Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Morphology’ Category


Posted by Neal on December 1, 2016

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

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

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

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

or perhaps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Ambiguity, Fused relatives, Pronouns | 5 Comments »

FAFSA Metathesis

Posted by Neal on October 16, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Acronyms, Metathesis | 5 Comments »

Build Your Own Nacho

Posted by Neal on July 5, 2016

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Those Sophisticated of Missiles

Posted by Neal on January 29, 2016

Picture adapted from original by Daniel Foster, Creative Commons

Picture adapted from original by Daniel Foster, Creative Commons

In guest post on The Volokh Conspiracy in 2004, I wrote about what I’ve since learned is sometimes called “intrusive of,” in phrases like too big of a deal, instead of the more-standard too big a deal. That post focused on the adverb too, but there’s actually a handful of adverbs that participate in this unusual kind of noun phrase, in which:

  1. an adverb, such as too,
  2. modifies an adjective, such as big,
  3. which in turn modifies a noun, such as deal.

The strange thing–well, one of the strange things–about this kind of noun phrase is that the indefinite article a(n) goes not before the whole adverb-adjective-noun string, as in *a too big deal, but between the adjective and the noun: too big a deal. Arnold Zwicky has coined the term exceptional degree marking (EDM) for these structures. The other adverbs that work in EDM constructions are so, as, and how:

  • I didn’t know it was so big a deal.
  • It wasn’t as big a deal as I’d thought it would be.
  • How big a deal did they make of it?

In addition to those adverbs, the determiners this and that can also do the job of specifying the degree of an adjective in an EDM construction:

  • Was it really that big a deal?
  • If it’s this big a deal, let’s do it!

I’ll follow the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language and use degree modifiers to cover the degree-modifying adverbs and the degree-modifying determiners this and that. EDM constructions are easiest to form with singular, count nouns, such as deal–in other words, nouns that are compatible with the singular determiner a(n). When you try to make an EDM construction with a mass noun or a plural noun, it’s not so easy:

  • ?/*It’s not too good coffee.
  • ?/*I didn’t know it was so good coffee.
  • ?/*It wasn’t as good coffee as I’d thought it would be.
  • ?/*How good coffee did they serve?
  • ?/*Was it really that good coffee?
  • ?/*If it’s this good coffee, we can sell it.
  • ?/*They’re not too good coffeemakers.
  • ?/*I didn’t know they were so good coffeemakers.
  • ?/*They weren’t as good coffeemakers as I’d thought they would be.
  • ?/*How good coffeemakers do they make?
  • ?/*Were they really that good coffeemakers?
  • ?/*If they’re this good coffeemakers, we can sell them.

This is where the intrusive of proves its worth. All the sentences involving the big deal could be phrased with big of a deal, too, and be considered completely standard by many speakers, and at worst as a somewhat nonstandard variant by others (and as the favored cliche “nails on a chalkboard” by a shrinking number of speakers). But the sentences with mass nouns and plural nouns don’t work at all without something like an intrusive of in them. Here are the examples I found and posted in 2004:

  • a2ps using too big of paper on dj500, and magicfilter eats text
  • Too Deep of Water
  • Too small of rooms for the price!!
  • Checkout/processing with too long of titles
  • Too high of volumes for CORSIM

When I was thinking about EDMs recently, as we all do on occasion, it occurred to me that an extra complication was possible with the degree-modifying determiners this/that that wasn’t possible with too/so/as/how. As determiners, this and that have plural forms! So what happened, I wondered, when speakers set out to create an EDM construction, with a plural noun, with a degree-modifying determiner? Would they still use singular this or that without regard to the plurality of the noun? In other words, would they treat this or that as if it wasn’t even a determiner at all? As it turns out, yes, as these hits from COCA show. I searched for “this|that”+ADJ+”of”+PLURAL_NOUN, as well as “this|that”+ADJ+”a”+PLURAL_NOUN, and got these few hits:

  • Maybe the standard one doesn’t have that big of pecs.
  • You know, the news of the settlement didn’t really make that big of headlines in the state, but it showed two things.
  • Whenever Dignan came to visit me he would act like he and Swifty weren’t that good of friends, but that was just to make me feel better.
  • And we really before her didn’t have that good of doctors.
  • Well, we had problems. But they weren’t that big a problems.

But COCA also shows that a few speakers are starting to swap out the singular this/that for a plural these/those to degree-modifying purposes in EDMs involving plural nouns. For this search, I looked for “these|those”+ADJ+”of”+PLURAL_NOUN and “these|those”+ADJ+”a”+PLURAL_NOUN:

  • These deep of lines in my cheeks ain’t all due to hard wind and burnin’ sun.
  • Well, I mean, they didn’t say in those harsh a terms
  • And then we would go right over Afghanistan after that and the Taliban and stuff didn’t — wasn’t known to have these — those sophisticated of missiles.

I love the little stutter in the last one, as the speaker struggles with how to handle the syntax. Would you have stuttered, too? What do you think of these odd of noun phrases?

Posted in Exceptional degree marking, Morphology | 5 Comments »

She’ll Tell Them All!

Posted by Neal on January 20, 2016

It’s 2016, and summer will be here in a few short months. Time to start planning your vacations! At least, it was time to start for one Reynoldsburg resident, who went to the school district website to find out when school started for the 2017 school year. She was taken by surprise when she found that the first day of school would be August 10. Had she read right? Was it really August 20? No! August 10 it was. Who decided that?

She put the question on Facebook, and the comments came streaming in. I followed them, not only because the start date affects my family’s summer plans, too, but also because I was elected to the school board last November, just took office a couple of weeks ago, and have been appointed to the board’s calendar committee. I’ll be one of the people making decisions about starting and ending dates for future school years. At one point, someone suggested that the school board’s calendar committee would be the appropriate people to complain to, and then the comment thread took a turn for the funny:


Louis and Lisa’s repartee hinged on a nice syntactic ambiguity made possible by the oddity of the English word all. All is funny. What part of speech is it? The easiest classification to make is to call it a determiner (D), when it appears before plural or non-count nouns to make a noun phrase, as in all cows eat grass. But the kind you’re more likely to encounter is in sentences like They all laughed at me when I said I wanted to be a comedian! or Gimme all your lovin’. It’s still a determiner, but it’s not functioning in the same way. It’s appearing in places where you can’t use other determiners: Notice the badness of *They none laughed at me and *Gimme some your lovin’.

Louis’s original comment has all modifying the pronoun them: Don’t just email some members of the committee your complaints; email all of them! (I’ve changed email for the more common verb tell, but the analysis is the same.)
The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language analyzes them all (or us all or you all) in sentences like this as a compound pronoun.

Slight detour: I was surprised to learn that CGEL did not go with a similar analysis for a sentence like They all laughed at me. In a sentence like that, they classify all as a quantificational adjunct–in other words, it’s acting like an adverb. Here are some differences they point out between they all with a quantificational adjunct and compound pronoun them all:

  1. Quantificational adjunct all can go with pronouns or nouns. All as part of a compound pronoun does not allow non-pronouns.
    • Quantificational adjunct: They all laughed. / The guys all laughed.
    • Compound pronoun: She saw them all. / *She saw the guys all.
  2. You can insert an adverb between a pronoun and quantificational-adjunct all. However, you can’t break up a compound pronoun with an adverb.
    • Quantificational adjunct: They all definitely laughed. / They definitely all laughed.
    • Compound pronoun: She definitely saw them all. / *She saw them definitely all.

Returning to Louis and Lisa’s exchange, Lisa chose an alternative parse for Louis’s comment. She took all to modify my opinions.
CGEL‘s name for something that comes right before a noun phrase that’s already complete (such as my opinions) is predeterminer.

This ambiguity between whether all associates to the left with them all, or to the right with all my opinions reminds me of squinting ambiguities such as Quitting smoking now greatly reduces risks to your health. It also reminds me of the time a cashier asked me, “Is that all for you?” and I was like, “That’s none of your business!”

Anyway, I’m sure that we members of the calendar committee will all hear all of Lisa’s opinions on the school calendar–and other people’s opinions, too. I’m looking forward to it!

Posted in Attachment ambiguity, Ohioana, Pronouns | 1 Comment »

The Flesh-Presser

Posted by Neal on August 16, 2015

“So you’re going to be at the Tomato Festival?” Doug asked me. That would be the Reynoldsburg Tomato Festival, our own addition to the list of small-town festivals celebrating odd things. In nearby towns we have the Circleville Pumpkin Show and the Millersburg Sweet Corn Festival, but here in Reynoldsburg we honor the tomato.

In any case, yes, I was going to the Tomato Festival, not so much because I’m a big fan of tomatoes (they’re OK in a salad or sandwich, or chili or spaghetti sauce), but because like many such festivals, it’s an opportunity for political candidates to get out and meet a lot of people, and during the teacher strike in our school district last year, I decided to run for a seat on the Board of Education.


In elementary school it was Neal the Banana Peel

“Yep,” I said. “I reckon I’ve got to get out there and press the flesh, as they say.”

“What?!” Doug said. “What do you mean?”

“You know, going out and shaking lots of people’s hands,” I answered.

“Ugh, don’t say that. It sounds obscene!”

“Really?” I asked. I searched for the term on my phone, and the first hit that came up was an Urban Dictionary definition. If there really was an X-rated meaning for press the flesh, this would be the place to find it. But the most popular definition read:

To meet people in person, particularly at an event where you can network with other people. The actual pressing of flesh here refers to shaking hands with people.

All the other definitions said essentially the same thing. Later, at the Tomato Festival, while Doug was off with his girlfriend and some of their friends, I saw her mother and father and told them the story. Her mother laughed. “Just because his mind’s in the gutter…!”

The girlfriend’s father, whom I”ll call Mr. J, just chuckled and wished me well as I went to continue my flesh-pressing.

Or at least, that’s all he did in my presence. When he caught up with Doug and his daughter later that night, he made sure to say to Doug, “So your dad’s off pressing the flesh, huh?” I learned this when we were all back home, and Doug asked, “Dad, did you tell Mr. J. to use the expression pressing the flesh with me?

Nice going, Mr. J.! Now I’ll just have to push it a little further by morphing the idiom into a gerund (flesh-pressing), or an agentive noun (flesh-presser), or maybe really mess with Doug by turning it in to a backformed compound verb, and saying things like, “I flesh-pressed a lot of potential voters out there last week!”

Posted in Backformation, Doug, Ohioana, Politics, Taboo | 2 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 | 8 Comments »

Sleep Like Death, Death Like Sleep

Posted by Neal on May 19, 2014

The boys, the wife and I watched the latest episode of the rebooted Cosmos last night. About 10 minutes in, Neil deGrasse Tyson began talking about the idea that life on Earth may have begun by arriving on meteorites. It’s known that rocks from Mars, for example, have ended up on Earth this way. It’s also known that some bacteria are able to survive in space, as proven by bacteria that survived a stint traveling on the outside of the International Space Station. Finally, it’s known that some bacteria can survive for a long time without a food source. On this point, Tyson talks about some recently revived bacteria found in Antarctic ice:

Even more amazing are these creatures, awakened from a death-like sleep of eight million years…

I was interested to hear Tyson put it that way, because I’ve also been hearing another person talking about death-like sleeps recently, but she phrases it differently:

Did you hear that? She said:

Before the sun sets on her sixteenth birthday, she will fall into a sleep like death!

Both phrases are talking about a sleep, not about death. We know this from the context, and from the fact that the verbs fall and awaken collocate more strongly with sleep than with death. But they’re phrased in completely opposite orders from each other! Furthermore, it’s syntactically possible for each phrase to be referring to death, not to a sleep. No, I haven’t actually found any examples of this, but it could happen, OK?

Here are the structural differences all sorted out. The diagrams on the left refer first to a death that is like sleep, and then to a sleep that is like death. In these parses, the adjective like is looking for a noun-phrase complement on its right to form an adjective phrase. The diagrams on the right refer to a sleep that is death-like, then to a death that is sleep-like. Here, the adjective like forms a compound adjective with the noun phrase on its left.

Dead, or Just Resting?

The situation reminds me of Shel Silverstein’s “snake eating cake”.

Posted in Attachment ambiguity, Compound words, Diagramming, Movies, TV | Leave a Comment »

Don’t Follow to Unfollow

Posted by Neal on February 9, 2014

“Don’t follow to unfollow,” said the last line in the Instagram profile.

What did that mean? It seemed to be saying, “To unfollow me, simply don’t follow me!” But that interpretation didn’t make sense!

Morphologically and semantically, the prefix un- doesn’t work that way. When you attach it to a verb, it refers to reversing an action. So unfollowing someone wouldn’t mean simply not following them; it requires that you follow them first. In fact, even that verb meaning makes sense only with the reversible social-media sense of follow: In Instagram, Twitter, or whatever app you’re using, follow means “click a button once to add someone’s updates to your news feed”; unfollow means to click again to remove them. In real life, though, following isn’t a reversible action. The closest you can come is to stop following someone. The reverse of following would be … what? Following their footsteps backward to find out where they started? In any case, you can’t unfollow someone on social media without first following them.

But wait, you say: Untied shoes can be shoes that were never tied! The unopened can of chocolate-covered peanut brittle like the one my wife gave me tonight had never been opened. (It’s open now.) This is true, and it’s because of the other way that un- can be used: It can prefix an adjective to form the negation of that adjective. So untied is not the verb untie with the suffix -ed turning it into an adjectival past participle; it’s the adjectival past participle tied, with the prefix un- giving it the meaning “not having been tied”. As for the verb untie, you don’t untie something by leaving it alone. It has to be in a knot already, and you remove the knot. For more on all this, read Ben Zimmer’s 2009 Boston Globe column.

“Don’t follow to unfollow”–was it a Zen thing? Kind of like “The only way to win is not to play”? I decided to ask Doug and Adam, who are more familiar with the latest trends in this area.

“Oh, I hate when people say that!” Doug said. “Some will even say, ‘Don’t unfollow, I have the app.’ “


Some people, Doug explained, advertise that they will follow anyone who follows them; “follow back,” in the parlance. Right, I said.

Some other people, Doug went on, will follow those people, and then when those other people follow these followers back, the original followers will turn around and unfollow the people they just followed.


To get their follower-to-following ratio up! So when people say “Don’t follow to unfollow,” what they mean is, don’t pull this kind of funny business.

Suddenly, it clicked into place for me. It was an attachment ambiguity. I had been interpreting to unfollow as a purpose infinitive modifying the imperative Don’t follow, as in the diagram on the left. In actuality, to unfollow was modifying just the verb follow, as in the diagram on the right.

The reading I was getting

The reading I was getting

The reading I was supposed to get

The reading I was supposed to get

Even if I had parsed the sentence correctly, though, my interpretation wouldn’t have been right. In my grammar follow to unfollow makes even less sense than my earlier interpretation. It means, “In order to unfollow me, follow me!” The intended meaning is really “Don’t [[follow to get me to follow you back] and [then unfollow me]]. A shorter phrase that would probably also work: Don’t [follow only to unfollow later]. Actually, that does get a few Google hits, but only 28, compared to the thousands for “Don’t follow to unfollow.”

But all this really brought home a kind of sad side of social media that I hadn’t been aware of. First of all, that there are people who care so much about their following size, and believe that so many others share the sentiment, that they promise to follow everyone back. They don’t care how dull or stupid anyone’s stream of content is; they just want that person to follow them. Second, that some of these people try to break the rules of this pitiful game by buying a follower and then stopping payment. Third, that players of this game are so invested in their bogus follower numbers that they send out pre-emptive threats: “Don’t follow to unfollow; I have the app.” The app, I’m assuming, is Who Unfollowed Me? or something like it, as the guy in the video describes. These apps typically advertise how easy it is to unfollow those that unfollow you, as if that’s just naturally the next step to take when you find out that someone unfollowed you. What next? Apps that find out who unfollowed you, and then force them to refollow you?

Now that I understand Don’t follow to unfollow better, I guess my original interpretation could work after all. The users who don’t want me following and then unfollowing really would prefer that I did my unfollowing by never following in the first place: To unfollow, don’t follow.

Posted in Attachment ambiguity, Lexical semantics, Morphology, Negation | 7 Comments »

All of Which

Posted by Neal on November 8, 2013

Picture from

Picture from

Last week was the last football game of the season for Doug’s high school. As such, it was “senior night,” when the seniors on the football team received a pre-game recognition. As I looked on, I heard the announcer say

…our senior players, all of which are donning their uniform for the final time tonight.

All of which?

I know that which hasn’t always been reserved for inanimate things. Just look at the Lord’s Prayer in the King James version of the Bible: “Our Father, which art in heaven….” But I’m not used to hearing it in present-day English. I suspect that the preposition is responsible, because speakers are trying to avoid saying whom but aren’t quite comfortable with saying of who, either. Actually, I was surprised at how much confusion there was on the issue in the answers to this question on One commenter even stated that friends, most of which was “technically correct,” but that he would say friends, most of whom only because he hated the sound of friends, most of which.

In COCA, I looked for sequences of a determiner (like all, some, none) or a number followed by of which, and found about 15,000 hits. Inspecting a few pages of hits, I found which with mostly inanimate antecedents, but I did turn up a few animate whiches:

  • Now you have got a field of candidates, some of which are perceived to be to his right.
  • …the increase has pushed illegal immigrants to the streets, “some of which go on to commit further crimes.”
  • This is what he said in confidence to his friends, one of which went to gossip to Don Honorato…
  • The task recorded by the helicopter’s night view camera was to try find and rescue survivors. Two of which were who were found bobbing in a life raft.
  • Well, but do you think that congressmen, the two of which I just cited, are they capable of moving beyond that calculation?
  • Between 1946 and 1966 more than 2,500,000 immigrants were admitted to Canada, 900,000 of which were sponsored.
  • According to British estimates in February 1949 the total number of former “Palestinians” — those who remained behind and those who fled — was around 900,000 of which 320,000 … now lived in the Jordanian territory in the West Bank or across the Jordan

Four of these are from spoken English, so it’s possible they were speech errors, or whom avoidance. But the other three are from fiction and academic prose, and in the academic stuff I don’t imagine whom avoidance would play a role. So it’s just possible that animate which lives on, at least after prepositions.

That wasn’t the only linguistic surprise last Friday night. One by one, the senior players marched to the middle of the field, as the announcer introduced them, and added “escorted by” and the name of their parents, or a parent. I did a double-take when one player walked out cradling a baby in his right arm.

I mean, really, doesn’t that seem to stretch the definition of escort?

Posted in Lexical semantics, Pronouns | 8 Comments »