Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Cats’ Category

Un-Nibbled by Cats

Posted by Neal on August 2, 2011

One day last week, Doug got up at 7:00, in an attempt to be able to fall asleep faster that night. He’d been trying to do it for several days, without success. He would just turn off his alarm without even waking up. I suggested the low-tech solution I’d used in college: Put the alarm clock on the opposite side of the room, so he’d have to get up out of bed to turn it off. And it worked. Now, here he was, up and dressed by 7:30, eating toaster waffles and microwave bacon.

Adam, though, was still asleep at 8:00. I put the remaining two slices of bacon back in the microwave to keep them out of our cats’ reach until Adam could get to them. I had also spooned some yogurt into a bowl, and had a piece of proto-toast in the toaster for him. I wanted Adam’s breakfast to be ready for him when he got up, because I would be running an errand by then. I didn’t want him to just come downstairs and skip breakfast in favor of playing video games.

So where to put the yogurt? Back in the fridge? OK, but the bacon had to stay in the safe. Room-temperature bacon is all right, but not refrigerator-cold bacon. And what about the toast? Darn it, by the time Adam came down, it would probably be stale. All right, I decided. Adam would just have to get up and get his butt downstairs for breakfast before he got dressed or anything else, that was all. I placed all three items on his placemat, and then went up to knock on his door.

“Who is it?” I heard a muffled voice ask.

“It’s me. Hey, I’m going to run an errand. Your breakfast is on the table. You might want to come down and eat it while…

…the toast is still warm, the yogurt’s still cool, and the bacon is still un-nibbled by cats.”

Awright! I was just trying to get my breakfast-making duties out of the way, but in doing it, I had spontaneously created a bracketing paradox!

Here’s the deal. Un-, everyone agrees, is a prefix. It can attach to one adjective to create another adjective. In this case, it’s attaching to the adjective (more specifically, past participle) nibbled to create the adjective un-nibbled, i.e. “not nibbled”. Then the prepositional phrase by cats attaches to that to give us the adjective phrase un-nibbled by cats, as shown in the diagram below:

Going by the morphology

But wait. Can PPs do that? Can they just attach to an adjective to give you an adjective phrase? Sure, if you have the right kind of adjective. Fond forms an AdjP when it attaches to an of-PP; so do great and with child. But un-nibbled isn’t an adjective that takes a PP, any more than, say, green or scary are. Green by cats? Scary by cats? What would those phrases even mean?

The meaning we’re after is, “It is not the case that the bacon is nibbled by cats,” so why not parse the phrase so that nibbled by cats forms a chunk, and then let the un- attach to that? Something like this:

Going by the semantics

Great! Now the negation clearly takes scope over the entire part about being nibbled by cats. But now un- isn’t a word prefix anymore. It might as well be the free-standing word not, the way it’s sitting outside the phrase nibbled by cats. Hence, the bracketing paradox.

Now there is one other parse of un-nibbled by cats, one that isn’t a bracketing paradox. It exists because of a peculiarity of the prefix un-. As Ben Zimmer wrote in a 2009 “On Language” column:

Ever since Old English, the un- prefix has come in two basic flavors. It can be used like the word “not” to negate adjectives (unkind, uncertain, unfair) and the occasional noun (unreason, unrest, unemployment). Or it can attach to a verb to indicate the reversal of an action (unbend, unfasten, unmask).

So if we take un- in its guise as a verb prefix, then we can parse un-nibbled by cats this way:

Taking "un-nibble" as a verb

Unfortunately, a completely different meaning comes with this parse. And not only is it not the meaning I want; it’s a meaning that can’t even happen in this world. Living with five cats, I can tell you that they never un-nibble anything!

Posted in Cats, Food-related, Gerunds and participles, Morphology | 6 Comments »

Backformation Collection

Posted by Neal on January 2, 2011

Longtime family friends Jim and Mary paid us a visit last week to deliver some cookies and a Christmas present for Doug and Adam. Mary does a lot of crafts, particularly those involving sewing. Doug and Adam still use the hand-sewn trick-or-treat bags that she gave them almost ten years ago, and we still use the white felt Christmas tree apron she gave us at around the same time. It’s nice, with felt holly leaves and berries decorating the outer circumference, snap buttons to close the apron after you put it around the base of the tree, and a drawstring sewn into the inner circumference to allow adjustment for different trunk thicknesses. The white felt is somewhat dimmed by an accumulation of cat hairs that are effectively impossible to remove, and we have to make do with just the buttons, because cats exploring under the tree have chewed off both ends of the drawstring over last several Christmases. But we put it under the tree every year because it’s just that well made, not just because we know Mary will be coming by sometime while the tree’s still up.

Jim and Mary gave Doug and Adam each a decorative, hand-sewn bag this year, with a miniature version of the kind of drawstring that the Christmas tree apron used to have. Doug and Adam opened their bags to find a smaller drawstring bag inside. A still smaller drawstring bag was inside that one, and inside that, a gift card to a book store. Doug and Adam said thank you, and Doug went on to express appreciation for the bags, too. They would be useful, he said, because

I coin-collect, bottlecap-collect, and rock-collect.

There’s no way his rock collection would fit into any of those bags, or even all three together, but the thought was nice. And the coins or bottlecaps might just fit. We just need to make sure the cats don’t chew those little drawstrings off and us end up having to take them to the animal clinic. But if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that what caught my ear was Doug’s compound verbs coin-collect, bottlecap-collect, and rock-collect. They’re three more additions to the list of compound verbs formed via reanalysis and backformation from compound verbal nouns. To recap with just one of them: The compound noun coin-collecting (or maybe coin collection) is reanalyzed as the suffix -ing attaching to a putative verb coin-collect. Remove the suffix and you’re left with that newly formed verb.

By now, this process is old hat to regular readers (and if it’s not, it will be by the time you finish reading the other posts in the Backformation category). What especially struck me about Doug’s phrasing was that this backformation process is so strong in his grammar that not only do compound verbs like coin-collect prevail over verb phrases like collect coins, but they do so even when using the regular VP syntax would save him two repetitions of a word. He could have just said,

I collect coins, bottlecaps, and rocks.

You know what would be even more unusual than that? If the verb-compounding became so much the norm that Doug could say this:

I coin-, bottlecap-, and rock-collect.

Maybe there are even speakers out there now who can do that. If you’re reading, make yourselves known in the comments!

Posted in Backformation, Cats, Christmas-related, Compound words, The darndest things | 8 Comments »

Nice and Easy

Posted by Neal on October 11, 2010

Four out of our five cats are on one kind of medication or other. Flowers has arthritis, and gets an anti-inflammatory medicine sprinkled on his food every night. I put it directly in front of him and just hope he’ll decide to eat it before the other cats come along and notice it. Nick has chronic nasal problems — you can tell what window perch he likes to sit on because that’s where the glass is spattered with dried cat snot. So he gets a powdered lysine supplement every night that isn’t perceptilbly helping, stirred up in a tablespoon of no-fat yogurt. And Diamond and Sinatra, our wall-urinators, each get half a tablet of amitriptylene, which is supposed to reduce bladder inflammation for those times when they actually have a urinary tract infection, and just mellow them out when they’re peeing on walls because of displeasure or stress.

Diamond’s and Sinatra’s medicine is harder to give, because we have to shove the pill down their throat, or at least get it far enough back there that they’ll swallow it involuntarily. (I wrote about one time that it didn’t go so well here.) With Diamond there’s the additional complication that she has become hypersensitive to when someone is approaching her with intent to pill, and can quickly disappear down the basement steps to hide in the crawl space. In fact, she spends most of her time in the basement now to begin with, at least when people are around. Sinatra doesn’t like getting pilled any more than Diamond does, but he doesn’t let it ruin his whole day.

Doug and I have a routine for pilling the cats on the days when we can get them to the pilling table (also sometimes used for air hockey). He’ll bring the cat — we’ll say Sinatra (you know, the one who let Doug and his friend sniff him) — and put him on the old towel we keep on the pilling table, and together we’ll wrap him up in it. Then Doug leans down and keeps his arm around Sinatra while I get the pill.

“Doug, how do you think we should do this?” I ask.

“Let’s do it nice and easy,” Doug answers.

“I agree. I think nice and easy is the strategy to go with. OK, Sinatra, let’s do this niiiice and eeeeasy…”

I tilt Sinatra’s chin back with my left hand and pry open his jaws with my right middle finger.

Niiice and eeeasy…

Then I drop the pill down his throat, nice and easy. If I’m lucky. Sometimes the pill will land between the tongue and the cheek, and Sinatra will just spit it out. Then we have to try again with a fresh pill, this time working with Sinatra’s slippery, saliva-soaked mouth and chin. Once it took four tries before we were able to do it nice and easy.

Doing this day after day, I’ve been wondering about the phrase nice and easy. It’s fitting in what should be an adverbial slot … isn’t it? Isn’t it modifying the verb phrase do this? Maybe it’s a subject-modifying secondary predicate, like you find in walks around naked or go to bed hungry. But no, I don’t think I’m describing myself as nice or easy. This really should be an adverb, so now the question is: Are nice and easy adjectives that can also act as adverbs, like fast and slow?

With thoughts like these going through my head, I’ll sometimes change things up a little, and say,

All right, Sinatra, we’re going to do this nicely and easily…

Sounds all right. Not quite as natural as nice and easy, but not bad.

On another occasion:

Here we go, Sinatra, niiiice and easily…

Hmmm. Not so good. It only slides by if I take the string nice and to be a frozen chunk of words that acts as an adverb modifying not the verb phrase do this, but the adverb easily. Kind of how good and hot doesn’t necessarily refer to something that’s both good and hot, but rather something that is very hot.

And during yet another pilling:

OK, Sinatra, let’s do this niiiicely and easy…

Oh, man! Now that’s no good! If you make nice into an adverb that unquestionably modifies do this, then you have to make easy into an adverb, too.

And I guess that answers my question: the adjectives nice and easy don’t live a second life as adverbs. If they did, I should be able to coordinate the adverb nicely and the adverb easy. So if they’re not adverbs, but they’re not secondary predicates, either, then why can we talk about doing things like pilling cats and laying your weapons on the ground “nice and easy”? The prescriptive route: Simply forbid it. The descriptive route: Register a minor syntactic rule, to the effect that nice and followed by an adjective has the power to act as an adverb.

Posted in Cats, Coordination, Morphology | 9 Comments »

Nick Impersonates Charlie

Posted by Neal on January 18, 2010

Doug and Adam like visiting their Aunt Carrie and Uncle Mark, because they have a flat-coated black retriever named Charlie that Doug and Adam like to play with. They’ll usually bring him a new toy, and Charlie is always eager to get it. He comes bounding up to the car, sniffing at us as we get out. My wife will pull the new toy out of the bag it’s in, and throw it into the yard for Charlie. He’s so used to the routine that it caused a problem one time when we didn’t bring a new toy — but did bring one of Doug and Adam’s stuffed animals. Charlie was so excited and so eager to get to work on that stuffed animal that we had to hide it in a bedroom drawer.

“Aw, Charlie,” the wife and sons were saying, “That’s not a toy!”

“Ooh, goody, let me have my new toy!” Carrie was saying, speaking as Charlie. Doug, Adam, my wife, and I sometimes put words into Charlie’s mouth, too. The Charlie voice is somewhat like the voice of the Abominable Snowman in the Looney Toons cartoons, the one who picks up Daffy Duck and says, “I will hug him and squeeze him, and call him George.”

I was reminded of this when I listened to Deborah Tannen’s invited talk at the LSA conference. She’s done a study on how family members will use other family members in order to change the tone of a tense interaction. For example, I’ve sometimes asked Doug or Adam, “What would your mother say if she knew you were walking around in the cold house with no socks or slippers on?” It’s kind of a weenie’s way out to fob off the sock requirement on my wife, but hey, it makes me look a little less like the bad guy. And besides, she really would tell them to put on socks or slippers!

Other times, people will actually imitate the other person’s voice, instead of just invoking them like I did. And it turns out that a really popular target of this kind of ventriloquizing is the family pet. Tannen had several examples of people doing this, and even wrote a separate paper just on this more specific topic, called “Talking the Dog”.

One of Tannen’s main points about talking in another person’s (or animal’s) voice is that along with the voice comes a whole set of personality traits belonging to the voice’s owner, traits that a speaker can temporarily assume in order to change the power dynamic between them and who they’re speaking to.

It was the point about a voice coming along with certain personality traits that reminded me of the Charlie voice. Trouble comes when we’re back at home, and Doug has the occasion to speak as our cat Nick. When he ventriloquizes Nick, he uses the Charlie voice. My wife can’t abide this. Nick and Charlie have two such different personalities that giving them the same voice is simply unacceptable. It bugged her so much that she even had me create separate voices for Nick and our four other cats. But Doug can’t do the Nick voice, so he’ll still sometimes use the Charlie voice for Nick. “No Charlie voice!” my wife tells him.

Well, maybe he’s not giving Nick Charlie’s voice. Maybe when he imitates Nick, he’s imitating a Nick who’s imitating Charlie! I’ll have to drop this suggestion to Doug and see how it goes over with his mother.

Posted in Adam, Cats, Doug, LSA, Pragmatics, The wife | 7 Comments »

Cat Sniffers

Posted by Neal on November 14, 2008

inhalantssinatraDoug’s friend Grant likes petting our cats, and is especially pleased when one of the shy ones lets him pet him. I remember his excitement when he was finally able to pet our cat Barney. Barney, you may recall, we put to sleep last year, but now we have a new addition, a white, blue-eyed, polydactyl cat named Sinatra, whose owner was no longer able to take care of him. He spent the first couple of days hiding in our closet, but is now completely at home, tussling with the other cats and chasing them through the kitchen and into the basement. But he’s not quite comfortable enough to let just any kids pet him. Grant tried without success when he came over last week.

“Hey, Doug,” Grant asked, “Did Sinatra let you pet him when you first got him?”

“No,” Doug said, “but he did let me sniff him.”

“Oh! He let me sniff him, too, just now!” Grant said.

Nonplussed, I asked, “You guys sniff cats?”

Doug tried to put together a correction. “He let us… He let… We held out our hands and he sniffed them.”

Ah, now that was a much more typical cat-human scenario. But why had the sniffer become the sniffed in the earlier statements Doug and Grant had made?

Maybe it was just that Grant had asked the question Did Sinatra let you pet him?, and primed with this template, Doug replied by taking out the pet and putting in something that Sinatra did let him do, and forgot to adjust the semantic roles of who did what. The trouble with that hypothesis is that we’d also predict the same kind of mistake might happen if Grant had instead asked, “Did you pet Sinatra?” If he’d said that, I doubt Doug would have slipped up and said, “No, but I sniffed him.” Doug didn’t think so either. Well, he might say such a thing, he admitted, but only if he really meant that he had put his nose up to Sinatra and sniffed him.

I think the mistake had a lot to do with the fact that Grant and Doug were each talking about two events: an event of Sinatra permitting some action to occur, and an event of Grant or Doug performing that action. In many (maybe even most) cases, the direct object of let has two roles to fill. [1] First, there’s the role of the affected participant in the letting event. In all the sentences listed below, the direct object of let refers to the person who receives the permission, the person for whose benefit some obstacle was removed, the person who undergoes a change of state from inability to do something to ability to do it, or at least from uncertainty to certainty about being able to do it:

Sinatra let me approach him.
Sinatra let me touch him.
Sinatra let me pet him.
Sinatra let me pick him up.

Second, there’s the role of the agent of the other event. In all the sentences listed above, the direct object of let also refers to the approacher, the toucher, the petter, or the picker-upper.

So now when it comes to extending your hand for a cat to sniff it and rub his cheek on it if you’re worthy, what goes in the direct object slot of let? Well, in the subject slot it definitely has to be Sinatra, since he’s the one deciding what Doug will be able to do. There are two remaining participants in the event: Doug, the sniffed party; and Sinatra again, this time in the role of the sniffer. Doug fits into the direct object slot by virtue of being the one affected by the letting. Sinatra fits into the direct object slot by virtue of being the performer of the permitted action. Which one wins?

We know the outcome: Doug won. And how could the sentence have been accurately rephrased while retaining the let? Something like this:

Sinatra let himself sniff my hand.

That comes closer to the truth than Sinatra let me sniff him, but it still sounds weird, as if it’s Sinatra receiving permission and not Doug. Doug could also have said,

Sinatra let me get near enough for him to sniff my hand

and then left it up to the hearer to use R-inference to conclude that Sinatra then actually did sniff the hand.

Or he could have used other wordy options, all of which would have required more thinking than it took to take Sinatra let you pet him as a template and swap out pet for sniff. These considerations make Doug and Grant’s mistake understandable, though still a mistake, of course.

One more factor that may have let the mistake go undetected long enough to escape Doug’s and Grant’s lips is the fact that in a sniffing event, the thing that gets sniffed is physically affected a lot less than the affected item for other actions. I don’t think Doug would have said

Sinatra let me lick him!

unless, of course, he had actually been talking about getting a tongueful of all that white fur.

1. For hardcore syntacticians: Yes, sentences like He let the room get trashed (alongside He let the partiers trash the room) and You mustn’t let there be a riot on your watch point to let as an object-raising verb, with a non-thematic direct object. I think let also works as a control verb, though, with a thematic direct object.

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Posted in Cats, Lexical semantics, Raising and control, The darndest things | 4 Comments »

The Irregularization of Pet

Posted by Neal on August 25, 2006

Last week I read this book to Doug and Adam, about a woman with sixty cats. About halfway through, it said:

When nighttime came, old Mrs. Brown
Put sixty bowls of cat food down
Then pet each cat upon the head
And marched herself straight up to bed

I remembered back when Adam was in speech therapy, and I heard his therapist do the same thing: use pet instead of petted as the past tense/past participial form of pet, when she asked him, “Have you ever pet a cat?” A couple of years later, I heard someone else use pet instead of petted, and now here it was again, in writing, in a (presumably) carefully edited book for kids. I pointed it out to my wife, and she told me (without shame) that she did it, too. (How did I manage to miss that for all these years?)

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Cats, Diachronic, Irregular verbs | 17 Comments »

Invasion of the Cat Persons

Posted by Neal on September 10, 2004

Our psychology consultant for Adam’s therapy program is not a cat person. So, as cats are known to do, our cats like to give her some extra special attention when she comes over. One of them in particular, Nick, always jumps up on her lap when he gets a chance, and it takes her by surprise every time. Then one of us comes and removes Nick from her lap, and she continues talking about Adam’s programs or what to do about any undesirable behaviors he’s been engaging in.

The last time she was here, though, our consultant took an admirable and courageous step: When Nick jumped on her lap and I came to take him away, she said, “No, I’ve got to get used to cats with this job,” and allowed Nick to stay on her lap. Pretty soon, though, she had a question: “Do cats, um, extend their claws when they’re sitting on you?”

I reassured her that Nick was just stretching and getting comfortable. One or two of the claws might prick a little, and if that happened she could just pick up his paw and put it down again. But as I reported to my wife later, “I hadn’t given it much thought, but I can see that making someone nervous. If I weren’t a cat person, and a cat sat on my lap and started to bust out its claws, I’d probably freak out.”

She said, “I’m glad you admit you’re a cat person!”

Whoa, now! Maybe I should have phrased the thought more carefully. What I meant to say was … I guess, “If I were a cat hater…”

But that’s neither here nor there. What occurred to me as I was trying to make my wife understand that I was not a cat person per se is that I didn’t know the plural of cat person. Was it cat people? Maybe, but that sounded an awful lot like something you’d find on the island of Dr. Moreau, as the makers of these movies realized. My wife thought so, too, and said she’d probably call all her cat-loving friends cat persons. On Google, the singular cat person gets 24.2K hits, but the plural cat persons gets only about 420. Cat people, meanwhile, gets 108K hits, an undetermined (but apparently pretty large) proportion of them referring to the “Cat People” movies, and some referring to people who like cats.

But does resorting to cat persons avoid the problem? Couldn’t cat persons be half-human, half-cat creatures just like cat people? And for that matter, even if the singular of cat person is cat persons, how do you refer to one catlike humanoid creature? If you’re watching one of the “Cat People” movies, and there’s a scene where one of the creatures is sneaking up on someone, what advice should you yell out? “Look out! There’s a cat person behind you!” Heh, heh. All I can picture when I hear that is a fiendish cat lover who will force you to pet her kitties, make you sit down and watch while she waves a feather on a string for them, and keep asking you, “Aren’t they the cutest things? Well, aren’t they? Answer me!!”

Posted in Cats, Compound words, Lexical semantics | 6 Comments »