Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Wide-scoping operators’ Category

New Data Points

Posted by Neal on December 16, 2011

Here are a few items I’ve come across in the past several months. If this were my first year writing this blog, each of them would have been immediately worth a whole post. But since I’ve been doing this for more than seven years, I’ve already written about these topics, in some cases numerous times. So now they’ve just been sitting in my drafts pile until I had enough of them scraped together to put in a combined post.

On a Language Log post on a malnegation from Newt Gingrich, commenter Tom Recht went slightly off topic to offer the following:

A colleague, on hearing that a mutual friend had applied for the same fellowship she had applied for, recently said to me: “I hope he doesn’t get it and I don’t get it.”

What she meant was not “I hope that [[he doesn't get it] and [I don't get it]]”, but “I hope that [not [he gets it and I don't get it]]”. She was morphosyntactically negating only the first of the two coordinated clauses even though the negation applied to the entire coordination — grammatically impossible, you might think, but immediately intelligible in context.

A nice summation of exactly the kind of coordination that first grabbed my attention in a set of phenomena that I first called “coordination with half-negation” but now call by the more general term of wide-scoping operators.

Next, here’s something Glen sent me back in March:

Just found the following sentence in a student paper I’m grading:

“George believes that making the [website] template was better than buying [from an outside designer] because the integration costs associated with testing and integrating an external design into our existing system would be too high.”


FLoP, of course, is the initial name “Friends in Low Places” coordination, which I gave to the kind of nonparallel coordinations that I now call right-node wrapping. Not just any nonparallel coordination is an RNW. The last coordinate has to wrap around something that actually belongs to both coordinates. In this case, the complex verb integrate … into our existing system wraps around the direct object an external design. By all rights, that should encapsulate this noun phrase inside the second coordinate, but in fact, it’s also the direct object for the first verb, testing.

My wife and I were discussing the latest news from the hyper-religious Arkansas Duggar family. You know, Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, who decided they would use no form of birth control, “let God decide” how many children they should have, and give them all names that begin with J, no matter how ridiculous those names became after they used the obvious ones. (Jinger? Does that rhyme with ringer or is it homophonous with ginger? I hope the latter.) God may have been indicating a decision when Michelle recently miscarried their 20th child. Giving me the news, my wife said,

The Duggars lost their 20th child.

I noticed the same ambiguity here that I noticed in sentences like Doug lost his first tooth. If you look just at first tooth or 20th child, you have to figure out what sequence you’re talking about. For Doug’s first tooth, you probably mean “first tooth to erupt in Doug’s mouth.” For 20th child, you probably mean “the 20th child that they conceived.” But in the construction VERB one’s Nth NOUN, the verb overrides the default set of ordered events, and the whole thing means “VERB a NOUN for the Nth time.” So Doug lost his first tooth has the intended meaning of “lost a tooth for the first time” along with the unintended meaning of “lost the first tooth that he cut”. And The Duggars lost their 20th child, in addition to the sad intended meaning of “lose the 20th child that they conceived,” could also have the much sadder, not-intended meaning of “lose a child for the 20th time.”

Lastly, here’s a sentence I heard from someone talking about picky eaters:

What is something similar to raw carrots that you’d be willing to give a shot?

Nice extraposition of the relative clause that you’d be willing to give a shot from the something it modifies, but what really interested me was the fact that in the verb phrase give [something] a shot, it’s the indirect object that got pulled out to be the modified noun: something … that you’d be willing to give a shot. In a recent post, I discussed why Who Brynn gave the cookies (with who as an extracted indirect object) sounded so much worse than Who Brynn gave the cookies to (with who as an extracted object of a preposition). Most commenters agreed that it was, but Glen commented:

Well, let me just register my surprise. None of the *-marked constructions here sound even slightly bad to me. Not that I object to the ‘to’, because it can help clarify things in some cases. But omitting it just isn’t a problem at all for me.

Well, Glen, here’s one that popped right out in spontaneous conversation. Now I’m the one registering surprise!

Posted in Ambiguity, Fillers and gaps, Right-node wrapping ("Friends in Low Places" coordinations), Wide-scoping operators | 13 Comments »

You Don’t Shoot ‘Em and They Fall Over

Posted by Neal on September 17, 2010

Perhaps you remember Doug’s campaign to get some rated-M first-person shooter games. Well, now he has one. He’s been playing Metal Gear Solid, and even now, with the game in his possession, he still likes to mention the game’s redeeming features. The protagonist smokes, but his health suffers for it. If you have him spend too much time in combat, he begins to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. You’re penalized if you kill too wantonly, and rewarded if you avoid doing so. And instead of always shooting with an ordinary gun, a lot of the action is done with a tranquilizer gun. Doug was telling me about what happens when you shoot enemy soldiers with a tranquilizer:

You don’t shoot ‘em and they fall over. They still chase you around for a minute.

While Doug was telling me some further details, I was busy writing down the quotation I set out above. It’s another wide-scoping operator! The negation don’t is syntactically a part of just the first clause: You don’t shoot ‘em. But semantically it scopes over both clauses. If this weren’t the case, and you just read these as you would any other pair of clauses joined by and, here’s the meaning you’d get:

  1. You don’t shoot the soldiers.
  2. The soldiers fall over (for no apparent reason).

But that’s not what Doug means. He means:

    It’s not true that:
  1. You shoot the soldiers.
  2. The soldiers fall over right away.

One clause can be true, or the other can, or maybe neither is true. But you don’t get both of them true. So if Doug shoots the soldiers, making (1) true, then (2) has to be false: The soldiers don’t fall over right away. And before they do, they can call for backup, which arrives in overwhelming force and always finds you. In fact, even if they don’t manage to complete the call, headquarters will send reinforcements to check things out when the soldier who made the call doesn’t respond. And most unfair of all, Doug says, is that one time there was a guy who didn’t get hit with a tranquilizer, who went around and woke the others back up!

Posted in Doug, Pop culture, Wide-scoping operators | 5 Comments »

Hoping for an Earthquake

Posted by Neal on April 8, 2010

Glen sent me a link to a page of photos of an amazingly perilous path up a mountain in China, a path ending at a teahouse. He was struck by the caption on one of the pictures:

Let’s hope no one gets a sudden cramp or that the area gets hit by an earthquake !!

Glen’s comment: “I guess the negation in ‘no one’ is supposed to scope over the earthquake clause?” I’d say yes — otherwise, the writer is suggesting that an earthquake is one of two events that we should hope for. This sentence reminds me most of the one from this post, where the negation inside the quantified subject scopes over two clauses:

No one measures I.Q. points when you apply for a job and you are then paired with fellow employees who are of your mental ability.

Posted in Wide-scoping operators | 2 Comments »

Why Can’t You Call Him and He Picks Up?

Posted by Neal on January 5, 2010

On one of the news channels this morning, they were talking about the “Tiger Woods syndrome”: thinking that, if even seemingly steadfast and true Tiger Woods could have cheated (and cheated so much) on his wife, your significant other could be cheating on you, too. They had some marriage counselors talk about their increased business since the Tiger Woods scandal broke, and then they brought on a private investigator who specialized in infidelity and had written a book on the top signs your SO is cheating on you. After an increased attention to personal fitness, and heightened possessiveness of cell phone and/or computer, the PI mentioned an increase in overtime hours at work. He asked,

If he’s at work, why can’t you call him at the office and he picks up?

Hey! I thought. That one’ll go right onto the examples page of my handout!

This is precisely the kind of coordination that I’ll be talking about at LSA this Thursday, and which longtime readers know I’ve blogged about on numerous occasions. Syntactically, it looks like a question (Why can’t you call him at the office?) coordinated with a declarative (he picks up), but of course it’s really one big question, asking why a particular set of events cannot occur; specifically, you calling him at the office, and him answering the phone when you do.

This coordination is a triple threat: It’s not just a wide-scoping modal (as in They must have escaped and no one noticed), or negation (as in A player should learn how salaries aren’t as great as they seem or last as long as expected), or question (as in Why am I working and you’re just sitting there?). Nor is it just a modal plus a negation (as in You can move this and these’ll move, but you can’t move these and this’ll move), or a negation and a question (as in Didn’t he get the job but they fired him a month later?), or even a question and a modal (as in Can you feed the cats and I’ll take out the trash?). No, indeed: It’s all three at once!

This reminds me that I really need to finish up my slides tonight. I’ll put a link to them here when they’re done.

Posted in LSA, Semantics, Wide-scoping operators | 6 Comments »

Even More Wide-Scoping Operators

Posted by Neal on May 12, 2009

One of my regular readers is Deborah Lipp, who blogs at Property of a Lady, and has written several books on Wicca and paganism in addition to The Ultimate James Bond Fan Book (“One of these things is not like the others,” as she admits in Sesame Streetwise fashion). She also, as it turns out, is a big fan of AMC’s series Mad Men. I learned this when she wrote to me asking a language-related question about the show and mentioning her and her sister’s MM fan blog, A Basket of Kisses. That reminded me that I’ve had a Mad Men-related post sitting in my pile of drafts, so it seemed like a good time to pull it out and consolidate it with a number of other draft posts on the same topic.

The topic is “Wide-scoping operators”, and here’s the example, from the October 18, 2008 episode of Mad Men:

Jane Siegel (Peyton List)

Jane Siegel (Peyton List)

How do I know I’m not just going to eat another mushroom and this room will disappear and I’ll be back on the train to Trenton?

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Kids' entertainment, Semantics, The darndest things, Wide-scoping operators | 4 Comments »

More Wide-Scoping Modals

Posted by Neal on May 7, 2008

Two posts ago, I was talking about sentences like They must have loosened the pins and {he didn’t notice / him not have noticed}. Based on just examples with epistemic modals, the interim conclusion I reached was:

It looks like the pattern here is actually that the second clause must have tense, but person/number marking is optional.

Commentator Ellen K. added that she preferred the phrasing They must have loosened the pins and he not have noticed, so this is another possibility to consider. However, it is still consistent with the hypothesis that person/number marking is optional; the only detail is whether the no-person/no-number verb requires a nominative subject or not. For now, I’m going to avoid this third phrasing option, and just see what patterns there are with the phrasings I’ve been working with. The grammaticality judgments I’ll be giving are mine alone; however, my own intuitions have probably been compromised by thinking about these sentences and saying them to myself so much. I welcome your grammaticality judgments.

So, now I’ll look at some sample sentences with deontic modals, i.e. those that express obligation or permission. I’ll start with those expressing obligation, and go ahead and include the quasi-modal have to with them:

Deontic modals: requirement or obligation


    1. You must steal the medallion and {*they don’t see you / them not see you}.
    2. You have to steal the medallion and {?they don’t see you / them not see you}.
    3. You should steal the medallion and {*they don’t see you / them not see you}.
    4. You ought to steal the medallion and {*they don’t see you / ?them not see you}.

    1. You had to steal the medallion and {*they didn’t see you / them not see you}.
    2. You should have stolen the medallion and {*they didn’t see you / *them not see you / them not have seen you}.
    3. You ought to have stolen the medallion and {*they didn’t see you / ?them not see you / them not have seen you}.

With obligation deontic modals, then, it looks like the second clause again must have tense: You can see this in the past-time examples where them not see you is ungrammatical. Now, however, person/number marking is not optional; it’s forbidden. As for why the ought example sounds bad either way, I don’t know.

I’m not done with these wide-scoping modals yet. Soon I’ll look at dynamic modals (those that talk about ability or willingness), and I want to take a closer look at negations that scope over an entire coordination, too.

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Posted in Semantics, Wide-scoping operators | 2 Comments »

Modals, Negation, and Caviar and Beans

Posted by Neal on May 1, 2008

I read in Dear Abby earlier this week about a nephew who was given some money to treat his grandparents to dinner, but for unknown reasons, did not do so. The current Abby responded in his defense:

He might have offered, and the offer was declined.

It’s another case of a modal that is syntactically part of just one clause (He might have offered), but semantically spreads its hypotheticality over two coordinated clauses (the second one being the offer was declined). The last example of something like this that I wrote about was

They must have loosened the hooks and Mr. Cleaver didn’t notice it.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Semantics, Wide-scoping operators | 6 Comments »

Post-Election Post

Posted by Neal on November 8, 2006

Here are a few election-related bits I accumulated during the weeks before the election, on election day, and today.

Ohio’s Democratic governor-elect, Ted Strickland, started off his acceptance speech last night by saying, “I am proud and humbled…” Seems like there should have been a yet in there.

As for statewide issues, if you don’t live in Ohio you might think that two issues, publicized as “Smoke Less Ohio” and “Smoke Free Ohio,” would be redundant. They’re not, though. Smoke Free Ohio is a ban on smoking in indoor public places, meant to level the inconsistencies among cities on smoking policies. Smoke Less called itself a ban, too, but with a few exceptions, such as, oh, restaurants and bars. By smoke less, they mean less smoking in public indoors than there would be without a ban — though in places that already have a ban, such as Columbus, smoke less is a lie, since such bans would be for the most part lifted. Beyond that deception, I wondered if the namers of the issue also were hoping some people would hear it as smokeless instead of smoke less. What a difference a space or a stress makes! And on the website for the issue, there is no space between smoke and less. Luckily, this issue failed, and Smoke Free passed. But hey, now I wonder: Did anyone who voted for Smoke Free think they were voting for free cigarettes for everyone?

And on the national level, I was watching the news this morning talking about the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. They played a week-old clip of George W. Bush talking about soon-to-be Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. He said:

They asked the lady who thinks she’s gonna be Speaker but she’s not, about tax cuts.

Put in strictly parallel syntax, this would have been one of the following:

…the lady who thinks she’s gonna be Speaker but isn’t…
..the lady who thinks she’s gonna be speaker but who isn’t

That is, you can coordinate VPs (thinks she’s gonna be Speaker and isn’t) or entire relative clauses (who thinks… and who isn’t). But Bush coordinated a VP (thinks…) with a clause (she’s not). Don’t you dare call it a Bushism, though! This kind of coordination is everywhere. Look, here’s one from the movie Cars that I never got around to writing about:

You know, the twins who used to be your fans but now they’re my fans?

Even Geoff Pullum does it:

[H]e brings up points that he thinks are new but they’re not.

And last, here’s an issue that was on the ballot for the Columbus suburb of Gahanna: Gender Neutralization. I don’t live in Gahanna, so I’m not familiar with the details of that one, but I really hope it was a language-related issue.

Posted in Lexical semantics, Morphology, Ohioana, Wide-scoping operators | Leave a Comment »

Coordinated Questions at the Memorial Tournament

Posted by Neal on June 2, 2006

Adam and his friend G. were going to get together this afternoon and ride bikes, now that they both know how, but the rain which suddenly sprang up yesterday just got worse today. So instead the friend’s mom and I took the two of them to McDonald’s to have lunch and play in the indoor playset there.

“Man,” I said to G’s mom, “Where is all this rain coming from? It was so nice a few days ago!”

“Of course it’s raining!” she told me. “The Memorial Tournament is going on.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Ohioana, Semantics, Wide-scoping operators | 4 Comments »

Pullum’s Non-Parallelism

Posted by Neal on May 29, 2006

In a recent Language Log posting, Geoff Pullum has this to say about a movie reviewer who read the book The Da Vinci Code and made some observations about Dan Brown’s strange and klunky syntax, observations already made by Geoff Pullum two years earlier:

[Anthony Lane] sounds a tiny bit like an intelligent literary stylistician who has just been awakened from a two-year coma and thus attracts a certain amount of eye-rolling at conferences as he brings up points that he thinks are new but they’re not.

I was interested in the points that he thinks are new but they’re not bit. Pullum uses a relative clause to zero in on what kind of points he’s talking about. Specifically, he’s talking about points that have two properties: 1) He (Lane) thinks they are new; and 2) they’re not new. The first property appears in the relative clause as he thinks [ ] are new, with silence instead of a subject for are new. The missing subject corresponds to points. The second property appears in the relative clause as they’re not. No missing subject here; points corresponds to the actually-spoken subject they.

So why didn’t Pullum leave out the they here, just as he did in he thinks [ ] are new? That is, why didn’t he write this?:

…points that he thinks are new but aren’t.

I could ask him, but hey, Geoff Pullum is a busy man. I’m sure he won’t mind if I just speculate a little. He’s a pretty tolerant guy, after all. Maybe he wanted the sentence to end with a stressed not for emphasis (which you don’t get if it’s swallowed up in the contraction aren’t) and it sounded better as but they’re not than but are not. Or, maybe he wanted to avoid having points fill different kinds of gaps in the two phrases. Sure, points corresponds to a subject in both he thinks [ ] are new and [ ] are not, but in the former, it’s the subject of the embedded verb after thinks that’s being left out, while in the latter it’s the subject of the main verb are. Perhaps in Pullum’s grammar, this kind of double duty sounds as strange as a noun corresponding to both a subject and an object in a relative clause, like some of the ones here.

Whatever the reason, it evidently sounded better to Geoff Pullum to keep the they in the second clause. The result is that we have another coordination in which something is marked only on the first coordinate which nonetheless has scope over both coordinates. We’ve had examples involving negation, modality, and question formation, as illustrated below:

  • Negation: “It was fun to run into someone who [wasn’t stodgy] and [thought at some point you should call it quits],” remembered Ellen. (link)
  • Modality: “[They must have loosened the hooks] and [Mr. Cleaver didn’t notice it],” Jerry said. (link)
  • Question formation: [Did you make your own contributions to a complying superannuation fund] and [your assessable income is less than $31,000]? (link)

Pullum’s is the first example crucially involving relative clause formation.

Posted in Semantics, Wide-scoping operators | 7 Comments »


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