Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Stress and focus’ Category

Grover and the Excellent Idea

Posted by Neal on January 2, 2019

It’s been called “the new Laurel vs. Yanny“: A six-second video clip from Sesame Street in which Grover expresses his enthusiastic approval for an idea that a fellow Muppet named Rosita suggests. In case you haven’t already read what people are hearing Grover say, I’ll let you listen to it before I bring in the spoilers. Here’s a clip of just the audio. Further commentary below the fold.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Kids' entertainment, Phonetics and phonology, Stress and focus, Syllables, Taboo, Vowels | 7 Comments »

Time for the Saving of Daylight

Posted by Neal on March 13, 2011

Nancy Friedman tweeted last week,

Now that we have daylight saving time 8 months of the year, shouldn’t it be renamed “standard time”?

I immediately retweeted, since this is what I’ve been thinking for months. In fact, I’d probably say it’s my biggest objection to the extension of daylight saving time. Gordon Hemsley responded to us both with this complication I hadn’t considered:

Then we’d have to rename the other 4 months Daylight-Losing Time.

Daylight-losing time … no one wants that. On the other hand, there wouldn’t be any confusion over whether to call it daylight-losing time or daylight-losings time, since losings isn’t nearly as common a word as savings. To tell you the truth, I’d been saying “daylight-savings time” for years, until I listened to this episode of Grammar Girl and learned that the original and preferred term is daylight-saving time. The form is saving and not savings because it’s just an ordinary gerund, turned into a compound noun by putting a direct object in front of it, the same as you do with hog-killing, cherry-picking, and pie-eating.

I didn’t believe it at first. I figured whatever usage guides GG had been looking at must have had some prejudice against the pluralia tantum (“plural only”) noun savings. True, savings usually refers to money, but I didn’t see any problem extending the concept to time, since you can certainly do that with the verb save. You can save both money and time, and the money or time that you save can be referred to as your savings, right?

But the story checked out, as I found when I went searching through the Google News Archive. Garner’s Modern American Usage confirms it, too: “the singular form daylight-saving time is the original one, dating from the early 20th century…. So my question is why people started calling it daylight savings time. Garner proposes this explanation:

The rise of the plural form (daylight-savings time) appears to have resulted from the avoidance of a miscue: when saving is used, readers might puzzle momentarily over whether saving is a gerund … or a participle….

In other words, we don’t want readers asking themselves, “Does this mean ‘the time for saving daylight’ or ‘the time that saves daylight’?”

Here’s my problem with calling it daylight-saving time. The way you pronounce this kind of noun phrase, with a compound gerund modifying a noun, is that you put primary stress on the first word, and secondary stress on the modified noun. So with this pattern, we getting HOG-killing time, PIE-eating contest, BABY-sitting service. In fact, this is generally how you put stress on compound nouns composed of words A, B, and C, where A and B form a compound that modifies C. Other examples are ANGEL food cake and BABY-butt legs, or INCOME tax time. But I don’t put primary stress on daylight; I put primary stress on saving(s), and as far as I know, most other speakers do, too. (If I’m wrong about you, comments are open.)

Why do I pronounce it as daylight SAVING(S) time? Actually, I don’t know. Even if I was interpreting it as “time that gives you a savings of daylight,” that would still mean that daylight and savings formed a compound that in turn modified time, so it would still be pronounced as DAYLIGHT savings time, wouldn’t it? Going by the examples of model DOGhouse and gourmet CAT food, I would expect the pronunciation daylight SAVINGS time to mean “a savings time that has to do with daylight” — maybe a time when you save money during the day but not at night.

Maybe it’s significant that daylight saving(s) time is a compound word, while model doghouse and gourmet cat food are still transparently compounds (doghouse, cat food) modified by a third word (model, gourmet). Or maybe the stress is landing on saving(s) because speakers are thinking of it as contrastive focus: STANDARD time as opposed to daylight SAVING(S) time, with the initial-S commonality subtly encouraging this.

Whatever the reason, this stress pattern is very ingrained with me, and if I use it while saying daylight saving time, I end up with daylight SAVING time, which sounds really goofy. It sounds like another contrastive focus: daylight SAVING time as opposed to the gloomy daylight LOSING time that Gordon brought up.

Posted in Gerunds and participles, Prescriptive grammar, Stress and focus | 8 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 »

Dagwood’s Lack of Focus

Posted by Neal on May 15, 2006

Dagwood is sitting watching TV in today’s strip, and Blondie asks him what he’s watching. He enthusiastically tells her that “it’s an old-fashioned movie,” because:

The cowboy only kissed his horse!

The trouble is, there is no indication of where the stress(es) should fall, which would show which chunk of the sentence is being focused, or in other words, which chunk only applies to. The pattern of stress could be any of the following:

  1. The cowboy only kissed his horse.
  2. The cowboy only kissed his horse.
  3. The cowboy only kissed his horse.
  4. The cowboy only kissed his horse.

In the first pattern, the entire phrase kissed his horse is focused, with stress on kissed and a slightly lower (in phoneticians’ terms, downstepped) pitch on horse. With this intonation, Dagwood would be saying that in old-fashioned movies, all cowboys ever do is kiss their horses. They never have cattle drives or poker games or showdowns at high noon. Hmmm.

OK, let’s try the next one. Here, just kissed is focused, so we conclude that the only things cowboys do to their horses in old-fashioned movies is kiss them. Not ride them, or feed them, or shoot them; just kiss them. As an aside, I wonder why columnists like James Kilpatrick never point out the kind of ambiguity we get between #1 and #2 when they get on their soapbox about the proper placement of only. They can’t show a nice disambiguation just by moving the only around, so it seems they ignore the issue. Anyway, I don’t think #2 is the intended reading, either. Next!

In the third stress pattern, just his is focused, implicating that in modern movies, cowboys are indiscriminate about whose horses they kiss. (Dagwood could also conveyed this meaning by putting the only right before the his and stressing the his.) Interesting visual, but I still don’t think we’re there.

In the fourth stress pattern, the focus is on horse; in old-fashioned movies, the only things cowboys kiss is horses. (The same meaning as you’d get if you put the only right before the his and stressed horse). So in old-fashioned movies, cowboys don’t kiss women, children, or other men. Oh, now I get it! This is another Brokeback Mountain joke!

Frankly, I find the first three readings funnier.

Posted in Phonetics and phonology, Scope ambiguity, Stress and focus | 1 Comment »

Knowing One’s Place

Posted by Neal on February 27, 2006

Fellow OSU grad Liz Strand had a question that she posed to the OSU Linguistic Department’s Phonies a few months ago. She wrote:

I have a question that I was hoping to get your expert Phonies input on. We listen to a lot of calls at [my workplace] and transcribe a good share of the utterances that come into our telephone-based applications…. [C]all-listening helps us diagnose design and performance issues, and transcriptions are used to tune application behavior and enhance our recognition performance.

We listen to tons of addresses, and someone recently noted an interesting pattern of stress on the street name segment of addresses, but none of us is sure how to explain it:

  1. when the word “Street” is part of the street name, it’s UNSTRESSED in relation to the descriptive portion of the street name (controlling for the influence of contrastive stress, etc.)
  2. when the structurally-similar (single closed syllable) “Court” or “Road” or “Lane” are part of the street name, they’re STRESSED in relation to the descriptive portion of the street name


  • “I live at 469 ELM Street.”
  • “I live at 469 Elm COURT.”
  • “I live at 469 Elm ROAD.”
  • “I live at 469 Elm LANE.”

The pattern of word-level stress seems to hold for longer descriptive names (“Market,” “Mississippi,” etc.) and street types (“Avenue,” “Boulevard,” “Expressway,” etc.), as well.

Any inklings as to what’s going on here?

One respondent suggested that this happened because in a phrase such as Elm Street, street is the less informative word–street is the default name suffix for a street, and naturally receives less stress than the word that carries more information, Elm.

This explanation sounds reasonable enough, but I have two problems with it. First, I’d say road and street are close to synonymy as terms denoting paths for vehicles to travel on. Granted, they’re not entirely synonymous: for me, street implies paving, whereas a road could be paved or of dirt. And I hardly ever hear about country streets. Even so, in a city, I could use either term to refer to any given paved pathway for vehicles. So I’d predict that both Elm Street and Elm Road would be stressed on Elm, but instead we get the contrast that Liz mentions.

The second problem is one I noticed in the mid-90s, during the heyday of a popular evening soap opera. On the radio they’d play ads for the latest steamy episode, introducing it with, “Tonight, on Melrose PLACE…” Every time they’d say it, I’d shake my head and silently ask myself, “What is with you people? Why do you keep saying Melrose PLACE instead of MELROSE Place?” I brought it up in Arnold Zwicky‘s morphology class when we talked about compound words, and was surprised to find Arnold and everyone else claiming that they accented place the same as court, avenue, road, or lane. But when I played Monopoly as a kid, I don’t remember anyone ever putting a hotel on Park PLACE. And it so happens that I live on a street with place for its suffix, and my wife and neighbors always deaccent it, just as we do for street.

So at least for speakers of my street-naming dialect, the answer to Liz’s question isn’t so simple. I think it would be neat if there were an explanation more interesting than just saying it’s an idiosyncratic fact about the word street (and for some people, place) that it is deaccented as part of a street name, while all other streetname suffixes (with the possible exception of place) are accented. But I don’t know of such an explanation. If any of you out there do, I’d be interested in hearing it, as would Liz and her colleagues.

Posted in Compound words, Stress and focus | 5 Comments »

Advil Cold and Sinus

Posted by Neal on December 4, 2004

And as the wrap-up to the posts inspired by our Thanksgiving trip, here’s one about the virus I caught while we were up at Grandma’s. The sore throat is gone, and my voice is on its way back, but I’m still blowing green and gold gunk out of my nose. At least, when the passage isn’t too congested for the chunks to make it through. When that happened last night, I looked through the medicine cabinet and found some Advil Cold and Sinus, whose label said it would relieve nasal congestion. I took some; I don’t know how effective it was, but it did remind me of one of the more annoying commercials I’d heard…

They played this one on TV and the radio a few years back, and maybe they still do. Someone talks about all the symptoms that AC&S works on, and how remarkable it is that it works not only on cold symptoms, but also on sinus pain. And then they conclude with one of the following lines:

That’s why they call it…

  1. Advil Cold and Sinus
  2. Advil Cold and Sinus
  3. Advil Cold and Sinus
  4. Advil Cold and Sinus

Which did they use? Option #1, stressing the cold, would make sense if very few medicines could reduce cold symptoms. Option #2, stressing the sinus, would make sense if very few medicines could reduce sinus pain. And Option #3, stressing the and, makes the most sense, since they’re making so much of the claim that it relieves not just one set of symptoms, not just the other set, but both sets together. Option #4, though, is a nonstarter. That would only work if there’d been some kind of ownership issue, and Advil had won out over, say, Tylenol, but that’s completely irrelevant to anything in the commercial.

So of course, Option #4 is exactly the one they use. Who cares about making sense, as long as we can stress the brand name? In fact, the fact that it doesn’t make sense probably works in their favor, because the listeners are all thrown off enough to spend just an extra second or two in processing the message. Curse you, Advil! Your plan worked only too well!

But what if the adwriters for AC&S really talked that way? What would happen if one of them went out to eat, ordered a Diet Coke, and got a regular one? “Excuse me, this is a regular Coke. I wanted a diet Coke“?

Shoot, they’d probably be the kind of people who’d say something like this when they served their kids a cup of juice: “OK, Doug, you get the yellow cup with the purple lid, and Adam, you get the yellow cup with the purple lid.”

Posted in Semantics, Stress and focus | 1 Comment »