Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Polar Panphonemic

Posted by Neal on June 29, 2015

Polar_Bear_-_Alaska by rubyblossom.

Polar_Bear_-_Alaska by

Last September, a reader named Richard Gunton left a comment on my panphonemic poem post with the following panphone that he’d composed:

Catching weary waterfowl on thin ice gives surly polar bears huge pleasure and ensures they enjoy good meat unharmed.

I commented back:

By George, I believe this is panphonemic! How did you come to write it? And if you don’t mind, could you give your own vowel inventory in IPA, and show which word(s) go(es) with which vowel? The low backs are hard enough for me to keep straight in my own dialect, let alone a different accent. If there’s an interesting story behind this, I’d be happy to put it up here as a guest post.

Richard responded back with a list of every phoneme with the words it appeared in, with this commentary and backstory:

It’s interesting that my list of vowels distinguishes a much greater number than the one in your table above. I took it from my dictionary, and I do believe these all represent distinct phonemes for standard British English.

As to how I came up with it – well, back at the end of 2008 I had just moved to France, so had the subtleties of exotic phonemes on my mind, and a bilingual dictionary to hand. My French colleagues and I had been comparing French and English pangrams, so I thought a sentence with every sound of a language would be the next challenge. I realised that /ʒ/ was one of the rarest phonemes in English, so I started with “pleasure”, prefaced that with “huge” since /dʒ/ seemed a bit uncommon too, and built it up around that. That’s all I can remember now – it did take me quite a few idle nights to get there!

Well, that’s interesting enough that I really should have turned his work into a guest post by now. Better late than never. But I’ve made just a couple of adjustments to his panphone (with adjustments made accordingly to the list of words and phonemes), to give it some topicality:

Catching weary dolphins on thin ice gives surly polar bears huge pleasure and ensures they now enjoy good meat unharmed.

Thanks, Richard!

/p/ polar
/b/ bears
/m/ meat; unharmed
/f/ dolphin
/v/ gives
/θ/ thin
/ð/ they
/t/ meat; dolphins
/d/ and; good; unharmed; dolphin
/n/ dolphins; on; thin; and; ensures; enjoy; unharmed
̣/s/ ice; surly
/z/ gives; bears; ensures
/l/ dolphin; surly; polar; pleasure
/r/ weary
/ʃ/ ensures
/ʒ/ pleasure
/tʃ/ catching
/dʒ/ huge; enjoy
/j/ huge
/k/ catching
/g/ gives; good
/ŋ/ catching
/w/ weary; waterfowl
/h/ huge; unharmed

Vowels and Diphthongs (‘ follows vowel being referred to)
/i/ weary'; meat
/I/ catchi’ng; thin; gives; e’nsures; e’njoy; ‘dolphin
/ɛ/ plea’sure
/æ/ ca’tching; and
/ɑ:/ unha’rmed
/ɔ/ on
/ɔ:/ dolphin
/ʊ/ good
/u:/ huge
/ʌ/ u’nharmed
/ə/ pola’r; pleasu’re
/ə:/ su’rly
/Iə/ wea’ry
/ɛə/ bears
/eI/ they
/aI/ ice
/au/ now
/əu/ po’lar
/ɔI/ enjoy’
/uə/ ensu’res

Posted in Panphonic Phun | 1 Comment »

Pretty Salad

Posted by Neal on May 30, 2015


Sofra Salad, by snowpea&bokchoi, Creative Commons

“All right,” I said. “So was there anything else you wanted to ask about?”

Jenna, a student from the semantics class I was teaching, had come in with some questions about lambda calculus, and we had spent about half an hour doing some practice derivations.

She smiled as she packed up her notebook. “No, pretty salad!”

That was a new one on me. It reminded me of the expression Cool beans!, which I first heard in the late 1980s. Was this what kids were saying now? Awesome beans were out, and good-looking salad was in? This required further investigation.

“Oh, is that an expression where you’re from?”

Jenna hesitated.

“You know, pretty salad. Is that like cool beans?”

“Uh, no,” Jenna said. “I just meant, I think I’ve got it pretty salad.”

Suddenly I realized. “Wait! You’re from Rochester, right?”


“Still, that’s prime Northern Cities Shift territory!”

She hadn’t heard of it. “You mean you haven’t heard of the biggest shift in English vowel pronunciation since the Great Vowel Shift of Elizabethan times?”

Nope. So I gave her the relevant highlight: the vowel in socks sounds like the vowel in sax. In her case, working backwards, what I thought was salad was actually solid. And in fact, she did have it pretty solid; she ended up with an A in the course.

Finally, it seems that “pretty salad” really is a thing. I’m not sure I get the joke in this piece of sketch comedy I found, but pretty salad is a big part of it.

Posted in Food-related, Variation, Vowels | 1 Comment »

Content with Nothing

Posted by Neal on April 4, 2015

Today’s newspaper had a story from AP about one Dylan Miller, a college student in Pennsylvania who has been living, Thoreau-like, in a hut in the woods since last summer, as part of a research project. As I read in the article:

The title of his project–Content with Nothing–carries a double meaning.

Of course it does. It’s the old ambiguity between the quantificational meaning and the state-of-affairs meaning. Why don’t we let Miller explain it for us? He starts with the quantificational meaning (emphasis mine):

We can’t be content with anything, really. Nothing can make us content; we’re always looking for something else,” Miller said.

In other words, there exists no x such that we are content with x. Now how about the state-of-affiars meaning? Miller explains this one, too:

“And then the solution, content with nothing, means we are content with having nothing. We don’t look externally for satisfaction or desire luxury. So the whole project is how to get to that final state of contentment.”

"The title has a quantificational meaning, and a state-of-affairs meaning!"

I call this the state-of-affairs meaning because in it, nothing means the state in which we have nothing, or nothing exists. Miller expressed it more concisely by using a gerund phrase: having nothing.

Miller seems pretty taken with the double meaning in his project title. Maybe he hasn’t been sensitized to quantifier/SOA ambiguities; he’d’ve only been five or six years old when the “show about nothing” aired its last episode. And I’m pretty sure he didn’t stop by my 2011 LSA poster presentation on the subject, either.

Posted in Quantifier/SOA ambiguity | 2 Comments »

Answers Must Be in the Form of a Cleft

Posted by Neal on March 30, 2015

Here’s a draft that’s been sitting in the blogpile since September 2007. School had just begun, and Doug and Adam were beginning third grade and first grade. I wrote at the time…

Now that school has resumed, at the end of every week, Doug and Adam are required to take their schoolwork that’s been sent home during the week, and put it in their respective boxes under their beds. So far, though, they haven’t been able to do it because the boxes have been full of all their schoolwork from last year. So last weekend I finally emptied the boxes, and as I was sorting through the papers, I came across one of Doug’s history worksheets from the unit on the Constitution.

One of the questions was:

Where does the Constitution guarantee freedom of speech?

Doug’s answer:

Where the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech is in the First Amendment.

I remember when Doug first brought this paper home. Hey, nice pseudo-cleft, I’d thought when I read it. A pseudo-cleft is a sentence of form:

noninverted wh-question + be + answer to wh-question

I’m not sure how it got the name “pseudo-“cleft. There are various kinds of clefts; I think the “real” cleft that the pseudo-cleft was being compared to when it was named was the it-cleft: It’s in the First Amendment that…. Other examples of pseudo-clefts would be:

Where he keeps it is under the bed.
Who really got upset was Sam.

I’d thought it was interesting that Doug would have used such intricate syntax to express the thought, but I hadn’t looked at the rest of the paper.

That was as much as I wrote back in 2007. I was probably waiting to copy some other sentences off the homework, but it’s seven years gone now. But I remember that as I looked closer at the homework, and read question after question and pseudo-cleft after pseudo-cleft in response, I realized that Doug had misunderstood his second-grade teacher’s instructions. In order to get the kids to write their answers in complete sentences, she would always tell them, “Restate the question.”
Of course, questions are sentences, too.
Doug would have answered this question about Jackie Robinson by saying

How Jackie Robinson demonstrated the trait of perseverance was by …

Like saying “Rhyming words sound the same,” telling kids to “restate the question” is a good example of giving a rule in rather vague terms and figuring that they’ll will click on to the right idea and you won’t have to go into the troublesome details. But in Doug’s case, he was told to use the same words in the question in his answer, so he did!

Posted in Clefts, Doug, Fused relatives | 2 Comments »

Succeeds at Neither Entertaining Nor Informing

Posted by Neal on February 26, 2015

Image Provided By:

Image Provided By:

Through June, July, and August, Doug complained about his summer reading assignment, a book called Strange As This Weather Has Been, by an author with the unusual name of Ann Pancake. He hated it. It was a story about mountaintop-removal coal mining in Appalachia, told through an erratic combination of first-person and third-person narrative, with a plot that only started to move in the last few chapters of the book. Maybe it wasn’t about plot, I suggested. Maybe Pancake was just trying to give us a picture of the effects of this kind of mining through a character study of a family affected by it. Maybe so, Doug said, but none of the characters were likable people. And if she was trying to give him a lot of information about mountaintop-removal mining, in particular the Buffalo Creek disaster that was continually alluded to, he learned more about both those topics from their Wikipedia entries than he did from the entire book.

When it was time for him to write the report, he poured his frustration into his title:

Succeeds at Neither Entertaining Nor Informing.

Well-primed by Doug’s repeated complaints about the book, I told him his thesis sounded great. By that time, I was reading the book, too, fulfilling my promise to read the whole damn thing myself if he read it first. Doug’s criticisms were on the mark. In addition, the author had a disconcerting habit of having her characters use verbs (such as go) and adjectives (such as wet) as nouns without any morphological change (a go, a wet). Trying too hard to be creative with the language, and ending up just distracting and annoying the reader instead.

That was in August. In January, I came across an early printout of Doug’s paper in a pile of paper to recycle. Without the priming of Doug’s complaints, this time I read the sentence differently. This time, Ann Pancake succeeded! She succeeded at avoiding two things: entertaining, and informing.

I’ve often blogged about different, kinds, of ambiguity, here. But I was surprised to find that I couldn’t fit this ambiguity into one of the categories. I still haven’t quite nailed down where the ambiguity is coming from, but I’ll record some of my observations.

I’ll represent the meaning Doug intended like so:

NOT(succeed(entertain))(ann) & NOT(succeed(inform))(ann)

And the second meaning that I got, like this:

succeed(NOT(entertain) & NOT(inform))(ann)

One thing I notice is that I’ve pulled a fast one with the NOT. In the earlier translation, it was negating an entire proposition about SOMEONE succeeding. Here, I just have it negating individual verbs. Somewhere along the way, I’ll have to figure out what NOT means when applied to a verb instead of a proposition in my system.

The fact that I’m dealing with verb forms seems to be essential. Replace them with, say, prepositional phrases, and the ambiguity goes away. For example:

She succeeds neither at work nor at school.
NOT(succeed(work)(ann)) & NOT(succeed(school)(ann))

This sentence can’t mean that she succeeds at something that is neither work nor school. It can’t mean, for example, that she succeeds at love.

The ambiguity also disappears if instead of the double-barreled negation of neither…nor, we have the single negation of not:

She succeeds at not entertaining.

Now the only reading we get is the funny one, and once again I’m doing some funny business with the NOT by applying it to just a verb. If we want to get the reading in which someone fails, we have to use a negation suitable for present-tense verbs, i.e. doesn’t:

She doesn’t succeed at entertaining.

On the other hand, the ambiguity remains if we replace the correlative conjunction neither…nor with both…and. It’s not as obvious a difference as the difference between succeeding and not succeeding, but one reading is that she succeeds at entertaining, and she also succeeds at informing, while the other is that she succeeds at doing both those things at once:

She succeeds at both entertaining and informing.
succeed(entertain)(ann) & succeed(inform)(ann)
succeed(entertain & inform)(ann)

The same kind of ambiguity comes with either … or and even not … but.

Hopefully, I’ll have further analysis to present here in the near future.

Posted in Ambiguity, Books, Coordination, Doug, Negation | 5 Comments »

Popularizing Linguistics Through Online Media

Posted by Neal on January 17, 2015

Sometime last spring, I got an email from Doug Bigham, a linguist at San Diego State University who I’d met at LSA 2011. He wanted to put together a special session for the LSA 2015 conference that took place last weekend in Portland, Oregon. The theme would be “Popularizing Linguistics Through Online Media,” and he figured that I could talk about blogging; Gretchen McCulloch, about her All Things Linguistic Tumblr page; Arika Okrent, about her listicle pieces on Mental Floss and TheWeek; Michael Maune [maUni], about his #lingchat hashtag on Twitter; Ben Zimmer, about writing for the in-print but also online Wall Street Journal and other news outlets; and Michael Erard, about the new Schwa Fire online linguistics magazine. Doug himself would talk about his linguistics YouTube channel, and tying it all together would be the discussant, Anne Curzan of the University of Michigan, who did this million-view TED talk on what makes a word real. Furthermore, he wanted to do it in a format that I’d never heard of: something called pecha kucha. Or to be more accurate, I had heard of it once or twice, but never been interested enough to find out what it was. But this sounded interesting, especially when some of the other invitees started signing on.

So I went to find out exactly what this pecha kucha thing was, and the first thing I found out was that it was pronounced not as [ˈpɛtʃə ˈkutʃə] (“PETCH-uh KOOTCH-uh”), as I would have thought, but as [pəˈtʃɑ kəˈtʃɑ] (“peh-CHAH kuh-CHAH,” or “peh-CHOCK-chah”). Good thing I learned that. I didn’t want to sound like an ignoramus when I talked about it. The second thing I learned was that it was an exactly six-minute-and-forty-second talk, consisting of 20 slides displayed for 20 seconds each. Finally, I learned that because of the severely limited time format, the slides had to be mostly or entirely pictures. Standard PowerPoint outlines and bulleted lists, not a good format in the first place, were especially ill-advised in pecha kucha. With all that in mind, I emailed back and said I was in, but that I thought a better topic for me would be about writing guest scripts for the Grammar Girl podcast, since Gretchen seemed to have the blog component covered well, and I haven’t had as much time to blog as I used to.

The session was accepted, so last Friday we got together in an unused conference room in the Portland Hilton for some of us to meet each other for the first time, and try to get everyone’s slides integrated into one big slide show. “Have you ever done a [ˈpɛtʃə ˈkutʃə]?” Ben asked, as he and Doug bent over Doug’s laptop computer, trying to make the slides advance. Doug admitted he’d been having nightmares about doing this session.

Later that night, I rehearsed my talk again, and it was still coming in at 6:45 instead of 6:40. My roommate for the conference, Jason Zentz, even volunteered to be my audience for a run-through after he’d finished preparing the handouts for his talk (winner of the best student abstract). I told him about the [ˈpɛtʃə ˈkutʃə] pronunciation. Heck, I said, I’d like to pronounce it [ˈpɛtʃə ˈkutʃə], too; it sounded much better than the ear-grating [pəˈtʃɑ kəˈtʃɑ]. But just because I liked that pronunciation better didn’t mean I was just going to start using it when I know the more faithful pronunciation was something else. Jason said some stuff about Anglicizing borrowed words to match English phonotactics. Yeah, whatever.

The next morning at 8:15, we met in the ballroom for last-minute details. One that we hadn’t thought about was where to have everyone sit. There were seven of us, not including Anne Curzan, and only three seats on either side of the lectern. We decided that when one speaker finished, they would take the seat of the next speaker–an elegant solution, except for having to remember that when you sat back down, the glass of water in front of you was not the one you’d poured for yourself.

I was fourth up, after Doug, Michael M., and Gretchen. I had finally managed to get the time down to 6:40 more or less consistently, so imagine my surprise when I found that I had finished talking about one slide with 5 seconds left before it advanced. “Wow,” I said, “I seem to be running ahead. That doesn’t usually happen.” Then the slide advanced, and I realized that I was more like 5 seconds behind. “Wait, I’m behind!” I think I simply forgot to say what I had intended to say on the slide where I mentioned Grammar Girl episodes written by Stan Carey and Gretchen. (The slides are here.)

When Arika, Ben, and Michael E. finished their talks, it was time for Anne to come up and give her comments, which meant that all the seats and the lectern were occupied, so Doug took a seat out in the audience. Then came the questions from the audience, which took the entire half hour allotted to doing that, plus a few minutes after. The last person asked if this was the first time a presentation like this had been done at LSA, and Doug said he believed it was. “Yes!” he exclaimed. We did a [ˈpɛtʃə ˈkutʃə]!”

Posted in LSA, Self-promotion | 3 Comments »

Getting on the Bae Train

Posted by Neal on January 5, 2015

Last March, while prowling through my son’s and his friends’ social media timelines (this is called “creeping,” by the way), I noticed the word bae starting to appear. “How long have people been saying that?” I wondered, and whenever I wonder that, it means I might have a good topic to write about for Visual Thesaurus. So I pitched the idea to Ben Zimmer; he gave the go-ahead, and over the next week or so, also provided helpful leads to follow up involving bae in several internet memes. When Ben published my column, he gave it the title I wish I’d thought of, “Bae Watch“. And having satisfied my curiosity, I moved on to other topics.

As it turns out, though, other writers on language were just beginning to get interested in bae, and Ben watched the developments with interest. In July, he sent me an email:

It’s funny … your column still gets widely shared (I think because it appears near the top of Google search results for various “bae” searches)…

He included a link to a column in Time magazine by Katy Steinmetz, who went over in much less detail both the almost certainly bogus origin of bae (it stands for “before anyone else”), and the more boring and more likely origin (it was just shortened from babe), inspired by the release of Miley Cyrus and Pharrell Williams’s song “Come Get It, Bae.” Although we covered some of the same ground, it was Steinmetz, and not me, who was targeted for criticisms like this one:

It wasn’t enough to determine the gist from the context of the sentence. Nah, she had to take it three steps further, starting with an etymology and ending with an example and her ability to use it in a sentence. With extra credit. … TIME needn’t covet, claim, or break “bae” down for us, though. We already use it, so let us have it. We got this.

Similar sentiments were expressed in this post by Yesha Callahan in The Grapevine, which went on to say

Next up, Time will attempt to explain the term “turnt up” by explaining that it’s not actually something you do to your thermostat in the winter.

A later piece in The Root took this thought and expanded it into a whole list of slang terms that Time should take on next. It was clearly a sarcastic list, but to tell the truth, I’d be interested in learning more about the origin and spread of several of these. In fact, turnt was the subject of my April Visual Thesaurus column, and I may yet write a piece on or nah?

Two days later, Ben emailed me again to tell me, “Everybody’s getting on the ‘bae’ train…” (another play on words, which I’ve stolen for this post), this time with a link to an article by Natasha Zarinsky on the Esquire website. This article was annoying. It spent a lot of time speculating about the origin of bae and concluding that no one really knows, when, it seemed to me, she could have just read my column and had her answer. So I left a somewhat ungracious comment, to which Zarinsky and some others responded:

I'm not particularly proud of this comment, but there it is.

In addition to the comment by Jacob Difiore, an earlier comment that seems to have been deleted asked me, “Sarcastic much?” before observing that I didn’t have a copyright on an idea. True enough, but I still say that after Zarinsky found and read my column, it would have been better to change the tone of her piece from “We just don’t know” to something else. (As an aside, it’s interesting that Difiore called me “that big of an asshole” instead of just “that big an asshole”. This was one of the first topics I blogged about.)

Things died down for a few months, until Steinmetz revisited bae in November to include it in a list of nominees for words to be banned, which was called racist and sexist. (The winner was feminist.)

Last month, Ben emailed me again, saying, “Your piece is still generating heated discussion!”, linking to some tweets that took me to an article in by Rhodri Marsden in The Independent, complaining about the word bae. After his article was published, Marsden got into a pissing match with a guy named Larry Fisherman (handle @eynahK) on Twitter. Fisherman seems to have removed his tweets on the matter, but from what I remember, he took issue with Marsden’s failure to do even the minimal research that would have told him that bae was an acronym for “before anyone else.” Looking for support, Marsden tweeted Fisherman a link to my column, to which Fisherman responded that that was just one source, compared to the many people who say otherwise. Then Marsden came back with two more tweets, which basically said “Oh, yeah?” and “So there!”

Next came the Dec. 27 entry for bae in the new online resource The Right Rhymes, “a historical dictionary of hip-hop slang based on a corpus of rap lyric transcriptions.” This is a great source for hip-hop slang, even better than Genius (formerly RapGenius), because it has better date citations. Their earliest is from 2007, in Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights”:

Hey, bae, lately, you been all on my brain

Most recently (to my knowledge) are two pieces from last week, both on Dec. 30. First, there’s James Hamblin’s article in The Atlantic, which declares bae to have become so popular, and its meaning to have become so diluted, that it is effectively dead. Hamblin cites both Steinmetz’s and my articles, and links to an August YouTube video by William Haynes that’s still promulgating the “before anyone else” story. It’s hard to say if Haynes is serious about the origin, since the rest of the video is tongue-in-cheek.

Finally, there’s Katy Waldman’s post on Slate’s Lexicon Valley blog, talking about the Twitter feed @BrandsSayingBae, which collects all the tweets from corporations that are trying to be hip on social media by using slang such as bae.

So that’s the year in bae. Have I missed some sources? Leave a comment!

Posted in Music, Uncategorized, Variation | 5 Comments »

Multiple-Level Coordination with And and But

Posted by Neal on December 31, 2014

I’ve continually been hearing this one ad on a podcast I listen to, promoting some kind of investing service. The speaker introduces the subject like this:

Want to save more, invest for the future, but don’t have time to be a full-on investor?

The fact that this sentence is an interrogative gets in the way of what I actually want to talk about, so I’ll just rephrase it as a declarative:

I want to save more, invest for the future, but don’t have time to be a full-on investor.

If you take this sentence to contain a syntactically parallel coordination, then it is saying that these three things are true about me:

  1. I want to save more.
  2. I invest for the future.
  3. I don’t have time to be a full-on investor.

That’s not the intended meaning, though. The intended meaning is that:

  1. I want to save more.
  2. I want to invest for the future.
  3. I don’t have time to be a full-on investor.

In short, this sentence is another example of a multiple-level coordination. Depending on how you parse the coordination, the first conjunct is either the present-tense verb phrase want to save more or the plain-form verb phrase save more; the second is the plain-form verb phrase invest for the future; and the final conjunct is the present-tense verb phrase don’t have time to be a full-on investor. Whichever way you go, the conjuncts are not of the same syntactic category.

In previous posts, I’ve summarized the analysis of Beavers & Sag (2004) for this kind of coordination, and written too-hastily about what seemed like a problem for their analysis. This sentence, though, really is a problem for B&S … that is, if it’s truly grammatical, and not simply a mistake.

As a recap, here is how B&S analyze the MLCs It’s sick, twisted, and smells like old socks and women who are nursing, pregnant, or may become pregnant. For the first one, the and is conjoining these three clauses:

  1. is sick
  2. is twisted
  3. smells like old socks

Because the second conjunct begins with some material that’s identical to the beginning of the first conjunct (namely is), that can be ellipsed (i.e., left unspoken). For the second MLC, or is conjoining these other three clauses:

  1. are pregnant
  2. are nursing
  3. may become pregnant

Applying B&S’s analysis to our investment example, we get something like the diagram below. (Actually, they have it so that it’s binary-branching all the way down, with want to save more coordinated with the entire chunk want to invest for the future but don’t have time…. But my diagram will do for our purposes.)

The second "want to" is not pronounced

B&S argue against interpreting MLCs as having a structure like the following, which the and or or is coordinating two items rather than three, and there is an understood extra conjunction in there, coordinating two smaller items within the first conjunct:

  1. is sick and twisted
  2. smells like old socks
  1. are pregnant or nursing
  2. may become pregnant

Applied to our investment example, the kind of analysis that B&S advise against would give us a structure like the one below. In this diagram, I put an explicit conjunction between the first two conjuncts, to show where the understood conjunction would go. Notice that the main coordination has only two conjuncts, one being want to save more and want to invest for the future, and the other being but don’t have ….

See the extra conjunction I put in there?

One of B&S’s reasons for not favoring such an interpretation is that you can’t just go calling commas or pauses conjunctions. Where would it end? Going that way would license sentences like I saw a dog a cat as grammatical. There other reason is that there is nothing to force that understood conjunction to be the same as the explicit one. In other words, why couldn’t we take these examples to mean “It’s sick or twisted, and smells like old socks” and “woman who are pregnant and nursing, or who may become pregnant”?

With that in mind, notice that the extra conjunction I supplied was not another but, but rather an and, so that the meaning of the whole coordinate structure is “A and B but C.” This makes sense, because the two things I want are similar, and should be joined by and. The but serves to draw a contrast between them on the one hand and the thing I don’t have time for on the other.

So if that second diagram is incorrect, let’s look again at B&S’s analysis, shown in the first one. There’s a problem with this one, too. As I wrote in this Grammar Girl episode, but isn’t like and and or, able to coordinate any number of items. It’s only able to coordinate two:

That’s because and shows addition, and or shows alternatives, and it’s easy to imagine lots of additions to a set, and lots of alternatives. But, on the other hand, shows contrast, and it’s hard to conceive of a contrast between more than two things. We can say slow but steady, but we can’t say slow, careful, but steady.

According to the B&S analysis, our example sentence could be expanded out to have the form “A but B but C,” in violation of the two-conjuncts limit for but.

So what now? We could appeal to semantics. Although but conventionally implicates that there is a contrast between two propositions, there is no truth-conditional difference between and and but. So we could say that’s why the but gets away with this sort of behavior here.

Or there’s the cop-out solution of saying that the sentence is a grammar mistake, something that the writer would correct by themself if they thought about if more carefully. In favor of the cop-out solution is the fact that MLCs depending on and and or are too numerous for me even to bother blogging about anymore, whereas this is the only MLC with but that I’ve ever come across. So if you come across more MLCs with but, definitely leave a comment and tell me about them!

Posted in Multiple-level coordination | 3 Comments »

He Conquers Who Endures

Posted by Neal on November 29, 2014

I saw this on the back of a T-shirt when I was at the grocery store:

He conquers who endures.

Too bad for those people who endure. Even after all their endurance, they get conquered in the end. He, whoever “he” is, is a patient conquerer.

However, I suspect the wearer of the T-shirt probably didn’t realize that this was the meaning it was conveying. He probably thought it meant something like “The person who endures conquers,” or “He who endures conquers.” (Or to put it more gender-neutrally, “They who endure conquer.”) But that would mean that two unusual things were going on in this sentence. Neither of them is unprecedented, but both of them happening in one short sentence is noteworthy.

First, the clause who endures would have to be a relative clause modifying he. This doesn’t happen so much in present-day English. The best-known example in recent years is probably the epithet He Who Must Not Be Named for Voldemort in the Harry Potter novels. And even here, speakers didn’t realize they could change the He to Him when the name was a direct object, as observed by Q. Pheevr here.

Second, this relative clause who endures is separated from he. Now sometimes relative clauses do get separated from their head nouns: a book was published that would be read for centuries by countless generations; a woman appeared who was also carrying her head in her hands; What type of workers were there who participated in building the Pyramids. However, this usually happens when the subject of a clause would be ridiculously long if you refused to break it up. He who endures is just three words.

With my interpretation, though, there’s only one unusual thing going on: who endures isn’t modifying a noun at all, but is acting like a noun phrase all by itself. This is somewhat unusual, but not terribly so. It’s unusual because this kind of clause (known as a fused relative), more typically refers to things than to people. In other words, although sentences like That’s what I want and What you did was inexcusable are common enough, fused relatives like this one and the one in Who told me was my dad are somewhat rare. Exceptions include Can I help who’s next? and To whom it may concern.

Overall, then, my parse is the better choice syntactically. After a bit of internet-searching, though, I found that this is a translation of a Latin quotation from an ancient Roman satirist named Persius, although the opinion seems to be that he wasn’t being satirical when he wrote this:

Vincit qui patitur.

People who explain this quotation talk about the need for persistence in order to achieve victory, which definitely sounds more like the “They who endure conquer” interpretation. OK, so maybe it’s possible that I chose the incorrect interpretation for that guy’s T-shirt. But now I can write about how Latin is more precise than English, and you pick up this ambiguity in translation! Except that the same ambiguity exists in the Latin phrasing. Here’s how…

Vincit means “conquers”. Like its English translation, it can be transitive (as in Omnia vincit amor, “Love conquers all”) or intransitive (as in In hoc signo vinces, “By this sign you will conquer”), so you have to use the context to tell whether a nearby noun phrase is a subject or direct object. Usually in Latin, case endings do this, as illustrated below:

Vincit rex. “The king conquers.”
Vincit regem. “He/she conquers the king.”

Qui patitur means “who suffers (or endures)”, and it’s acting as a fused relative, just like its translation in English. Even in Latin, though, we can’t tell if that fused relative is a subject or an object. It’s the same problem that confuses English speakers about whoever and whomever. So actually, what we have here is a translation that is faithful even in preserving the ambiguity of the original!

Posted in Ambiguity, Fused relatives, Pronouns, Relative clauses | 7 Comments »

Tense Travel

Posted by Neal on October 14, 2014

My wife called me in to her office last night to make me watch this segment of The Big Bang Theory, in which Sheldon, Leonard, Raj, and Howard are watching Back to the Future, Part ii. Harrison Tran has helpfully bootlegged it onto YouTube, complete with a transcript:

Howard: Wait, hold on. Pause.
[music stops]
Howard: Something doesn’t make sense. Look. In 2015 Biff steals the Sports Almanac and takes the time machine back to 1955 to give it to his younger self. But as soon as he does that he changes the future, so the 2015 he returns to would be a different 2015. Not the 2015 that Marty and Doc were in.
Leonard: This is Hot Tub Time Machine all over again. Look. If future Biff goes back to 2015 right after he gives young Biff the Almanac, he could get back to the 2015 with Marty and Doc in it. Because it wasn’t until his 21st birthday that 1955 Biff placed his first bet.
Sheldon: But whoa, whoa. Is placed right?
Leonard: What do you mean?
Sheldon: Is placed the right the right tense for something that would’ve happened in the future of a past that was affected by something from the future?
Leonard: [thinks] Had will have placed?
Sheldon: That’s my boy.
Leonard: Okay. So, it wasn’t until his 21st birthday that Biff had will have placed his first bet and made his millions. That’s when he alters the timeline.
Sheldon: But he had will haven’t placed it.
Howard: What?
Sheldon: Unlike Hot Tub Time Machine, this couldn’t be more simple. [laugh track] When Biff gets the Almanac in 1955, the alternate future he creates isn’t the one in which Marty and Doc Brown ever used the time machine to travel to 2015. Therefore, in the new timeline, Marty and Doc never brought the time machine.
Leonard: Wait, wait, wait. Is brought right?
Sheldon: [thinks] Marty and Doc never had have had brought?
Leonard: I don’t know, you did it to me.
Sheldon: I’m going with it. Marty and Doc never had have had brought the time machine to 2015. That means 2015 Biff could also not had have had brought the Almanac to 1955 Biff. Therefore, the timeline in which 1955 Biff gets the Almanac is also the timeline in which 1955 Biff never gets the Almanac and not just never gets: never have, never hasn’t, never had have hasn’t.
Raj: He’s right.

I love that Harrison included the laugh track in his transcript.

So of course all this is just a good excuse to combine two kinds of geekery: sci-fi and grammar. The main way Sheldon and Leonard twist the verb-tense syntax is to allow auxiliary have to take complements that it doesn’t take in monolinear-time Standard English. First, they put it with the modal will, when modal auxilaries are always the first in a series of auxiliary verbs, even in outlandish strings such as will have been being eaten. Second, they put it with itself, in had have had brought and had have hasn’t.

Another kind of auxiliary combination we don’t get in monolinear-time Standard English is the past tense (or past participle) auxiliary had after a modal, in could not had have had brought. In our English, modals always take a base form, not a past-tense form.

Finally, there’s the combination of the negative contraction haven’t with will in will haven’t placed. In our English, the contraction has to come in the first auxiliary verb: won’t have placed.

But never mind the seeming syntactic violations. In a world with time travel, the language will have to evolve. My question was whether Sheldon and Leonard’s new syntactic rules for these tenses were semantically consistent with each other. In short, they’re not.

The main situation Sheldon and Leonard are discussing is an event time (young Biff placing a bet) that occurs later than a reference time (when young Biff receives the Almanac), but before the time of utterance (2014, in Sheldon and Leonard’s apartment). Ordinarily, this kind of situation would call for the so-called “future in the past“: Biff would place his bet sometime later. The complication is that the event time and the utterance time are now in separate timelines. Even for this situation, though, ordinary English has an appropriate choice: the perfective version of this future in the past: would have placed. But there’s one more complication: We’re talking about an event that not only did not happen in our own timeline, but also did happen in an alternative timeline. So how do Sheldon and Leonard propose to designate such an event? They use the past-tense form had, followed by a normal future perfect tense (will have had), to get had will have had. Let’s call this the alternate future in the past tense. This tense also puts its negative contractions in a different place, as noted earlier: had will haven’t placed.

However, Sheldon and Leonard don’t follow these rules the very next time they discuss an event that occurs later than a reference time but before the time of utterance, in an alternative timeline: Doc and Marty’s trip in the time machine. By the rules created so far, it would be never had will have brought (or if they wanted to use a negative contraction, had will haven’t brought), but instead, they go for the stacking of forms of have instead, leading to Sheldon’s culminating string never have, never hasn’t, never had have hasn’t. These are elliptical forms, which I surmise would all finish with gotten if they were fully spoken.

Still amusing, but it would have been funnier if these tenses had turned out to be consistent with each other, even after my poking at them.

Don't panic.

The grammar problem posed by time travel was also explored in 1980, in Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. I was inspired to look up what he wrote, and was hoping to compare his tenses with Sheldon and Leonard’s. After reading the first paragraph below, I was excited to notice that Adams’ subscribed to the view of time travel in which you cannot alter timelines, unlike the Back to the Future scenario in which you can. Would this differing assumptions be reflected in the hypothetical grammars?

Sadly, no. Although Adams imagines more kinds of twisted temporal situations than Sheldon and Leonard discuss, he never bothers creating new verb tenses. Instead, he chooses to leave them to the readers’ imaginations, while using funny grammar jargon to name them. Here’s the relevant part, from the beginning of Chapter 15:

One of the major problems encountered in time travel is not that of accidentally becoming your own father or mother. There is no problem involved in becoming your own father or mother than a broad-minded and well-adjusted family can’t cope with. There is no problem about changing the course of history–the course of history does not change because it all fits together like a jigsaw. All the important changes have happened before the things they were supposed to change and it all sorts itself out in the end.

The major problem is quite simply one of grammar, and the main work to consult in this matter is Dr. Dan Streetmentioner’s Time Traveler’s Handbook of 1001 Tense Formations. It will tell you, for instance, how to describe something that was about to happen to you in the past before you avoided it by time-jumping forward two days in order to avoid it. The event will be described differently according to whether you are talking about it from the standpoint of your own natural time, from a time further in the future, or a time in the further past and is further complicated by the possibility of conducting conversations while you are actually traveling from one time to another with the intention of becoming your own mother or father.

Most readers get as far as the Future Semiconditionally Modified Subinverted Plagal Past Subjunctive Intentional before giving up; and in fact in later editions of the book all the pages beyond this point have been left blank to save on printing costs.

These two examples are the only pieces of pop culture I know of that specifically deal with new verb tenses to handle time travel, although collisions between time travel and ordinary English verb tenses have their own page on TV Tropes and Idioms.

Posted in Books, TV, Verb tense | 8 Comments »


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