people are (1) trapping pigs and (2) removing them from the base. If you insist on a parallel parse, you get that people are “trapping pigs from the base”. That’s not grammatical. Well, it is, but only if you take from the base to modify pigs instead of trapping. Try it with them instead of pigs to get the full effect: trap them from the base. No good.

So there you have them, the latest three RNWs in my ongoing collection.

Posted in Right-node wrapping ("Friends in Low Places" coordinations) | 5 Comments »

Make Sure and What?

Posted by Neal on February 9, 2013

Ben Zimmer passed an interesting coordination my way, from Buzzfeed, from an article on a new website called Agency Wank, which “is collecting the wankiest, cringiest copy lines from ad agency websites”:

Make sure and bookmark and visit Agency Wank. It’s updated daily.

Something about the phrase is a little odd. Not actually bad, but enough to stumble over and notice. It wasn’t the make sure and instead of make sure to (or be sure and). That’s interesting, but not odd. Like the idiom try and X, the phrase make/be sure and X is an example of asymmetric coordination. Make sure and go doesn’t mean the same thing as go and make sure.

Was it the coordination of the two verbs bookmark and visit after make sure? This coordination is a symmetric one; visit and bookmark Agency Wank means the same as bookmark and visit Agency Wank. So maybe the coexistence of an asymmetric and a symmetric coordination in the same verb phrase is what’s sounding strange.

Or not. I went to COCA and found 17 hits for the asymmetric make sure and X. In 15 of them, X consisted of just one VP, but two of them had two–nay, three or four:

  • So make sure and cultivate those and hug together, cry together, and just be community.
  • You make sure and come back and drop by and visit us again.

Those sound fine to me. OK, so maybe it was the fact that X does not consist of two coordinated VPs, but a single VP consisting of two verbs (bookmark, visit) and a shared direct object (Agency Wank). But why should that make a difference? Make sure and X is OK; bookmark and visit Agency Wank is OK; why wouldn’t make sure and bookmark and visit Agency Wank just as good?

I don’t know. I decided to go beyond Google and search Google for “make sure and * and *” and “try and * and *” to see if I could find other examples, and hear how they sounded. What I founded sounded OK:

  • Don’t try and mix and match print tops with your print jeans. (link)
  • To try and equalize and standardize child support throughout CA, the legislature created an algabraic equation….(link)
  • requiring students to try and recall and record information gathered in classroom interaction (link)

You might be able to throw out the first one if you take mix and match to be an idiom that acts as a single verb. But not the other two. After reading a few examples like those, I had to wonder what could possibly have made the original example stand out. Now I notice that all the new Google examples have try and X instead of make sure and X, but if I blame the weirdness on that, I’m just looking for a scapegoat. In fact, looking at the original example again, I have concluded…

…that actually, it’s not so bad. That’s the trouble with poking around at weird syntax. Repeat it enough, and unlike individual words, what started off as an odd phrase starts to sound better. I’m OK with Make sure and bookmark and visit Agency Wank now. And what’s more, just look what else I found in my search:

Before stacking the cakes make sure and carve and cover all of your cakes in fondant.

That’s right–it’s an asymmetric make sure and X construction, with the shared direct object thing going on, in a right-node wrapping coordination!

Posted in Other weird coordinations, Right-node wrapping ("Friends in Low Places" coordinations) | 6 Comments »

To Kill a Mockingbird RNW

Posted by Neal on December 1, 2012

I found this hastily scribbled line in my linguistics spiral notebook recently:

They chewed up and spat out the bark of a tree into a communal pot and then got drunk on it.

I had written it down as soon as I heard it sometime in the past few months, but I couldn’t remember where. I’d forgotten I’d even heard it until I saw that page in my notebook again, but it was clear enough why I’d written it down. It was another right-node wrapping. The transitive phrasal verb chewed up is coordinated with the transitive phrasal verb spat out, with the shared direct the bark of a tree. But after that shared direct object, there’s one more phrase in this sentence’s predicate, and it belongs just to spat out. It’s the prepositional phrase into a communal pot.

Googling the phrase, I see that it’s from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which I listened to in the car during the summer. Mystery solved!

Posted in Books, Right-node wrapping ("Friends in Low Places" coordinations) | 2 Comments »

Got Zeugma?

Posted by Neal on November 10, 2012

In this 2008 post, I pulled together several examples of zeugma involving the word make, and these involving the word get. Some of the get examples involved two somewhat similar meanings of get: the intransitive meaning of “become”, and the transitive meaning of “cause to become”:

  • …after you’ve gotten dressed, your bed made, and your teeth brushed.
  • [The karate lessons] make it tough for him to get his things done and to bed on time.

Others involved the “become” meaning with the more-distantly related meaning of “acquire”:

    A 17-year-old gets arrested and a $1,000 bond for failing to show at a court appearance for … a seatbelt violation.
  • These days there’s dudes gettin’ facials, manicured, waxed, and botoxed.
    (“I’m Still a Guy,” by John Kelley Lovelace, Lee Thomas Miller, and Brad Douglas Paisley)

Now, four years later, the latest addition to the “become/acquire” get-zeugma collection comes from Ben Zimmer, who sent me this:

What conservative Washington Post readers got, when they traded in Dave Weigel for Rubin, was a lot more hackery and a lot less informed about the presidential election. (link)

What’s especially nice about this example is that it’s not just a straightforward coordination of complements after the verb get. Oh no. This time the get is spotlighted in a so-called pseudo-cleft construction. It’s too complicated to give a formal definition of a pseudocleft here, but a few examples should give you the idea:

    Pseudo-clefts

  • What I want is money.
  • What it was was football.
  • Where I live is Ohio.

You can also read about pseudo-clefts in a wider context in this post. Anyway, this pseudo-cleft construction heightens the weirdness of the zeugma, because it’s weird already to do pseudo-clefts with predicate adjectives. In other words, even if we just had “become” get, it would sound odd in a pseudo-cleft:

What they got was a lot less-informed.

Actually, predicative adjectives sound weird in any kind of cleft construction, not just pseudo-clefts, and not just with the verb get. Here’s one done for (I assume) deliberate effect, in an all-cleft from the song “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”:

And when he died, all that he left us was alone.

And another in an it-cleft:

It was less-informed that they got.

And now, it’s to bed and a good night’s rest that I need to get!

Posted in Zeugmatic | 3 Comments »

Songs We Have to Play or the Fans Get Angry

Posted by Neal on September 15, 2012

If you read an interview with some classic rock act that still goes on tour, sometimes they’ll talk about their greatest hits that the audiences always expect to hear, and say something like

There are songs [we have to play ___] or [the fans will get angry].

Sentences like that one interest me, because they appear to be one variety of a well-studied family of unusual coordinate structures, but somehow this variety hasn’t been fit into the family picture yet. Before I go further, I’d better introduce the family for newer readers, or re-introduce it for longtime readers who might not remember the details.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Non-ATB coordinations | 5 Comments »

I Forgot to Go to the Store and Get Any

Posted by Neal on July 23, 2012

A few days ago, as I was pulling into the garage, I suddenly said to myself,

Well, crap! I forgot to go to the store and get any club soda.

How annoying. We had run out of club soda two days before, so my wife couldn’t make any more of her favorite drink: club soda with cranberry juice (the sweetened kind, with lime flavor already in it). I couldn’t make any more for myself, either, and when that happens and there’s no iced tea made, it gives me an unfortunate excuse to continue my love-hate relationship with Coke.

Of course, that’s not what compels me to write about my utterance here on the blog. As with my last post, I was interested in a negative polarity item (NPI), in this case, the word any. You can’t say things like,

*I got any club soda.
*I want to get any club soda.
*I went to the store and got any club soda.

There has to be a negation or question or something similar involved; for example,

I didn’t get any club soda.
Do you want any club soda?

The verb forget counts as something similar, with its implicitly negative meaning of “not remember,” so you can certainly say,

I forgot to get any club soda.

So because my sentence had forgot as its main verb, there should be nothing surprising about having the NPI any somewhere in the complement to forgot, right? But in that case, why doesn’t this next sentence work?

*I forgot to scoop out the litterboxes and get any club soda.

At least, I don’t think it works. Do you? And the reason it doesn’t is the same reason that you can’t say something like

*Club soda is what I forgot to scoop out the litterboxes and get [ ].

For you to make a relative clause out of club soda, which plays a part in only one of the coordinated verb phrases, those verb phrases have to have some sensible relation to each other. Go to the store and get club soda go together as two steps in a single undertaking. On the other hand, scoop out the litterboxes and get club soda don’t have any relation to each other. Unless…

  • …you keep bottles of club soda buried in your litterboxes.
  • …scooping out the litterboxes is something that always happens right before you get club soda.
  • …scooping out the litterboxes sets a Rube Goldberg apparatus in motion that results in the delivery of club soda.

In those situations, that sentence would work, and so would I forgot to scoop out the litterboxes and get any club soda, I think. This is interesting. I hadn’t read or thought about NPI licensing as something that could be relevant to these coordinations that require a special relationship between the coordinated items.

P.S. I see that when I view the preview for this post using Chrome, the words continue, housecleaning, and filled are hyperlinked to spammy sites. I’ve been using Firefox up until now, and I see that these tacky ads don’t show up in that browser. Good on you, Firefox, and Chrome, I’m very disappointed.

Posted in Negative polarity items, Non-ATB coordinations | 15 Comments »

 
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