Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Phrasal verbs’ Category

Dummy Prepositions

Posted by Neal on October 25, 2012

I dropped by a weekly discussion group at OSU yesterday, to hear Carl Pollard talk about the version of categorial grammar he’s currently developing. When it came to prepositions, he made a distinction between prepositional phrases that actually referred to a location (as in I saw a mysterious figure on the roof); and those that might as well just be plain noun phrases for all the meaning the preposition contributes. The example Carl gave was depend, which takes an on-PP as a complement, as in depend on me. He proposed not even calling on me in this example a prepositional phrase; instead, its syntactic category (its “tecto” in Carl’s jargon) would be simply be an “On Phrase”.

It can be tricky identifying these “dummy” prepositions. It’s easy enough to discard clear cases of meaningful prepositions, in verb phrases like walk to school, but it gets harder as the prepositionals become metaphorical, in phrases such as stare at him. Furthermore, you have to avoid “intransitive prepositions” (sometimes called particles), in phrases like tie up the prisoner. You might mistake up for a dummy preposition because it certainly doesn’t seem to contribute any spatial meaning. The trouble is that it also doesn’t take an object. Although it might look like the prisoner is the object, of up, if you replace the prisoner with a pronoun, you quickly realize that up isn’t taking it as an object. If it were, a phrase like *tie up him would be grammatical, just like stare at him is. Instead, the phrasal verb has to “wrap” around its pronoun direct object: tie him up. So to get a true dummy preposition, you want a preposition that contributes no spatial meaning, and also takes an object. The on after depend meets these requirements.

To further demonstrate that this kind of meaningless PP was a different thing than an ordinary PP, Carl ran it through a classic ambiguity test (which I’ve described here), having a single on-PP function in both ways at once:

It’s on Mt. Everest that I live and depend.

I laughed, and Carl said, “I knew you’d get that!” And to fellow syntactician Bob Levine, who was turning around in his seat to look at me: “Neal can coordinate anything!”

“That sentence wasn’t grammatical for you, was it?” Bob asked.

“No,” I answered. “That’s why I’m laughing!”

Gotta love that linguist humor. Where else would It’s on Mt. Everest that I live and depend work as a comedy one-liner? If you’ve got some others, let’s hear them!

Posted in Ambiguity, Phrasal verbs | 11 Comments »

Podcast Linkfest

Posted by Neal on March 20, 2012

I’ve been enjoying listening to a couple of language-related podcasts recently. First is one from Slate, called Lexicon Valley, hosted by Mike Vuolo and Bob Garfield. In their six episodes to date, they have talked about:

  1. The history of the proscription against ending a sentence with a preposition
  2. The development of faggot as a slur against male homosexuals, with commentary by Arnold Zwicky
  3. Whether between you and I is a case of hypercorrection, or if another rule can describe its distribution.
  4. Black English, with commentary from Walt Wolfram (which they pronounce as “Wolf-Ram”)
  5. What a controversy the publication of Webster’s Third caused in 1961
  6. What insights Scrabble can and cannot give into the nature of English

The episodes are all about half an hour long, and even the ones I didn’t think I’d be too interested in (the dictionary, Scrabble) have turned out to be quite interesting after all. Furthermore, they’re linguistically sound. With all the complaints at Language Log and other places about how news media just can’t be bothered to fact-check anything related to language, I have yet to hear a piece of bad information here. The only part I don’t care too much for is their “lexiconundrum” puzzlers at the end of each episode.

There are no further episodes of Lexicon Valley yet; apparently, these six episodes were a trial run. So listen to them quick, and if you like them, go say so on iTunes, as I’m about to do now.

The other podcast is Conlangery, “the podcast about constructed languages and the people who create them,” hosted by George Corley, Bianca Richards, and William Anniss (sp?). In each episode, these three talk about some aspect of language — discourse particles, dialects, sound systems — ostensibly with the intent of giving conlangers (i.e. language creators) tips and ideas to use in their conlangs. However, the information and observations they bring in should be interesting to anyone interested in language, even if they have no interest whatsoever in creating one. Each episode also has a featured conlang.

Unlike Lexicon Valley, each episode of Conlangery lasts about a full hour, but unlike Lexicon Valley, Conlangery has more than 40 episodes so far, with no sign of quitting yet. The discussions are unscripted, with George loosely moderating and all three making contributions as the spirit moves them. There are sometimes strange background noises (like a recurring “clac-k-k-k-k-k-k” in one episode), and George’s hesitant speaking style takes a little getting used to, but it’s a fun podcast and I look forward to catching up on the episodes I haven’t listened to yet.

While I’m in a link-loving mood, here are a couple of non-podcast links. First, Jonathon Owen’s two most recent posts. If you thought benefactive datives such as I love me some barbecue brisket sounded strange, you’ll find this construction a little bit stranger. In the other post, he talks about a question I’ve had for a while: If plural -s is pronounced as [z] after a vowel, then why is the plural of die still dice instead of dies?

Lastly, a post from Arnold Zwicky about people who “look their nose down” (not “look down their nose”) at things they disapprove of. It reminded me of my own posts about particles, prepositions, and phrasal verbs.

Posted in Linkfests, Mass and Count Nouns, Phrasal verbs | 11 Comments »

Picker Uppers and Putter Upper Withers

Posted by Neal on March 2, 2010

Back in January, Ben Zimmer wrote an “On Language” column for the New York Times magazine on the subject of crash blossoms. Near the beginning, he said:

In their quest for concision, writers of newspaper headlines are, like Robert Browning, inveterate sweepers away of little words, and the dust they kick up can lead to some amusing ambiguities.

I’m not going to talk about those ambiguities; you can read Zimmer’s article yourself for that. (Or my post on one of the featured crash blossoms.) What caught my attention was how Zimmer formed an agentive noun out of the phrasal verb sweep away. I’ve been wondering about how phrasal verbs get turned into agentive nouns, ever since it suddenly occurred to me that something that stands out is outstanding, but is not an *outstander. Or at least, not anymore: I found this citation in the OED from 1593:

outstander OED 1593
a1593 C. MARLOWE Ovids Elegies (?1600) III, Troy had not yet bene ten yeares siege out-stander, When nimph-Neæra rapt thy lookes Scamander.

Why don’t we have outstander anymore, or other phrasal verbs that put their particle in front to form an agentive? I guess there’s bystander and onlooker, but others are hard to come by.

Zimmer’s sweeper(s) away, meanwhile, follows the pattern of passer(s) by, with the particle coming after the verb but with the -er suffix interposed. Are there other phrasal verbs that follow this pattern? I can’t think of many, and even passer(s) by seems a bit archaic.

In contrast to [Particle]+[Verb]-er and [Verb]-er+[Particle], the most productive way of making agentives out of phrasal verbs these days seems to be the [Verb]-er+[Particle]-er pattern. The canonical example of this is undoubtedly picker upper, as made famous in commercials like this one. I found an article by Don Chapman of Brigham Young University, called “Fixer-uppers and passers-by: Nominalization of verb-particle constructions“, in Studies in the History of the English Language IV (2008, edited by Susan M. Fitzmaurice and Donka Minkova), and it confirmed by gut feeling about the picker upper as compared to the bystander or passer by patterns. He also studies the [Verb]+[Particle]-er pattern, as in pick-upper. Quoting from his conclusion:

Insofar as the citations from the OED accurately represent historical stages of English, we can first note that the picker-up pattern has historically been the most common nominalization of multi-word verbs, but that its use dropped off in the twentieth century. Second, the by-stander pattern occurred fairly commonly in past stages of English, but declined steadily through the centuries. Third, the picker-upper pattern appears to be a recent innovation, probably of the twentieth century. It is hard to say much about the pick-upper pattern, since it does not occur in the OED; its exclusion could mean that the construction is recent or that it is too unconventional to have shown up in the OED citations. Insofar as the internet type counts accurately represent present-day usage, we can note that the picker-up pattern continues to be used today, but not as much as the picker-upper pattern, which is the most popular pattern. The pick-upper pattern is robust today, as it occurs as much as the picker-up pattern.

Chapman includes two appendices. One gives a century-by-century listing of the agentive phrasal verbs he found in the OED, broken down by pattern. The other is an 11-page table of phrasal verbs, showing which agentive patterns he found for them (picker-up, picker-upper, pick-upper, bystander) when he searched for them in Google.

Before I found Chapman’s article, I did some OED-checking and Google-searching myself. When I searched the Google News Archive for picker upper, the earliest example I found was this one from Nov. 30, 1913, in the Chicago Tribune:

“For every [???],” remarked Mrs. Bumpweather, “there is a busy little picker-upper.”

The next hits aren’t until the 1930s, but there’s a steady stream of them from then onwards. The most interesting one I found (through Google Books) is this appalling example from 1939:

To prevent the valuable metal from going to waste, you will want to recover as many spilled droplets as you can. A convenient aid is a little homemade device that might be called a ‘mercury picker upper‘.
(Raymond B. Wailes, “Fun with Quicksilver”,
Popular Science, Apr 1939 – v. 134, no. 4)

So this morphological issue was on my mind when my wife had me put away some items on a high shelf for her. When I’d finished, she said, “You’re my putter upper!”

Putter upper, I thought. Not put-upper, not up-putter, not putter up. Then a more interesting phrasal verb with put up occurred to me: put up with. I wondered how that one would look as an agentive.

That was what went through my head. What came out of my mouth was, “Maybe even your … putter upper wither?”

“Hey, watch it!”

No need for her to take offense. After all, it’s well known between us that we are each other’s putter upper withers.

After that, I had to do some Google searching for phrasal verbs with more than one particle, and found out that multiple -er marking is out there:

Let me just tell you at this point in the story, my husband is not exactly a dog lover. He is barely a dog-putter-upper-wither. (link)
As far as Gundam Wing goes, I, a former Relena-hater, am now a Relena-putter-upper-wither. (link)

But the pick upper pattern is also attested:

Lycra-clad, Arnie put-up-wither, lesbian gonnabe. (link)

Most surprising to me, though, was the discovery that multiple -er marking isn’t limited to verb-particle constructions. Check these out:

I wonder if the “NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal” is synonymous with “NASA Outstanding Discrepancy Maker-Go-Awayer Medal”(link)
Dad took me to the vet and got a tick go awayer. (Twitter feed for a dog)
a blemish reducer (aka pimple maker-go-awayer) (link)

I found those examples when I searched for “go awayer”, but once maker go awayer turned up, I checked for examples where the go got suffixed, too. I got one:

HeadOn topical headache maker-goer-awayer stuff (link)

Just last night, when it was time to pill Diamond, our cat who’s been peeing on the walls, Doug volunteered to fetch her while I got the pill ready. When he returned, he said he’d had to drag her out from under the bed. He was good at that, he said; he was still small enough to do it. Yep, I thought, Doug’s our cat-dragger-outer-fromer-underer, all right! After Diamond scratched Doug, got the pill stuck in her cheek and then started hyperslobbering before leaping down, spitting it out and running to the basement, I Googled “outer fromer underer”. Finally, I had a search that got no hits. But it might be out there…

The putter upper pattern is even more productive than I’d imagined. How do you form the agentive noun for phrasal verbs like pick up, put up with, make go away, drag out from under?

UPDATE, Mar. 2, 2010: Ben Zimmer writes in an email:

Nice post. Just remembered that Noncompositional blogged on this a couple of years ago. See my comment for OED first cites. This might be of interest too.

Thanks, Ben!

Posted in Gapping, Morphology, Phrasal verbs | 8 Comments »

They’ve Turned On Al Qaeda

Posted by Neal on January 28, 2008

I was listening to the State of the Union address this evening, or as it’s often called, just the State of the Union. It occurred to me that readers who have found this blog recently might be interested in this post from 2005.

As for this evening’s address, at one point the president mentioned Osama bin Laden’s latest videotape, in which:

…he rails against tribal leaders who have turned on al Qaeda.

Osama’s being too harsh on these guys. Can they help it that they’re so darn sexy?

Posted in Phrasal verbs | 2 Comments »

Me, Take On You?! No, You Take On Me!

Posted by Neal on September 13, 2007

If you didn’t like reading my last few posts, then you certainly won’t enjoy a posting from the Tensor from last November, about the song “Take On Me.” Its chorus begins,

Take on me… (take, on, me!)
Take me on… (take, on, me!)
I’ll be gone…

Supposedly more words follow, which the Tensor read from the karaoke captioning when he heard the song again last year. All I could ever hear was an unintelligible falsetto wail. Anyway, during the summer of 1985, when I heard this song on the radio every day, I thought the reversal of on and me in the two lines was some fun word-play (or perhaps I should call it syntax-play). However, if you did read those last few posts of mine, you’ll have noticed something unusual about the first line of the chorus.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Phrasal verbs | 1 Comment »

Doug Bowls Over Me

Posted by Neal on September 10, 2007

“I’m gonna bowl you over!” I announced. I crawled at top speed across the living room floor, crashed into Doug and rolled around on the floor with him.

Doug’s turn. After he sent me rolling over backwards, he crowed:

I bowled over you!

Bowled over me? Where did he get that syntax? Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Phrasal verbs | 1 Comment »

She Ran Him Over

Posted by Neal on September 7, 2007

Last time I wrote about the difference between prepositions and particles, noting that the phrasal verbs whack off and listen in contained particles. But those were some simple examples, where all we had was a verb and the particle. What happens when you have a verb that is followed by a preposition-or-particle and a noun phrase, like this one?

My dad can beat up your dad.

The preposition-or-particle up is followed by the your dad, so two parses are possible. One: up is a preposition, and your dad is the object of the preposition. (In other words, up your dad is a prepositional phrase, or if you’re mature enough to overlook the potty humor, a PP.) The other: up is a particle, and your dad is the object of the verb. So which parse is the right one?

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Phrasal verbs | 5 Comments »

Off In Which They Were Whacking (Or, Getting Particular About Prepositions)

Posted by Neal on September 5, 2007

Did you ever see Beavis and Butthead Do America? Here’s a scene from it that I liked. A disgruntled neighbor is complaining about Beavis and Butthead “whacking off” in his shed, and he says, after several self-corrections, something like:

That’s the shed … off in which … they were whacking.

The line shows the trouble you can get into if you try to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition, but don’t know the difference between a preposition and a particle. A preposition, such as in, takes an object, as in for example, in the shed. Most prepositions can also be used as particles; the difference is that particles don’t take objects. Off is a particle in whack off. It can also be a preposition, as in He fell off the bridge, and just for completeness, here’s an example of in as a particle: Let’s listen in. When you ask a question or construct a relative clause involving the object of a preposition, that’s when you can end up with the sentence-ending prepositions some people like to avoid. I’ll use our Beavis and Butthead example, but to avoid confusion, I’ll replace whacking off with a synonym that doesn’t use a particle:

…the shed (that) they were masturbating in.

The object of in is missing, but is understood as part of the meaning of the entire phrase: something like “the unique X such that: (1) X is a shed and (2) they were whacking off in X.” To get rid of the stranded preposition, of course, you can use the relative pronoun which, and phrase it like this:

…the shed in which they were masturbating.

But there’s no way to get rid of a particle at the end of a sentence, short of replacing the verb-particle combination with a single-word alternative (such as masturbate for whack off), or taking the cheater’s way out and adding something irrelevant to the end of the sentence:

…the shed in which they were whacking off yesterday.

…the same technique used in the punchline, “OK, where’s the library at, asshole?”

Sometimes, though, it’s harder to tell whether a word is a preposition or a particle. That’s actually what I wanted to write about, but the post was getting so long that I decided to put this background on particles and prepositions into a post of its own. Next time, I’ll be talking about beating people up and running over them. Or beating up people and running them over, if I can say that.

Posted in Phrasal verbs | 5 Comments »

I Wanna Turn On the Gamecube!

Posted by Neal on February 5, 2007

One day last week when Doug got home from school, he took off his backpack, threw his coat on the floor, and headed to the basement to play videogames. Adam went with him. They had been cooperating to earn extra characters in Super Smash Brothers Melee for the past few days, and now that Doug was home, Adam was eager to play some more Super Smash with him. As they headed downstairs, Doug said to Adam:

I wanna turn on the Gamecube!

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Ambiguity, Phrasal verbs, The darndest things | 2 Comments »


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