Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Other weird coordinations’ Category

Willing and Able

Posted by Neal on August 19, 2014

Nine years ago, I was inspired to write a post after hearing a flight attendant give the pre-flight safety presentation, and say, “Please move from the exit rows if you are unwilling or unable to perform the necessary actions without injury.” On my most recent flight, instead of listening to the attendant, I tried to pick up some Spanish vocabulary by reading the safety-information card from the seatback in front of me. And what do you know, inspiration struck again, when I read this Spanish sentence on the very same topic of sitting in the exit rows:

Toda persona que esté sentada en un asiento de salida debe estar dispuesta y ser capaz de realizar las siguientes funciones.
Every person who is seated in an exit seat must be willing and be able to execute the following functions.

SerEstar

Once again, the interesting part comes from trying to coordinate the adjectives for “willing” and “able”. If you’ve taken even first-year Spanish, you’ve had to learn about the two Spanish verbs that both mean “be”: ser, and estar. The former usually goes with what semanticists call individual-level predicates: properties that are generally true of someone, and less subject to change, such as hair color or nationality. These predicates stand in contrast to stage-level predicates, which are true of someone only for a limited time, such as emotional state or physical location. Now if I had thought of it when I was learning about ser and estar in junior high school, I would have tried to stump the teacher by asking something like, “What if you want to say that someone is Chinese and happy? Do you use ser or estar?”

It looks like the answer is that you don’t choose one or the other; you use both, each laying claim to one of the adjectives: estar dispuesta “be willing”; ser capaz “be able”. What a burn! English speakers don’t have to say be twice, but Spanish speakers do! A similar thing happens in French. If you like your salad with oil, it’s à l’huile (literally “at the oil”). If you like it with with vinegar, it’s au vinaigre (“at the vinegar,” with “at the” collapsed into the single word au). But if you’re like me, and like your salad with oil and vinegar, do you choose à or au? Neither! You have to use them both: à l’huile et au vinaigre.

On the subject of prepositions, though, I realized I needed to take a closer look at the adjectives dispuesto and capaz. The single preposition de goes with both of them in this sentence, but is de actually the preposition that typically goes with dispuesto in Spanish? A bit of Googling indicates that it’s not; the typical collocation seems to be dispuesto a. So why didn’t the translation have to use both a and de, along with both ser and estar, like this?

estar dispuesta a y ser capaz de realizar las siguientes funciones

One possibility is that for adjectives that take complements with mismatching prepositions, you just choose the one that goes with the closest adjective, in the same way in English we say Neither you nor I am the winner, because the closer subject is I. (This kind of solution is known as a resolution rule.) Another possibility is that both prepositions should have been used, and the translator simply made a mistake by using only one.

If we’re considering that possibility, though, maybe Spanish uses a rule of resolution to choose between ser and estar, too, and the translator should have just used the one appropriate for the nearest adjective, dispuesto.

So now I’m curious. I ask my Spanish-speaking readers, which of the following sounds best?

Posted in Other weird coordinations | 1 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 »

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 »

He Chased Down and Killed Himself

Posted by Neal on September 13, 2010

Ben Zimmer alerted me to this headline featured in a post on Headsup: The Blog:

Ben wondered if this might be another example of a right-node wrapping, along the lines of Take and put this away (i.e. “take this and put it away”), or flipped and tore an SUV in half (i.e. “flipped an SUV and tore it in half”).

The headline is definitely weird, but not weird in the right way to be an RNW. Readers will doubtless recall that an RNW typically features a coordination of two or more verbs, sharing a single direct object, with the complication that the last verb is a phrasal transitive verb that wraps around its direct object (e.g. put away, tear in half). This headline looks tantalizingly like an RNW at a first pass, because it almost contains the necessary ingredients. It has a pair of coordinated verbs, one of them an ordinary transitive (kills), and the other a phrasal transitive verb (chase down); it also has a shared direct object for these verbs: 5. In fact, we could make a nice, if nonsensical, RNW out of these ingredients: kills (and) chases 5 down. (I guess it could make sense if someone came and snatched the dead bodies, and the was trying to get them back.)

However, these verbs and their direct object are strung together in a perfectly ordinary English way: chases down (and) kills 5. The weirdness comes in when the headline doesn’t end there, but goes on to say then himself. This could still be an ordinary, if complicated coordination, one involving coordinated verbs and coordinated direct objects. Syntactically, it could be just like

I edited and published a blog post, then a podcast episode.

Multiplying out the two verbs and two direct objects, we end up with four events: editing a blog post, publishing that same blog post, editing a podcast episode, publishing that same podcast episode. Doing the same thing with the headline, we again end up with four events: chasing down five people, killing them, chasing down himself, killing himself. (If we could read the original article, it probably said that the guy “turned the gun on himself“.) It’s at that third event that things break down.

Assuming that the headline writer actually meant, “chases down five people, kills them, then kills himself”, this is some weird syntax, and at this point I think it’s probably an error. Given a chance to rewrite it, the copy editor would probably rephrase. On the other hand, it’s just possible that this is part of someone’s grammar; that is, they would see no problem with it even when prompted to take a second look. If I see coordinations like this again, I’ll have to wonder about that possibility. I know the people at Headsup found it ungrammatical, as did I; how about you?

Posted in Other weird coordinations, Right-node wrapping ("Friends in Low Places" coordinations) | 12 Comments »

It Took Patience, It Took Perseverance

Posted by Neal on March 28, 2010

Update, Mar. 29, 2010: Because of some kind of software glitch, all that’s been visible of this post today has been the first paragraph, or maybe not even that. It’s been corrected now.

I heard a sound bite of President Obama last week, talking about the just-signed nuclear arms treaty with Russia. Based on his intonation, here’s how I parsed what he said:

It took patience, it took perseverance, but we never gave up.

My syntax sensors began tingling. Something about the sentence sounded like a non-parallel coordination, but when I took it apart, it seemed to check out: The coordinated elements (aka conjuncts) were three independent clauses:

  1. It took patience.
  2. It took perseverance.
  3. We never gave up.

So what was non-parallel about that? Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Other weird coordinations | 3 Comments »

She Drew Her Gun and Shot Her Lover Down

Posted by Neal on March 3, 2010

For the second of my grammar-intensive posts leading up to National Grammar Day tomorrow, I’ll get into some syntax. In particular, the syntax of coordination, and in even more particular, the syntax of nonparallel coordination. Regular readers know I tend to write about this quite a lot — enough for it to have its own category with several subcategories. Some kinds of nonparallel coordinations are just plain sloppy, and don’t belong in formal writing, but other kinds are just fine. The ones I have today I think are more on the “just fine” side, but I’ll be interested in hearing how they sound to readers.

Cole Porter

First up, one from Cole Porter:

From under her velvet gown, she drew her gun and shot her lover down.
(“Miss Otis Regrets”, Cole Porter, 1934)

What we have here would be an ordinary coordination of two werb phrases (VPs): drew her gun and shot her lover down. There’s a complication, though. The VP drew her gun is actually part of a larger VP, drew her gun from under her velvet gown. Instead of appearing in this typical position for an adverb, though, the adverbial PP from under her velvet gown has been put at the front of the sentence, before the subject she. (In syntactic terms, it’s been topicalized.) If drew her gun from under her velvet gown were the only VP in the sentence, there’d be nothing more to say. We’d just have

From under her velvet gown, she drew her gun.

The prepositional phrase From under her velvet gown, from its perch at the front of the sentence, can look down (as it were) and modify the entire rest of the sentence.

But there’s another VP: shot her lover down. It’s coordinated with drew her gun, and that compound VP goes with the single subject She. Now, though, we have From under her velvet gown at the front of the sentence — she drew her gun and shot her lover down — in position to scope over the whole thing, but actually just reaching in and scoping over just one of the two VPs inside the sentence: drew her gun. At least, that’s what I assume Porter had in mind. You can draw a gun from under your velvet gown, but you can’t shoot your lover from under your velvet gown. Unless instead of wearing it, you’re hiding under it or something.

In this respect, this coordination is a lot like Down came Santa and filled the stockings, where Down modifies only came. The only structural difference between the two sentences is whether the subject comes before or after the first verb: came Santa vs. Santa came.

Next nonparallel coordination:

Your pants you can get out of the pile of clean pants and put the others away.

That was me talking to Adam about a year ago, one move in my continuing campaign to make sure that he and Doug put away their clean laundry instead of using it as a pile from which to select their clothes for the week. Again, this is essentially a coordination of two VPs: get your pants out of the pile of clean pants and put the others away. The subject of both VPs is you; also scoping over both is the modal can. But lifted out of just one VP to come before the you can is the first VP’s direct object your pants.

I think I’ll call this kind of non-parallel coordination narrow-scoping topicalization.

Posted in Fillers and gaps, Other weird coordinations | 1 Comment »

Away to the Window I Flew, Tore, and Threw

Posted by Neal on December 23, 2009

I’ve written about “The Night Before Christmas” (the poem formerly known as “A Visit from St. Nicholas”) a couple of times before. Once it was to untangle the dense syntax of As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly, when they meet with an obstacle mount to the sky, so up to the housetop his coursers they flew, with a sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas, too. The other time, it was on the nonparallel coordination (a multiple-level coordination, in fact, like the ones in my last post) He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle, and away they all flew like the down of a thistle. Now I’ve noticed another nonparallel coordination in this poem, in a line that’s usually more noted for the ambiguity of throw up:

Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Christmas songs, Inversion, Kids' entertainment, Other weird coordinations | 3 Comments »

What and How, More and Faster

Posted by Neal on August 6, 2007

Two posts back, I talked about how coordinations like when and what could force verbs that are transitive or intransitive to be both at once, and that coordinations such as more and more often could do the same thing. There’s a similar pair of syntactic structures that will force a double parsing on certain kinds of nouns. The first one is another coordination of wh-words, but this time, instead of a wh-noun and a wh-adverb, it’s a wh-determiner and a wh-adverb.

First, some background. In English, plain old nouns can’t usually function as subjects or objects in a sentence: *Cat came to the door or *I saw dentist today are ungrammatical. You have to put the noun with a determiner, such as a, the, every or your, to form a noun phrase: My cat came to the door; I saw a dentist. Some nouns, however, can act as plain nouns, combining with a determiner to form a noun phrase; or they can go without a determiner and act as noun phrases all by themselves. These are teh mass singular nouns and the plural nouns: (The) slime covered the floor; (some) squirrels keep robbing the bird feeder. With that out of the way, here’s the example I used in a January 2005 post:

Every company has its own idea of what and how information should appear….

What is the wh-determiner; put together with the noun information, it would make the noun phrase what information. But since information is a mass noun, it can also serve as an entire noun phrase without a determiner, which is exactly what it does in the phrase ideas of how information should appear. When what and when are coordinated, then (in an indirect question that doesn’t have subject-auxiliary inversion, with a mass or plural noun functioning as the subject), the noun that follows can be both a plain old noun and a full noun phrase. Here’s another example that I found more recently:

…Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) satellite, the only space-based instrument that can measure where and how much rain forms deep inside a hurricane.
Laura Allen, “Endangered Robots,” Popular Science, August 2007, p. 65

In this one, the order of wh-adverb and wh-determiner are reversed, and the determiner isn’t just a simple what; it’s the more complex how much.

It turns out that for noun-vs.-noun-phrase ambiguity, just as for transitive-vs.-intransitive ambiguity, both wh-coordinations and the kind of more and… coordinations discussed earlier can flush it out into the open. It happens when the first more is a determiner (instead of a noun phrase like in the other post), and the other word is an adjective (instead of an adverb like in the other post). An example I used in a later comment sa more and faster, with more as a noun phrase and faster as an adverb. But here’s an example with more as a determiner and faster as an adjective:

We need more and faster processors.

Processors is an ordinary noun when it combines with more, but it’s a full noun phrase when it combines with the adjective faster (under the standard analysis in which adjectives form phrases of the same category as the thing they modify).

Posted in Coordinated WH words, Mass and Count Nouns, Other weird coordinations | Leave a Comment »

More, and More Often

Posted by Neal on August 4, 2007

A couple of years ago I wrote about a sentence where a verb had to be parsed two ways because of different demands placed on it by two wh-words. An example would be this sentence from a 1985 paper by Alexander Grosu:

What and when does John (normally) eat?

For the what, eat has to be a transitive verb; for the when, eat is an intransitive. Either way, you parse it, you’re talking about an action of eating and a person doing the eating, but for the transitive case, you’re also talking about what got eaten; for the intransitive case, that part is left unsaid.

Coordinations of nominal wh-words (who, when, etc.) and adverbial wh-words (where, when, why, how) are good at bringing out this kind of simultaneous transitive/intransitive use of verbs that are capable of it. A few weeks ago, David Dowty found another way of doing so. A student of his was interested in a kind of comparative construction, and David found himself doing a search for the string more and more often. He was looking for more as an adverb, so he put in the often to avoid getting examples of plain old more as a noun phrase (as in, I want more) or determiner (as in, I want more chocolate). He was surprised, however, to find he’d caught a few cases of more as a noun phrase anyway. Here’s one of them:

With TESSCO, the more—and more often—you purchase, the lower your total cost. (link)

In this sentence, purchase has the same transitive/intransitive alternation that eat has. For the first more, the noun phrase version, purchase is transitive. For the adverb more often, purchase is an intransitive verb.

Here’s another example:

As with any promotional message the more — and more often — you tell people, the more effectively it will be remembered. (link)

The first more is a noun phrase again, and tell is a ditransitive; that is, it’s a verb that takes two objects: tell (someone) (something). The more fills in the (something) slot. The more often is an adverb, and for it, the tell is just a transitive — tell people — with the something that gets told understood from context.

These more and more often coordinations are an interesting find, since it’s been widely observed that verbs like eat can’t be both transitive and intransitive when you coordinate an ordinary noun and adverb:

*I eat slowly and peanut butter sandwiches.

(Actually, they can in the right circumstances, but that’s another story.) The more and more often coordinations do not involve wh-words, but they and the what and when-type coordinations seem to be grammatical to a comparable degree.

Posted in Other weird coordinations, Verbal diathesis alternations | 3 Comments »

Down Will Come Santa and Fill the Stockings

Posted by Neal on December 4, 2005

Doug and Adam are learning about planned obsolescence. This year, they somehow got interested in Bionicle, a line of toys from Lego. The Bionicle universe is populated by robot-like figures, and there are new ones each year. Not only can you assemble them from Bionicle sets, you can read about them in books and comics created by Lego, and see their adventures in (so far) three direct-to-video Bionicle movies. Once his interest was piqued, Doug remembered the two Bionicle sets some friends had given him for his birthday in 2004. Adam, meanwhile, got a Bionicle book published in 2004, all about that year’s Bionicle figures. Once he and Doug realized there were four figures other than the ones Doug already had, “collect them all” immediately set in. The trouble is, that series isn’t in stores anymore–all you can find are the 2005 Bionicles. After a number of frustrating discussions, Doug and Adam have finally accepted that no matter how many times they check the toy shelves in the stores, they’re not going to find those four Bionicles from 2004.

I knew Doug had learned and generalized the concept of planned obsolescence when he said, “2005 is almost over, so the 2005 Bionicles won’t be around much longer, either. We’d better buy more of them now!” I could almost see the CEO of Lego drumming his fingertips together and saying, “E-e-e-xcelle-e-ent.”

Yesterday, though, Doug said he and Adam had new hope for getting some 2004 Bionicles. “Lego doesn’t make 2004 Bionicles anymore,” he said, “but Santa doesn’t buy toys, he makes them! So he can make some 2004 Bionicles!”

“Hmmm…that’s a good point,” I acknowledged, and said no more. I guess we’re reaping what we’ve sown here.

But on the subject of Santa Claus, consider a sentence like this one:

Down came Santa and filled all the stockings.

What is being coordinated here? Before the and we have Down came Santa, a complete sentence. After the and we have filled all the stockings, not a complete sentence because it has no subject. Now obviously, Santa is supposed to be the subject of both verbs, but typically you’d expect the subject of coordinated verbs to come before either of them, like this:

Santa [came down] and [filled all the stockings].

This kind of coordination (which for reasons I won’t go into is called either an SGF or SLF coordination) has been written about a lot in the linguistics literature on German, because it was noticed in German first. The most common example of it comes from Tilman Hoehle, who wrote the first analysis of this kind of coordination:

In den Wald      ging der Jaeger    und   fing einen Hasen.
Into the forest   went the hunter   and   caught a hare.

Like Santa in the English example, der Jaeger is the subject of both ging and fing, but gets thrown right in the middle of the coordination of verb phrases. I suspect this it the kind of coordination Chris Waigl had in mind when she commented on one of my Friends in Low Places coordinations:

This is a strangely cerebral exercise for me because if you come from German, as I do, many of the WTF coordinations look totally unremarkable.

Coming back to my conversation with Doug, I see that I made another SGF coordination when I wrote:

“Hmmm…that’s a good point,” I acknowledged, and said no more.

The subject of both acknowledged and said no more is I, but like Santa and der Jaeger, it appears after something that belongs to only the first verb phrase: the “Hmm” quotation.

In later developments, Doug’s statement regarding Santa Claus and 2004 Bionicles has now become, in his estimation, a test for whether Santa is real, or (as he’s sometimes wondered) just kids’ parents. If he gets some 2004 Bionicles, Santa’s real; if not, it must be the parents. I wonder what he’d think if he only knew about eBay.

Posted in Christmas-related, Other weird coordinations, Semantics | 3 Comments »

 
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