Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Compound words’ Category

States of the Unions

Posted by Neal on February 24, 2009

The following is a revision of a post originally published in 2005. But now it has pictures!

franken_alI heard a talk radio commentator talking about tonight’s speech from President Bush. (Update: In fact, it was the newly (maybe) elected senator from Minnesota, Al Franken, on his now canceled Air America program.) At one point he said,

…previous State of the Unions, er, States of the Union, uh, previous State of the Union addresses!

With the full phrase, making a plural is no problem.

With the full phrase, making a plural is no problem.

Franken took the easy way out: He couldn’t decide whether to pluralize state or union, so he resorted to using the full phrase State of the Union address, and pluralized address.

His cohost, however, confidently and repeatedly talked about previous “States of the Union,” undoubtedly patting herself on the back the same way she does when she says mothers-in-law, passersby, and teaspoonsful instead of mother-in-laws, passerbys, and teaspoonfuls. But in fact, Franken had it right the first time, with State of the Unions.

It’s not a matter of correctly identifying the head noun in a noun phrase, as with mother-in-law or son of a bitch. These phrases are different from State of the Union because they’re generally used as nouns. Although state of the union can be used as a noun (as in, “He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union”), in the phrase State of the Union address, the four words have essentially been boxed up to serve as an adjective. (In the diagrams, it’s labeled Nom, for “nominal”, for reasons that are more fully explained in this post from Arnold Zwicky.) When you shorten State of the Union address to just State of the Union, you don’t have to worry about opening up the box to figure out where to put your plural affix; you just stick it on the edge of the box just like you do any other time you’re using an adjective to stand in for an adjective-noun collocation: The greens make you horny; the crazies are out tonight; the movies in this bin are the two-fer-ones; put all the one-of-a-kinds here. (Exceptions: the young, the rich, the dead, etc.)

In fact, if you hyper-correctly say “States of the Union,” then you shouldn’t be talking about speeches at all, but actual states that the union has found itself in. Or subsets of the 50 states that make up the USA, which in fact is what the phrase is usually used to refer to. Online, the only place I’ve found it referring to State of the Union addresses is here:

George W. Bush: Translated States of the Union (link)

State of the Unions is out there, in quotations like the two below, but mostly it shows up in titles of articles about labor unions, or sometimes civil unions, where the -s does indeed attach only to union.

Even Bill Clinton, a president with very different views to those of Reagan, famously said in one of his state of the unions, “the era of big government is over … (link)
No other president since Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933 has mentioned God so often in his inaugurations or State of the Unions. (link)

The problem comes when you leave out <I>address</i>...

The problem comes when you leave out address...

So State of the Unions should have been perfectly OK, but unfortunately it sounds like a son-of-a-bitches kind of mistake. Not to mention that it’s ambiguous, since you can’t tell just by hearing it whether the –s is attaching to the entire string state-of-the-union, as in the diagram on the left, or just to union, as in the diagram on the right. In order to avoid the ambiguity, I’d have to say Franken’s final answer, State of the Union addresses, was the right way to go. But in the context of the utterance, State of the Unions wouldn’t have been ambiguous in practice, and it’s certainly better than States of the Union, neither of whose compositional meanings are the intended one.

...because it could be mistaken for this.

...because it could be mistaken for this.

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Posted in Compound words | 5 Comments »

The Forensic Fringe

Posted by Neal on October 17, 2008

My wife and I have watched several episodes of Fringe now, mostly out of curiosity due to Glen’s being on the writing staff. Parts of each episode reveal more of the show’s overall “mythology” (hey, Ben, how long has mythology been used to refer to the slowly revealed backstory in a TV show that prominently features weirdness?), but each episode also has one particular mystery or problem to solve, and the solution always involves some kind of fringe science. In this respect, it’s like Numbers, where each week the solution comes from some kind of mathematics. Also as in Numbers, the progression from having the crazy idea that just might work, to actually implementing it, to solving the problem, is really fast. And the crazy idea always works.

This is a greater barrier to disbelief-suspension in Fringe than it is in Numbers, because in Numbers, the mathematical concepts are sound, but in Fringe, it’s all based on pseudoscience. What I’d like to see on this show is a situation where eccentric scientist Walter Bishop thinks they just might be able to enable agent Olivia Dunham to use, let’s say, telekinesis in order to avert some disaster. He and his team, in less time than it takes to buy, have delivered, and install a high-definition TV and connect it to your cable box, gather and set up equipment that it would take well-funded university labs weeks just to acquire. They hook up Dunham to the device, and … it just doesn’t work. Bishop’s son Peter is stunned.

“I can’t believe it didn’t work!” he says.

“Well, this is fringe science we’re talking here,” says Dunham’s assistant Astrid (a linguistics major, BTW). “Just because they call it fringe science doesn’t mean it’s not bullshit.”

But aside from Astrid’s major in college, what does any of this have to do with linguistics? During one of the episodes, I got to thinking, “This isn’t so much fringe science as forensic science.”

But on second thought: “Wait, no, this baloney is definitely fringe science.”

I thought about it some more: “No, no, they’re using it to solve crimes. It’s forensic science!”

Suddenly I realized: It didn’t have to be one or the other. It was both! It was … forensic fringe science! Fringe forensic science! Wow, this is like sweet mashed potatoes all over again. I got zero hits for both fringe forensic science and forensic fringe science, both in the Corpus of Contemporary American English and with Google. For some reason, there doesn’t seem to be much call for such a term. But if there ever were, what would determine which f-word came first?

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Posted in Adjective ordering, Compound words, TV | 9 Comments »

Roof, Wind, and Water

Posted by Neal on September 18, 2008

The remnants of Hurricane Ike blew through on Sunday, and knocked out our electricity. We got ours back Tuesday night, but in the meantime, I squeezed some more value out of my gym membership by taking my showers there. While I dried off in the locker room Monday, I watched the news on the TV screen mounted there, and heard the reporter mention

…roof, wind, and water damage

Why did that sound so weird? I wondered. Was it because the three categories of damage were not mutually exclusive? After all, roof damage could, and probably did, overlap heavily with wind damage and water damage. But saying “roof, wind, and water damage” gives the impression that we’re talking about three separate, nonintersecting sets.

However, I had to give up that hypothesis. Even though I’ve been similarly confused by phrases such as hard-working, reliable, professional, and friendly people, I also noted that coordinated adjectives didn’t have to mean nonintersecting sets. Chunky and fruit-flavored ice cream is OK even though there can be ice cream that is simultaneously chunky and fruit-flavored. As long as there is chunky ice cream that’s not fruit-flavored, and vice versa, the coordination makes sense.

Before I go applying this logic to roof, wind, and water damage, a disclaimer: I am not saying that roof, wind, and water are adjectives in this assemblage. They’re nouns, serving as the initial element in a complex nominal. What is a complex nominal? (Some of this will be familiar to readers who read Arnold Zwicky’s Big Penis Book post I recommended two posts back.) It’s like a compound noun, but with a looser connection between the two components that make it up. Compound nouns don’t allow you to separate them into their individual elements to coordinate them. For example, you can’t say *wash and dishcloths; it has to be washcloths and dishcloths. But you can say wind and water damage, so the strings wind damage and water damage are classified as complex nominals to reflect this difference. This is a distinction that I learned of only recently myself, and in my category “Compound Nouns,” I’m sure I’ve discussed at least a few complex nominals.

So now, back to roof, wind, and water damage example. Some roof damage is neither wind nor water damage — it could be caused by falling trees, or fires sparked by downed power lines. And not all wind and water damage is roof damage, as owners of uprooted trees and flooded basements can attest. (For the sake of completeness, I’ll note that wind damage and water damage are different from each other, too.)

So it must be something else that’s making this coordination sound strange. My current suspicion is that it’s the different semantic roles that roof, wind, and water play in the complex nominal. In roof damage, the noun roof fills a patient role: It’s what suffers the damage. By contrast, the nouns wind and water play agent roles in wind damage and water damage: Wind and water are what cause the damage.

To falsify this hypothesis, I’ve been trying to think of normal-sounding noun coordinations in the initial slot of a complex nominal, with one noun playing a patient role, and the other one an agent role. None are coming to mind, but maybe a few will occur to you.

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Posted in Compound words, Semantics | 6 Comments »


Posted by Neal on August 16, 2008

Doug’s friend introduced him to an online game called Runescape. Doug informed me that the name is a compound of rune and scape when we were talking about the game a few days ago…

Me: You’re calling it Rune Scape, but maybe it’s really called Run, Escape!
Doug: Daaad, don’t be ridiculous!
Me: Well, I don’t know. I think run and escape make much more sense together than rune and scape.

Which is true. Scape is a noun, created as a backformation from landscape, that the OED defines as “a view of scenery of any kind, whether consisting of land, water, cloud, or anything else”. Anything else … such as runes? What would a runescape look like? I tried to find out.

Me: So does this game actually have runes in it?
Doug: Yeah!
Me: Really? What do they spell?

I figured he might know this, because we looked up the futhark alphabet when we wanted to decipher the inscriptions on the cover of The Hobbit. However, Doug admitted that the runes in this game weren’t really spelling out words; they were just magical symbols that you’d find here and there.

Doug also said that he would sometimes “find talisman”, which I mentally corrected to “find a talisman”. But when he kept saying talisman without a determiner like a or the before it, I knew something in his grammar was different from mine. All of a sudden I realized: Doug wasn’t saying talisMAN, he was saying talisMEN! He had seen talisman, interpreted it as a compound word, like mailman or salesman, and was now pluralizing it with the same irregular plural that all man-headed compounds get. (Aside: Why is the man in mailman pronounced /mæn/, while the man in salesman is pronounced /mən/? I don’t know, but since I’ve already written about that, I won’t dwell on it here.) Of course, I’m sure it didn’t make sense to Doug that a magical object should be referred to as some kind of man, or that there could be a kind of man known as a talis-man, but that’s folk etymology for you (or eggcornization, if you wish). It’s easier to have a word that you can make a tiny bit of sense out of, like talis-man, than one like talisman that’s completely opaque semantically.

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Posted in Backformation, Compound words, Folk etymology, Kids' entertainment, Morphology | 4 Comments »

Every Monster’s Mouth

Posted by Neal on April 19, 2008

A friend of mine recently wrote, asking:

I have a question regarding grammar. We have a book called “One Hungry Monster” and throughout the story, you get to count monsters from 1 to 10 as they beg to be fed. Finally, the little boy decides to feed them, and then you get to count from 1 to 10 the different types of food he brings (2 loaves of bread etc.) The 10th thing is “10 jars of peanut butter”, but the boy adds “and not a speck of jam, because I want every monster mouth shut tighter than a clam. Should it be “monster mouth” or “monster’s mouth”? I think they both sound correct, so I have no idea.

I was a little surprised by this question, since this book didn’t seem at all like my friend’s typical taste in leisure reading, and I’m almost certain she can count much higher than 10. Anyway, I’ll share what I wrote back:

Every monster mouth and every monster’s mouth are both correct. The first is just the compound noun monster mouth (it doesn’t matter that it’s written as two words) just like peanut butter or oven cleaner, put together with the determiner every to make a noun phrase. (A noun phrase is a noun plus any adjectives you care to add [in this case, none] and a
determiner if needed. Determiners include a, the, some, every, no, etc., as well as possessive forms: my, your, Neal’s, every monster’s.) Every monster’s mouth is a noun phrase, too, consisting of the plain old non-compound noun mouth and a determiner: every monster’s. (Inside that determiner lurks another noun phrase: every monster. But that’s another story.) In short:

Other grammar questions? Send them here!

Posted in Compound words, Syntax | 1 Comment »

Implicit Backformation?

Posted by Neal on February 21, 2008

I think it was the E-E-A sequence that caught my eye. I was sitting at a cafeteria table, looking at the stand-up card with a picture of a slice of pie on it. I’d pushed it out of the way with my tray when I sat down, but now that I’d been eating for a few minutes, my eye was drawn back to the card. Paying closer attention now, I saw that it wasn’t just an advertisement for the place’s desserts; it was an encouragement to get their desserts to go. It said:

Homeeat a homemade dessert.

Homeeat? There is no entry for homeeat or home eat in my Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, and I have yet to find any attestations of it online. The meaning was clear enough: to eat at home. But how had they formed the word?

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Backformation, Compound words, Food-related, Gerunds and participles | 7 Comments »

Candy Canes

Posted by Neal on December 21, 2007

Potential conflicts for recently married couples, as they determine how Christmas will be celebrated in their new household:

Gifts: Do you open some on Christmas Eve, or do you save them all for Christmas Day?

Christmas Eve: Do you go to a midnight service, or an afternoon one? (Or neither?)

The word candy cane: Do you pronounce it with the stress on candy, or on cane?

My wife and I still have not reached a reconciliation on the last item. My pronunciation: candy cane, with stress on the first word. It’s the same stress pattern you get with compound nouns like Christmas tree and Nativity scene. Her pronunciation: candy cane, with stress on the second word, like what you’d do with pumpkin pie or Christmas Day. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Christmas-related, Compound words, Stress and focus, Variation | 16 Comments »

Stuffing, Dressing, and Sweet Mashed Potatoes

Posted by Neal on November 23, 2007

I made my lunch today out of Thanksgiving leftovers. It’s the first time in at least a decade that I’ve done that, because it’s the first time our family has had Thanksgiving dinner here instead of at my wife’s uncle’s house. I loaded the plate with the good, juicy dark meat that there was plenty of, not the dry white meat that everyone else so strangely prefers. Then some of the stuffing — oh, wait, I can just hear my dad saying that it’s not stuffing unless you’ve actually stuffed the turkey with it. It’s dressing. If you go calling the mixture of breadcrumbs, eggs, turkey stock, and herbs that my mom would cook in a baking dish stuffing, people will get it confused with that portion of the same mixture of breadcrumbs, eggs, turkey stock, and herbs that actually got cooked inside the bird. Maybe the distinction is worth making, since the inside-the-bird stuffing has soaked up some of the juices from the turkey and tastes somewhat different from the baking-dish-stuffing. But on the other hand, if I call it dressing, people could confuse it with what you put on your salad.

Another dish that my wife had picked up for the meal, she referred to as sweet mashed potatoes. That sounded like an interesting recipe. Not good, necessarily, but interesting. I like my mashed potatoes buttery and salty, not sweet. As it turned out, however, what was in the container was not mashed potatoes that had been sweetened, but mashed sweet potatoes. Mashed sweet, or sweet mashed? If an adjective and a noun have fused into a compound noun, then other adjectives can’t go putting them asunder: spoiled hot dogs is grammatical, but hot spoiled dogs isn’t — at least, not with the same meaning as you get with spoiled hot dogs. So in my grammar, it has to be mashed sweet potatoes, since sweet potato is a compound noun (as evidenced by the stress on sweet), and mashed potatoes is not (with its stress on potatoes). It looks like most other speakers agree, since I got 200K Google hits for mashed sweet potatoes and less than 1000 for sweet mashed potatoes. Even among those hits, though, I didn’t find any that referred to mashed white potatoes that had been sweetened; mostly they referred to what I would call mashed sweet potatoes, though a few were talking about a dish containing potatoes and sweet potatoes. Maybe for those few people for whom mashed sweet potatoes and sweet mashed potatoes mean the same thing, mashed potatoes is as much a compound as sweet potato is, leading to variation in naming something that qualifies as both. One website even used both phrasings to refer to the same item.

BTW, for a fascinating investigation of when and why Thanksgiving came to be (for many, but not all people) pronounced with stress on the giv-, see this post from Mark Liberman at Language Log.

Posted in Adjective ordering, Compound words, Food-related, Lexical semantics, Variation | 3 Comments »

Pierced Earrings

Posted by Neal on October 19, 2007

“These are nice,” my wife said, clicking on the thumbnail image. Up came the larger image of a pair of earrings. My wife had come over when she saw that I was online, had had me navigate to the webpages for a couple of online stores, and was now pointing out stuff like this. She does that every now and then at this time of year, though you’d think after more than a decade of marriage, she’d know that I’m not going to wear earrings or necklaces. This pair of earrings was interesting, though. The caption called them pierced earrings.

“Oh, I know what’s next,” you’re saying. “He probably thought the earrings were supposed to be pierced, instead of making the obvious connection that they were for pierced ears, as opposed to being clip-on earrings.” Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Ambiguity, Compound words | 6 Comments »

From Happy Meals to Root Canals

Posted by Neal on August 3, 2007

Back in 2005, I admitted that, “I used to ask the order-takers to leave the toys out of Doug and Adam’s Happy Meals, but my wife made me stop.” So I did, and I hope she’s happy now. Adam now has at least 3 bins in his room just for his Happy Meal toys, none of which he is willing to part with yet. The toy is such a central part of the Happy Meal to Adam that sometimes when we’ve gotten one at the drive-through, Adam will ask, “Can I have my Happy Meal now?”, and only after I’ve told him we’ll have to wait until we get to where we’re going will he realize my misunderstanding and say, “Can I have my Happy Meal toy?” Then once he has it, he might show it to Doug: “Doug, look at my Happy Meal!”

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Compound words | 2 Comments »