Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally


Posted by Neal on December 1, 2016

This post began as an exploration of a head-scratcher of a sentence I heard on an episode of Radiotopia’s Criminal podcast. In it, a woman described being an inmate in a prison that housed both men and women. (She described it as a “co-ed prison,” which is worthy of comment in itself, but not the main thing I was interested in.) The men greatly outnumbered the women, which was good for her, because she was addicted to drugs, and could do favors of the sexual kind for male prisoners who had them. Or as she put it:

I’d be whoever’s girlfriend had the dope.

Sheer context allowed me to twist this sentence into a shape that matched (for me) the meaning she was getting at:

I’d be the girlfriend of whoever had the dope.

or perhaps

I’d be whoever had the dope‘s girlfriend.

Context notwithstanding, the only meaning I can get from the actual utterance is that:

  1. Some person X has girlfriend Y.
  2. Y has the dope.
  3. The speaker will somehow become Y.

Was this simply an error, or is it something licensed by the mental grammars of other English speakers? I’ll table that question for now, because in the course of trying to answer it, I’ve discovered there’s another oddity involving the possessive form of whoever that I’d never even noticed–and as far as I’ve been able to tell so far, others haven’t, either.

Take a look at this handful of COCA examples I found that contain a fused relative involving whoever’s:

  1. Ronnie is whoever’s agent he needs to be.
  2. Now take the dead battery and put it in whoever’s car you got the good one out of.
  3. It happened on the second month of his presidency. He went on for 94 more months with whoever’s blood was in him.
  4. …playing strip poker in whoever’s house had no parents in it on rainy days
  5. whoever’s brain is highest in coherence dominates. do you believe this? whosoever’s brain is highest in chaos will dominate if brains are like crowds, or greed,

In these sentences, the fused relative performs a grammatical function in the larger sentence. For example, in (1), whoever’s agent he needs to be is the complement of is. In (2), whoever’s car you got the good one out of is the object of the preposition in. And so on.

Now I want to focus specifically on the heads of the free relatives: the whoever’s followed by the noun: agent, car, blood,…. Notice that this noun is the part that delivers the primary meaning to the verb in the larger sentence (or as linguists call it, the matrix clause). In (1), Ronnie is an agent. In (2), the command is to put something in a car. In (3), Ronald Reagan has someone’s transfused blood in him. In (4), we’re talking about playing strip poker in a house. And in (5), the thing that dominates is a brain. I’ll call this the “noun head” parse.

So far, so good. Now let’s consider these other sentences, also from COCA:

  1. it feels like they are living the life of whoever’s brain was recorded.
  2. Whoever’s pitch is chosen will earn a major promotion.
  3. Or we’ll each pick a [Jeopardy!] contestant at the beginning and whoever’s contestant wins doesn’t have to do dishes.
  4. But they knew that whoever’s DNA this was would be the killer.
  5. Whoever’s shack this is, is a Tupac Shakur freak.

In these examples, it’s not the nouns (brain, pitch, contestant, DNA, shack) that provide the meaning that completes the meaning of the verb in the matrix clause. So in (6), it feels like we’re living the life of the person whose brain was recorded–not the life of the brain of that person. In (7), it’s a person, not a pitch, that will earn a major promotion. In (8), the person who doesn’t have to do the dishes is not the Jeopardy! contestant, but the TV watcher who chose that contestant. In (9), the killer is a person, not that person’s DNA. In (10), the Tupac Shakur freak is a person, not that person’s shack. In short, in these examples, it’s the whoever’s that’s providing the main meaning to the matrix clause. I’ll call this the “pronoun head” parse.

All of these sentences are grammatical for me, but possessive fused relatives are so rare that I’ve only ever had to deal with one such sentence at a time. This COCA search was the first time that I came face-to-face with the two ways of parsing them, because it was the first time I had so many all in one place. Furthermore, the even split you see in the lists above is what I found in the data: After I discarded irrelevant examples, and examples that were ambiguous between the noun-head and pronoun-head parses, the ones I’ve listed here were all the ones that remained.

For completeness, I also did the search with the much rarer whosever, and what do you know, of the two relevant examples I found, there’s one of each:

  1. then match up the plaster casts with whosever shoes they are, and that way you could catch him
  2. Whosever pole lands the straightest and farthest wins.

In (11), we have a noun-head parse: You match up plaster casts with shoes, not with people. In (12), we have a pronoun-head parse: The winner is a person, not a pole.

I looked in CGEL, expecting to find that the interesting discovery I’d just made was listed as a matter of course on page 1302 or somewhere. That’s what usually happens. But CGEL didn’t even touch on whoever’s/whosever at all, much less the details like the kind I’m discussing. I haven’t found it in some classic works on fused relatives (e.g. Bresnan & Grimshaw 1978, for those who are into this subject). If you know of anything that’s been published on this, please mention it in the comments!

Posted in Ambiguity, Fused relatives, Pronouns | 2 Comments »

Review: Words on the Move

Posted by Neal on November 28, 2016


It can be unsettling to be told to think about the fact that you have a tongue in your mouth. It’s wet; it’s biggish when you consider the whole thing all the way back; plus, it has that pebbly texture you’d find hideous to encounter in some undersea creature. Yet there it is sitting in your mouth and you can’t get it out.

As I’ve written before, John McWhorter is a master of analogies, and he still commands them in examples like this one. It comes from his latest book, Words on the Move, of which I received a free review copy from Holt Publishing. The tongue analogy above isn’t even in reference to articulatory phonetics, as you might think in a book about language; it’s about the oddball past-time marker in English used to, the commonality being that they’re both things that are amazingly weird when you stop to think about them, but which we use every day and consider completely normal. Here are some of the other analogies McWhorter uses in WOTM:

  • junk DNA
  • scooping out litter boxes
  • the mouth anatomy of fin whales
  • fade-out endings in pop music
  • fads in baby names
  • pre-ripped blue jeans
  • your child’s dating experiences
  • aside monologues in sitcoms that are not intended to be faux-reality shows
  • musical notes played
  • toolsheds
  • bees moving around in a hive
  • scurvy and being eaten by a bear (in the same sentence)
  • living squid in the ocean vs. dead squid in a kitchen
  • the Victorian party game of creating a “tableau vivant”

The theme of this book is how words not only do change, but are inevitably bound to. Fans of the Lexicon Valley podcast will recognize some of these topics from the episodes that have run since McWhorter’s assumption of host duties. In six chapters, he covers the various kinds of change that words are subject to, some of which will be familiar to most language enthusiasts, some of which won’t. Even when I was already familiar with the concepts, many of McWhorter’s examples were new to me. However, I have to say that I found this book to be M’s most “lecture-y”, because in between the fun analogies, there’s more awkward phrasing than I’m used to (or maybe more than I recall) in his other books. For example, in Chapter 3, M uses the example of some old Archie comics to illustrate how things that start out as markers of emphasis–in this case, exclamation points–end up just showing “basic engagement”. M quotes a dialogue between Archie and Veronica in which Archie is going fishing, and invites Veronica to come, and every declaration ends with a bang. M points out, “‘I’D LIKE TO FISH, TOO!’ in real life would [emphasis mine] get us near water with no one but ourselves.” He’s trying to make the text more interesting with this unexpected phrasing, but this attempt fell flat.

Chapter 1 is about one kind of semantic change, whereby words acquire meanings that are more about feelings and relating to one’s audience than they are about naming things or actions. Indeed, M observes that words like these are often hard to define. He calls them modal pragmatic markers, and uses the acronym FACE to divide them into those that emphasize factuality (those on the very/really/literally spectrum); those that acknowledge of your audience’s state of mind (discourse-initial so fits in here); those that indicate that something it counter to expectation (for example, a big-ass car is not merely big, but surprisingly big); and those that try to ease the impact of an unwelcome statement (I know, right?). Sometimes it’s not entirely clear why M puts a particular word in the box that he does, which makes me wonder how things would have shaken out if he had used, say, a 5-letter word as a mnemonic. Furthermore, the acronym wiggles a bit in that factuality is where words like really begin rather than what they become, whereas the other categories name the function that words later come to have. Even so, the classification is a good rough-ad-ready way to look at this kind of change.

Chapter 2 moves into another kind of semantic change, namely, the drifting that occurs as a result of happenstance imbuing a word with various connotations, which then become its denotation. His main source of examples in this chapter is Shakespeare, and I found this to be the driest part of the book, as he traced out example after example of seemingly familiar words that had very different meanings in passages from Shakespeare’s plays. Each would make a good entry for a page-a-day calendar, but one after another, they become numbing, even with M’s occasional one-liners to liven things.

In Chapter 3, M moves on to semantic changes that go so far that the words cease lose all of their earlier meaning and serve only to provide grammatical information. For example, the used to construction mentioned earlier really did start with a meaning that was closer to the “employ” meaning of use. It’s a good introduction to the process that linguists call grammaticalization, but M gets about halfway through the chapter before he reveals this word, since it has so many syllables that he wanted to put it off until the last possible moment.

Chapter 4 shifts from changes in word meaning to changes in pronunciation. In here, M covers not only the Great Vowel Shift, which will be familiar material to many readers of this review, but also various other vowel shifts that have occurred or are occurring in American English: the Northern Cities Shift, the Southern shift, and some less elaborate shifts, such as the cot/caught merger. He does all this without ever using the International Phonetic Alphabet, because he’s aiming for a non-specialist audience, but as with his similar attitude toward using the term grammaticalization, simply taking the plunge and bringing in the technical vocabulary earlier might have made things easier to read overall. Not using a vowel chart may have contributed to his surprisingly vague explanation of our diphthongs in mite and mouse: “[It] just branched off in a little spew.” A little spew? It makes a little more sense on his diagram, but not much.

Next, M attempts to sustain a sexual analogy throughout the entirety of Chapter 5, which he titles “Lexical springtime: Words mate and reproduce.” After quickly dispensing with portmanteau words and contractions, M resumes the progression of Chapters 1 through 3, now considering words that lose so much of their distinct meaning and pronunciation that they’re not even elements of grammar anymore; they’re just meaningless snippets of sounds that are parts of larger words. This still fits in his “words mating” analogy, because it all starts with compound words. M then goes through the stress-shift that regularly occurs in English compounds as they become familiar, to subsequent syllable reduction, to the eventual irrecognizability of the word as a compound at all. For example, I was surprised to learn here that world began as a compound of the same word for “man” that gives us werewolf and eld meaning “old”. Rather than Shakespeare, in this chapter M quotes a lot of examples from actual audio recordings, so that we can hear these processes taking place within the 20th century. (Actually, you can’t hear them so well on the page; I recommend listening to the Lexicon Valley episode where M plays the clips he’s talking about.)

In the final chapter, M talks about the effects of having a written language on how words change: It doesn’t stop it, but it makes it more visible and therefore more troubling–if you let it. M wraps up the work with a grand slam of all the kinds of word-change he’s talked about, illustrated in one word: like. He finishes with one more sexual analogy, one which, if he had spoken it, would have had me asking myself, “Did he just say what I think he said?” Here it is:

Language lives, as we do. Let’s love it as what it is–something always becoming, never still.

Maybe some prefer their flowers pressed dry in books. There are those with affectionate feelings toward the inflatable doll and the corpse. Surely, though, most of us seek life. Language, too, lives.

So if you’re looking for an entertaining and informative holiday gift for a language enthusiast, I’d go with McWhorter’s The Power of Babel or What Language Is. But if they already have those, or if their humor runs toward the sexual and scatological, Words on the Move is a good choice. And if you’d like a free copy of Words on the Move, write your best linguistics analogy in the comments, or tweet them @LiteralMinded (with the hashtag #LxAnalogy if you have room). I will see that a copy gets sent to whoever posts–by midnight EST, Monday, December 12, 2016–the most-entertaining analogy, as judged by me.

Posted in Reviews | 2 Comments »

All or Nothing On the Field

Posted by Neal on November 13, 2016

Last Wednesday, as I watched Hillary Clinton’s concession speech, she told her campaign workers:

You left it all on the field, every single one of you.

On the other hand, the week before, Cleveland Indians coach Terry Francona said this about their historic World Series run that ended in a loss with game seven:

To be associated with those players in that clubhouse, it is an honor and I just told them that it’s going to hurt. It hurts because we care. But they need to walk with their heads held high because they left nothing on the field. That’s all the things we ever ask them to do. They tried until there was nothing left.

So which is it? Do you leave everything on the field, or nothing on the field? The expression I’m used to is Leave everything on the field or Leave it all on the field. And in fact, this is the original phrasing. In a thread on the American Dialect Society email list, Ben Zimmer linked us to this post by etymologist Barry Popik, who wrote:

To “leave everything on the court/ice/field” is to give total effort, to the point of exhaustion. Nothing is held in reserve for a future contest.

“It was evident the Giants had left it all on the field” was cited in print in 1961.

“After the game, if you can say that you left everything on the field and if you had it to do over again tomorrow, you couldn’t have done it any better—then and only then is there no disgrace in losing,” a high school football coach said in 1966.

“Our kids gave everything they had. They didn’t leave a thing off the field, they left it all on the field,” a college football coach said in 1969. The now-common expression is not known to have any particular author.

The first example of leave nothing on the field that I’ve been able to find is from November 10, 2000:

South River left nothing on the field in final loss

Hits are kind of scarce after that, but pick up again from 2007 onwards. I wondered if it might have been spread by a book by Tim Irwin called Run with the Bulls without Getting Trampled, published in 2006, which had this passage:

…the head coach of the opposing team walked across the field directly toward us. He turned to me and said, “Sir, may I speak with your son?”

I moved away as he put his hands on my son’s shoulders and looked directly into his reddened eyes. Barely audible to me, I heard the coach pay this young player the supreme compliment. “Son, tonight you left nothing on the field. You gave it your all, and it was an honor to play against you.”

However, I think the increase in nothing-variants probably had more to do with a 2007 Nike TV commercial called “Leave Nothing”, brought to my attention by ADS-L contributor Wilson Gray:

So how did we get from leaving everything on the field to leaving nothing, without even a stop at 75%, or 33%? My suspicion is that it’s an idiom blend between leave everything on the field and hold nothing back, or maybe leave nothing in the locker room, which I’ve found as early as 2005. Alternatively, it could be some confusion with the business expression leave money on the table, which you don’t want to do. That seems to be this blogger’s understanding, except that he thinks leave money on the table is related to poker.

How can this expression and its complete opposite both express the same idea? As far as my family members are concerned, they could care less.

Posted in Politics, Sports, Syntactic blending | 3 Comments »

FAFSA Metathesis

Posted by Neal on October 16, 2016

One of the posts from my first year of blogging talked about Doug’s acquisition of the last few difficult pieces of English phonology (his interdental fricatives) as he was closing in on his sixth birthday. This post is about an information session the wife and I attended on how to apply for financial aid for college, since Doug is now in his senior year of high school. I can’t believe he’s been with us for 18 years now; it seems like only 15 or 16.

As the speaker talked about need-based aid, merit-based aid, personal-quirk-based aid, gift-aid, self-help aid, COA and EFC, I kept noticing one thing. In an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to keep myself awake, I tweeted about it:

That’s right; our expert speaker kept referring to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as the “FASFA”. Even when she was warning us to beware of the scam sites that awaited us if we went to, and carefully spelling out, she said, “That’s F-A-F-S-A, fasfa, dot G-O-V.”

As you may have gathered from my tweet, I found this puzzling. Aside from failing to sound out a pretty straightforward piece of English spelling, the speaker (and many of the audience members, too, including my wife) were behaving in a phonetically perverse manner, it seemed to me. Usually, changes in pronunciation make a word easier to say, by reducing the number of “gestures” that need to happen to pronounce it (i.e. the number of repositionings of the tongue, lips, or other articulators). As written, FAFSA has the advantage of having both /f/ sounds near each other, separated only by a vowel. Once you get your teeth and lips in position for that first /f/, you can leave them mostly in position while you say the /æ/ vowel, then bring them back together for the next /f/. Only then do you need to move the tip of your tongue into position to say the /s/, and after that, there are no more consonants to get into position for. On the other hand, to say /fæsfɑ/ requires you to move your articulators from /f/ position to /s/ position, and then back to /f/ position. Two repositionings as opposed to one.

If the /fæsfɑ/ pronunciation isn’t due to ease of articulation, maybe it’s due to frequency effects. In other words, maybe words or frozen phrases in English that contain the sequence /sf/ just occur more frequently than those that contain /fs/. More fas(t) forwards, hemispheres, and asphyxiating misfits than offseason games and Rafsanjanis.

Actually, I think that’s not a bad explanation, but in the past few days, another one occurred to me. I was giving Doug the highlights of the meeting his mother and I had been to…

“So,” I said, “You’ll need to fill out the FAFSA, which stands for ‘Free Application for Financial–‘ uh…” What was it? Free Application for Student Financial Aid? No, that couldn’t be right, because that would make the acronym FASFA, which we have established is wrong. So what was it, then? Oh, right: Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The word financial isn’t even in there at all! The form that’s all about financial aid doesn’t have the phrase financial aid in its name! So it could be that people say FASFA because they expect the last part of it to stand for financial aid.

In researching this post, I’ve learned that FASFA is a common mispronunciation, so for all my USA readers, how do you say FAFSA? If you pronounce it FASFA, do any of the above three reasons ring true to you?

Posted in Acronyms, Metathesis | 5 Comments »

Classroom Debate

Posted by Neal on October 15, 2016

Me: So what did you guys do in history class today?

Adam: We had a debate on which was more effective, Progressives or Populists. I argued for Populists.

Doug: Why did you say Populists were more effective?

Adam: Because I was sitting on the left side of the room, and Mr. Ridgway said that people on the left would be–

Doug: Wait, what I meant was—

Me: Ha! An attachment ambiguity involving an extracted adjunct! Nice!

Doug: –what reasons did you give for why Populists were more effective?

Adam: Oh! Because they drew from a lot of parties: Socialists, Marxists, and others. Also, they paved the way for the Progressives like Woodrow Wilson…

While Doug and Adam continued their conversation, I thought about the question Doug had intended to ask Adam:


The WH adverb Why at the beginning of the sentence has a subscript 1, indicating that it corresponds to the GAP category on the other side of the diagram. This GAP category appears where it does because that’s where you’d expect an explanatory phrase or clause to appear, such as because they drew from a lot of parties: Socialists, Marxists, and others. A clause like that basically takes the entire sentence Populists were more effective and turns it into a bigger sentence, which is shown by the lower S node spanning Populists were more effective, and the upper S node spanning both that and the GAP category.

The connectivity between the WH words and the gap is informally called extraction. I’m deliberately avoiding calling the gap an adverb or adverb clause, though, because I’m reserving the term adverb to refer to words such as confidently, never, and fortunately. To refer more generally to adverbs, adverb phrases, prepositional phrases and subordinate clauses that modify verb phrases or sentences, syntacticians typically use the term adjunct. Hence my appreciative remark about an extracted adjunct.

Anyway, here’s the question Adam took Doug to be asking:


The words are the same, but this time the GAP category takes the inverted sentence did you say Populists were more effective and make a larger Sinv out of it, as you can see by the stacked Sinv tents. It’s looking for an answer to the question of why Adam said what he said; in this case, the answer was that the teacher just divided the class down the middle and had one side take one position and the other take the other.

Although in English, extracted adjuncts can give rise to ambiguities like this one, some languages mark the difference overtly. For example, if we had conducted our conversation in the Mayan language Kaqchikel, instead of containing an inaudible gap, the question would have had the particle wi to show where the adjunct took scope, kind of like this:

  1. (Doug’s intended question) Why did you say Populists were-wi more effective?
  2. (Adam’s interpretation) Why did you say-wi Populists were more effective?

Alas, we weren’t speaking in Kaqchikel, so we just had to rely on context, which in this case gave insufficient clues.

Update, Oct. 16, 2016: Added some clarifying details.

Posted in Adam, Attachment ambiguity, Doug, Fillers and gaps, Inversion | 1 Comment »

Bibi and Koka

Posted by Neal on September 10, 2016



Every now and then, I’ll come across a mention of the bouba/kiki effect, a classic study of sound symbolism that has been revisited several times over the years. The procedure involves showing presenting experiment participants two shapes and two nonsense words, and asking them which word goes with which shape. One of the shapes is always spiky, the other bulbous, such as those shown here. One of the nonsense words consists of voiceless velar or coronal consonants and unround vowels, such as /kiki/. Variants have included the original /takete/, as well as /keiki, kʌte, kʌtiti,/ and /tite/. The other word consists of round vowels and voiced bilabial (usually) consonants, such as /buba, bamu, mabuma, maluma/, and the original /baluma/. As you have probably correctly guessed by now, most speakers tend to put the kiki-type word with the spiky shape, and the bouba-type words with the bulbous shape. “Right, because of the sounds of the word,” you may be saying. But how, exactly, because of the sounds of the word? Maybe it seems obvious to you, as it does to most people, that kiki just sounds like it belongs with something sharp and angular, and bouba with something balloony, but why, exactly?

I wondered: Are people taking their cue from the voiced or voiceless consonants? From the round or unround vowels? From the combination of unround vowels and voiceless velars, or round vowels with voiced bilabials? What would happen if I took kiki and bouba and just swapped the vowels in the two words, to get bibi and koka? What would people do then?

For the past few weeks, I’ve been finding out, running this experiment on my wife and sons, co-workers, fellow parents of members of the high-school marching band, and anyone else as opportunity arose. I’ve presented them with the shapes, drawn on a scrap of paper, and told them to imagine a previously undiscovered tribe of people, with no prior contact with any other civilization, and a language that seems to be unrelated to any known language. They have these two objects or shapes in their culture, and call one of them a bibi, and one a koka. Which is which? If you suspect that the consonants are the deciding factor, then the spiky shape should be the preferred koka, just as it is for kiki, and the globby shape should be the preferred bibi, just as it is for bouba. On the other hand, if you think it’s all about the vowels, then the spiky shape should be favored for bibi, and the rounded one for koka.

I’ve varied the order in which I presented the words, and the orientation of the paper when I show the shapes, to avoid bias based on order of presentation. Unfortunately, there are other sources of bias. After running my first three subjects (my wife, Doug, and Adam) by presenting the words on slips of paper, I realized that the angles of the letter k and the curves of the letter b might be a source of bias. Even now, this could still be a source of bias for literate participants, since they may imagine these words written down, but I couldn’t do much about that. (For a study involving pre-literate participants, see Maurer, Pathman and Mondloch (2006). I found it in the references for the Wikipedia article I cited above). In addition, by taking the most-popular words for this experiment, kiki and bouba, and making the minimal change of swapping their vowels, I’ve ended up with two words that actually do mean something in English. /koka/ can be a leaf, a carbonated drink, or of course, the Corpus of Contemporary American English. /bibi/ is a famous blues singer, an Israeli prime minister, a lovable droid, or the ammo for an official Red Ryder, carbine action, 200-shot, range model air rifle, with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time. Any of these could provide associations that lead a subject to choose one shape or the other, but hopefully with a large enough sample size, they won’t matter.

So what happened? So far, my sample size is 27. Of them, 15 participants (55%) mapped bibi to the rounded shape, and koka to the angular one. The other 12 (44%) mapped bibi to the angular shape, and koka to the rounded one. So it looks like the consonants have a slight edge, but not much of one. In fact, if I throw out the data from my wife and sons, who were looking at written representations, only 12 participants mapped bibi to the rounded shape, and it’s now a 50-50 split. So maybe it’s the combination of vowels and consonants that produce the well-defined bouba/kiki effect, since it mostly disappeared when I flip-flopped the vowels.

There are other possibilities, too. Maurer et al., who hypothesized that the roundness or unroundness of the vowels was the important factor, mentioned that it could be that English or other languages have a detectable pattern whereby real words with rounded vowels (or spelled with round letters) denote round things, and real words with unround vowels refer to pointy things. For support, they point out that there has been one study where the kiki/bouba effect did not show up, involving the Songe people of Papua New Guinea. Maybe, they note, this language doesn’t have the same kind of previously existing sound/shape correspondences. This was why Maurer et al. wanted to do their experiment on very young children, who hadn’t had as much exposure to their native languages.

More intriguingly, Maurer et al. suggest that “the effect is stronger for some consonant/vowel pairings than others” (p. 320). They suggest this because in just one out of their four pairs of nonsense words, one word contained voiced velars and round vowels–in other words, the same combination I had in koka that I didn’t think other researchers had looked at. Their word was /goga/, and for the pair /goga, tite/, they did not get the clean mapping that they got with the other words. (They also suggested that it could have been a problem in the story that they told their toddler subjects for this particular pair of words.)

So that’s my bibi/koka experiment. If you try it on your friends or family, let me know how it goes.

Posted in Phonaesthemes, Phonetics and phonology | 6 Comments »

Relative Clauses, Complex Passives, and Rainbow Farts

Posted by Neal on August 9, 2016

I was reading an article in one of the issues of New Scientist magazine that that tend to accumulate around here, and came across this sentence:

The benefits of unsaturated fats, traditionally seen as good for the heart, may vary due to their omega-3 content, which is thought could have anti-inflammatory effects.

It seemed to me there was a word missing. In my ESL composition classes, we sometimes talk about “complex passives” as a means of reporting some claim or discovery when it’s not important who made the claim or discovery. For example, suppose we’re starting with the following claim:

  1. Unicorns fart rainbows.
Unicorn-Flying-Rainbow-Fart-Cloud, courtesy of Eye Candy by Referral Candy (Creative Commons)

Unicorn-Flying-Rainbow-Fart-Cloud, courtesy of Eye Candy by Referral Candy (Creative Commons)

Now let’s suppose we’re not prepared to support this claim, so we want to say it’s someone else who believes it:

  1. Some people think that unicorns fart rainbows.

Next, let’s say you still want to put more focus on the claim than on the unnamed people who believe it. Two rather unusual versions of the passive voice, known as complex passives, will let you do this. One of them makes use of a dummy it, and leaves the entire clause unicorns poop rainbows unchanged:

  1. It is thought that unicorns fart rainbows.

The other kind of complex passive allows you to put the focus more specifically on unicorns, by turning the subject of the embedded clause (unicorns) into the subject of the passive reporting verb (are thought–note the change from is to are to agree with unicorns), and turning the remainder of that embedded clause into an infinitive phrase (to poop rainbows), like so:

  1. Unicorns are thought to fart rainbows.

Now let’s suppose that we want to combine that last sentence with this next one, by means of a relative clause:

  1. Silicon Valley startups that are valued at a billion dollars are called unicorns.

One way of doing it is to take item #4 and use it as the basis for your relative clause. I’ve shown this by color-coding the word unicorns and the place where this word has been removed from the embedded clause, which I’ve labeled “GAP”:

  1. Silicon Valley startups that are valued at a billion dollars are called unicorns, which GAP are thought to fart rainbows.

A somewhat more awkward way of doing it is to use item #3, with the dummy it, and use that as your basis:

  1. Silicon Valley startups that are valued at a billion dollars are called unicorns, which it is thought GAP fart rainbows.

So depending on which kind of complex passive you go with, your relative clause will have either (1) an infinitive after your reporting verb, or (2) a dummy it, and then a finite verb phrase after your reporting verb. The sentence from New Scientist stuck out because it has a finite verb phrase (could have anti-inflammatory effects), but no dummy it!

Thanks to New Scientist, I’ve become aware of several idioms and unusual syntax in British English, such as down to to mean “attributable to,” the usage of so to conjoin verb phrases (as opposed to entire clauses), and it’s early days for X to mean “X is a field or endeavor in its infancy.” So maybe this was thought could phrasing was a British English thing. However, after searching the NS website for strings such as “are thought could” and “is thought might”, the only example I found was one that used both a dummy it and a finite verb:

…immediately after being given hormone treatment to harvest their eggs – which it is thought could impair the process of implantation.

It occurred to me that it might be no accident that the finite verb in this unusual sentence was a modal verb. After all, if the claim they’re talking about is something like this–

  1. Unsaturated fats’ omega-3 content could have anti-inflammatory effects.

–and you go for the complex passive that allows you to put unsaturated fats’ omega-3 content at the front of the sentence, then you need to make could into an infinitive, but English modal verbs don’t have infinitives. So what do you do? Maybe you just leave the verb as it is, and end up with:

  1. Unsaturated fats’ omega-3 content could have anti-inflammatory effects.

Then, when you turn that into a relative clause, you get out item #1. With that hypothesis, I predicted I would not find similar examples with ordinary (aka “lexical”) verbs if I went searching through some corpora. And mostly, I didn’t. Here’s what I found from the BYU British National Corpus:

  • …if he is to join the powerful Irish representation which is anticipated will cross the Atlantic to take on the Americans…
  • Thus a rise in monetary growth which is anticipated will have no effect on the level of unemployment.
  • Duty (charged at one per cent) on properties costing less that 250,000, which is hoped will kick-start the housing market.

Here’s what I found in BYU’s Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA):

  • And with a slightly increased budget of $50 million–much of which is assumed will go to leads asking for heftier paydays, location shoots in Italy, and ramped-up F/X–Summit will have to scrimp somewhere.

And here’s what I found in their NOW corpus:

  • Reportedly, both drinks can often be high in polyphenol, a nutrient which is believed could give chocolate its beneficial effects on health.
  • …leading to the development of a dilation zone which is believed could hold significant mineral potential.
  • Beijing claims almost the whole of the South China Sea, which is believed could sit atop vast oil and gas deposits.
  • His sin is his godson relationship with Obasanjo which is believed could be used against the incumbent president in 2015 if Andy becomes governor.
  • …including the on-going electronic voters registration which is believed could deny millions…

So yay, my hypothesis stood up … until I found this example in BYU’s Corpus of Historical American English (COHA):

  • The following is nearly all we could glean, which was thought had reference to the subject under consideration (1841)

Fluke? Did someone just forget to put in that short, meaningless it? Or is it possible that this construction got started with modal verbs as a workaround, and then got extended to lexical verbs (and it’s just by chance that the earliest example I found involves a lexical verb)?

I don’t know. How do these examples sound to you? Have you heard or read others? Let’s have them!

Posted in Passive voice, Relative clauses, Syntax | 4 Comments »

Build Your Own Nacho

Posted by Neal on July 5, 2016

As I walked into the family-friendly, casual restaurant, this sign was on display:

“Build your own nacho”? As I wondered in a tweet a little later, what if you want more than one nacho? Do you have to go through the line again? Or are these really big nachos? Looking at the sign closer, I see that the restaurant gives you the chips, plural, so we can cautiously assume that you can acquire several nachos in one pass. Also, I see that the sign has been carefully punctuated. When I first saw it, I parsed it like in this diagram. Here, the entire phrase build your own nacho has been pressed into service as a compound adjective. It’s a bar, of the build-your-own-nacho variety, similar to build-your-own-baked-potato bars or build-your-own-sundae bars.


Now, though, when I look at the sign, I see the judicious use of hyphens suggests a structure more like this next diagram. Here, just the partial phrase make your own has been frozen into a compound adjective, which modifies the nominal phrase nacho bar. It’s a nacho bar, of the build-your-own variety.


So what would a nacho bar of the build-your-own variety be? Context would have to say. It could be a nacho bar that you build yourself, like a build-it-yourself kit car. But given the context, it’s a bar where you build something for yourself, and that something is nachos.

Even so, the structurally ambiguous phrase build your own nacho bar highlights a syntactic tug-of-war that usually hides in the background. You have two competing templates. First, there’s the compound adjective X-your-own-Y template, where X is a verb such as build, make, or choose, and Y is a noun such as sundae, salad, or adventure. Second, there’s the nominal phrase Y bar template, where Y is a noun specifying something that you can find at the bar in question (other than the default of liquor): salad, sundaes, sushi, cigars, oxygen, or in this case, nachos. So when you come across a phrase of the form “X your own Y bar,” where does the Y belong? With “X your own”, or with “bar”?

The X-your-own-Y template is phrasal, and doesn’t put any restrictions on whether Y is singular or plural. It just depends on the meaning you want: Build your own house if you’re only building one; make your own nachos because you typically don’t eat just one, unless they’re of poor quality. The Y bar template is either for a phrase or a compound word (depending on who’s doing the analysis), but either way, attributive nouns are usually singular, so you have gumball machines instead of gumballs machines; car manufacturer instead of cars manufacturer; nacho bar instead of nachos bar. So when make your own nachos and nacho bar collide in a single expression, which one prevails?

The corpora I have access to don’t have enough attestations of make your own nacho(s) bar to make a determination (zero, to be precise), but just doing a naive Google search, I get about 60 hits for each variant.

In any case, remember that nacho bars are not show bars!

Posted in Compound words, Food-related | 2 Comments »

Bongo Is Wrongo!

Posted by Neal on June 19, 2016

At lunch today, Doug and Adam were looking at a Twitter poll that one of their friends had put up. He had a new guinea pig, and was trying to decide what to name it.


Enter a caption

Doug and Adam both liked Lúcio, the name of a character in a videogame they’ve been playing recently. I was partial to Phillip, even though it was spelled with too many L’s. “I like Bongo,” Doug said.

Now since they’d only read this poll, and hadn’t talked to their friend about it yet, I could see at once that there was a problem, a little orthographic ambiguity that would have to be cleared up before Doug could make a valid judgment on this name. “But is it [bɑŋgo] or [bɑŋo]?”  I asked.

“[bɑŋgo] or … what?”


Doug tried again: “[bɑŋgo] … no, that’s not it…”

“[bɑŋo],” Adam said.

I tried to break it down. “OK, just say ‘Bong!’ and then say, ‘Oh!'”

Doug focused. “[bɑŋ…o]–oh, that sounds so bad! [bɑŋgo]–ugh, I can’t even say it, it sounds so bad! How do you do it again?” He was laughing because the name was so ridiculous.

“[bɑŋo],” Adam and I said. “It has to do with how strong you say the G,” Adam added.

“Almost. It’s like this,” I said, and drew a table. “See that little letter next to the G? That’s the ng sound. And sometimes you’ll actually pronounce a G after it, and sometimes you won’t. It’s why finger and dinger don’t actually rhyme. Or fungus and among us.”

  1. finger /fɪŋgɹ̩/  dinger /dɪŋɹ̩/
  2. fungus /fʌŋgəs/  among us /əmʌŋ əs/
  3. Bongo /bɑŋgo/  Bong-o? /bɑŋo/

“I’m gonna have to say this to him the next time we talk. ‘So hey, did you name your guinea pig [bɑ̃ŋo]?'” Doug could hardly finish the sentence because he was laughing so much. “It just sounds so wrong!”

“You mean [ɹɑŋo]?” That was me, getting the last word.

That conversation was so much fun that I’m going to suggest Doug tweet his friend with this response:

None of above. Instead, “Butch,” not w the vowel in “foot,” but the one in “but”. Like starting to say “buttcheek” & stopping<

Posted in Adam, Doug, Phonetics and phonology | 2 Comments »

Don’t Believe Me Just Watch

Posted by Neal on March 12, 2016

I’ve been thinking about “Uptown Funk,” the song b Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars that spent fully one quarter of the year 2015 at the top of the US Billboard chart. You’ve heard it, of course. There was no escaping it two years ago. But if you need a memory refresher, it went like this:

The hook consists of Mars singing (in this order) the five words don’t, believe, me, just, and watch. But which of the following three structures is the one that Mars has in mind?

  1. [If you] don’t believe me, just watch.
  2. {You] don’t believe me? Just watch.
  3. Don’t believe me; just watch.

We could answer the question easily with a look at the official sheet music, couldn’t we? Of course we could, but do you want the easy answer or the fun answer? That’s what I thought.

[If you] don’t believe me, just watch.

When I first heard the song, I interpreted the hook this way, without questioning it. I took it as a heavily elliptical conditional sentence, which has suppressed not only the if, but also the subject you. Kind of like how if you snooze, you lose became you snooze, you lose, and ultimately the telegraphic snooze you lose. Or maybe a better example would be Mess with the bull, get the horns, where the main clause get the horns has also lost its subject.

The more I thought about it, though, the less certain I was about this interpretation, because just watch is pretty clearly a command, but in all my comparable examples, the main clause was a declaration. You lose is a declaration. Even in Mess with the bull, get the horns, where there’s no explicit subject for get the horns, it’s clearly a statement. It doesn’t mean that if you mess with the bulls, you’re obligated to get the horns; it means you will get the horns.

Don’t believe me? Just watch.

That’s when it occurred to me that what I might be hearing was an elliptical yes/no question. These abbreviated questions can omit the auxiliary verb if it’s clear from the context (as in 1-4 below), or the auxiliary verb along with the subject, if the subject is you (see 5 and 6). Negative elliptical questions like this are interesting because in them, you omit the subject you while keeping the negated auxiliary verb, which has to be contracted (see 7-9).

  1. [Does] anybody want to play cards?
  2. [Has] everyone used the bathroom?
  3. [Is] Kim sitting here?
  4. *[Can] anyone give me a hand?
  5. [Do you] like it?
  6. *[Does anybody] want to play cards?
  7. [You] don’t believe me?
  8. *[You] do not believe me?
  9. *[You do] not believe me?

This question-plus-command structure is essentially an imperative conditional, functionally equivalent to If you don’t believe me, just watch. To comply with the command, you have a choice. You can believe Mars, thus negating the if clause, or you can watch him. You could even take the “trust but verify” option of doing both: believing him and watching him.

Don’t believe me; just watch.

Unless, of course, Mars had our third option in mind, and is saying, “Don’t take my word for it–see the evidence for yourself!” In this interpretation, Don’t believe me is neither an elliptical conditional missing an If you, nor an elliptical question missing just a you. Instead, it’s just an ordinary imperative, like the second clause. To comply with these two commands, you no longer have the option of simply believing Mars and being done with it. He’s ordering you not to do that, and to watch him as well.

So which is it?

During the four-and-a-half minutes of the song, Mars sings the DBMJW refrain a total of 18 times. Ruling out the first interpretation for the reasons I stated above, that leaves the question/command combination and the double command. Based on science, I conclude that the first through fourth utterances, the eleventh and twelfth, and the fifteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth are question/command combinations, and the remaining instances are pairs of commands.

Don’t believe me … ?

Posted in Ambiguous song lyrics, Music | 1 Comment »