Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

Negative Polarity and Dr. No

Posted by Neal on July 6, 2012

When I was a kid, I gradually became aware of a book and movie character named James Bond. There were no VCRs or movie rental places then, so my first opportunity to see a Bond movie was when Moonraker came out. I was eager to go, and thought the movie was kind of cool when I saw it, even though I couldn’t follow the plot very well. I attributed that to being young. A couple of years later, I saw For Your Eyes Only and still couldn’t follow the plot. After a couple more Bond movies in the theaters, and a few on TV, I concluded that the problem wasn’t me; it was the movies. More recent entries have been boring as well as hard to follow. But now, Doug and Adam are old enough to want to be interested in James Bond. They haven’t seen enough of them yet to realize that most of them are boring and overlong, with plots that don’t make sense. Unfortunately, their mother hasn’t realized this yet, either, even after Goldeneye and the new Casino Royale, so I’ve had to sit through a few of them on family movie night. The earlier ones haven’t been too bad; I liked Goldfinger. The problem is that if the boys like these movies, they’re gaining an inaccurate impression of the true nature of Bond movies, and as a result will probably want to see Skyfall when it comes out.

Anyway, the latest Bond movie we saw was one of the ones with Sean Connery: Dr. No. In this one, Bond meets a woman on a secluded beach, collecting shells. Bond fans will know that her name is Honey, and she’s played by Ursula Andress. She’s apprehensive as Bond approaches, and this dialogue ensues:

Bond: I promise I won’t steal your shells.
Honey: I promise you you won’t, either.

Did you hear what went wrong there? When it’s used as an adverb, either is a negative polarity item (NPI), occurring only in sentences involving a negation, questions, or contexts focusing on a limitation. If you want to say either in an ordinary affirmative sentence, you have to use too instead, as in these examples:

I don’t like the Bond movies with Pierce Brosnan. I don’t like the ones with Daniel Craig, either.
My wife likes Sean Connery. She likes Roger Moore, {too, *either}.

Sometimes you can get away with using a too in a negative context, where you’d expect either. John Lennon pulled it off in “Imagine”, when he sang

Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion, too.

I also remember an old Justin Wilson bit, in which a recurring line is

I don’t know. And that ain’t all, I don’t give a damn, too!

But either needs two things in order to be grammatical, at least in my idiolect: a negation, and a proposition that is semantically similar to one that has already been uttered (or otherwise understood by the speakers). When both of these occur in one clause, everything’s fine, as in I don’t like the ones with Daniel Craig, either. We have the negation don’t, and the whole proposition is semantically similar to the one that came before it: I don’t like the Bond movies with Pierce Brosnan.

What about in the sentence from Dr. No? The negation is in the embedded clause: you won’t [steal my seashells]. But there is no semantically similar proposition in that embedded clause. Honey didn’t say something like I promise you you won’t seduce me, or steal my seashells, either. Where we do get the similar propositions is at the upper clause level: Bond promises X, and Honey promises X, too.

It reminds me of sentences I’ve actually uttered myself, involving tag questions. But when I said these, I noticed, and identified them as things I didn’t mean to say. The Dr. No sentence was presumably part of a written script. What do you think? Is I promise you you won’t, either an error, or something that’s a part of other people’s grammar but not mine?

Posted in Movies, Negative polarity items | 18 Comments »

Ordering Your Adjectives

Posted by Neal on July 14, 2011

It’s time to make good on my pledge to write about the three most interesting topic suggestions I got during the Grammar Girl book giveaway contest. Actually, I got significantly more than three suggestions that would be interesting to write about, and they’ll be a source of inspiration in months to come. But I only have three books to give away, so with some difficulty I’ve settled on the three topics that I’m going to write about first. (Well, first, second, and third, actually, but you get my generalized meaning of first, don’t you? Of course you do.) I’ll start with a suggestion from Carlos Iriarte, who wrote:

As a non native speaker, I would love to see a discussion about the possessive apostrophe, or the proper order of adjectives.

Carlos, you’ll have to go somewhere else to learn more about apostrophes, but as it happens, adjective ordering is a topic that I’ve been curious about for years. I remember trying to do a research paper on it as a grad student, for a seminar in lexical semantics, and finding the topic so complicated that I repeatedly narrowed the focus of the paper, eventually ended up with a sorry piece of work investigating restrictive and non-restrictive uses of just one single adjective, and got the paper back with the comment, “I would not spend any more time pursuing this line of research.” But a blog post, I think I can handle.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Adjective ordering, Movies, Music | 29 Comments »

Unspoken Messages

Posted by Neal on June 6, 2011

In my last post, I talked about going out for dinner and a movie with the family. The movie was X-Men: First Class, and it was really good! Doug and I both liked how the plot mixed historical events with the fictional — and not just ordinary fictional events, but supernatural ones. Like reading the most satisfying books by Michael Crichton or Tim Powers, there are things you know are fact, and things you know are fiction, but some things straddle the line between plausibility and fantasy so well that you don’t know quite where the seam is. I learned somewhere that the literary name for this genre is low fantasy (as opposed to high fantasy, where the entire setting is made up). On a language-related note, you get to hear German, French, Spanish, and Russian spoken in the movie, in addition to English of course. But I’m pretty sure (as sure as I can be without actually fact-checking) that the adjective bad-ass didn’t exist in 1962.

Anyway, the way we happened to be on this night out is that last Thursday night, my wife was browsing the web while sipping her favorite after-work drink: club soda with cranberry juice and a big wedge of lime. As I was loading the dishwasher, she said, “Hey, they liked X-Men.”

“Who? EW?” I asked. I came over to the couch to look over her shoulder.

“‘James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are–‘” she began, handing me her empty tumbler. As I took it back to the dishwasher, she continued reading the review.

“So are you saying,” I asked, “that instead of Sunday night videos and homemade pizza, we should go have supper at Boston’s and then see X-Men at the Arena Grand? Is that what you’re trying to tell me?” (Friday night was out of the question, since Adam and I would be at the Cub Scout campout. More on that in the next post.)

“Wow, that’s quite a detailed message you’re getting there,” she said.

“Well, we’ve been married going on 15 years, so I’m pretty good at picking up on this stuff, you know.”



“Well, there’s one unspoken message that you didn’t pick up on.”

“Oh? What’s that?”

“I wasn’t giving you my glass to put in the dishwasher.”

I was confused. “Huh?”

She pointed toward the dishwasher where I had just loaded her glass with all the dirty dishes. “I wanted a refill.”

Posted in Movies, Pragmatics, The wife | 2 Comments »


Posted by Neal on June 2, 2011

In 1988 I saw the movie Mississippi Burning. I stayed for the credits at the end because I wanted to find out the name of the actor who’d played the Ku Klux Klan leader. He’d had an interesting voice and resembled one of my favorite uncles, Uncle Ricky. (Decide for yourself: Uncle Ricky is the one standing in this picture.) Unfortunately, I hadn’t caught the character’s name, so I had to wait until I saw Great Balls of Fire the next year, where I saw him again and this time learned that his name was Stephen Tobolowsky. The guy kept turning up in movies here and there after that, so that when I saw him as Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day (1993), I was glad to see his familiar face in a great movie.

What I didn’t realize until recently is that Tobolowsky is an amazing storyteller. I came across his podcast, “The Tobolowsky Files,” immediately recognized the name, and listened to an episode out of curiosity. Since then I’ve been listening to all the back episodes of his “stories of life, love, and the entertainment industry”. I also listen to several other podcasts that feature storytelling: “The Moth,” “NPR’s Story Corps,” “Risk,” “This American Life”. They’re good, but sometimes a story on these podcasts will have me wanting to fast-forward to the next one. Not Tobolowsky’s. Even his dullest stories are interesting. And some of his stories are masterpieces. For out-and-out hilariousness, try “The Dangerous Animals Club” (episode 22). For suspense followed by inspiration and life lessons, listen to “Conference Hour” (episode 13). True, Tobolowsky does have some mildly annoying habits: his tendency to actually say “Pause” when he makes a dramatic pause; his consistent pronunciation of Cerberus as Cerebus when talking about an evil neighbor dog; his distortion of math and science concepts when he turns them into analogies for life. (It’s great that he likes and respects the math and science, but I still gritted my teeth every time he referred to “the x/y axis” in an episode called “The Moment Before Zero”). But overall, I recommend TTF right up there with those other podcasts I mentioned, and certainly above wearisome podcasts like “Tales from the South” and “Second Story”.

All well and good, but what’s the linguistic angle? First, a phonetic one. In listening to Stephen Tobolowsky talk a lot, I’ve realized he pronounces most of his /l/s as a uvular nasal, [N]. It’s easiest to hear when he has an /l/ between vowels, for example, in a lot. In light of this, it’s surprising that I can’t really tell if he’s pronouncing /l/ as [N] when he says his name at the end of the podcast (when he gives his Twitter and Facebook addresses), but I’m pretty sure that’s what I’m hearing during the rest of the show.

Second, Tobolowsky recounts a funny misunderstanding in episode 35, “Playing It As It Lays”:

Whenever I wanted to spend money, Mom and Dad would look at me very disapprovingly and tell me some gem of folk wisdom, like “A fool and his money are soon parted.” I never told Mom, but I never really knew what that meant. I never got the syntax that the money was parted from the fool. I always thought it was like some Quentin Tarantino movie where the fool and the money is chainsawed in two….

Or, I might add, one gruesome scene in The Running Man with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Anyway, Tobolowsky talks about the syntax of this proverb, but this ambiguity is actually a matter of semantics, and has gotten a lot of attention from various semanticists. I read about it in Flexibility Principles in Boolean Semantics by Yoad Winter, who cites about half a dozen other linguists on the topic. Here’s the background: Certain verbs require a subject that’s composed of multiple entities; for example, meet. You can’t just say, I have never met, but Stephen and I have never met is OK. The subject doesn’t have to be compound; a singular works if it denotes a group of things. For example: The committee meets the first Monday of every month. However, if you do have a compound subject, the strong tendency is to interpret each of the noun phrases joined by and as one of the participants in the meeting.

Now, what happens if you coordinate two subjects, and each of them denotes a group of things? Something like…

The budget committee and the speakers’ committee meet the first Monday of every month.

If we mean that the budget committee meets with the speakers’ committee, that’s known as the “non-Boolean conjunction” reading. The Boolean conjunction reading would be the one in which the budget committee meets and the speakers’ committee meets, possibly in different locations.

Separate is another verb like meet, with a slight relaxing of the requirements for its subject. Instead of having to be composed of more than one individual, all that’s necessary is that the subject be something that can be split into more than one portion. Thus, in addition to parting fighting siblings, you can part your hair or part the waves. As with meet, though, the elements in a compound subject will tend to be interpreted as the different participants in the separation event. So in A fool and his money are soon parted, the non-Boolean reading in which the money is parted from the fool, is the most natural one.

Not to Stephen Tobolowsky, though. He got the strange Boolean reading, in which the fool is parted and his money is parted. Cool. I wonder if anyone has put up that same misunderstanding on I Used to Believe.

Lastly, a loosely pragmatics-related observation. The podcast was inspired by a 2005 movie called Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party, in which Tobolowsky plays himself, telling stories to the camera operator while preparing for his birthday party that night, and during the party itself. I don’t recommend this movie. First of all, many of the stories can also be found in the podcast. Second, it’s one thing to listen to a guy tell lots of his life stories in his own podcast that you choose to listen to. But as I watched him entertain his crowd of guests with story after story in the movie, I kept having trouble suspending my disbelief and imagining that this was a regular party. The only one who did any talking in the crowd scenes was this guy that no one ever interrupted, even with a comment like, “What did you do?”, and who never yielded the floor to anyone else who might be reminded of a story that happened to them. The whole setup results in Tobolowsky coming off as a narcissistic, patronizing conversation hog. Better to stick with the podcast, where the same stories’ entertainment value is undiluted.

Posted in Ambiguity, Lexical semantics, Movies, What the L | 3 Comments »


Posted by Neal on May 9, 2011

I was surprised to see some linguistic observation in Entertainment Weekly‘s review of the movie Prom last week :

A mere decade ago, the event was still called ”the prom,” but in Prom, the shrewdly wholesome and likable new Disney teen movie directed by Joe Nussbaum, it is never referred to as anything but ”prom” — as in, Who are you asking to prom? It’s not even fully clear whether prom is now a noun or a verb (are you going to prom? We’re going to prom like it’s 2099!). And that signals that the prom is no mere party but, in fact, a state of mind.

That’s right, when you can’t tell if word X is a noun or a verb, that means X is a state of mind. That’s deeper linguistic theory than I can explain in a blog post, so I’ll leave it alone. Instead, I want to look into whether it’s more common these days to use prom with or without the definite article.

Going by this graph from the Google Ngram viewer, it looks like the prom is still well in the lead, but EW is right that people have begun to use plain old prom a lot more in the last decade. (Click to see the full image.)

Even so, it’s been around almost as long as proms have. Check out this attestation from 1913, in a college fraternity magazine:

I can’t quite remember how I talked about (the) prom when I was in high school. We had both a junior and a senior prom, and I definitely can say that when you’re specifying which one, it sounds better to use the definite article. This is corroborated by Google Ngram search for the “go to (the) prom” strings with junior or senior before prom: The lines for the article-less prom ngrams disappear. But when I asked Loretto to go to (the) prom my junior year, or Julie my senior year, I can’t remember if I used the or not. (This was in Houston, Texas, in the mid-1980s.) In any case, plain prom sounds natural enough to me that I can certainly imagine myself having used it.

I wonder if the loss of the article has to do with the fact that another high-school ritual that, graduation, usually doesn’t take an article. Or that (the) prom has accumulated such disproportionate importance that it’s referred to like a holiday. Maybe there’s no good explanation at all, the same way that there’s no accounting (that I know of) for why British English has in hospital while American English has in the hospital. Comments are open: Do you refer to prom or the prom? How old are you and where are you from?

Posted in Movies, Syntax, Variation | 47 Comments »

Collecting and Displaying Playthings

Posted by Neal on June 25, 2010

Last weekend we went to see Toy Story 3, and I recommend it to everyone. What I like about the Pixar movies is that even though they start with an unrealistic premise (toys that live, monsters that use closet doors as teleportation devices, superheroes), the movies follow, delight in, and exploit their internal logic. In this respect, TS3 was just as clever and funny as the first two, although I understand some weirdos cried while watching it.

Anyway, the linguistically interesting item came not from the movie itself (though I welcome your observations in the comments), but Nick Chordas’s review in The Columbus Dispatch. At one point he compares it to Toy Story 2, which, he wrote, showed how

…collecting and displaying pristine playthings wreak havoc on their fragile psyches.

That plural verb wreak brought me up short. At first I thought, “Ah, it looks like that plural direct object playthings confused Mr. Chordas into making a plural verb.” The real subject, of course, would be the gerund that takes playthings as a direct object. I looked back in the sentence to find it again: displaying. But then I saw that there were two gerunds, joined by an and, both laying claim to this one direct object: collecting and displaying. So maybe Chordas was right to make the verb plural. In that case, why did the plural form sound so strange to me?

For a while I was thinking it was because of the shared direct object. The structure would look like the one in the diagram below. In this diagram, I use the category NP/NP to indicate a noun phrase (NP) that is missing an NP. The reasoning goes like this: collecting playthings is a good NP; therefore, plain old collecting is an NP missing an NP (in this case, playthings). Both gerunds have the category NP/NP, and so the coordination of the two has this category.

But although the two gerunds are coordinated, by the time we’ve arrived at the entire phrase collecting and displaying playthings, it’s not a coordinate structure anymore. It’s a phrase that contains a coordinate structure down inside it. Therefore, I reasoned, the phrase should count as a singular.

However, that logic doesn’t hold up. I mean, look at these sentences:

The old man and woman were sitting at the table.
A picture and a recording of my grandfather are kept in this box.

In the first sentence, we have a singular man and the singular woman conjoined by and; in the second it’s a picture and a recording. (It could also be a picture and a recording of my grandfather, but I’m looking at the parse in which of my grandfather modifies both picture and recording.) But the coordinate structures man and woman and a picture and a recording aren’t the subjects of the sentences. They’re just elements within the subjects the old man and woman and a picture and a recording of my grandfather. So by the kind of reasoning I used for collecting and displaying playthings, these sentences should be

*The old man and woman was sitting at the table.
*A picture and a recording of my grandfather is kept in this box.

So if the factored-out direct object of collecting and displaying isn’t a reason to expect a singular verb, what was leading me to expect one? My next hypothesis was on semantic grounds. Maybe I had been expecting some notional agreement: That is, maybe I had been considering the collecting and displaying of playthings to be components of a single activity, in the same way that you might think of ham and eggs as a single dish and say Ham and eggs isn’t what I ordered.

So does a shared direct object for coordinated gerunds trigger notional agreement? In the next post, we’ll see…

Posted in Coordination, Gerunds and participles, Movies | 1 Comment »

Cute as a Button in the Eye

Posted by Neal on February 20, 2009

We went to see Coraline last week. It’s an OK movie; it does a good job at setting a creepy mood, but even by its own internal logic, it doesn’t quite make sense (unlike, for example, Monsters, Inc. or the Toy Story movies). One of the best scenes has Coraline’s “Other Father” in a parallel world improvising a song in her honor. It’s an upbeat, catchy melody, which I learned in the end credits was written and performed by They Might Be Giants (you know, the guys who did “(You’re Not the) Boss of Me“). Here, see for yourself:

If you’ve seen the movie, or even just the previews (or read the graphic novel the movie is based on), you know that one of the unsettling details of the parallel world that Coraline visits is that all its inhabitants have buttons instead of eyes. They Might Be Giants have cleverly alluded to this fact in the line that goes:

She’s cute as a button in the eyes of everyone who ever laid their eyes on Coraline.

cute-as-a-buttonI love the syntactic ambiguity here. More specifically, it’s an attachment ambiguity. In the normal reading, the prepositional phrase in the eyes of everyone who ever laid their eyes on Coraline functions as a sentential adverb, modifying the sentence She’s as cute as a button, as shown in the diagram on the right.

cute-as-a-button2However, anyone who has been watching the movie up to this point is well primed to parse the prepositional phrase as modifying the noun button, as illustrated in the diagram on the left. Ordinarily this parse would be unconsciously discarded, in the same way as we’d never even think about parsing Kim disassembled the TV with a flat screen to mean that Kim used a flat screen to disassemble the TV. But in the context of the movie, both parses are salient, and both make sense (as long as you’re willing to stretch the meaning of in to include in place of, or on if you imagine the buttons to be placed on top of the eyes).

The only flaw in the exploited ambiguity is the clash between the singular a button and the plural the eyes. It’s hard, even impossible I’d say, to get a wide-scope reading of the eyes, so that we’re talking about one button for each eye. I keep thinking about a single button that is somehow in (place of) both eyes at once. That’s an extragrammatical correction you just have to grant in the name of artistic license.

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Posted in Attachment ambiguity, Movies | 13 Comments »

Poisonous Syntax

Posted by Neal on November 29, 2008

Doug has recently been reading every book in Brian Jacques’s Redwall series that he can get his hands on. Earlier this week, he was telling me about scenes in several of the books in which one character is trying to poison another. In one, the poisoner pours the drink out of the same bottle for himself and the character to be poisoned, having wiped poison on the rim of the other’s glass. I told him of a similar scene in this book, where two characters each eat half of a single, freshly cut peach, and one dies of poisoning because the knife that sliced the peach was poisoned on one side of the blade. Doug told me of another scene, in which the ultimately poisoned character reaches not for the glass in front of him, but the one in front of his poisoner — a move that his poisoner anticipated. That, of course, reminded me of this now-classic scene (in a movie I’ve written about before), in which this kind of second-guessing was taken to its logically absurd conclusion.

So I popped the DVD in the DVD and pulled up the scene for Doug, and as I watched it, I suddenly picked up on … (answer after the jump) Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Movies, Uncategorized | 6 Comments »

Fully Frontally Nude

Posted by Neal on August 2, 2007

We went to see The Simpsons Movie (shouldn’t it be The The Simpsons Movie) last week. Of course, since it was a PG-13 movie, we checked the parent-oriented reviews. It seemed like the main thing that bumped it from PG to PG-13 scene was some full frontal nudity, so I figured it was OK. The author of the review had an annoying habit of referring to the relevant scene as the “full-frontal scene.” Is nudity the only thing that can be fully frontal? What about assaults, lobotomies, and snogging?

One spoiler follows.

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Posted in Diachronic, Movies, Pragmatics, You're so literal! | 7 Comments »

Robots in Disguise in the Skies

Posted by Neal on July 4, 2007

I’m not usually tempted by movies based on videogames or toys, but sometime this weekend I want to go see Transformers. I’m curious about it because Bob Orci and Alex Kurtzman wrote the screenplay, and although they didn’t enlist me to write a poem this time, they did name a character after my brother. (It’s true; I’ve read that this character is supposed to be “a techno-geek,comic relief”, and it looks like he’s played by one Anthony Anderson.) Anyway, on to the linguistic stuff…

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Movies, Phonetics and phonology | 2 Comments »