Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Verbal diathesis alternations’ Category

When We Get Married

Posted by Neal on July 9, 2011

It’s been light blogging during the past week, since my parents were visiting. Pretty much all I did was check in on the Grammar Girl giveaway a few times and put links to relevant GG podcasts or blog posts (here or elsewhere) for topics people asked about that I probably won’t choose because they’ve already been covered. The puzzling entries are the ones that say something like, “I’d love to win one of these books!” and nothing else. I don’t think they read the post as closely as they should have.

Anyway, one night while Mom and Dad were here, we went out to eat to celebrate their 45th anniversary (from a few days earlier) and my wife’s and my 15th anniversary (that day). Dad made a comment about our anniversaries being 30 years apart but so close to the same day. Adam spoke up.

“Maybe someday when Doug and I get married, we’ll get married in July, too!”

“Oh, you couldn’t do that!” I said. “He’s your brother! And you’re both boys!” (OK, so that last part might not be a problem in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Washington, D.C., or who knows where else in a dozen years.)

“Adam, these guys are really literal!” my wife said.

Yes, to interpret Doug and Adam get married to mean that they’re marrying each other is a literal interpretation. But it’s also a literal interpretation to interpret it the way Adam meant it: that Doug is getting married to some woman (or man, I suppose), and Adam is getting married to some other woman (or man, yes, OK). The ambiguity isn’t a matter of literal vs. figurative; it’s just that marry (or more commonly, get married) participates in the understood reciprocal object alternation. So do the verbs kiss and fight, but not hit or kick,. (I realize I’ve written enough posts about these kinds of verbal diathesis alternations to give them their own category, which I have now done.)

As I wrote in 2007 about Amelia Bedelia, it’s not about going for the unintended literal meaning of something; it’s about choosing, in the face of ambiguity, the maximally funny reading, be it literal or not. I remember a time about sixteen years ago when the “married to someone else” interpretation was the funnier one. It was around the time of my wife’s and my negative-first anniversary. I was introducing her to Mom and Dad, and telling them that we were going to get married. Then I added, “To each other!”

Posted in Adam, Lexical semantics, The darndest things, Verbal diathesis alternations | 6 Comments »

If You Can Say “Graduated College,” Can You Say “Graduated Harvard”?

Posted by Neal on May 31, 2011

Over at Visual Thesaurus, my latest column is on the annual (or at least, annually relevant) arguments over whether it’s grammatical to say that someone “graduated college” or “graduated high school” (or even “graduated elementary school”), instead of “graduated from college/high school,” etc. I talk about the different versions of graduate that take different combinations of direct objects and prepositional phrases, and put them in a larger context of verbal diathesis alternations. My columns are usually behind a paywall there, so if you don’t have a membership, you have several options. One, of course, is to get a membership for something like $20, which you might find worth it just for the articles alone, by Ben Zimmer, Nancy Friedman, Mark Peters, Stan Carey, and others. Another, of course, is not to bother reading the column. But now there’s a third option: Wait three months and then go to the Vocabulary.com magazine. There you can find the formerly premium content that is more than three months old.

Anyway, here’s a detail that didn’t make it into the VT column. For me, although graduate from college/high school is the normal phrasing, graduate college/high school is not too bad. However, once you put in the name of a particular school, you can’t drop the preposition. So to my ears, graduated college is a little sloppy but OK, whereas graduated the University of Texas is out. I asked my followers on Twitter what they thought, and got a couple of responses that agreed with me, but as I thought more about it, I began to wonder if speakers would say graduate plus a school name after all. Here’s what I found in a small search in COCA:

  • graduate from Harvard vs. graduate Harvard: 115 to 1
    The one example of graduate Harvard was I guess my middle-schoolers would be graduating Harvard this year if the bumblers at their school had know [sic] about this smaller class size.
  • graduate from (the) Ohio State University vs. graduate (the) Ohio State University: 5 to 0
  • graduate from Stanford vs. graduate Stanford: 40 to 2
    The two: I graduated Stanford, and I’m also a member of the Horror Writers Association, and Lives in Palo Alto, Calif, and graduated Stanford in’ 98 with a political science degree.

Feel free to try this with other school names, and report in the comments!

One of the Twitter respondents was L. Michelle Baker, who goes by the handle of corpwritingpro. After her first tweet (which stated that from was customary before the school name), she surprised me with this one:

Wow! A professional writer was not simply dismissing graduate high school, nor even grudgingly accepting it in informal contexts, but actually granting it fully standard status, complete with a semantic distinction between graduate high school and graduate from high school. Furthermore, the part about describing an accomplishment is precisely what I found in Beth Levin’s English Verb Classes and Alternations as the difference between, for example, walked on the grounds and walked the grounds, or escaped from New York and escaped New York. I’m confused by how graduating from high school denotes less of an accomplishment than graduating high school, but maybe the fact that speakers look upon graduation as an accomplishment is what’s driving the loss of the preposition. Have any other readers noticed, or developed in your own usage, a semantic distinction between graduate from X and graduate X? And does it matter whether X is a common noun like college or high school, or a proper noun naming the institution?

Posted in Diachronic, Lexical semantics, Prescriptive grammar, Verbal diathesis alternations | 7 Comments »

More, and More Often

Posted by Neal on August 4, 2007

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

What and when does John (normally) eat?

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

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

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

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

Here’s another example:

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

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

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

*I eat slowly and peanut butter sandwiches.

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

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

Zero-Backformation

Posted by Neal on October 5, 2006

A thread on the Eggcorn Forum talks about a puzzling phrase some of the participants have seen: the war wages on. One poster speculates that the war-related verb wage is an eggcorn for rage; others think it’s an idiom blend of wage war and the war rages. Either of those is a possible explanation, but neither of them is the first one that occurred to me. The war rages on reminded me of a time about five years ago, when — oh, wait a minute… [harp music, wavy screen]

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Backformation, Verbal diathesis alternations | 8 Comments »

Feel Me Bad

Posted by Neal on June 24, 2005

For the past few years, every now and then I’ve heard Doug or Adam say something like one of these:

  • She taked me a bath. (i.e. gave him a bath, made him take a bath)
  • You taked me the band-aid off. (i.e helped him take it off.)
  • It feeled me bad. (i.e. made him feel bad)

They’re extending the pattern found in verbs such as melt or walk, which can be either intransitive like this:

The butter melted.

The dog walked quickly.

or transitive with a meaning of “cause to [intransitive meaning],” like this:

I melted the butter.

I walked the dog.

With take, Doug and Adam are extending it to work with a verb that is already transitive and turn it into a verb that takes two objects instead of one. As for feel, it’s neither intransitive nor transitive; it takes an adjectival complement (in our example, bad) instead of a direct object. Doug and Adam use it as a verb that can take a direct object in addition to the adjectival complement. In short, they seem to be able to make causative verbs out of any verb, so that it can take a direct object in addition to whatever other stuff has to follow it (nothing in the case of melt, walk; one direct object in the case of take; an adjectival complement in the case of feel.

My question is: Why can’t I do that? There’s almost certainly been something written about why certain kinds of verbs can participate in this kind of causative alternation, and others can’t.

Posted in Lexical semantics, The darndest things, Verbal diathesis alternations | 2 Comments »

The Tortilla Man’s Mission Statement

Posted by Neal on January 20, 2005

I tell you, the only reason I go to Don Pablo’s anymore is their tortillas. When I moved here in 1992, you couldn’t get good Tex-Mex food, but that gap was filled the following year when Don Pablo’s came to town. I went there on a regular basis for almost ten years. But then the corporation started fooling around with the recipes. One by one, my favorite items were banished to the list of things I couldn’t eat if I was going to kiss my wife in the next 24 hours. Or they disappeared from the menu. So now I’m back to where I was 12 years ago: Waiting until I visit my family in Texas, where I can get my annual Taco Cabana fix.

Yep, if not for their tortillas, I’d have given up on Don Pablo’s two years ago. They haven’t changed the recipe for those (as far as I can tell), and still make them on the premises: warm, chewy, and just a little bit salty–not with that disappointing sweet aftertaste that comes with every store-bought tortilla I’ve eaten. And guess what? The person who makes the tortillas now has a mission statement!

Yes, it’s true. See, we went to Don Pablo’s last week. I was hoping the fajitas might have recovered, but even if they hadn’t, I figured I could at least could eat some tortillas and drink some iced tea. When we got there, Doug and Adam went up to watch the tortilla maker, as usual. They watched the guy putting the balls of dough on the giant griddle, squishing them flat with the lid, and laying the resulting tortillas on the warming slab. They waited to see which of the tortillas would stay flat, and which would blow up like whoopie cushions, and while they were doing that, I noticed a paper on the wall behind the tortilla-making apparatus. It said:

Tortilla maker: My objective is to return each guest by providing hot, fresh tortillas as quickly as possible.

Now that was strange. This tortilla guy aimed to return me? Return me to where? Return me like an unwanted Christmas gift? Then I realized I needed to use return in its “come back” sense rather than its “go back” sense. Applying the caused-motion lexical rule to that sense gets us the “cause to come back” meaning intended here, instead of the more common “cause to go back” sense appropriate for Christmas gifts, hostages, and illegal aliens.

But can return actually mean “cause to come back”? It sure can’t in my dialect, and it’s not in my dictionary, either. (Next time I’m near an OED I’ll check it, too.) My suspicion is that return each guest is, like the rest of the whole klunky, pompous message, the end result of hours of corporate wordsmithing, and not representative of how people actually talk. But even if I’m right, I wonder why the caused-motion alternation doesn’t hold for the “come” sense of return.

Posted in Food-related, Lexical semantics, Verbal diathesis alternations | 3 Comments »

 
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