Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Ellipsis’ Category

Not As Much As You!

Posted by Neal on August 30, 2011

On April 30, I tweeted about an episode of The Big Bang Theory I’d watched the night before. I said

This is the kind of situation where grammar sticklers point out that there can be a big difference between more than I and more than me. In a nice summary of both sides of the argument, Grammar Girl writes:

[People who maintain that than is a conjunction rather than a preposition] would argue that the sentences Aardvark likes Squiggly more than I and Aardvark likes Squiggly more than me are both correct but have entirely different meanings. Both use than as a conjunction, but when you use the subject pronoun I, you’re saying Aardvark likes Squiggly more than I [like Squiggly], and when you use the object pronoun me, you’re saying Aardvark likes Squiggly more than [Aardvark likes] me. If than is a preposition, however, you would always use the objective pronoun me and then the same sentence would mean both things–you don’t care for Squiggly as much as Aardvark does AND Aardvark prefers Squiggly to you. It would be unclear which of the two meanings [was] intended. Avoiding ambiguity awards a point to the conjunctionists.

Of course, this distinction only works when there actually is a difference between nominative and accusative forms, which limits us to pronouns, and not even all of those. In particular, you can be either nominative or accusative, so Leonard could be saying either “Not as much as [I hate] you!” or “Not as much as you [hate Greek food]!”

I’d venture to say that in most cases, the ambiguity is only what Arnold Zwicky calls a potential ambiguity; not a realistic one that will confuse people. What’s fun about this example is that neither of the possible readings jumps out as the intended one. Sheldon is such an insufferable character, with so many showstoppers when it comes to food preferences, that you could imagine his roommate Leonard getting so fed up with Sheldon that he decides to punish him with that night’s purchase of take-out food for their group of friends. There are two ways doing this could punish Sheldon. On the one hand, Leonard could reason that although he (Leonard) hates Greek food, he’ll eat it because he knows Sheldon hates it even more. On the other hand, Leonard might reason that he (Leonard) hates Greek food, but he hates Sheldon more, so he’s willing to eat Greek in order to make Sheldon eat it too. I wouldn’t be surprised if the writers of the show even intended this ambiguity.

Karen Davis (aka The Ridger) sent me another example of an ambiguous VP ellipsis that hinges on the pronoun you. It’s exactly parallel to the Big Bang one, except that here, instead of finite clauses like I hate Greek food, we have a nonfinite “small clause”: your ex living with us. In her email, Karen wrote:

Today’s Tiny Seppuku answers a question from someone whose parents like her ex enough to let him live with them. … In one panel, the parents say to the woman: “Let us tell you how much we enjoy having your ex living with us instead of you.”

One reading has …your ex living with us instead of [your ex living with] you; the other has …your ex living with us instead of you [living with us] Both were plausible, because the strip is about someone whose parents like her ex so much that they’re letting him live in their home, in their daughter’s old room. At least in print, you’re left wondering which meaning is intended. However, if you actually heard it spoken, the ambiguity would probably disappear. They would say either “your EX living with us instead of YOU [living with us]” or “your ex living with US instead of [living with] YOU”, and the focal stress would make things clear.

You get this kind of ambiguity with ordinary noun phrases, too. In my dad’s logic textbook from his college days, there’s an example of spurious reasoning that takes advantage of it. A passage goes something like this:

A psychological survey has revealed that whereas the value Mr. Jones places on money is slightly more than the societal average, the value Mrs. Jones places on it is slightly less. We can predict, therefore, that Mr. and Mrs. Jones’s marriage is unlikely to last. How could it, when Mr. Jones loves money more than his wife?

Again, the stress could disambiguate the spoken sentence: “Mr. JONES loves money more than his WIFE” vs. “Mr. Jones loves MONEY more than his WIFE.” But you can also pronounce it with a carefully evened-out stress that leaves the ambiguity open, which is nice because it lets you make the joke and confound your unwary listeners.

Go ahead and distinguish between than I and than me if you want to. There may be times that there are two plausible meanings to distinguish, but if you’re dealing with anything other than I/me, he/him, she/her, we/us, they/them, you’ll have to disambiguate some other way.

Posted in Comics, Ellipsis, Prescriptive grammar, TV | 4 Comments »

You Can’t Go From Strict to Sloppy

Posted by Neal on March 4, 2011

A sign on a local electronics store says:

I can start my car from inside my house. Can you?

I’ve written about strict vs. sloppy anaphora (aka strict vs. sloppy identity) a couple of times before. The canonical example, at least for me, is an old joke that plays on it:

Wife: Jim kisses his wife goodbye before he leaves for work every morning. Why don’t you do that?
Husband: Because Jim wouldn’t like it!

Strict anaphora is the funny reading, where do that is understood as “kiss Jim’s wife”; sloppy is the wife’s intended reading, where do that is understood as just “kiss one’s wife,” resolving to “kiss your wife”.

In the store sign, though, we have two opportunities to choose between strict and sloppy, because there are two mys to deal with. Logically, there would seem to be four possible meanings. The intended one would be the Sloppy/Sloppy interpretation; i.e.

Can you start your car from inside your house?

Then there’s the Strict/Strict reading, implausible and funny, but as far as I can tell, available:

Can you start my car from inside my house?

Maybe I can even imagine a context in which this reading would be the intended one. Suppose I want you to house-sit for me and drive my car around while I’m away from home for an extended time. Furthermore, my car is temperamental, and requires ten minutes of gas-wasting idling time before it can reliably be driven on a cold day, so if you’re going to house-sit for me and drive my car, you need to be able to use my powerful remote-control ignition from inside my house. Knowing that you’re sometimes a bit of a technophobe, I ask you if you’ll be able to meet this prerequisite: “I can start my car from inside my house. Can you?”

Now for the mixed readings. There’s the Sloppy/Strict interpretation:

Can you start your car from inside my house?

Maybe I’m having a party, and the guests and I are bragging about the ranges of our remote-control ignitions. As I look out the window at my car and the guests’ cars parked on the street, I lay down a challenge: “I can start my car from inside my house. Can you?” We all whip out our tools and the contest begins.

OK, so how about the Strict/Sloppy interpretation?

Can you start my car from inside your house?

At this point, theoretical syntax has something to say. In reading a paper by Kyle Johnson on a different subject, I came across this line:

Dahl (1974) discovered that when an ellipsis has two pronouns in it, the first of them cannot get a strict interpretation if the second gets a sloppy interpretation. (p.4)

Johnson’s example:

James said he’d rob his constituents and Peter did too.


  1. James said, “I will rob my constituents” and Peter said “I will rob my constituents” too. [Sloppy/Sloppy]
  2. James said, “I will rob my constituents” and Peter said “James will rob his constituents” too. [Strict/Strict]
  3. James said, “I will rob my constituents” and Peter said “I will rob James’ constituents” too. [Sloppy/Strict]
  4. *James said, “I will rob my constituents” and Peter said “James will rob my constituents” too. [Strict/Sloppy]

I kind of agree with Johnson’s judgment, but I still wonder if the right context would make it OK. So how about with our RC car-ignition example? I don’t think I can get a Strict/Sloppy interpretation with that, either, but it might just be that I can’t imagine a suitable context where it might make sense. Maybe if you and I are trying to set up some kind of practical joke … yeah, let’s say that I’ve secretly removed the batteries from my remote ignition, and am going to drive my wife crazy by having her continually try and fail to start our car from inside the house. You are my confederate, sitting in your house a few blocks away, with my spare RC ignition, listening to me through a secret microphone transmitter we’ve put in my house. Now, every time I show my wife how easy it is to operate the remote ignition, you will hear me and at my signal, use the spare to start our car. But it will only work if the remote is powerful enough to unlock my car all the way from inside your house. How about that? With that scenario, can you get the Strict/Sloppy reading now?

Meanwhile, I’ve been looking into two categorial-grammar analyses of anaphora, with the aim of seeing if they can generate a Strict/Sloppy reading. If such a reading is truly ungrammatical regardless of context, and the CG analyses fail to generate that reading, woohoo! If you’re a CG fan and this question interests you, let’s talk.

Posted in Ellipsis, Sloppy and strict anaphora | 5 Comments »

More Prepositional Cannibalism

Posted by Neal on November 9, 2010

“Your call is very important to us. Please stay on the line and your call will be answered in the order it was received.”

I stayed on the line, cleaning up the kitchen one-handed while I waited. By the time I was speaking to a real person, I had listened long enough to have heard the message at least five more times:

Your call is very important to us. Please stay on the line and your call will be answered in the order it was received.

It was really starting to get to me … holding the phone to my ear with one hand, clearing the table and loading the dishwasher with the other, and hearing again and again, “the order it was received.” You’re missing the final in!, I kept thinking. You don’t say

*The calls were received this order.

You say

The calls were received in this order.

So when you lift out order to turn this clause into a relative clause, you don’t just forget about the in. Jonathon at Arrant Pedantry knows what I’m talking about. He and I are flexible here; you have more than one option for what to do with the in. You can leave it stranded at the end, the same way as you’d leave it at the end of the house I grew up in. Or you can take the in along with order, and put them both at the front of the relative clause. Summing up the choices:

Your call will be answered in the order it was received in.
Your call will be answered in the order in which it was received.

Personally, even though I’m comfortable saying (and writing) in the house I grew up in, I find the stranded-preposition option kind of awkward here. I prefer the order in which it was received.

They’ve talked about this kind of missing preposition at Language Log here and here, calling it “prepositional cannibalism”, a term borrowed from Ernest Gowers, who wrote about “One of a pair of words swallow[ing] the other.” In this case, we’ve got a pair of ins, one of them heading a prepositional phrase modifying be answered, and the other modifying were received. Only one survives.

Here are a couple of other examples of prepositional cannibalism that I’ve heard at one time or another:

You have to pull out at the same angle you went in [at].
I want to sell it for a higher price than I bought it [for].

I wondered if this kind of preposition dropping happened when the prepositions weren’t identical. I don’t think it can:

*Give it back to the person you got it [from].
*Put it into the same box you got it [out of].
*Make eye contact with the person you’re talking [to].

Arnold Zwicky has some examples of a dropped preposition with no other prepositions at all in the sentence, including these:

… take a variable that we already know the behavior [of].
… and other important things that we hope to get them the money [for].

He calls the more general phenomenon preposition absorption, and the observation he makes is that the omitted preposition has to be recoverable from the context in one way or another. In the case of cannibalism, it’s the existence of an identical preposition that provides the information; in Zwicky’s examples, it’s the wider context. However, in my ungrammatical examples, I think the context is sufficient to allow recovery of the missing prepositions, but the sentences are still no good. My impression is that, regardless of what’s going on in Zwicky’s examples, preposition cannibalism occurs among speakers who want to avoid truly ungrammatical phrases like world in which we live in, and in so doing accidentally block some legitimately repeated prepositions.

Posted in Ellipsis, Fillers and gaps | 18 Comments »

Like a Dog Ellipsis

Posted by Neal on September 18, 2010

I’ve been thinking about President Obama’s much-criticized “They talk about me like a dog” remark. You can read what Language Log had to say about it here. It’s a bit out of the news cycle by now, but Ben Zimmer’s current “On Language” column got me thinking about it again.

So what was it about They talk about me like a dog that struck people as odd about it in the first place?

For a while, I was looking for syntactic reasons. Like a dog is a case of ellipsis, a clause with some stuff left unpronounced that we are to recover from the context. One way to interpret it would be to treat a dog as the subject, and supply the V(erb) P(hrase) talk about me from the first clause:

They talk about me like a dog (talks about me).

This would be no big deal syntactically; it’s the same way you’d interpret You throw like a girl (throws), or Walk like a man (walks). Semantically, of course, it doesn’t work. Dogs don’t talk, and if they did, they wouldn’t talk about Obama.

Another way to interpret it this kind of ellipsis, although it won’t work for this particular example, would be to take a dog to be a direct object. To do that, you’d have to find a transitive verb in the context to fill in the blank. For example, it could work in a sentence like this:

They treat me like (they treat) a dog.

But since that won’t work for Obama’s sentence, we have to dig a little deeper for something to put together with a dog to make a clause. The solution is to supply the entire chunk They talk about, and use a dog as the object of the preposition about:

They talk about me like (they talk about) a dog.

Well, that works pretty well! All we have to do now is accommodate (i.e. accept as true for the sake of the conversation) the proposition that people don’t talk about dogs in a complimentary manner. So what’s so strange about that? Is it so unusual to have this kind of ellipsis? No; it’s the same kind of ellipsis as you get in lie in it like a bed, sleep in it like a hammock, or step on him like a bug.

I thought that maybe this kind of ellipsis was harder when the preposition is used in an abstract way, as about is, instead of in a more physical-location way like in or on in the above examples. But I can also find examples of depend on it like a crutch. So I don’t think that’s it, either.

When I taught ESL composition, sometimes I would mark a phrase on a student’s paper with the word “unidiomatic”. The phrasing didn’t break any syntactic rules, but it just wasn’t how a native English speaker would put something. It’s like saying, “If I’d known you were coming, I’d have baked a pie” instead of “If I’d known you were coming I’d have baked a cake”, or “I’m going to punch you a new asshole” instead of “I’m going to tear you a new asshole.” Zimmer’s latest column is about how much of the language we learn is set phrases, idioms, collocations, “chunks” of words. These chunks conform to the rules, more or less, and some of them even allow variation in the choice of words they contain; for example give me a break and cut me a break. But their existence makes a language inhospitable to similar chunks with similar meanings but with words that are not in the accepted set of components.

The perceived problem with They treat me like a dog, I think, is not that it breaks any grammar rules, but it’s a little too much like the idiom treat [someone] like a dog in form and meaning, with the unexpected phrasal verb talk about where treat should be. Maybe if he’d used some other noun than dog, like in these examples here, it would have been different enough to escape notice.

Posted in Ambiguity, Ellipsis, Politics | 6 Comments »

Or Will We Have?

Posted by Neal on April 11, 2010

Doug likes to say he has no interest in the kind of linguistic stuff I talk about, but every now and then something will catch his ear. For a while, there was a videogame that Doug and Adam had been helping each other on, and one day Adam said to Doug that after they completed their current quest, “We will have gotten all the items!” (Nice future perfect tense, Adam!)

“Yeah!” Doug said. But his confidence was quickly replaced by doubt. “Or will we?”

A pause. Then: “Or will have we? Or have we?” I was charmed by his grappling with the finer points of subject-auxiliary inversion, verb-phrase ellipsis, and perfect tenses. For the record, he should have said, “Or will we have?”

Or should he have?

Posted in Doug, Ellipsis, Inversion, Syntax | 7 Comments »

Coordination and Ellipsis, Part 2

Posted by Neal on August 24, 2008

OK, after giving the background, I’m finally ready to show how Beavers & Sag 2004 handle multiple-level coordination. First we’ll do one of the kinds typified by Be pompous, obese, and eat cactus that most of the entries in the “Multiple-level coordination” category are about, and which they specifically intend their analysis to cover. Then we can move on to the one from The Dark Knight: These people can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Ellipsis, Multiple-level coordination | 4 Comments »

Coordination and Ellipsis, Part 1

Posted by Neal on August 23, 2008

So before I show how Beavers & Sag’s analysis of coordination works for the Dark Knight coordination, it’s worth showing how it handles ordinary coordination. They start off with an assumption about the structure of coordinated phrases. I’ll illustrate with the example the good, the bad, and the ugly. Here’s one structure you might assign to this phrase:

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Ellipsis, Multiple-level coordination | 3 Comments »

Ellipsis, Elision, Suppletion

Posted by Neal on August 23, 2008

As I was starting to write about the analysis of the Dark Knight coordination from the last post, I decided to get some background out of the way. Specifically, it’s that the analysis is based on ellipsis, which is the omission of parts of a phrase which can be inferred from context. It happens all the time in natural language, in examples like I’m allowed to [do something], but you’re not [allowed to do that thing], or When [did you see them]?, or the intended interpretation of Throw away whatever you want.

Ellipsis, or elliptical construction, is fine for a noun form, but often linguists need to talk specifically about the missing material. How do they refer to it? Well, you can do what I just did, and call it the missing material. But if you want to introduce the fact that the material is missing as new information, as in the verb phrase is/has …, what do you do? You need some verb-equivalent for the noun ellipsis that you can passivize. Some linguists simply treat ellipse as a verb, and then can fill in the blank with ellipsed. Others use the circumlocution undergone ellipsis. More often, though, at least in the papers I’ve read and the talks I’ve heard, they resort to suppletion.

Suppletion is the term for what’s going on when a language has forms of a word (e.g. its past tense, its plural, etc.) that are so irregular that they’re not even historically from the same source. Well-known English examples include better/best (instead of *gooder/goodest), went (not *goed), was/were and is/are (not *beed and *bes/be). The suppletive form that linguists use instead of ellipsed or undergone ellipsis is elided.

I’m uncomfortable with the use of elided to describe the missing material in an elliptical construction. To me, elision is a phonological process whereby sounds or syllables are weakened to the point of not being pronounced at all, the most familiar case to speakers of European languages probably being elision in French: You don’t say *le homme; you say l’homme. Ellipsis, on the other hand, is a syntactic or pragmatic process (depending on who you ask). Whether I can say I do doesn’t depend on whether the omitted material starts with a vowel or a consonant; it only depends on whether the thing I’m doing can or can’t be inferred from the context.

UPDATE, June 2, 2009: In an email to the American Dialect Society mailing list, Randy Alexander notes the use of ellipt (a backformation from elliptical) to fill this gap.

add to del.icio.us : Bookmark Post in Technorati : Add to Blinkslist : add to furl : Digg it : add to ma.gnolia : Stumble It! : add to simpy : seed the vine : : : post to facebook : Bookmark on Google

Posted in Ellipsis, Morphology | Leave a Comment »

Hating All But the Right Folks

Posted by Neal on February 15, 2007

We’re fifteen days into February, so no matter whether you’re counting lines on a calendar page or individual days, we’re now into the third week of February. You know what that means: It’s National Brotherhood Week!

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Ambiguous song lyrics, Ellipsis, Music | 5 Comments »

Who’s Naughty and Nice?

Posted by Neal on December 17, 2006

I’ve started to get a few more hits on my posts on Christmas songs, so I’ll write about one that I never got around to last year or the year before. In “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” the second verse goes like this:

He’s makin’ a list, checkin’ it twice,
Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice.

An intriguing ambiguity. We could take and to be coordinating two embedded questions, one of which has been abbreviated by ellipsis to appear only as nice; that is,

… [who's naughty] and [who's nice].

More interestingly, and could just be coordinating two ordinary adjectives inside a single embedded question, like this:

… who’s [naughty and nice].

Of course, this reading is entailed by the first one. If you identify the set of naughty people, and also identify the set of nice people (i.e. find out who’s naughty and who’s nice), then the intersection of those sets will give you the people who are both naughty and nice, whether you intended to find that out or not. Conversely, if you set out to identify just the set of people who are both naughty and nice, you pretty much have to find out who’s naughty and who’s nice in order to obtain your two sets to intersect. Or you could outsource the job, and have someone else find out who’s naughty and who’s nice and just tell you who has both qualities. However, the song gives the clear impression that this is a job Santa does personally, so I think him finding out who’s both naughty and nice is for all intents and purposes the same as him finding out who’s naughty and who’s nice. So if the two are extensionally the same, why focus on intersection of the sets of naughty people and nice people?

The implication seems to be that Santa is less interested in the purely naughty or the purely nice than in those who are both. But why would this be the case? I think Calvin puts it best, in this cartoon from p. 30 of Bill Watterson’s Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat:

I wish Santa would publish the guidelines he uses for determining a kid’s goodness. …Does he consider the kid’s natural predisposition? I mean, if some sickeningly wholesome nerd likes being good, it’s easy for him to meet the standards! There’s no challenge!

Heck, anyone can be good if he wants to be! The true test of one’s mettle is being good when one has an innate inclination towards evil.

Posted in Ambiguous song lyrics, Christmas songs, Ellipsis | 5 Comments »

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 465 other followers