Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Food-related’ Category

Wrapped Carrots

Posted by Neal on February 29, 2016

The wife and I recently had occasion to spend a weekend at a resort in Cancun on someone else’s expense account, which was nice. I learned some Spanish vocabulary, including gorra “baseball cap”, estiro “sea urchin”, and ama de llaves “housekeeping” (literally “lover of keys keymaster”). But it being a resort that catered to a mostly American clientele, the menus were mostly in English, including the one we got a few weeks in advance so that we could choose what we wanted to eat at the dinner that our hosts were paying for. One of the dessert items was “wrapped carrot,” which piqued my curiosity. What would they wrap the carrot in? I’ve seen carrot sticks wrapped in bacon, but that didn’t really sound dessert-like to me, so I didn’t order it. Instead, I went with “textures of chocolate”.

At the dinner, I was pleased to see that my inferences was correct: My dessert was not merely the texture of chocolate, but some actual chocolate, in the form of some kind of mousse. Looking across the table, I saw the wrapped carrot that someone else had ordered. It looked like this:

A wrapped carrot

What?! How could they possibly call that a wrapped carrot? It wasn’t a carrot! It was some kind of cake (carrot cake?), with a thin, lengthwise slice of carrot wrapped around–

Whoa … it was a wrapped carrot! If you wrap a carrot around something, then there exists a thing around which that carrot has been wrapped. In other words, it’s a wrapped carrot. Isn’t it?

Wrap, like many other verbs, participates in a so-called diathesis alternation, more specifically a “locative alternation,” and more specifically still, the so-called spray/load alternation. Verbs that participate in this alternation have a couple of semantic roles associated with them. One is LOCATION, the role for the thing that stays more or less in place while other stuff is moved into or onto it. LOCATUM is the role for the stuff that gets moved to the LOCATION. It’s unfortunate that the names are so similar, but there you are. Anyway, verbs that participate in this alternation can be used in two kinds of syntactic frame. In one, the LOCATION is the direct object, and the LOCATUM as the object of with:

  1. We sprayed the wall with paint.
  2. We loaded the cart with apples.
  3. We wrapped the carrots with bacon.

The other frame has the LOCATUM as the direct object, and the LOCATION as the object of some other preposition:

  1. We sprayed paint onto the wall.
  2. We loaded apples onto the cart.
  3. We wrapped bacon around the carrots.

In addition to the frames that have a direct object and a prepositional-phrase complement, many spray/load verbs also have a simple transitive frame. The question is, which role shows up as the direct object in that frame? LOCATION or LOCATUM? For some verbs, either is OK:

We loaded the cart. / We loaded the apples.

For others, both roles are OK, but one is still better than the other. With spray, I tend to prefer a LOCATUM role:

?We sprayed the wall. / We sprayed the paint.

This intuition is supported by COCA: Doing a quick search, I found many more examples of simple transitives with water than with face. In contrast, the only role that works for wrap as a simple transitive verb in my grammar is LOCATION:

We wrapped the carrots. / [*]We wrapped the bacon.

The [*] indicates that the sentence is grammatical, but not with the meaning we’re looking for. In other words, it’s fine if you mean that you wrapped something else around the bacon, but not that you wrapped the bacon around something else.

So now I wonder: Is this a peculiarity of my own grammar? From my quick COCA searches, I don’t think so. I have yet to find an example of transitive wrap with a LOCATUM argument. So is this a case of negative transfer on the part of Spanish speakers writing an English menu? In other words, can the Spanish equivalent of wrap be used as a simple transitive with a LOCATUM argument? I don’t have anywhere near enough Spanish to know that yet. If you do, I’d love to hear the answer!

Posted in Food-related, Lexical semantics, Spanish, Verbal diathesis alternations | 9 Comments »

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 | 2 Comments »

He’ll Be None the Wiser

Posted by Neal on October 9, 2014

Since I began this blog in 2004, I’ve been vague about where in central Ohio I live, but tonight I’m proud to say that I live in Reynoldsburg, where phenomenal community support for our public school teachers has seen them through a summer of appalling disrespect from the local board of education (except for one notable member) and superintendent, who did everything they could to cause a teacher strike. That strike began on September 19, and might finally be ending today, if a tentative agreement is approved by the teachers.

In other news, Doug and Adam, who have been sick this entire time, might finally be showing signs of recovery. In the mornings, I’ve still been packing a lunch for Adam before I head to work. It’s not that he can’t get himself lunch, but if I don’t make him one, he’ll end up just eating Cheerios for every meal. So a couple of days ago, I opened the bag of bread and pulled out the three slices that were left: two heels and a whatever-you-call-a-slice-that’s-not-a-heel. Dang it, it had happened again!

I remembered a conversation from a month ago, when I had been encouraging Adam to make his own sandwich for a change, and he said he couldn’t, because he’d have to use a heel.

“That’s not a problem,” I told him. “Just do what I do. I put the pieces of bread together, like this, and turn the heel crust-side-in, like this. Then I grab these kitchen shears and cut off the edges of both pieces of bread, like I always do.” (Yes, I cut off the crusts. I don’t have to anymore, because Adam has recently started to eat his sandwiches with the crusts left on.) “Then I spread the peanut butter on the crusty side of the heel, finish making the sandwich, and you’re none the wiser.”

“Oh, I most certainly am the wiser!” Adam said. “Every time you do that, my sandwich tastes funny.”

Almost as interesting as the fact that Adam was, and had been, hip to my trick, was his phrasing I am the wiser. At first I thought he had used a negative polarity item in a positive polarity context, you know, like he did when he was four years old, during another sandwich-related occurrence. But as I thought about it more, I realized that the plus any comparative did happen outside negations and questions, in phrases like all the better and even somewhat the wiser. In any case, you can use NPIs in positive contexts if you’re really emphasizing them, as in Yes, I do give a damn!, and Adam was definitely emphatic. Well, maybe it was because Adam used the wiser without a specifier saying how much the wiser he was: No somewhat, no all, not even very much. But a specifier isn’t necessary, either: I could just as easily have said: You’re never the wiser. So maybe it was the combination of his using the wiser with positive polarity and without a specifier. I don’t know, so that’s one reason I never wrote it up here. Besides, delivering “We Support Reynoldsburg Teachers” yard signs, going to rallies, passing around petitions, writing letters, and picketing the residences of members of the board of education on top of my actual job made it tough to find the time.

Anyway, here I was again, making a sandwich out of a heel. So I put the pieces of bread together, turned the heel crust-side-in, grabbed the kitchen shears and cut off the edges of both pieces of bread, like I used to do. I spread the peanut butter on the crusty side of the heel, sliced the banana on top of it, and laid on the top slice of bread. I put the whole thing in a sandwich container, and stuck a note to the top. The note read, “He’ll be none the wiser.”

When I arrived home that afternoon, Adam had eaten the lunch I’d made. On the table, he’d left my note, with an edit:

Oh, heel naw!

Ha! The linguistic hook of my potential post about the syntax and semantics of none the wiser had just become a post about the homophony of he’ll and heel … or rather, the homophony of he’ll and hill outside of careful speech, and not in a dialect that lowers [i] to [I] before [l] as a matter of course. My guess is that it’s a frequency effect, because he’ll is such a common word. Similarly for we’ll/will and she’ll/shill, but not for Neal/nil.

Posted in Adam, Food-related, Negative polarity items, Ohioana, Syntax | 6 Comments »

Ceramic Tins

Posted by Neal on April 20, 2014

Two ramekins

A couple of years ago, we would sometimes order take-out pizza from Boston’s in the Columbus Arena District. It was very good, but even so, since learning last year that the best pizza in Columbus is Natalie’s Coal-Fired Pizza, and we haven’t been back to Boston’s since. But we still have a few reminders of when Boston’s was our main source for take-out pizza. They would always send along a little container of red pepper flakes with our order, one of those little plastic cups with a snap-on lid, the kind that’s also used for salad dressing or Parmesan cheese. I didn’t really have a good name for this kind of cup until a server at a restaurant referred to one of them as a ramekin. It was slightly bigger, and made of ceramic, but it seemed like the same basic idea. Anyway, I’d keep these ramekins of red pepper flakes. We used them in a few recipes, so it didn’t make sense to throw them away. Now we’re finally on the last one, and then we can go back to using the pepper flakes in the bottle that came from the grocery store.

It was Doug’s turn to make supper one day last week, and he was looking for the ingredients for the dish he’d selected.

“Where are the red pepper flakes?” he asked. “Oh, wait. Here?” he held up the bottle of pepper flakes.

“I usually use the flakes in that plastic ramekin there,” I said.

Doug looked where I was pointing. “Oh, I use the flakes in that ceramic tin for ramen noodles,” Doug said, and continued looking for the remaining ingredients.

An eggcorn, born!

The word ramekin was as unfamiliar to Doug as it had been to me when I first heard it. But whereas I had just accepted it, Doug tried to make sense of it. Hearing [ræməkɪn], he perceived it as /səræmɪk tɪn/. The funny thing about eggcorns and folk etymologies (i.e., eggcorns that become widespread and part of the language) is that they still might not make much sense. They only have to make more sense than no sense. Ramekin is just a string of syllables until you attach them to a referent, but ceramic tin is two common English nouns. Never mind that ceramic tin is a contradiction in terms, and is even sillier when you consider that I was talking about a “plastic ceramic tin.”

Wait a minute … maybe there is such a thing as a ceramic tin, after all…

Posted in Doug, Folk etymology, Food-related, Ohioana | Leave a Comment »


Posted by Neal on May 2, 2013

Doug and Adam and I watched Food, Inc. a month or so ago. I learned that the main reason for all these E. coli contamination scares and subsequent beef recalls we keep having is that a lot more E. coli grows in bovine digestive tracts when cows are fed corn instead of grass. If ranchers would just let their cattle feed on grass, one expert said, most of the E. coli problem would solve itself, without a need for all the prophylactic antibiotics that they’re giving the cattle now.

So I asked at my grocery store if any of their beef was grass-fed. None was. But when I was at a different grocery store last weekend, I noticed they had packages of ground beef with green labels. As we know, green labels mean the food is healthier for you, and more environmentally friendly, so I took a closer look. Great news! The label said that this beef had been produced with “no antibiotics ever.” OK, cool. Now how about the grass-fed thing? I kept looking, and saw that the label said “Vegetarian fed.” Excellent! I’d pay 20 cents extra for that! I threw it in the cart.

Then it occurred to me that the only place I’d ever heard of non-vegetarian fed cattle was in the Simpsons Treehouse of Horror episode from 2009. That’s the episode with the “Krusty Burger Squared,” made with the meat of cattle that have been fed with the meat of other cattle. But whether you’re feeding your cattle with corn or with grass, they’re vegetarian-fed. So what difference between this beef and the other beef was the label vegetarian-fed referring to? Maybe they meant that that the feedlot workers who fed these cattle each day were vegetarian. Or that the cows ate vegetarians!

Well, there is one other possibility: vegetarian-fed is the marketers’ way of violating the conversational Maxim of Relevance in order to get me to think their beef is grass-fed, without actually lying and saying it is. The Maxim of Relevance, as regular readers will know from previous posts, is the principle that if I tell you something, it is not something that I think you already know. If I think you already know that all the beef you’re going to find in the grocery store is vegetarian-fed, then I’m not going to tell you that. So if I go ahead and tell you anyway that the beef in this special green packaging is vegetarian-fed, you’re going to assume I’m telling you something you don’t already know about this beef, something that has to do with the way it was fed. If you already know that cattle are by and large corn-fed these days, then that might be all you need to fill in the gaps and conclude that this is grass-fed beef. That’s what happened with me.

But the company is not respecting Relevance, because that vegetarian-fed business really isn’t telling us anything unusual about this beef. Why not respect Relevance and actually say “grass-fed”? Well, that would be a lie. (In terms of Grice’s Conversational Maxims, this would be a violation of the Maxim of Quality: Don’t say stuff you know isn’t true.)

Despite the violation of Relevance, the opposing Maxim of Quantity makes things clear. That’s the principle that says to be as informative as necessary. Grass-fed is more informative than vegetarian-fed, so if it’s true, they should say it. Since they didn’t say it, it’s probably not true. And so it comes to pass that vegetarian-fed, which could theoretically encompass grass-fed, is sometimes understood to be a synonym for corn-fed. In practical terms, I guess it is.

Posted in Advertising, Food-related, Quantity and Relevance | 7 Comments »

Comparatively Well Done!

Posted by Neal on July 15, 2012

Here’s a question for the carnivores out there, in particular the steak-eaters. Suppose you like your steak cooked medium rare. Your father, however, likes his done medium well, and your mother likes hers well done. How would you sum up how your parents like their steak, compared to you?

The most straightforward answer seems like it ought to be My parents like their steak better done than I like mine. We’re modifying the degree of wellness, and the comparative of well is the suppletive form better; hence, better done. But that answer doesn’t sound right when I say it. The only meaning I can get for it is a steak that has been more skillfully prepared. It doesn’t get any hits on COCA, either. It does get a very, very few hits on Google, though, including:

  • Works for my wife who likes her steak better done than the rest of the family.
  • He could have ordered his steak better done.

If better done is excluded, then I guess the answer would be the default, analytic comparative form that you get with adjectives and adverbs that don’t have an -er comparative: My parents like their steak more well done than I like mine. This is definitely a more popular answer. When I searched for “more well done”, I got two hits on COCA, and 179 on Google for “steak more well done”. (That’s an actual 179, by the way. The first page of results said there were 9800 of them, but I paged to the end to get the real number.) Here’s an example from each:

  • If you want it a little more well done, you’re going to leave it on a little bit longer.
  • If you would like the steak more well done, turn the heat down on the pan and continue cooking it for a few more minutes after it has been browned.

However, neither better done nor more well done is what I’ve found myself starting to say more than once. What I’ve wanted to say has been weller done. I’m guessing that since well has a more specialized meaning here than it does in phrases like live well or speak well, or even in the British congratulation Well done!, I’m treating the two as separate but homonymous words. Those who say better done I would say still have how-do-you-want-your-steak well as the same word as the more general-purpose adverb well. Those who say more well done don’t. Instead, they consider well done something like a compound adjective, and use more to make a comparative form the same as they do with compound adjective phrases like more able to meet your needs. As for my weller done, that has something in common with each of the other solutions. Like better done, it takes well as the word to be comparativized, but like more well done, it does not consider this well and the more general-purpose well to be the same word.

One more option I thought of is doner. It seems to me that I’ve probably heard this at least once in my lifetime, but I don’t find any hits for this option, either in COCA or Google.

So I ask you again: How would you express this thought?

UPDATE, July 23, 2012: I forgot until I came across it in my Notes app on my phone that I’ve actually heard weller done in the wild. I was ordering some take-out food, including some baked-to-order cookies. I told the cashier I wanted them cooked well, not doughy in the middle, and she instructed the baker to make them “weller done”.

Posted in Food-related, Morphology, Variation | 13 Comments »

Gluten, Lactose, and Nonconstituent Coordination

Posted by Neal on September 28, 2011

Longtime reader and occasional blogger Blar sent me an unusual coordination, complete with a picture:

The meaning of this phrase is clear enough: The kefir (whatever that is) is gluten-free and for the most part lactose free. (Actually, does 99% lactose free mean that 1% of the kefir consists of lactose, or that 99% of whatever lactose was there has been removed? Either way, I’ll just leave it as “for the most part lactose free”.) But the syntax is so, so bad! It just goes to show that you can’t always factor out the common part of two coordinated phrases and end up with something assume that the resulting coordination will be grammatical. Just because you can replace John sang and Marsha sang with John and Marsha sang doesn’t mean you can replace gluten free and 99% lactose free with gluten and 99% lactose free. But why not?

Let’s take a look at gluten-free and 99% lactose free separately. Gluten is a noun; free is an adjective; and together they form the compound adjective gluten free. The compound adjective lactose free is composed in the same way. In addition, the noun 99% modifies the compound adjective lactose free to create the bigger adjective 99% lactose free. In the diagram, this structure is shown by having lactose and free under one roof, or in syntactic jargon, forming a constituent. 99% lactose free is a larger constituent, all contained under the bigger roof.

99% lactose, however, is not a constituent. So maybe gluten and 99% lactose don’t coordinate well because 99% lactose isn’t a constituent.

Unfortunately, that alone won’t explain the ungrammaticality, because nonconstituent coordination (NCC) happens a lot, in phrases like I sent the package by UPS and the tax return via the postal service. The package by UPS is not a constituent, and neither is the tax return via the postal service. NCC tends to flow more smoothly when the coordinated pieces have similar structures (i.e. when they’re “parallel”), as in this example, with both coordinates consisting of a noun phrase naming a thing sent and a prepositional phrase naming the deliverer. Gluten and 99% lactose, in contrast, are not parallel in this way.

So what happens if we make them parallel? How about:

100% gluten and 99% lactose free

Nope, still no good for me. How is it for you?

Posted in Food-related, Zeugmatic | 16 Comments »

Srimp and Jritos at the Groshery Store

Posted by Neal on September 15, 2011

In my second post on the pronunciation of “tr” as [ʧr] (i.e. as “chr”), my question was this: If the /ʧ/ and /ʤ/ (that is, the “ch” and “j” sounds) are phonemes in English, then why don’t English speakers think of words like trick and drape as chrick and jrape? (At least, why don’t the English speakers who pronounce them that way think of them as chrick and jrape? Some speakers do pronounce /tr/ and /dr/ as [tʰr] and [dr].) To put it in phonological terms, why would someone who didn’t know the alphabet perceive [ʧrIk] as /trIk/ and not /ʧrIk/? Or [ʤreip] as /dreip/ and not /ʤreip/? In fact, children who are just learning to spell sometimes do spell [ʧr] as , and [ʤr] as . However, English speakers eventually come around to perceiving [ʧr] and [ʤr] as /tr/ and /dr/. One reason is that as they learn the spelling system, they see that that’s how [ʧr] and [ʤr] are spelled. Another reason is that if English allowed the affricates /ʧ/ and /ʤ/ to form consonant clusters with /r/, we’d have a strange phonological system on our hands. In it, all the plosive consonants other than /t/ and /d/ could form clusters with /r/, while /t/ and /d/ for mysterious reasons could not. Meanwhile, we have /ʧ/ and /ʤ/, which do not normally form consonant clusters, able for some reason to form them with just the consonant /r/.

With that in mind, consider the consonant cluster [ʃr], in words like shrimp, shriek, shred, shroud, shrew, and shrike. I hadn’t given it much thought before, but comments from Herb Stahlke in some of the posts linked to this one have got me to thinking about it. Like the affricate /ʧ/, the sibilant /ʃ/ forms clusters only with one consonant: /r/. You do get [ʃt] if it’s followed by an /r/, as I discussed in a recent post, but speakers generally perceive that as /str/. And you don’t get words like shkop, shtame, or shpoonkle (oh, wait…). German or Yiddish borrowings like schlep, Schwinn, Schmidt, and schnitzel are acceptable, but you don’t find many new words created that begin with /ʃl/, /ʃw/, /ʃm/, or /ʃn/. On the other hand, the sibilant /s/ can form a cluster with several other consonants. It can form them with voiceless plosives: spit, stick, sky. It can form them with nasals: smack, snoot. It can form them with glides: swoop, and in some dialects, words like suit. (See this post on Dialect Blog for more on American English “yod-dropping”.) It can form them with liquids: slide and … Oops. It can form clusters with lateral liquids, i.e. /l/. It can’t form them with retroflex liquids, i.e. /r/. How many of you pronounce the Sri in Sri Lanka as [sri], and not [ʃri]? I try to, but it feels weird.

So by the same phonological reasoning that leads us to perceive [ʧr] and [ʤr] as /tr/ and /dr/, why don’t we perceive [ʃr] as /sr/? In other words, why don’t we have a system in which /s/ can form clusters with both kinds of lateral liquids, and note that before /r/, /s/ is realized as [ʃ], instead of having a mysterious gap where /sr/ should be? Well, in this case, the spelling points toward hearing it the way it actually sounds: Words like shrimp, shriek, shred, shroud, shrew, and shrike are actually spelled with . But if it weren’t for the spelling, how would speakers perceive it? (Stahlke observes that some Southern American English speakers actually do say “srimp”, but what about other words beginning with “shr”?)

There is at least one word where speakers may perceive something pronounced as [ʃ] as an /s/. Listen to this classic Sesame Street video:

Did you hear it? “Ten tiny turtles on the telephone, talking to the groshery men”? That’s how I heard it as a kid, but gradually wrote it off to my imagination, as I grew up in a family that pronounced it gro[s]ery. Years later, though, I learned that many speakers unquestionably do pronounce grocery with [ʃ]. On her blog, Jan Freeman wrote:

But ever since I started reading similar criticisms of my native Ohio speech oddities, I’ve been wary of ascribing motives to people’s pronunciations. I grew up with “mirror” pronounced MERE and grocery as GROSHERY. But my parents didn’t use those pronunciations because they were uneducated; they used them because everyone did.

As I wrote this post, I realized that I had an explanation for this pronunciation: If you elide the unstressed schwa in the middle syllable, you’re left with an /s/ right next to an /r/. (Linguists call such a deletion syncope.) Looking at it that way, I see that gro[ʃ]ry is no more unusual than C’lumbus, Ohio, or Web’los. But if you keep the unstressed syllable, then both gro[ʃ]ry and C’lumbus may strike you as a bit odd.

Now Freeman may or may not have recognized that her pronunciation of grocery contained a [ʃ] (feel free to chime in, Jan), but here’s a speaker for whom [ʃ] is just how you pronounce /s/ before an /r/. A commenter going by the handle embolini9 responded to a query on, “How do you pronounce ‘grocery’?” , writing, “I’m from New England, and I’ve never heard the ‘sh’ sound. I’ve always said ‘gross-ree.'” But a few comments later, embolini9 returned to write, “Oh wait! I just said it out loud, and I guess sometimes I do say ‘groh-shree.’ Maybe more often than not… yup, I definitely say ‘sh.’ Now I’m the crazy girl sitting at her desk saying ‘grocery’ to herself.” (The rest of the comments are fun,too, ranging over a lot of regional pronunciations, an dsurprisingly little peeving.)

This case of syncope feeding a phonetic alteration brings me back to the posts on “shtr” and “chr/jr” that got me onto this subject. I was listening to the Sept. 7, 2011 “Radium Girls” episode of the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast, and one of the hosts pretty consistently pronounced str as [ʃtr]. There were one or two occasions when she didn’t, but one of the words that got a [ʃtr] was history. She pronounced the word historic with an [s], but history with a [ʃ]. Why? In historic, the middle syllable is stressed, so the /st/ is separated from the /r/ by a vowel. But in history, the host syncopated the unstressed medial vowel, leaving the /st/ right next to the /r/, eligible for the [ʃtr] pronunciation. As for “chr” and “jr”, I remembered way back to when Doug was three or four years old, and his favorite lunch was a turkey sandwich with Doritos. He tended to syncopate that initial unstressed syllable, leaving the /d/ next to the /r/, eligible for the [ʤr] affrication. As a result, he would ask for a turkey sandwich and “Jritos”.

Posted in Consonants, Food-related, The darndest things, Variation | 14 Comments »

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 »

Fried Eggs in Bacon Grease

Posted by Neal on November 23, 2010

Adam and I went on his Cub Scout pack’s annual fall campout last weekend. For our Saturday and Sunday breakfasts I packed bacon and eggs in our cooler. But as I assembled our camp stove on Saturday morning, I suddenly realized that I’d forgotten to pack any butter (OK, margarine).

“Shoot!” I said to myself. “Now what am I going to fry the eggs in?”

Then it hit me: I could fry the eggs in the bacon grease! The way eggs were meant to be fried in the first place! We’ve been using the convenient microwave packets of bacon for so many years that I’ve gotten used to never having any bacon grease to fry eggs in, and using margarine instead. But this weekend, on this campout, with no microwaves in sight, I’d fry our bacon the old-fashioned way, and have fried eggs the way Dad used to make them.

As I fried the eggs, I thought about the phrase frying eggs in bacon grease. I was thinking about it because frying eggs in bacon grease reminded me of a quotation from Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Entertainment Weekly a number of years ago, where she said she liked eating “fried eggs in bacon grease”. Now that, to me, sounded disgusting. Eggs that had been fried in some substance — maybe bacon grease, maybe butter, maybe oil — now sitting in a bowl, in a matrix of gray, congealed bacon grease.

Why does frying eggs in bacon grease set my mouth to watering, while a similar phrase with the same verb, same noun, and same prepositional phrase — in the same order — has me curling my lip in revulsion?

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Food-related, Gerunds and participles, Semantics, Syntax | 8 Comments »


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