Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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Through Houses They Had Never Been Through Before

Posted by Neal on June 30, 2018

It’s been a while since I wrote about things I noticed in books I read to Doug and Adam at bedtime. It started to be tough to do that when they started going to bed later than I did, and became just about impossible while Doug was off at his freshman year at college. But a member of the extended family is having a baby soon, and one of the gifts we’re sending is a book that the wife and I would read to them about 15 years ago. It’s Mr. Putter and Tabby Walk the Dog, by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Arthur Howard.

Pictured: Tabby, Mr. Putter, Zeke

We like the series because it has an adopted, aged cat in it; the mother-to-be will like it (we hope) because she likes English bulldogs, and will get a kick out of Mr. Putter’s neighbor’s English bulldog Zeke. Also, as I wrote inside the cover:

One of us particularly likes the ambiguity in the phrase "through houses they had never been through before"--look carefully at the illustrations both times it's used!

Here’s the first time: “He tugged Mr. Putter and Tabby through yards and creeks, and houses they had never been through before.”

The first time I read it, it was startling to read “through yards and creeks and houses”–what, was Zeke actually dragging Mr. Putter right through the front door and into and out of an individual house? Then I looked at the illustration and realized that Zeke was pulling Mr. Putter between two houses. In other words, the first time, “through houses they had never been through before” has a collective reading: Considering a group of houses all at once, Zeke pulled Mr. Putter through the group.

Now, here’s the second one: “The big dogs pulled them through yards and creeks, and houses they had never been through before.”
The big dogs pulled them through yards and creeks, and houses they had never been through before.Having gotten used to the idea of the collective reading, I was surprised and amused to see that this time, the illustration showed exactly the implausible distributive reading I had questioned before! This time, Zeke is pulling Mr. Putter right through a single house.

Lots and lots of research has been done on collective and distributive readings. I’ve been reading a 1996 paper by Brendan Gillon on the subject, and he even has an example with through: “Bill drove through the redwoods”, and imagines the distributive reading that involves Bill either destroying a redwood or using a tunnel. For more details, with a lot of mathy details, you can read Gillon’s paper. Or if it’s behind a paywall from where you are, you might like this set of slides from a presentation in 2009 from Eytan Zweig at the University of York.


Posted in Ambiguity, Books, Distributivity and collectivity, Kids' entertainment | Leave a Comment »

Succeeds at Neither Entertaining Nor Informing

Posted by Neal on February 26, 2015

Image Provided By:

Image Provided By:

Through June, July, and August, Doug complained about his summer reading assignment, a book called Strange As This Weather Has Been, by an author with the unusual name of Ann Pancake. He hated it. It was a story about mountaintop-removal coal mining in Appalachia, told through an erratic combination of first-person and third-person narrative, with a plot that only started to move in the last few chapters of the book. Maybe it wasn’t about plot, I suggested. Maybe Pancake was just trying to give us a picture of the effects of this kind of mining through a character study of a family affected by it. Maybe so, Doug said, but none of the characters were likable people. And if she was trying to give him a lot of information about mountaintop-removal mining, in particular the Buffalo Creek disaster that was continually alluded to, he learned more about both those topics from their Wikipedia entries than he did from the entire book.

When it was time for him to write the report, he poured his frustration into his title:

Succeeds at Neither Entertaining Nor Informing.

Well-primed by Doug’s repeated complaints about the book, I told him his thesis sounded great. By that time, I was reading the book, too, fulfilling my promise to read the whole damn thing myself if he read it first. Doug’s criticisms were on the mark. In addition, the author had a disconcerting habit of having her characters use verbs (such as go) and adjectives (such as wet) as nouns without any morphological change (a go, a wet). Trying too hard to be creative with the language, and ending up just distracting and annoying the reader instead.

That was in August. In January, I came across an early printout of Doug’s paper in a pile of paper to recycle. Without the priming of Doug’s complaints, this time I read the sentence differently. This time, Ann Pancake succeeded! She succeeded at avoiding two things: entertaining, and informing.

I’ve often blogged about different, kinds, of ambiguity, here. But I was surprised to find that I couldn’t fit this ambiguity into one of the categories. I still haven’t quite nailed down where the ambiguity is coming from, but I’ll record some of my observations.

I’ll represent the meaning Doug intended like so:

NOT(succeed(entertain))(ann) & NOT(succeed(inform))(ann)

And the second meaning that I got, like this:

succeed(NOT(entertain) & NOT(inform))(ann)

One thing I notice is that I’ve pulled a fast one with the NOT. In the earlier translation, it was negating an entire proposition about SOMEONE succeeding. Here, I just have it negating individual verbs. Somewhere along the way, I’ll have to figure out what NOT means when applied to a verb instead of a proposition in my system.

The fact that I’m dealing with verb forms seems to be essential. Replace them with, say, prepositional phrases, and the ambiguity goes away. For example:

She succeeds neither at work nor at school.
NOT(succeed(work)(ann)) & NOT(succeed(school)(ann))

This sentence can’t mean that she succeeds at something that is neither work nor school. It can’t mean, for example, that she succeeds at love.

The ambiguity also disappears if instead of the double-barreled negation of neither…nor, we have the single negation of not:

She succeeds at not entertaining.

Now the only reading we get is the funny one, and once again I’m doing some funny business with the NOT by applying it to just a verb. If we want to get the reading in which someone fails, we have to use a negation suitable for present-tense verbs, i.e. doesn’t:

She doesn’t succeed at entertaining.

On the other hand, the ambiguity remains if we replace the correlative conjunction neither…nor with both…and. It’s not as obvious a difference as the difference between succeeding and not succeeding, but one reading is that she succeeds at entertaining, and she also succeeds at informing, while the other is that she succeeds at doing both those things at once:

She succeeds at both entertaining and informing.
succeed(entertain)(ann) & succeed(inform)(ann)
succeed(entertain & inform)(ann)

The same kind of ambiguity comes with either … or and even not … but.

Hopefully, I’ll have further analysis to present here in the near future.

Posted in Ambiguity, Books, Coordination, Doug, Negation | 5 Comments »

Tense Travel

Posted by Neal on October 14, 2014

My wife called me in to her office last night to make me watch this segment of The Big Bang Theory, in which Sheldon, Leonard, Raj, and Howard are watching Back to the Future, Part ii. Harrison Tran has helpfully bootlegged it onto YouTube, complete with a transcript:

Howard: Wait, hold on. Pause.
[music stops]
Howard: Something doesn’t make sense. Look. In 2015 Biff steals the Sports Almanac and takes the time machine back to 1955 to give it to his younger self. But as soon as he does that he changes the future, so the 2015 he returns to would be a different 2015. Not the 2015 that Marty and Doc were in.
Leonard: This is Hot Tub Time Machine all over again. Look. If future Biff goes back to 2015 right after he gives young Biff the Almanac, he could get back to the 2015 with Marty and Doc in it. Because it wasn’t until his 21st birthday that 1955 Biff placed his first bet.
Sheldon: But whoa, whoa. Is placed right?
Leonard: What do you mean?
Sheldon: Is placed the right the right tense for something that would’ve happened in the future of a past that was affected by something from the future?
Leonard: [thinks] Had will have placed?
Sheldon: That’s my boy.
Leonard: Okay. So, it wasn’t until his 21st birthday that Biff had will have placed his first bet and made his millions. That’s when he alters the timeline.
Sheldon: But he had will haven’t placed it.
Howard: What?
Sheldon: Unlike Hot Tub Time Machine, this couldn’t be more simple. [laugh track] When Biff gets the Almanac in 1955, the alternate future he creates isn’t the one in which Marty and Doc Brown ever used the time machine to travel to 2015. Therefore, in the new timeline, Marty and Doc never brought the time machine.
Leonard: Wait, wait, wait. Is brought right?
Sheldon: [thinks] Marty and Doc never had have had brought?
Leonard: I don’t know, you did it to me.
Sheldon: I’m going with it. Marty and Doc never had have had brought the time machine to 2015. That means 2015 Biff could also not had have had brought the Almanac to 1955 Biff. Therefore, the timeline in which 1955 Biff gets the Almanac is also the timeline in which 1955 Biff never gets the Almanac and not just never gets: never have, never hasn’t, never had have hasn’t.
Raj: He’s right.

I love that Harrison included the laugh track in his transcript.

So of course all this is just a good excuse to combine two kinds of geekery: sci-fi and grammar. The main way Sheldon and Leonard twist the verb-tense syntax is to allow auxiliary have to take complements that it doesn’t take in monolinear-time Standard English. First, they put it with the modal will, when modal auxilaries are always the first in a series of auxiliary verbs, even in outlandish strings such as will have been being eaten. Second, they put it with itself, in had have had brought and had have hasn’t.

Another kind of auxiliary combination we don’t get in monolinear-time Standard English is the past tense (or past participle) auxiliary had after a modal, in could not had have had brought. In our English, modals always take a base form, not a past-tense form.

Finally, there’s the combination of the negative contraction haven’t with will in will haven’t placed. In our English, the contraction has to come in the first auxiliary verb: won’t have placed.

But never mind the seeming syntactic violations. In a world with time travel, the language will have to evolve. My question was whether Sheldon and Leonard’s new syntactic rules for these tenses were semantically consistent with each other. In short, they’re not.

The main situation Sheldon and Leonard are discussing is an event time (young Biff placing a bet) that occurs later than a reference time (when young Biff receives the Almanac), but before the time of utterance (2014, in Sheldon and Leonard’s apartment). Ordinarily, this kind of situation would call for the so-called “future in the past“: Biff would place his bet sometime later. The complication is that the event time and the utterance time are now in separate timelines. Even for this situation, though, ordinary English has an appropriate choice: the perfective version of this future in the past: would have placed. But there’s one more complication: We’re talking about an event that not only did not happen in our own timeline, but also did happen in an alternative timeline. So how do Sheldon and Leonard propose to designate such an event? They use the past-tense form had, followed by a normal future perfect tense (will have had), to get had will have had. Let’s call this the alternate future in the past tense. This tense also puts its negative contractions in a different place, as noted earlier: had will haven’t placed.

However, Sheldon and Leonard don’t follow these rules the very next time they discuss an event that occurs later than a reference time but before the time of utterance, in an alternative timeline: Doc and Marty’s trip in the time machine. By the rules created so far, it would be never had will have brought (or if they wanted to use a negative contraction, had will haven’t brought), but instead, they go for the stacking of forms of have instead, leading to Sheldon’s culminating string never have, never hasn’t, never had have hasn’t. These are elliptical forms, which I surmise would all finish with gotten if they were fully spoken.

Still amusing, but it would have been funnier if these tenses had turned out to be consistent with each other, even after my poking at them.

Don't panic.

The grammar problem posed by time travel was also explored in 1980, in Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. I was inspired to look up what he wrote, and was hoping to compare his tenses with Sheldon and Leonard’s. After reading the first paragraph below, I was excited to notice that Adams’ subscribed to the view of time travel in which you cannot alter timelines, unlike the Back to the Future scenario in which you can. Would this differing assumptions be reflected in the hypothetical grammars?

Sadly, no. Although Adams imagines more kinds of twisted temporal situations than Sheldon and Leonard discuss, he never bothers creating new verb tenses. Instead, he chooses to leave them to the readers’ imaginations, while using funny grammar jargon to name them. Here’s the relevant part, from the beginning of Chapter 15:

One of the major problems encountered in time travel is not that of accidentally becoming your own father or mother. There is no problem involved in becoming your own father or mother than a broad-minded and well-adjusted family can’t cope with. There is no problem about changing the course of history–the course of history does not change because it all fits together like a jigsaw. All the important changes have happened before the things they were supposed to change and it all sorts itself out in the end.

The major problem is quite simply one of grammar, and the main work to consult in this matter is Dr. Dan Streetmentioner’s Time Traveler’s Handbook of 1001 Tense Formations. It will tell you, for instance, how to describe something that was about to happen to you in the past before you avoided it by time-jumping forward two days in order to avoid it. The event will be described differently according to whether you are talking about it from the standpoint of your own natural time, from a time further in the future, or a time in the further past and is further complicated by the possibility of conducting conversations while you are actually traveling from one time to another with the intention of becoming your own mother or father.

Most readers get as far as the Future Semiconditionally Modified Subinverted Plagal Past Subjunctive Intentional before giving up; and in fact in later editions of the book all the pages beyond this point have been left blank to save on printing costs.

These two examples are the only pieces of pop culture I know of that specifically deal with new verb tenses to handle time travel, although collisions between time travel and ordinary English verb tenses have their own page on TV Tropes and Idioms.

Posted in Books, TV, Verb tense | 8 Comments »

Open Conditionals with the Past Perfect

Posted by Neal on July 8, 2014

Flashman and the Redskins

When Glen and I were kids, for a couple of years our family would read aloud from novels after supper. I remember we did a few that you’ve probably never heard of, plus a Hardy Boys mystery and Johnny Tremain. But by the time we hit junior high school, the habit had kind of fizzled out, which was too bad. As regular readers know, we do a lot of reading aloud here, from Dr. Seuss and books about barnyard animals when they were in preschool, to Henry Huggins, Harry Potter, and other YA stuff when they were older. Now that Doug and Adam are teenagers, I can at least say that I’ve maintained the tradition for longer than it lasted from my childhood. And now I can read them R-rated stuff that I could never have read them a few years ago–for example, our current selection: Flashman and the Redskins.

This is one of my favorites in the Flashman series, so I’m having fun re-reading it now, complete with a British accent that I wouldn’t dare do within earshot of any actual British people. As I was reading from it a few days ago, my eye was caught by this sentence, which had seemed unremarkable in 1993, when I first read the book:

If the Apaches had posted sentries, I suppose they had been dealt with. . . .

What was the big deal? Well, a few years ago I wrote this post about conditional sentences. Following the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, I divided them into open conditionals (describing situations that might actually happen in the future, or may have happened in the past), and remote conditionals (describing situations that are unlikely to happen, or probably did not happen). Also following CGEL, the past tense can show actual past time (see the bottom left corner), or remoteness in the present or future time (see the top right corner). What it can’t do (at least in Standard English) is show both past time and remoteness simultaneously. For that, you need the past perfect tense. This is what you get in the dark green, bottom left corner: If he had been sorry, he would have apologized. In my diagram, that’s the only place the past perfect tense appears.

Open and Remote Conditionals

Open and Remote Conditionals

But I got to thinking later on… You could have open conditionals where both sentences were in the present tense, like If he’s sorry, why isn’t he apologizing? You could have open conditionals in the past tense, as in If he was sorry, he never apologized. And there were even possibilities that I hadn’t put on the diagram; for example, why couldn’t I have an open conditional with present perfect tense? Something like … If Doug has finished his homework, then he has definitely left the house by now. If I could do an open conditional with the present perfect, why couldn’t I do one with the past perfect? Why couldn’t I have an ordinary, open conditional, in which the past perfect wasn’t showing a combination of past time and remoteness, but was just performing its usual function of showing a past time prior to another past time? I imagined sentences and contexts like these:

Back in those days, Doug liked to go out and ride his bike at every opportunity. I was coming home from work and wondered if he would be home. I knew that if he had finished his homework, then he had certainly already left the house.

Back in those days, when we went to Adam’s weekly violin lesson, I could always tell if Adam had practiced earlier in the week. If he had practiced, then he wasn’t nervous. [Actually, this one is a mixed past-time/even-further-past-time conditional.]

So now you can see why the Flashman example caught my eye. It was a real example of an open conditional with past perfect tenses. In fact, it isn’t the only one I’ve found. I’ve collected a couple of others, but this most recent example gave me three, which made enough to post about. One was from an article in New Scientist entitled “How did we lose a 1400-tonne ocean liner?” They wrote about a plane searching locations where radar had registered an object:

But the plane dispatched to the position of another smaller blip found nothing. If there had been a lifeboat, it had sunk.

The other one came from a book Glen gave me a few years ago, The Experts’ Guide to 100 Things Everyone Should Know How to Do, edited by Samantha Ettus. One of the essays is “Make Conversation,” by Morris L. Reid. One of his rules was to keep up with current events in order to be able to have topics of conversation. He gave this analogy:

What happened in school if you hadn’t read the previous night’s assignment? You most likely had nothing to say.

And now to finish with a more typical conditional with a past perfect tense: If I hadn’t been thinking about open conditionals, I wouldn’t have noticed anything interesting about these three examples!

Posted in Books, Conditionals | 8 Comments »

Bradbury RNW

Posted by Neal on September 8, 2013

I heard a snippet from the beginning of the above video on NPR a few days ago, which consisted of this line:

They walked down the hall of their soundproofed Happylife Home, which had cost them thirty thousand dollars installed, this house which clothed and fed and rocked them to sleep and played and sang and was good to them.

Unless the writer meant that the Happylife Home clothed them to sleep and fed them to sleep, we have here a right-node wrapping. Semantically, it coordinates two ordinary transitive verbs, clothed and fed, and one phrasal transitive verb, rocked … to sleep; but syntactically, the to sleep part of the phrasal verbs gets shut out of the coordination. All we have before we hit the shared direct object them is clothed, fed, and rocked.

When I got home, I Googled clothed, fed, and rocked them to sleep, and found that it was from the Ray Bradbury short story “The Veldt” from 1950. Actually, you can tell from the capitalization that this story was not written recently: Had it been, “Happylife” would have been written “HappyLife”. Anyway, I was a little surprised, because I’d read this story, I think in The Illustrated Man back in high school, but hadn’t noticed anything unusual about the line back then. At least, I don’t think I did. I guess my syntax-sensitivity was just developing.

Posted in Books, Right-node wrapping ("Friends in Low Places" coordinations) | Leave a Comment »

Very Frightening

Posted by Neal on January 12, 2013

Life, as we know, is full of tough decisions.

Participles are often described as “verbal adjectives,” but recently I was called on to be more specific with a participle: was it a verb, or an adjective? (Sorry, I can’t tell you why I had to do that; it’s TOP SECRET.)

In high school, I was unconflicted: Participles were a kind of adjective, end of story. Even in a sentence like The kids are frightening the cats, I considered frightening to be an adjective, and frightening the cats to be an adjective phrase, just as proud of themselves is an adjective phrase in The kids are proud of themselves. I was annoyed to lose a couple of points over it in a quiz. However, I wasn’t looking at the bigger picture. I wasn’t considering the other properties of adjective phrases that frightening the cats didn’t have, such as these that I read about in CGEL.

First of all, you can’t make the head participle comparative or superlative, the way you can with typical adjectives. You can’t modify it with very, either:

  • The kids are prouder/proudest of themselves.
  • *The kids are more/most frightening the cats.
  • The kids are very proud of themselves.
  • *The kids are very frightening the cats.

It’s for reasons like these that frightening the cats is considered to be a participial phrase — i.e., more verby than adjectivey.

On the other hand, with frightening by itself, you can make comparatives and superlatives and use very:

  • The kids are more/most frightening.
  • The kids are very frightening.

So by itself, frightening can be considered simply an adjective.

In fact, frightening can even be an adjective inside an adjective phrase. The key is that you can’t just go putting a noun phrase complement (such as the cats) after it, the way you’d do with a verb. Instead, you give it a complement more suitable for an adjective; namely, a prepositional phrase. Here’s how it shakes out with the PP to the cats:

  • The kids are more/most frightening to the cats.
  • The kids are very frightening to the cats.

Frightening is actually an unusual case: It’s a participle that in one guise has completely crossed over to become an adjective, but in another still works as a verby participle in progressive tenses. Other participles like this are loving, (for)giving, disturbing, and amazing. In contrast, participles such as running never pass the comparative/superlative/very adjective tests: Sam is more/most/very running.

So with all that said, now we can talk about what the fictional kindergartner Junie B. Jones has in common with the glam rock group Queen. From Junie B. Jones and the Yucky Blucky Fruitcake, by Barbara Park:

The creamy filling was very squishing between my toes. (p. 25)

From Queen, of course, we have this line from “Bohemian Rhapsody”, with our much-discussed participle frightening:

Thunderbolt and lightning, very, very frightening me! (~3:18 in the video)

In both examples, the very tells us to take the participle as an adjective, but other factors force us to take it as a non-adjectival participle. In the Junie B. Jones example, it’s the context of a progressive tense that does it; in the Queen example, the NP complement me.

I wonder why I’ve never heard anyone complain about this aspect of Junie B. Jones’s grammar, when these books have certainly been criticized for daring to have a six-year-old over-regularize her past tenses and use accusative pronouns where nominatives are called for. Probably it’s because the other grammar complaints are so easy to make, while this one requires some analysis in order to put your finger on the problem. (JBJ uses very with other non-adjectival participles, too, such as watering and practicing, also from JBJ:YBF.) As for “Bohemian Rhapsody,” that song is weird in too many other ways, I think, for people to have focused on the grammar of that one line that comes just between the “Scaramouche” and “Galileo” bits.

There’s more to come about participles, adjectives, and even gerunds, in my next post!

Posted in Books, Gerunds and participles, Kids' entertainment, Music | 3 Comments »

To Kill a Mockingbird RNW

Posted by Neal on December 1, 2012

I found this hastily scribbled line in my linguistics spiral notebook recently:

They chewed up and spat out the bark of a tree into a communal pot and then got drunk on it.

I had written it down as soon as I heard it sometime in the past few months, but I couldn’t remember where. I’d forgotten I’d even heard it until I saw that page in my notebook again, but it was clear enough why I’d written it down. It was another right-node wrapping. The transitive phrasal verb chewed up is coordinated with the transitive phrasal verb spat out, with the shared direct the bark of a tree. But after that shared direct object, there’s one more phrase in this sentence’s predicate, and it belongs just to spat out. It’s the prepositional phrase into a communal pot.

Googling the phrase, I see that it’s from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which I listened to in the car during the summer. Mystery solved!

Posted in Books, Right-node wrapping ("Friends in Low Places" coordinations) | 2 Comments »

Little Women: Gapping and Wrapping

Posted by Neal on March 7, 2012

Two posts ago, I wrote about a right-node wrapping that I found in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. It was this:

At the door her sisters seized and bore her to the parlor in a triumphal procession.

An ordinary transitive verb (seized) and a transitive followed by a directional prepositional phrase (bore … to the parlor) are coordinated, and share a single direct object, her. The V+PP bore … to the parlor wraps around this direct object, giving rise to a syntactically non-parallel coordination that, if phrased in a parallel manner, would probably be written

…her sisters [seized her] and [bore her to the parlor in a triumphal procession].

Tonight I was reading aloud some more of Little Women, and it occurred to me that Alcott really seemed to like using another kind of non-parallel coordination that I’ve blogged about a few times: gapping. This is a coordination of two or more clauses that have the same verb, but different subjects, and different content following the verb. In this kind of coordination, some or all of the verb is simply left out, just like a shared subject or shared direct object might be omitted from a more typical coordination. You can find other examples in the other posts in the Gapping category; here’s what I was noticing in Chapter 8 of Little Women:

  • Sitting on the floor with one boot on, Amy began to cry and Meg [began] to reason with her, when Laurie called from below, and the two girls hurried down, leaving their sister wailing.
  • Meg flew to rescue Amy, and Beth [flew] to pacify Jo, but Jo was quite beside herself….
  • Laurie had vanished round the bend, Jo was just at the turn, and Amy [was] far behind, striking out toward the smoother ice in the middle of the river.

Then, only a page or so after that last example (it’s hard to tell with the Kindle), I came to this sentence:

“She is not hurt, and won’t even take cold, I think, you were so sensible in covering and getting her home quickly,” replied her mother cheerfully.

I had to read that one twice. They covered her, and got her home. They didn’t cover her home and get her home. Wow — in one chapter, three cases of gapping, capped off with a right-node wrapping!

Posted in Books, Gapping, Right-node wrapping ("Friends in Low Places" coordinations) | 7 Comments »

Little Women Right-Node Wrapping

Posted by Neal on February 27, 2012

Doug has been dragging his feet on his school reading list this year. He’s been coasting, taking advantage of the fact that he’s already read Treasure Island, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and The Call of the Wild. He made it through the copy of The Hunt for Red October that he got for Christmas (not on the list) in less than a week, and I figured the book would be done so soon that it wasn’t necessary to remind him of his reading list. He’d be back to it soon enough. But when I saw Patriot Games appear on his nightstand the day after Red October was done, I insisted that he get back to the list.

To help, I even downloaded free copies of the public domain novels on the list onto our family Christmas present, a Kindle. After that he read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but has now found himself slowed to a creep, as he agonizes his way through The Scarlet Letter, recently arriving at 5% of the way through. I keep telling him that the story has got to be really good, in order for the book to have obtained status as a classic despite passages like this:

In my native town of Salem, at the head of what, half a century ago, in the days of old King Derby, was a bustling wharf–but which is now burdened with decayed wooden warehouses, and exhibits few or no symptoms of commercial life; except, perhaps, a bark or brig, half-way down its melancholy length, discharging hides; or, nearer at hand, a Nova Scotia schooner, pitching out her cargo of firewood–at the head, I say, of this dilapidated wharf, which the tide often overflows, and along which, at the base and in the rear of the row of buildings, the track of many languid years is seen in a border of unthrifty grass–here, with a view from its front windows adown this not very enlivening prospect, and thence across the harbour, stands a spacious edifice of brick.

So while Doug continues to chip away at the hard crust of The Scarlet Letter to get to the good stuff that must be inside, I’ve taken another step to move him along his list, and have made Little Women our latest read-aloud book. It moves a little slowly, too, and despite what you may have heard, it’s not about SW fetishes at all, but you don’t get as lost in its syntax as you do in Hawthorne’s stuff. And some passages are funny, like this rant from Jo, when Meg reminds her that she is a young lady:

I’m not! And if turning up my hair makes me one, I’ll wear it in two tails till I’m twenty…. I hate to think I’ve got to grow up, and be Miss March, and wear long gowns, and look as prim as a China aster! It’s bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boy’s games and work and manners! I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy. How I wish that I had a penis! And it’s worse than ever now, for I’m dying to go and fight with Papa. And I can only stay home and knit, like a poky old woman!

Doug and Adam refused to believe the line about the penis was really in the book. Their mother didn’t believe it, either. “I would have remembered that!” she said. Meanwhile, sometimes I’ll speculate with the boys about what’s going to happen later in the book, and wonder if Jo will ever get her “special operation.”

Anyway, now we’re at Chapter 7, 12% of the way through the book. (It’s amazing how reading on a Kindle gets you used to thinking about being 5% or 12% through a book, and not about what page you’re on.) A couple of nights ago, I was pleasantly surprised to read this passage:

Beth hurried on in a flutter of suspense. At the door her sisters seized and bore her to the parlor in a triumphal procession.

This may be my earliest right-node wrapping yet. For those who are just joining us, or for those who need a refresher, the main thing is that if you read the parts that are joined by and as a strictly parallel coordination, it means that Beth’s sisters (1) seized her to the parlor, and (2) bore her to the parlor. Even if it were idiomatic English to “seize someone to someplace” (which it isn’t; I checked the Corpora of both Contemporary and Historical American English), it wouldn’t make sense to seize Beth to the parlor, and then to bear her there again. What Louisa Alcott clearly meant was that the sisters (1) seized Beth, and (2) bore her to the parlor.

Now that I’ve been reminded of RNWs again, I’m interested to hear if they turn up in other texts from the 1800s or earlier. If you find one, leave a comment.

Posted in Books, Right-node wrapping ("Friends in Low Places" coordinations) | 5 Comments »

Words to Sound Smart by Using

Posted by Neal on November 7, 2011

Grammar Girl has yet another book coming out this week, in what looks like it’s becoming a franchise: the 101 Words series. Back in August, I gave away a copy of 101 Words Every High School Graduate Needs to Know and 101 Misused Words You’ll Never Confuse Again, and in the next few days I’ll be running a contest to win a free copy of the latest one, 101 Words to Sound Smart. More on that in a subsequent post. Today, I’m interested in the syntax of that title.

Some infinitival phrases that modify nouns are like relative clauses, because they have to have a “gap” that the noun is understood to fill. Indeed, they’re sometimes called infinitival relative clauses. For example, there’s this title of a book full of blank pages and prompts for artistic inspiration: 642 Things to Draw. The transitive verb draw is missing a direct object, and things fills this gap. For an infinitival relative clause with a subject gap, how about Tales to Give You Goosebumps? The verb phrase give you goosebumps doesn’t have a subject, but it’s understood that the tales will handle the task of giving you goosebumps. The gap could even be the object of a preposition, as in Stories to Curl Up With (a title I made up), in which the stories are the things with which someone could curl up.

But in 101 Words to Sound Smart, there is no gap. There’s no gap in the verb phrase sound smart. There’s no subject gap, either, unless the meaning is that the words themselves sound smart. I suppose that could be one way to parse the title, using smart in its extended sense of things that smart people use (the same way stupid can refer to things that only stupid people would like, and similar cases). But I think that if that’s what Grammar Girl meant, she would have called it 101 Words That Sound Smart, making it more of a certainty. The infinitival relative conveys more of a sense of potentiality: things that you could draw, tales that could give you goosebumps.

The meaning that I’m pretty sure the title is intended to convey is that these are words that you can use in order to sound smart. In other words, to sound smart is a purpose infinitival. These are much more common as modifiers of verbs than as modifiers of nouns. In fact, when I first heard this book title, I would have said that purpose infinitivals couldn’t modify nouns. I would have said that words to sound smart was ungrammatical, and that the only ways to get at that meaning of purpose would be to use an infinitival relative clause. One way would be with an object gap, as in 101 Words to Sound Smart by Using. That sounds really awkward, though; maybe even ungrammatical in its own right (because of so-called relative clause islands). So a better option would be with a subject gap: 101 Words to Make You Sound Smart.

However, a few days after I encountered words to sound smart, I was looking at the cover of Family Tree magazine (my Aunt Jane is really into genealogy and got me a subscription), and saw the teaser for one of the articles: websites to find your ancestors. You could take this to mean websites that will find your ancestors for you, but it’s actually talking about websites that will help you find your ancestors. In other words, it’s another purpose infinitival modifying a noun.

As I was looking over this post, I noticed the phrase contest to win a free copy, with a purpose infinitival following the noun contest, and it sounds completely normal to me. My gut feeling is that the infinitival is a complement to the noun, and not a modifier, but I haven’t thought about it enough to be certain.

Anyway, nouns modified by purpose infinitivals, are hard to search for in corpora, because you can’t conveniently look for entire infinitival phrases that contain no gaps. For that reason, I don’t know how common this kind of construction is; all I know is that it’s unusual to my ear, but that it must not be too strange for others. How do they sound to you? Reactions and additional examples are welcome in the comments.

Posted in Books, Relative clauses | 24 Comments »