Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Syntax’ Category

Wet Hornets

Posted by Neal on September 18, 2013

Recycle Bin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Syntactic blending | 14 Comments »

Bradbury RNW

Posted by Neal on September 8, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

Before You Drink That

Posted by Neal on August 8, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watch the movie, then run.

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

Before you drink that, lemme ask you a question

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

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

Run first, then drink

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Ambiguity, Pragmatics, Syntax | 15 Comments »

What’s Happening with Because?

Posted by Neal on July 12, 2013

My brother Glen send me a link to this article on the best Disney Pixar movies as rated by children. He’d noticed something about the kids’language, and was wondering if I would notice it, too. I did. It had to do with their use of because. Here are all the children’s comments that used because:

  1. “Because there’s bad guys, and Mater, and Lightning McQueen, and SPIES!” (Max, 5)
  2. Elliot, 4, disagreed, saying, “I didn’t like it, because it has rats, and I don’t like rats.”
  3. Max, 5, said it was one of his favorites, “Because Evil Emperor Zurg!”
  4. [T]hey liked it “because there’s a turtle that’s so funny, it swims away” (Lily, 6)
  5. Some younger viewers took the opposite view, giving high ratings because “race cars are funny” (Wilson, 4), and “because they race” (Gideon, 4).
  6. Gideon, age 4, gave it his highest rating “because I like Mike Wazowski,” while Franny, age 8, did the same “because I like Sully.”
  7. Others, like Madison, 4, liked it for different reasons: “Because the day care. I like the day care parts.”
  8. Alex, 5, listed Up as his favorite, “Because Russell throws his GPS out the window and he’s so funny and he can make birds with his hands.”
  9. Reasons included “Because Sully can really roar” (Max, 5), “Because Mike has braces in his teeth” (Alex, 5), and “Because it was funny and a monster fell off a bed” (Harry, 4).
  10. Liam, 6, agreed about the roaring, listing Monsters U as his favorite “because the part where Sully has the big roar and scares all the policemen.”
  11. Franny, 6, gave it a high rating “because I like the dad.”
  12. Elliot, 4, said, “I didn’t like it, because Sid is mean and he smashes all the toys.”

Did you notice it? Items 3, 7, and 10 had because followed by a noun phrase, and nothing else; in other words, used in the same way that Glen, I, and most other English speakers would use because of. Although I can use because to introduce just a noun phrase, for me it’s a metalinguistic use. For example, if I were fumbling for words, I might say something like

…because, you know, the thing you were talking about.

It seems to me that somewhere a few years ago, when a long-awaited new release of the video game Skyrim had just come out, I saw an xkcd comic, or a tweet from Ed Cormany, saying something about not doing what they should have been doing, “because Skyrim.” I was unable to find the comic or tweet or whatever it was, but again, the impression I got was that the speaker didn’t have available the working memory needed in order to construct a full clause to explain, because they are so engrossed in thinking about or playing their new game, and they figure that’s all the explanation their audience really needs anyway.

Glen brought up some other metalinguistic examples in which because introduces a single-word or single-phrase exclamation. He quoted one from a reviewer’s synopsis of the TV show he used to write for:

The Fringies arrive at a giant hanger on a military base where they are waved in by some soldiers after a meandering exchange between Bishop and one of the soldiers regarding grape bubble gum because MAD SCIENTIST!

Simply saying “Mad scientist!” all by itself is an acceptable utterance. Although it’s not a complete sentence, it tells the listener, “Look, a mad scientist!” As a complement to because, it seems to say, “…Bishop is a mad scientist, as we regular viewers well know, and has a powerful sweet tooth, for milkshakes, red licorice, and other hip and quirky candy, and by now I shouldn’t even have to tell you this.” The because plus just the noun phrase, uttered with excitement, conveys sarcasm or disdain, too, it seems. Glen says that this particular reviewer uses this particular phrasing a lot. From the same review:

Bishop just goes ahead and snorts one of the serums without knowing which it is, because MAD SCIENTIST! … There is also some chimpanzee-related wackiness on Bishop’s part. Because MAD SCIENTIST!

Here are a couple of examples with NPs other than mad scientist; namely, cocaine and science, both from the same blog post, and both conveying sarcasm or disdain:

He makes her nervous. But then he offers her cocaine, and hey, cocaine! She sets aside all her misgivings, and gets in the car with a guy she doesn’t know, who makes her nervous and who is “disconnected”.

Because cocaine? [NW: notice the parallel with the earlier hey, cocaine! standing in for an entire clause.]

Women don’t lie about rape because SCIENCE!

Glen speculated that the children in the article heard metalinguistic usages of because, and learned the syntax without the sarcasm. I don’t have enough data to know, but I wouldn’t be surprised. It reminds me a lot of how duh started out as an imitation of stereotyped inarticulate phonation from a mentally handicapped person, and didn’t really sound like a word, but now is uttered with the same intonation as any old interjection: Duh! It also parallels other, well-known linguistic processes: Stronger and more specific meanings become weaker and more general over time; and words that express content get “grammaticalized” until they have only functional meanings. The metalinguistic-to-ordinary progression is something that I haven’t read about in textbooks or the literature–though relevant sources are welcome in the comments! So are your own encounters with because+NP.

Posted in Diachronic, Kids' entertainment, Movies, Syntax, TV, Variation | 6 Comments »

At the Movies

Posted by Neal on June 10, 2013

Over the weekend, Doug, Adam, the wife, and I went to see Now You See Me, and it was really good! It was so good that I let my wife go and get the family’s large bucket of popcorn refilled in the middle of the movie instead of doing it myself. I also never bothered going out to refill my large pop. I don’t have much to say regarding linguistics about the movie, except that I wonder how much of the overseas audience will know that they’re supposed to mentally supply “…now you don’t” to the title. (Does that catchphrase exist in other languages?) But there were two things to comment on before the movie.

As the wife was getting our tickets at the automated kiosk, she said, “Wow, there are only seven seats left!” Really? We were 20 minutes early! All the same, we hustled toward the ticket-taker, who said as he handed us our stubs, “That’ll be house seven, on your left.”

That misunderstanding was so funny I had to make a note of it on my phone once we took our seats in house 7. But after standing in line to buy that big tub of popcorn and the refillable drinks to which I have alluded, I had to hurry up with the memo, because the part of the trailer saying how it was time to silence and put away all cell phones and mobile devices was coming on.

Then the previews began, and the first one had a mysterious hooded figure telling someone about her destiny. Doug leaned over me to whisper to Adam, “It’s Assassin’s Creed!” But a minute later, his hopes disintegrated when the preview turned out to be for something called The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. However, I heard a sentence in the preview that I wanted to write down–but I’d silenced and put away my cell phone! So instead, I took my pen and wrote as best I could in the dark:

Not bad, for writing mostly blind

See that? There’s only so long you can hide from the truth. It’s another one like There’s only so small I can cut it and There’s only so memorized the thing can get. An existential There is that introduces not a noun phrase, but an adjective or adverb. (Adverb, in this case.) Nice!

Then we finally got to the feature itself, and I saw a production logo that I wasn’t familiar with. It turned out to be for “K/O Paper Products.” Bob Orci’s company! I hadn’t known they were producing this movie! All I knew about was that big sci-fi epic that had their name all over it this summer, and their Ender’s Game movie coming out this fall. But being as how Bob regaled Doug and Adam with magic tricks at the rehearsal dinner for their Uncle Glen’s wedding last fall, seeing an Orci-produced movie about magicians was even more fun.

Posted in Movies, Syntax, The wife | 3 Comments »

More Double Passives in Norwegian

Posted by Neal on June 6, 2013

A topic that I’ve been blogging about every now and then since before I even had my own blog was what I’ve been calling double passives. The very first example I wrote about, and the one that I still consider my canonical example of this construction in English, is this one:

(One person was killed, and) others were attempted to be killed.

The subject of the main verb, others, seems to have been promoted all the way up from the embedded verb kill, and along the way, both the main verb and the embedded verb have been put into the passive voice.

Five years ago, I blogged about how I’d learned that double passives existed in Hebrew, Norwegian, and Danish, too. The example I quoted in that post was from a 2001 paper by Lars Hellan:

Jon ble forsøkt skutt
Jon was attempt(PAST PART.) shoot(PAST PART.)
“Jon was attempted to be shot.”

As Hellan noted, sentences like these have a passive main verb and embedded verb, but the embedded verb is not an infinitive like in English. It’s just a past participle. If I had given a more literal translation, it would have been “Jon was attempted shot.” All the same, it looked like a double passive to me.

Now, I’ve been reading a paper from just last year by Helge Lødrup, who agrees that double passives exist in Norwegian, but argues that sentences like that last example aren’t them. Instead, he offers lots of examples that look even more like double passives in English, in that the passive embedded verbs are infinitives instead of past participles. He doesn’t call them double passives; he uses the term non-raising passives with passive infinitives. I think I’ll stick with double passive. Here are the first three that he gives in his introduction, with my preferred translations added:

  1. Tydeligvis kan ikke slike lys unngåes å misbrukes fra tid til annen.
    obviously can not such lights avoid-PASS to misemploy-PASS from time to other
    “Obviously, one cannot avoid that such lights are misemployed from time to time.”
    [NW: "Obviously, such lights can't be avoided being abused from time to time."]
  2. en beskjed om at vaskemaskinen må huskes å slås på
    a message about that the washing.machine must remember-PASS to turn-PASS on
    “a message that you should remember to turn the washing machine on”
    [NW: "a message that the washing machine must be remembered to be turned on"]
  3. viktige stridsspørsmål blir unnlatt å presiseres i den politiske behandlingen
    important issues are neglected to clarify-PASS in the political process
    “They neglect clarifying important issues in the political process.”
    [NW: "Important issues are neglected to be clarified in the political process."]

So these are a much clearer counterpart to English double passives. Example 1, with unngåes “avoided”, is not as much like English as the others, because this verb seems to take an infinitive in Norwegian, whereas it takes a gerund in English: avoid doing. Out of curiosity, though, I looked to see if I could find double passives with avoid in English, and I did find this specimen:

Nevertheless, there are some key foods to avoid administering, although they really should stick to just their diet. Below is a list of foods that should be avoided being given to your pet at all costs. (link)

Lødrup has several reasons for arguing that these English-like double passives are not the same kind of phenomenon as the ones that Hellan wrote about, which he and Hellan refer to as complex passives. First of all, there’s the past participle-vs-infinitive thing. For another thing, only a few verbs can be the main verb for a complex passive, including try, whereas many verbs can be the main verb in one of the double passives. In addition, the few verbs that can head complex passives can’t have dummy subjects (e.g. There), but some of the verbs that can head double passives can. It’s like observing that in English, you can say There is believed to have been an earthquake, but not *There was attempted to be killed.

Having shown how these double passives are different from complex passives, Lødrup then says what they’re the same as: long passives. Long passives are like double passives, except that the embedded infinitive is active. For example, the double passive Others were attempted to be killed would be Others were attempted to kill as a long passive. Surprisingly, Lødrup finds some of these in Norwegian, though they’re less common than Norwegian double passives. By the end of the paper, Lødrup has abandoned the clunky name non-raising passives with passive infinitives in favor of putting these double passives and the long passives under a single label of long passive, though I will stick to having two names. Lødrup also presents examples of double passives (with actual infinitives) and long passives in Swedish and Danish, and takes double passives to be a case of something called verbal feature agreement.

It’s great to get this new information and data about double passives! If you have them in your language (whether English or something else), let me know in a comment!

Posted in Double passives | 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 »

There’s Only So …

Posted by Neal on May 4, 2013

Almost seven years ago, I was cutting up some chicken fingers for Adam, and my wife dared to question my chicken-finger-cutting skills, asking if I was sure I was cutting it into small enough pieces. As I told her at the time:

There’s only so small I can cut it.

In the six years since then, I’m happy to report that Adam has learned to cut his own food, so I haven’t repeated the utterance. And in the case of chicken fingers, which Adam loves just as much now as he did then, he just picks them up and eats them as finger food anyway. But what interested me at the time, as I wrote here, was how easily I was able to generate that sentence, which I don’t find grammatical. I wasn’t doing diagrams on this blog back then, but if I had, I probably would have put up a diagram something like this to show the syntactic structure of the “There’s only so much” construction:

I'm sorry; my hands are tied here.

After the subject there and the verb is, there’s only one more chunk: the noun phrase only so much I can do. This NP has two parts: the determinative phrase only so much, and the “nouny” part of the NP (the nominal). As it happens, the nouny part of this NP doesn’t have a noun. I’ve labeled this missing noun N1. If the phrase were something like only so much money I can spend, or only so much information you’re allowed to see, this is where the noun money or information would go. Right next to the N1 is a relative clause that’s missing an NP in the place labeled GAP, which is subscripted with a 1 to show this gap corresponds to the N1.

In my sentence about the chicken fingers, though, there’s no much followed by a nominal. There’s no NP; there’s some kind of business with the adjective small. How did my grammar get to a place where it could generate that? I think the first step was a reanalysis like this:

The relative clause breaks free!

Now, after the There is, there are two constituents instead of one. The relative clause I can do GAP has broken free of the rest of the NP. Also, the GAP in the relative clause is now identified with the whole NP only so much, instead of the N inside it.

The last part is to lose the restriction to having just an NP and a clause with an NP gap. So here’s the more general version, with N replaced by ? to show that it can be an adjective phrase or adverb phrase — really, any phrase as long as it refers to something gradable. The clause that used to be just a relative clause is now a clause with any kind of gap, as long as it’s the same kind as the only phrase. Now this construction can handle utterances like my There’s only so small I can cut it or There’s only so far you can go.

There's only: general version

The reason I was reminded of only so small I can cut it is that I was listening to the most recent episode of Risk (the podcast that had that real-life example of a squinting ambiguity). The host Kevin Allison was telling a story about a time when he was obsessively trying to memorize a comedy bit he was going to perform. But he hit a point of diminishing returns, because

There’s only so memorized the thing can get.

In my 2006 post, I ended with a link to a page of Google results with similar examples. COCA wasn’t around then — or if it was, I hadn’t heard of it yet. But it’s here now. When I searched for “there BE only so *”, I got 448 hits, of which 428 are instances with much or many. Of the remaining 20, twelve had far; six had long; the last two had fast. Here’s an example of each:

  • there was only so far he could extend the examination before Djazir caught on
  • there was only so long he could hold this form before his own magick turned on him
  • There’s only so fast that the government can act

Got any examples with other adjectives or adverbs? Leave a comment!

Posted in Fillers and gaps | 2 Comments »

Bad Habits

Posted by Neal on April 26, 2013

I saw a magazine cover that had a teaser for an article by Dr. Oz. The list of things I could learn in his “Healthy-Life Handbook” included “Facts You Must Know,” “Tests You Need Most,” and this:

Bad Habits to Break

Let’s see, what would be a bad habit to break? Getting some exercise every day — it would be bad to break that habit, if I had it. Eating lots of fruits and vegetables — breaking that habit would be a bad thing, too. What else? Does not smoking count as a habit? It would be bad to break that habit by quitting not smoking.

When I looked inside the magazine at the article itself, the actual habits in the list consisted of eating fat-free stuff that has added sugar; taking pills to stop pain instead of finding its root cause; sitting too much; and overrelying on technology.

In other words, Oz wasn’t talking about habits it would be bad to break; he was talking about bad habits that you should break. In fact, the wording on the list title inside the magazine made this clear: It called them “Bad Habits You Should Drop.” Probably a lack of space on the magazine cover led to the ambiguous wording I saw there. The reading that the editors intended for bad habits to break corresponds to this parse:

Bad habits -- let's break them!

The adjective bad modifies the noun habits, and that whole chunk is modified by to break. (The label Inf/NP means an infinitive phrase has a noun phrase gap. To break bad habits would be an Inf, but without that direct object, it’s Inf/NP.) I’ll call this the intersective reading, because the meaning is the intersection of two sets: habits that are bad, and habits that you should break. This interpretation implies that there are bad habits that you shouldn’t break, which might have been one factor that pushed me in the direction of the other reading.

That other reading corresponds to a different parse:

It wouldn't be good to break these habits.

Here, the adjective bad and the infinitive phrase to break work together to form a meaning something like “X such that breaking X is bad”. This sort of discontinuous adjective phrase wraps around the noun it modifies, habits, and we end up with “habits such that breaking them is bad”. In a 1983 paper, Michael Jones gives the name “property fusion” to this kind of adjective-infinitive meaning.

So I read “bad habits to break” with the “property fusion” meaning, instead of the intersectional meaning, and the result was a completely different set of habits. But if the phrase had instead been good habits to develop, the ambiguity would have been hardly noticeable. The fusional meaning of “habits that it would be good to develop” and the intersective meaning of “good habits that are also habits you can/should develop” are for all practical purposes the same. Or are they? What would be some good habits to develop that are actually impossible to develop?

Posted in Ambiguity, Syntax | 3 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 »


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