Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Lay Down and Throw Up Your Arms

Posted by Neal on June 24, 2012

In my last post (so very long ago!), I said that the song “Twenty One Guns” by Green Day was linguistically interesting to me for two reasons, one of them being the pronunciation of twenty one guns. The other was that it reminded me of writing chapter 2 of my dissertation. Now, over a month later, I’ve finally pulled myself out from under a pile of teaching and grading obligations and am here to finish what I had to say about “Twenty One Guns”.

So as you’ll recall, the refrain went like this:

Twenty-one guns
Lay down your arms
Give up the fight.

Twenty-one guns
Throw up your arms
Into the sky.

First of all, a correction: The chapter I was remembering was chapter 1, not chapter 2. In chapter 1 of my dissertation, I was writing about diagnostic tests for whether you have a pair of homonyms or a single word whose meaning is vague enough that it can cover the meanings you’re interested in. I summarized some of these tests from a classic work by Arnold Zwicky and Jerry Sadock (which itself was a summarization of various ambiguity tests they had seen in the literature), and one of them they called the crossed-senses test. Take a sentence like

Doug and Adam both like rock.

This could mean that my sons both like rock music, or that they are both geology enthusiasts. But how about this: Could it mean that Doug likes rock music, while Adam likes igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary pieces of the Earth’s crust? If it can, then rock passes the crossed-senses test for these two meanings, indicating (according to the theory) that musical rock and geological rock are not homonyms, but a single word with a meaning vague enough that it encompasses both meanings of rock.

As it happens, I can’t get this crossed-senses reading, except as a joke. For comparison, if I said Doug and Adam both read a book, it could certainly be true if one read a hardback and the other a paperback. If you can’t crossed senses for both like rock, then for us at least, musical and geological rock are homonyms: separate words that happen to sound the same (and be spelled the same too). Since they’re separate words, you see, the single utterance of rock can only be one or the other.

Years after Zwicky & Sadock, a paper by Alex Lascarides, Ann Copestake, and Ted Briscoe observed that failing the crossed-senses test wasn’t enough to conclude that you had a pair of homonyms. Why? Because you get the same kind of goofiness even when you repeat that word with the two meanings. Using the rock example again:

Doug likes rock, and Adam likes rock.

Can you get the crossed senses now? I can’t. So at this point, whatever is blocking the availability of both meanings of rock, it’s not that they are homonyms instead of a single, vague word. If they’re homonyms, there should be no problem with having the geological one in the part of the sentence about Doug, and the musical one in the part about Adam. There must be something else going on, and whatever it is can also explain why Doug and Adam both like rock fails the crossed-senses test, too. For what it’s worth, LC&B argue for a pragmatics-based explanation.

Anyway, that’s what I was thinking about recently when I listened to the chorus of “Twenty-One Guns”. The plural noun arms has two meanings. In the phrase lay down your arms, it refers to weapons. In the phrase throw up your arms, it refers to the body parts between your shoulders and your hands. Now suppose we had a sentence with just one token of the word arms, but with both meanings needed; something like…

Lay down and throw up your arms.

Does it pass the crossed-senses test? No way. For me, it cannot mean to surrender your weapons and then quickly raise your arms above your head. It could mean to lie down (with the nonstandard usage of lay) and then quickly raise your arms above your head. Or it could mean to place your body-part arms on a table in front of you before raising them in the air. Or it could mean doing the same thing with your weapons. Of course, throwing up your arms could also mean vomiting them up, whether you’re regurgitating weapons that you’ve eaten, or your own arms that you previously chewed off in an act of autoanthropophagy. So the three meanings multiply out to six, but in no case can I get arms referring first to weapons and then to one’s upper limbs (or vice versa).

But unlike the example with rock, which fails the test whether you say Doug and Adam like rock or Doug likes rock and Adam likes rock, this one improves greatly when you say the word arms twice. I’d been listening to the song for a couple of years before I ever took note of the two meanings of arms coexisting in the same refrain. How does that happen?

Actually, arms doesn’t pass the crossed-senses test so easily in a sentence like this:

Lay down your arms, and throw up your arms.

I can get the crossed senses, but not as easily as I do when listening to the song. The context helps: The idiom lay down your arms always refers to surrendering your weapons, and more figuratively to “giv[ing] up the fight”. The phrase throw up your arms doesn’t have an idiomatic meaning that I’m aware of (beyond that of vomiting, as noted earlier), so that would nudge listeners toward the more literal body-part meaning. Maybe the typical hip-hop exhortation to “throw your hands in the air” (usually in a manner so as to suggest that you just don’t care) helps a bit, too. Even so, the meanings rub against each other enough to make me think about the other possible interpretations, and smile to myself.

So once again, how did the song lyrics manage to slip these two meanings of arms past the crossed-senses barrier without my noticing for all that time? My only guess at this point is that in addition to the context cues, you have those extra words in between, giving more space for the first arms activation in your brain to die down before the second one comes along. That, and the fact that Green Day sing this chorus so very slowly!

Posted in Ambiguity, Music | 6 Comments »

Twenty Wung Guns

Posted by Neal on May 3, 2012

Glen once noted that the trouble with being able to put all your favorite songs on one convenient device is that you have to consciously decide to listen to new music. Motivation to listen to the radio plummets: “Why listen to someone else’s lousy mix plus advertisements, when you can listen to the best mix ever without advertisements?”

So true, so true, as I concurred once before in this space. These days I get exposed to unfamiliar music only when something unusual is going on. As I noted in that earlier blog post, in 2010 I heard a few new songs I liked only because I made a point of listening to the pop station every day for two weeks while I was writing a column on the use of the word <I>Im(m)a</i> in popular songs. I’ve heard a new song here and there in the bowling alley with Doug and Adam, or in the movie theatre while I’m waiting for the previews to begin.

And, as it happens, in the roller skating rink, too. That’s where, at Doug’s birthday party later in 2010, I heard a song that I identified with my song-identifying phone app as “21 Guns” by Green Day. I added it to my iPod, and now, two years later, “21 Guns” has become just one more piece of music that I listen to to the exclusion of new stuff.

After a couple of years of listening to it, I’ve gradually become interested in the chorus:

Twenty-one guns
Lay down your arms
Give up the fight.

Twenty-one guns
Throw up your arms
Into the sky.

Two things are interesting about the chorus, one of them because of the way Green Day sing it, and the other because it brought back memories of writing Chapter 1 of my dissertation.

In English, the phoneme /n/ might be pronounced not only as [n], as in Neal, but also as [ɲ], as in In your face!, or as [ŋ], as in drink. That last assimilation is consciously known to most literate English speakers, some of whom had to be taught that ng was actually pronounced [ŋ], and not [ng] “nuh-guh”, as it was spelled.

In fast, or even normally paced speech, these assimilations can cross word boundaries, as happens in my example of In your face! Speaking carefully, I would pronounce 21 guns as “twenty [wʌ̃n] guns”. But speaking freely and easily, I would (and do) pronounce it as “twenty [wʌ̃ŋ] guns”. (The ~ is supposed to go over the ʌ in those transcriptions

In fact, Green Day sing it this way, too, as you can hear in the video. What I find unusual, though, is that they do this even though the song is somewhat slow (about 80BPM, the low end of “andante”, according to my metronome). Nevertheless, every time they sing that chorus, it’s a very carefully enunciated “twenty wung guns”. Why?

Posted in Consonants, Music | 12 Comments »

Thank You Much

Posted by Neal on October 18, 2011

Jessica Hagy’s webcomic Indexed makes frequent use of Venn diagrams. This one from July has the sets Nouns and Verbs intersecting in a set labeled Heinous Business Speak. So, according to this diagram, every noun that can be used as a verb or verb that can be used as a noun is an example of heinous business speak. This would mean that (as one commenter hinted) speak is heinous business speak, as are run, walk, and swim. Moreover, this diagram states that every example of heinous business speak is something that is both a noun and a verb. This would mean that going forward, at the end of the day, think outside the box, and pick the low-hanging fruit are not heinous business speak. They may be heinous, or they may be business speak, but not both.

I know, I know, it’s just a frickin’ joke; why don’t I have a sense of humor? Part of the humor of using technical language, concepts, or methods for silly things is doing it accurately. When Tom Lehrer put the names of all the known elements to the tune of “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General,” it was funny because he didn’t make up stupid element names; he used real ones, and all of them that existed as of 1959. When the Roman guard corrects Brian’s Latin grammar, it’s funny not only because we don’t expect that as a reaction to an act of graffiti, but also because Romanes eunt domus really should be Romani, ite domum (at least in Classical Latin). As the saying goes, “It’s funny because it’s true.” Furthermore, Jessica Hagy is contributing to a sloppy understanding of various math concepts by people who laugh at her comics but aren’t entirely clear on how Venn diagrams work. xkcd pulls this kind of thing off better.

But that’s not what I wanted to talk about. In the peeve-fest that followed in the comments, one commenter wrote:

What gets me is that now people are using the phrase “Thank You much” instead of “Thank You very much” or just “Thank You.” It just sounds so wrong and annoys me every time I hear it.

Another commenter responded:

It just sounds lazy – they’re obviously so appreciative that they can’t put the effort into a complete sentence.

The idea that Thank you much is bad grammar or not a complete sentence can be found elsewhere on the web:

its makes them sound stupid because its not a sentence they forgot the very part. (link)

The sentiment isn’t limited to people with poor punctuation skills, either. From a thread on

“Thank you much.” is not correct English.

You can say “thank you very much” or even “thank you so much”.

I responded to the Indexed commenter:

“Thank you much” IS a complete sentence, at least if you accept “Thank you” as a complete (albeit noncanonical) sentence in the first place. If you object to “much” instead of “very much”, note that it appears alone in questions and negative sentences, e.g. “he doesn’t talk much”, “Does he talk much?” If you’re objecting to the use of plain “much” outside these “negative polarity contexts”, that’s a different matter, because that does sound odd in present-day English.

Suppose the commenter really was objecting to this use of unadorned much as a positive polarity item (PPI). In fact, there are times when PPI much sounds just fine without a very. It can modify comparative adjectives or adverbs: much better, more more quickly, etc. It also works if it has a too before it: I ate too much.

OK, so let’s suppose the commenter was more specifically objecting to use of PPI much without a too or very, and not as a modifier of a comparative adjective or adverb. Even looking at just this narrow set of circumstances for much, you can find other attestations in COCA:

  • North Korea’s ability to launch another conventional ground invasion is much degraded from even a decade ago.
  • There is much commotion and merrymaking these days in our community
  • Shooting a handgun is much like shooting a bow in this respect,

And of course, there’s this song from Janet Jackson, though you could argue that she chose the title in part to make her listeners pause for a moment.

So maybe the commenter is not trying to make any wider claim about the usage of much; it’s just that when it appears after thank you, for whatever reason, there has to be a too or a very. Well, what do you think? Is it actually ungrammatical, or just somewhat old-fashioned sounding to say Thank you much? If you believe it’s ungrammatical, let us know why in the comments.

Posted in Music, Negative polarity items, Prescriptive grammar, You're so literal! | 26 Comments »

If I Just Lay Here

Posted by Neal on October 13, 2011

First of all, I think I have a pretty good handle on the currently standard system for English conditionals. I wrote about them most recently in July in this post. In my grammar, a sentence like If I sit here, my pants will get wet suggests that me sitting here is a possibility that I’m considering (though I may be leaning toward rejecting it). The past-tense form sat in If I sat here, my pants would get wet suggests that I’m not seriously considering the possibility.

Second, I got straight many years ago on the workings of lay and lie–though I’ve also learned that lay and lie have flip-flopped and varied in their usage over the centuries, and that it’s more or less accident that the system currently considered standard was settled upon. This Grammar Girl piece lays it out (get it?) pretty clearly, with a nice diagram. This Language Log post goes into more detail. For what it’s worth, I say lie in the present tense, lay in the past tense, and lain in the perfect tenses to talk about being recumbent. (Or lied if I’m talking about telling untruths.) I say lay (something) in the present tense, laid (something) in the past tense, and lain (something) in the perfect tenses to talk about putting something down carefully. At least, I think I do.

Now with those two points made, consider the refrain from the song “Chasing Cars”, by Snow Patrol:

If I lay here,
If I just lay here,
Would you lie with me and just forget the world?

Even though I am accustomed to hearing past-tense verbs in if-clauses to introduce remote conditions, and even though I accept lay as the past tense of lie, I still, still, just can’t parse these lyrics as the hypothesis and conclusion of a remote conditional. Instead, I find myself just figuring that the singer uses both lay and lie to mean lying down, sometimes saying one (“If I just lay here”) and sometimes the other (“Would you lie with me?”). Why is that?

Other grammar-watchers have had the same difficulty I have. Benjamin Barrett brought up the lay/lie verse on the American Dialect Society email list (in a thread beginning here), and wondered if the alternation was just for euphonic purposes. The possibility of taking it as a remote conditional seems not to have occurred to him. In a response, Larry Horn raised the possibility, and made his point by replacing lay/lie with the less-confusing sit/sat,:

If I sat here,
If I just sat here,
Would you sit with me and just forget the world?

With sit/sat, I have no problem getting a remote-conditional reading.

The Master of Grammar got tripped up on these lyrics too, and publicized his misunderstanding in this blog post. Three commenters set him straight, but I take the difficulty of getting this parse, even among the grammar-savvy, as a sign that the lay/lie distinction is on its last legs.

So it looks like “Chasing Cars” may be one of those songs that “get it right”. Against all expectation, it uses the standard option when faced with a grammar shibboleth, like Beyonce Knowles singing “If I were a boy” when you’d expect just about any pop singer to go with “If I was a boy”. But wait a minute…

I’ve just watched the video, and every time the singer gets to the refrain, he’s lying on something: twice on a bed, once on some asphalt, and once at the top of a subway escalator. He’s not standing up and thinking about lying in some location; he’s actually doing it. He even lies on a slab of rock during one of the verses of the song, so clearly, lying down in even the most unusual locations is not such a remote possibility for this man. What do you think? Is If I lay here being used in a standard or nonstandard way in “Chasing Cars”?

Posted in Music, Prescriptive grammar, Uncategorized | 23 Comments »

The Douche Totally Kicks Back

Posted by Neal on August 12, 2011

Last month, the wife and boys and I saw Super 8, the aliens thriller from J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg. Despite its cheesy ending, we liked it enough that we took Mom and Dad to see it when they came to visit a few weeks later. In fact, the movie was entertaining enough that it wasn’t until my second viewing that I noticed what should have been some glaring language anachronisms in a story that’s set in May of 1979. There were other anachronisms, too, which you can find (along with other goofs) on various websites.

The smallest temporal dislocation comes in a scene in which a character named Jen is flirting with a stoner dude named Donny. She tells him that her brother has told her Donny is a cool guy (or something along those lines), and then suggests that the she and he could “kick back”. Kick back meaning “relax” is only an anachronism by five years or so. I recall hearing it in 1984 or 1985, and its first attestation in COHA is from 1986.

In that same conversation, Donny responds to the comment about his being a great guy, “I totally am.” To the suggestion that he and Jen kick back, he says, “We totally could.” Also, in an earlier scene, the characters of Alice and Joe have an intense, emotional conversation. She asks him if he feels the same way she does about something, and he says, “I totally do.”

Totally, of course, can modify verbs, but until recently, only in its literal sense of “completely”. It’s hard to say when its sense of just “truly” or “definitely” developed, because in many cases either meaning works. Nevertheless, when totally began to be used with this sense, it was primarily with adjectives, most notably awesome. I don’t think it began to modify verbs that are incompatible with a “completely” meaning (such as kick back) until the 1990s or so. What’s more striking about all three examples in Super 8 is that they all modify an elliptical verb phrase, i.e. one with just an auxiliary verb. We’ve got a nice variety in these few examples: a modal (could), a form of be (am), and a form of do. All that’s missing is have. In both COHA and COCA, this only starts to happen in the 1990s.

The most jarring of the language anachronisms comes from Donny. Actually, Jen can’t stand him, and the only reason she’s flirting with him is to persuade him to give her brother and his friends a ride back into their evacuated town, where they plan to break into their school to look for top secret stuff. (It’s a government cover-up evacuation, of course, so the scene of Donny and the kids driving against a flow of outgoing traffic into a danger zone is probably deliberately reminiscent of Close Encounters.) Donny objects to the boys’ demand that he stay outside the school while they conduct their search, and says something like,

So what, I just wait here like a douche?

Like a douche? It’s only been in the last couple of years or so that I’ve gradually become aware of the insult douche. Other people noticed this anachronism, too, like the guy in an online movie forum who wrote,

One character says something like ‘I’m supposed to sit here like a douche?’ Douche and douchebag didn’t become ubiquitous insults until pretty recently. (And aren’t you glad they did?)

and the one who wrote,

I wasn’t aware that “douche” was ’79 slang. I thought that was a more recent thing.

This obvious hater was called out by another participant, who wrote,

I am utterly amazed at the depths to which people in the forum are willing to stoop, just to try to find something to criticize about this film. … Oh, and “douche” as a pejorative has been around since at least the 1960s, and probably a lot longer than that.

No, I don’t think so. Douchbag, yes; douche, no. I first came across douchebag in Pat Conroy’s book The Lords of Discipline, which was set, if I recall, in the 1960s. Of course, Conroy could have been using some anachronistic language himself, but a search through COHA turns up this 1951 attestation in From Here to Eternity:

“The trouble with you, Pete,” the voice … said savagely, “is you cant see any further than that douchebag nose of yours.”

It also shows up as a derogatory (I assume) nickname in the 1939 novel Ninety Times Guilty, for a character called Jimmy Douchebag.

But as for douche, the earliest definition submitted for it in Urban Dictionary is in February 2003. Three months earlier was the original airdate of an episode of South Park titled “The Biggest Douche in the Universe“, and that’s the earliest I’ve been able to antedate douche as a term referring to a person. I totally could see South Park popularizing a new piece of obscene slang, and maybe even inventing it, but can’t say for sure yet. If you heard it earlier than November 2002, or find an earlier attestation, leave a comment. (And not just any comment; a comment giving that attestation.) As for Donny’s line, a more era-appropriate insult would have been dork, but since he uses that one at least twice at other times in the movie, maybe J.J. Abrams wanted something else. Something else beginning with D. In that case, since The Dukes of Hazzard began airing in January 1979, my humble suggestion would have been dipstick.

Mar. 2, 2012, UPDATE: Had I checked the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, I would have found out that douche as an insult is attested in at least one population from the 1960s, as I learned from this

Posted in Diachronic, Music, Syntax, Taboo | 7 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 »

What She’s Doin’ Now Is Tearin’ Me Apart

Posted by Neal on March 3, 2011

Back in January I wrote about an unusual sentence with a fused relative clause (aka a free relative). At the time, I wrote, “This reminds me of one of those great intentional ambiguities in a country song; this one involves a fused relative and a pseudo-cleft. Wait till you hear it; it’s great. But it’ll have to wait for another post.”

Looks like I haven’t gotten around to it yet, so here we go. The song is “What She’s Doing Now,” performed by Garth Brooks on his 1990 album No Fences. The title shows up in the lyrics, when Brooks sings that the season of the year

…makes me wonder
What she’s doin’ now.

Nothing remarkable so far. What she’s doing now is the indirect-question form of What is she doing now?, serving as the complement of the verb wonder. But in the chorus, Brooks sings

… what she’s doin’ now is tearin’ me apart
Fillin’ up my mind and emptyin’ my heart

Now we’ve got ourselves an ambiguity, and it’s partly attributable to the ambiguity of the -ing form of any verb. Let’s take the phrase blogging about linguistics in two sentences:

My hobby is blogging about linguistics.
I’m blogging about linguistics right now.

In the first sentence, blogging about linguistics is a noun phrase (more specifically, a gerund phrase), and is is identifying it as my hobby. In the second sentence, blogging about linguistics is a participial phrase; it hooks up with is to form a verb phrase that talks about someone blogging.

Now let’s go back to the sentence in the chorus, and take tearin’, fillin’, and emptyin’ as gerunds. In that case, the meaning is basically

Let X = the thing that she’s doing now. X = the act of tearin’ me apart, fillin’ up my mind, and emptyin’ my heart.

We’ll call this the specificational meaning. (Free relatives in this kind of specificational construction are also known as pseudo-clefts.) On the other hand, if we take tearin’, fillin’, and emptyin’ as participles, then what we have after the is is a great big participial phrase, which joins with the is to form a verb phrase. The meaning in this case would be

Let X = the thing that she’s doing now. Whatever X may be, it is in the process of tearin’ me apart, fillin’ up my mind, and emptyin’ my heart.

We’ll call this the predicational meaning. This is the easier reading to get, in my opinion.

The other thing that makes this specificational/predicational ambiguity possible is the fact that both people and abstract things are capable of tearin’ one apart, fillin’ up one’s mind, and emptyin’ one’s heart. If we replace those verbs with something that only a human (or at least something animate) can do, then we only get the specificational meaning:

What she’s doin’ now is drinkin’, smokin’, and partyin’ all night. (X = the act of d., s., and p.a.n.)

If we replace it with something that doesn’t make sense with a human subject, we get only the predicational meaning:

What she’s doin’ now is disturbing and possibly illegal. (Whatever X is, it is d. and p.i.)

So how about that, eh? I told you you’d love this ambiguity! Was I right, or was I right? (This is pretty much the same ambiguity, by the way, that I discussed in 2006 for What we waste is a disgrace.)

However, now that I look back on the lyrics, I wonder if the chorus was actually intentionally ambiguous. I’ve always assumed it was, and gotten a linguistic thrill out of hearing it, the same as I get with If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?, but I don’t really see anything in the song as a whole anymore that would suggest the writers wanted you to get both meanings. What do you think?

Posted in Ambiguity, Fused relatives, Gerunds and participles, Music | 7 Comments »

Is If I Would Have Ever Standard Grammar?

Posted by Neal on October 4, 2010

In 1986, I couldn’t escape the song “If She Would Have Been Faithful” by Chicago. I hated it for three reasons. First, it was such a whiny, wimpy-sounding song. Of course, a lot of Chicago’s songs are like that, but second, I didn’t like the theme of this song: “I’m glad my old SO was unfaithful to me, because otherwise, I’d still be with her, and wouldn’t have met you.” I’ll admit, with so many hundreds of songs about love out there, unless you’re going to go farther afield and write about peanut butter, Adidas, or rocks to wind a piece of string around, it’s going to be difficult to find new things to say. Even so, the main thing I take away from this song is that the lyricists were trying too hard. And the third thing, the thing that topped it all off, was the nonstandard grammar in If she would have been faithful.

“If She Would Have Been Faithful” came out just a couple of years after I’d learned about English moods and tenses, and I still thought “Why do they do that?” every time I heard someone say “If I/you/we/etc. would have” when they meant “If I/you/we/etc. had”. The standard way of phrasing the thought in this song title is to use the past perfect tense for be: “If she had been faithful.” That line doesn’t scan the same as If she would have been faithful, but I’m sure that the songwriters could have made it work with skillful use of contractions, adverbs, and song-phrasing; maybe If she’d only been faithful. (For other examples of counterfactuals, there’s If it hadn’t been for these kids or If only we had swum.)

However, over the years I’ve wondered exactly why If I would have should be nonstandard. Sure, If I had is a shorter alternative that still sounds natural, but why should that alone be enough to deny If I would have? Furthermore, you can even make a couple of positive arguments in its favor.

Here’s one. We agree (don’t we?) that you express past-time counterfactuals with a past-perfect tense (i.e. the form with had plus past participle, e.g. had been). Furthermore, the past perfect tense of the modal verb would is would have. Therefore, if you can make a conditional referring to the present time such as If you would listen to me, we’d get along better, then you should also be able to make one referring to the past time, by putting the woulds into the past perfect: If you would have listened to me, we‘d have gotten along better.

The second argument is based on analogy: You can use could have in if-clauses; for example, If I could have helped them, I would have. So why can’t you do the same thing with would have?

These arguments are valid, and at various times during the history of English, ordinary past perfects and would have past perfects have both been in past-time counterfactual conditionals — in both the if-clause and the main clause! Right now, it happens that the ordinary past perfect has the if-clause in the standard language, and that’s why would have is unappreciated there. But in 100 years, the tables could have turned once again. Instead of If you had listened to me, we would have gotten along better, it might be If you would have listened to me, we had gotten along better. For more on the historical development of the past perfect tense in conditionals, as well as more information on the arguments in favor of “would have,” and an overview of what grammar books and linguists have had to say on this topic, I recommend this 2003 paper by Noriko Ishihara.

Despite the validity of the above arguments, though, they still may not be enough to bestow legitimacy on most uses of would have in an if-clause. Consider the difference between If you would listen to me, we’d get along better, and If you listened to me, we’d get along better. For some speakers, these sentences mean the same thing, but for others, the version with would listen carries an idea of willingness—a vestige of the oldest meaning of will/would: to want or be willing to. If the meaning difference is too subtle with the verb listen, try it with the verb die. If you died tomorrow, who would take care of your family? is a grim but grammatically ordinary question. In contrast, If you would die tomorrow, who would take care of your family? sounds like something said by a non-native speaker.

Following this reasoning, the clause if you would have listened to me shouldn’t mean completely the same thing as if you had listened to me, but something more like if you had been willing to listen to me. For that reason, many of the people who argue against if you would have (Glen, I’m looking at you) do it on the grounds that it should be reserved to mean if you had been willing to, and using it to mean just if you had erases a meaningful distinction.

To which the opposition might reply, “How meaningful a distinction?” Regarding our example, if someone is willing to listen, presumably they do listen, so really, how much practical difference is there between if you had been willing to listen and if you had actually gone ahead and listened? In her paper, Ishihara doubts such a meaning actually exists, writing, “Some grammarians seem to believe in the rare ‘legitimate’ usage of ‘would have’ in subordinate clauses.”

Finally, even if this “if you had been willing” meaning exists, it will most likely not occur to your audience. Even if you write “if you would have listened to me” and really do mean “if you had been willing to listen to me,” your audience will almost certainly interpret it with the same meaning as they would “if you had listened to me”. In that situation, you’d communicate your meaning better by just writing, “if you had been willing to listen to me”.

Posted in Conditionals, Diachronic, Music, Prescriptive grammar, Semantics | 25 Comments »

Wh-Pronoun, Why You Wanna Go Down in the Clause Below?

Posted by Neal on July 21, 2010

When I was doing research for my Visual Thesaurus column on Im(m)a a couple of months ago, I made a point of listening to more of the Top 40 radio station in town than I had done in years. (Listening less to current music is what happens when you get an iPod.) One of the songs I heard that was on the Top 10 at the time was Train’s “Hey, Soul Sister”, and I liked it well enough that I downloaded a copy. I like the ukulele, the percussion, and the “hey, hey” vocal riffs, but as I listen to it more, I also admire the complex rhyme scheme. You have to examine not one but two verses to get the full picture, so here are the first two:

Your lipstick stains
on the front lobe of my left side brains
I knew I wouldn’t forget you
so I went and let you
blow my mind.

Your sweet moonbeam
the smell of you in every single dream I dream
I knew when we collided
you’re the one I have decided
who’s one of my kind.

That’s AABBC DDEEC. Furthermore, the AA and DD rhymes are monosyllabic (stains, brains; beam, dream), while the BB and EE ones are disyllabic ((for)get you, let you; (col)lided, (de)cided), and that pattern continues in the other verses.

However, I also noticed some strange syntax in the lyrics; specifically, the line you’re the one I have decided who’s one of my kind. What’s that who doing where it is? Shouldn’t it be

You’re the one who I’ve decided is one of my kind.

Usuallly, decide is followed by a clause, which may or may not be introduced by the complementizer that. For example, we might have

I’ve decided (that) she’s one of my kind.

Things get complicated, though, when we lift out the she and turn what remains of the clause into a relative clause. Without the she, what we have is I’ve decided (that) ___ is one of my kind. Actually, what you get is I’ve decided ___ is one of my kind, without the option of using a that anymore. In English, for the most part you can’t have complementizer that right before a gap. Putting the relative pronoun who in front of this, we get

who I’ve decided ___ is one of my kind

Or, instead of a who, you could introduce the relative clause with a that or no relativizer at all:

who/that/0 I’ve decided ___ is one of my kind

Now the whole thing can modify a noun, such as one:

the one who/that/0 I’ve decided ___ is one of my kind

So how in the world did Pat Monahan, Amund Bjørklund and Espen Lind come up with the one I have decided who‘s one of my kind?

In fact, this reminded me of a pattern of wh-question formation that we don’t have in English, called partial wh-movement. To understand what partial wh-movement is, it’s useful to compare it to the two other kinds of wh-question formation. One is called wh-movement or wh-fronting, and is what we have in English. If we’re asking, let’s say, a where question, we put the where at the front of the sentence, no matter how deeply the clause it actually came from is buried in there, as these examples show:


  1. Where did they meet ___?
  2. Where do you think they met ___?
  3. Where should we say you think they met ___?

Another kind of wh-question formation is wh in-situ. Using this method, the where stays in its home clause, no matter how deeply it’s buried in the overall sentence. In English, this kind of question can only be used to express surprise, or to prompt a speaker to repeat some information you didn’t catch. In other languages, though, such as Chinese, this is the normal method of forming questions.

Wh in-situ

  1. They met where?
  2. You think they met where?
  3. We should say you think they met where?

In partial wh-movement, the where would move to the front of a clause, but only to the front of its home clause. No matter how deeply that clause is buried, the where moves to its beginning, then stops. However, I guess to serve as a kind of question marker, at the front of the whole sentence is a general wh-word, typically the one corresponding to what in English. It’s sometimes called an expletive wh, or a scope-marking wh. If partial wh-movement existed in English, the example sentences might look like these:

Partial wh-movement

  1. Where did they meet ___? [no difference from ordinary wh-movement in this case]
  2. *What do you think where they met ___?
  3. *What should we say what you think where they met ___?

This is getting pretty close to the one I have decided who’s one of my kind, but there’s one significant difference: We don’t have an expletive wh like what at the beginning of the relative clause. If this were partial wh-movement, and partial wh-movement were even grammatical in English, we’d expect something like

the one what I’ve decided who‘s one of my kind.

I thought I had an answer when I Googled Amund Bjørklund and Espen Lind and found out they were Norwegian. Aha! One language that is well-known for having partial wh-movement is German, and now we have two speakers of another Germanic language coming up with this strange syntax reminiscent of German’s partial wh-movement! I expected to find that Norwegian had partial wh-movement too, and furthermore didn’t even bother with a scope-marking, expletive wh in its version. The funny English syntax would be bleed-through from the songwriters’ first language.

But as it turns out, Norwegian doesn’t have partial wh-movement, so now all I can conclude is,

Wh pronoun, why you wanna go down in the clause below where you’re s’posed to go, the way you’ve moved ain’t fair you know.

Posted in Fillers and gaps, Music | 11 Comments »

Thoughts on Imma

Posted by Neal on April 25, 2010

Last night, Doug went to a sleepover birthday party for his friend Ken. I remember when Ken was over here a couple of weeks ago. He and Doug were playing with the wooden samurai swords we got at the Columbus Asian Festival a couple of years ago. As Ken raced through the kitchen in hot pursuit of Doug, he called out,

I’ma kill you!

Wow, I thought. I just heard an I’ma in the wild from someone I know personally, and not just a sloppily performed I’m gonna. (Yes, it is possible to carefully utter I’m gonna, even though it arose from I’m going to.) There was no muddy, garbled mess of sounds between the [m] and the [ɘ], as if he were saying something like Ingonna or Imana. This was a clear I’ma. If Doug had asked Ken to repeat what he’d said, I could almost imagine Ken saying, “You heard me. I, ma, kill, you.” I wasn’t surprised that I had heard I’ma in Ken’s speech but not in Doug’s, because Ken listens to more pop music than Doug does, and 2010 is shaping up to be a banner year for I’ma in pop songs, and not just because of the success of the Black Eyed Peas’ “Imma Be”.

I knew this because I was working on a column about I’ma for Visual Thesaurus. So while the subject is fresh in my mind, here are some of the thoughts about I’ma that didn’t make into the VT column. First of all, there’s the origin of I’ma. In the column, I offer what I think is the most plausible origin of it: I’m gonna > I’mana > I’mna > I’ma. However, not everyone accepts that story. Others believe that I’ma evolved from I’m a-gonna, with the gonna disappearing and leaving only the dialectal prefix a-. Still others take I’ma to have come from a Southern version of I’m going to, namely Ahmoan, which became Ahmo’, and from there turned into Ahma (our Imma) as the final /o/ decayed into a schwa. (Browse through the comments on this Language Log post to find several versions of all these origins.) But I find it more plausible that the widespread I’ma developed from the widespread I’m gonna than from regionally restricted pronunciations.

What about the future of I’ma? Could ma become a future tense marker in its own right? It’s not such a strange idea; this is how they usually arise in languages. The Romance languages’ future tense suffixes developed from the verb “to have,” and the Modern Greek future tense future tense marker is a remnant of the verb “to want.” (For that matter, it is in English, too.) In fact, this is how grammatical markers develop in general: A meaningful word (such as “go” or “want”) gradually loses its meaning as it is phonetically ground down, and eventually is nothing more than a function word or affix. The linguists’ term for it is grammaticalization.

However, several obstacles that should slow down the process for our hypothetical future ma. First, there’s the fact that I’ma only works for I. Forms like you’re gonna, we’re gonna, they’re gonna probably won’t turn into youma, shema, wema, theyma, though it wouldn’t be impossible for ma to invade this territory. More likely, they’d turn into forms like you’ra, we’ra, and they’ra. In fact, they already are—they’re just not showing up in writing yet, the way I’ma has. As an experiment I asked Doug earlier this week, “You’ra go to Ken’s party, right?” and his response was not “What?”, but “Yeah!” He didn’t even notice I’d said You’ra, so eager was he to respond to the actual content of my question. And I’d even prefaced the question by asking if anything sounded funny in what I was about to say.

What about third person singular (i.e. he, she, it, and any other individual thing)? I have a hard time believing in a change like he’s gonna > he’sa, though my phonetics is not good enough to explain why not. In any case, the songs whose lyrics I looked up typically had he gon’, she gon’, and the like. In fact, they even had you gon’, we gon’ and they gon’, instead of my forecasted you’ra, etc.

Another obstacle for ma as a fully fledged future marker is that even with I, it doesn’t work when you want to use an adverb. There’s no way of shortening I’m really gonna to end up with ma in there. The same goes for negation, with structures like I’m never gonna or I ain’t gonna.

For those who read the Visual Thesaurus column and are curious exactly what #1 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 charts in previous few years contained I’ma in the lyrics, here are the performers and titles I left out of the article:

    • D4L “Laffy Taffy”
      (“I’ma toss da Laffy Taffy”)
    • Beyonce Knowles “Check On It”
      (“I’ma let you check on it”, “If you don’t go braggin’, I’ma let you have it”, “I’ma glance at this beautiful view”)
    • Rihanna “SOS”
      (“I’ma put desire in your arms tonight”)
    • Akon “I Wanna Love You”
      (“And I’ma get me a shot ‘fore the end of the night”)
    • Akon “Don’t Matter”
      (“And I’ma have you first always in my heart to keep you satisfied”)
    • T-Pain “Buy You a Drank”
      (“I’ma buy you a drank, I’ma take you home with me”, ”I’ma let T-Pain sing it”)
    • Rihanna “Umbrella”
      (“Took an oath, I’ma stick it out till the end”)
    • Fergie “Big Girls Don’t Cry”
      (”I’m gonna miss you like a child misses their blanket”)
    • Soulja Boy “Crank That”
      (“I’ma pass it to Arab”)
    • Flo Rida “Low”
      (“Imma say that I prefer them no clothes”)
    • Usher & Young Jeezy “Love in This Club”
      (“I’ma give it to you non-stop”)
    • Maria Carey “Touch My Body”
      (“I’ma treat you like a teddy bear”)
    • Lil Wayne & Static Major “Lollipop”
      (“I’ma hit it”)

UPDATE, 28 Apr. 2010: In researching the lyrics, I kept running into the word shawty, which seemed to be some kind of term of endearment, or at least of direct address. I went to Urban Dictionary to find out where it came from. Now, the new blog Word: The Online Journal of African-American English, has a post on AAE vocabulary in current pop hits, and talks about that very word (along with Imma and a few other things).

Posted in Diachronic, Morphology, Music, Phonetics and phonology | 21 Comments »