Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Self-promotion’ Category

Popularizing Linguistics Through Online Media

Posted by Neal on January 17, 2015

Sometime last spring, I got an email from Doug Bigham, a linguist at San Diego State University who I’d met at LSA 2011. He wanted to put together a special session for the LSA 2015 conference that took place last weekend in Portland, Oregon. The theme would be “Popularizing Linguistics Through Online Media,” and he figured that I could talk about blogging; Gretchen McCulloch, about her All Things Linguistic Tumblr page; Arika Okrent, about her listicle pieces on Mental Floss and TheWeek; Michael Maune [maUni], about his #lingchat hashtag on Twitter; Ben Zimmer, about writing for the in-print but also online Wall Street Journal and other news outlets; and Michael Erard, about the new Schwa Fire online linguistics magazine. Doug himself would talk about his linguistics YouTube channel, and tying it all together would be the discussant, Anne Curzan of the University of Michigan, who did this million-view TED talk on what makes a word real. Furthermore, he wanted to do it in a format that I’d never heard of: something called pecha kucha. Or to be more accurate, I had heard of it once or twice, but never been interested enough to find out what it was. But this sounded interesting, especially when some of the other invitees started signing on.

So I went to find out exactly what this pecha kucha thing was, and the first thing I found out was that it was pronounced not as [ˈpɛtʃə ˈkutʃə] (“PETCH-uh KOOTCH-uh”), as I would have thought, but as [pəˈtʃɑ kəˈtʃɑ] (“peh-CHAH kuh-CHAH,” or “peh-CHOCK-chah”). Good thing I learned that. I didn’t want to sound like an ignoramus when I talked about it. The second thing I learned was that it was an exactly six-minute-and-forty-second talk, consisting of 20 slides displayed for 20 seconds each. Finally, I learned that because of the severely limited time format, the slides had to be mostly or entirely pictures. Standard PowerPoint outlines and bulleted lists, not a good format in the first place, were especially ill-advised in pecha kucha. With all that in mind, I emailed back and said I was in, but that I thought a better topic for me would be about writing guest scripts for the Grammar Girl podcast, since Gretchen seemed to have the blog component covered well, and I haven’t had as much time to blog as I used to.

The session was accepted, so last Friday we got together in an unused conference room in the Portland Hilton for some of us to meet each other for the first time, and try to get everyone’s slides integrated into one big slide show. “Have you ever done a [ˈpɛtʃə ˈkutʃə]?” Ben asked, as he and Doug bent over Doug’s laptop computer, trying to make the slides advance. Doug admitted he’d been having nightmares about doing this session.

Later that night, I rehearsed my talk again, and it was still coming in at 6:45 instead of 6:40. My roommate for the conference, Jason Zentz, even volunteered to be my audience for a run-through after he’d finished preparing the handouts for his talk (winner of the best student abstract). I told him about the [ˈpɛtʃə ˈkutʃə] pronunciation. Heck, I said, I’d like to pronounce it [ˈpɛtʃə ˈkutʃə], too; it sounded much better than the ear-grating [pəˈtʃɑ kəˈtʃɑ]. But just because I liked that pronunciation better didn’t mean I was just going to start using it when I know the more faithful pronunciation was something else. Jason said some stuff about Anglicizing borrowed words to match English phonotactics. Yeah, whatever.

The next morning at 8:15, we met in the ballroom for last-minute details. One that we hadn’t thought about was where to have everyone sit. There were seven of us, not including Anne Curzan, and only three seats on either side of the lectern. We decided that when one speaker finished, they would take the seat of the next speaker–an elegant solution, except for having to remember that when you sat back down, the glass of water in front of you was not the one you’d poured for yourself.

I was fourth up, after Doug, Michael M., and Gretchen. I had finally managed to get the time down to 6:40 more or less consistently, so imagine my surprise when I found that I had finished talking about one slide with 5 seconds left before it advanced. “Wow,” I said, “I seem to be running ahead. That doesn’t usually happen.” Then the slide advanced, and I realized that I was more like 5 seconds behind. “Wait, I’m behind!” I think I simply forgot to say what I had intended to say on the slide where I mentioned Grammar Girl episodes written by Stan Carey and Gretchen. (The slides are here.)

When Arika, Ben, and Michael E. finished their talks, it was time for Anne to come up and give her comments, which meant that all the seats and the lectern were occupied, so Doug took a seat out in the audience. Then came the questions from the audience, which took the entire half hour allotted to doing that, plus a few minutes after. The last person asked if this was the first time a presentation like this had been done at LSA, and Doug said he believed it was. “Yes!” he exclaimed. We did a [ˈpɛtʃə ˈkutʃə]!”

Posted in LSA, Self-promotion | 3 Comments »

Three Off-Blog Pieces

Posted by Neal on August 31, 2013

In this post from January, I mentioned a secret project in which I had been called upon to distinguish adjective-participles from verb-participles. That same project also inspired my next post, in which I explained how to distinguish adjectives, present participles, and gerunds. Well, the secret project isn’t secret anymore. It was some part-of-speech consultation work for Grammar Girl, who was working on her just-released Grammar Pop app for the iPad. I was so into it, I even wrote a script for her about participles and gerunds, which she saved to run when the app finally went live.

Affect and effect are the spelling problem that won’t go away. How did we end up with this situation, with a verb (affect) whose noun form doesn’t involve a suffix, stress shift, or even zero-conversion? I guess you could call it a kind of suppletion… for more details, see my piece in TheWeek.

And finally, by subscription, my column for Visual Thesaurus, in which I trace the history of the word concierge from a word meaning “doorman” to an adjective describing personalized service, as in concierge healthcare. An excerpt:

even as the idea of a hotel concierge was spreading during the Me Decade, it was already escaping the confines of hotel lobbies. In 1980, a Boston Globe article reported that the Pittsburgh Hyatt had invented a concierge floor, which modern hotel guests will recognize as that one floor that the elevator won’t take you to unless you insert your special VIP card into the slot by the button. Mid-decade, the concept of the concierge broke free of hotels entirely, as office concierges made their appearance. In 1986, a company calling itself The Executive Concierge liberated concierges entirely from buildings. As a 1987 article described it, the company:

will do just about anything to help those who don’t have the time to help themselves. The company’s services range from basic personal chores such as grocery shopping, gift shopping, and housecleaning to organizing events of all sizes, including wedding receptions.

Posted in Self-promotion | Leave a Comment »

September Links, and a Contest

Posted by Neal on September 20, 2011

Some new linguistics blogs have appeared on the scene, which I’ve liked well enough to put right onto the blogroll. The Chronicle of Higher Education website introduced a blog in August, called Lingua Franca. It’s a group blog, with five listed contributors. The three I recognize are Geoff Pullum, Allan Metcalf, and Ben Yagoda.

Next, there’s The Diacritics, a blog begun by John Stokes and Sandeep Prasanna, two guys who each earned a linguistics degree last year (from Harvard and Duke respectively), and are each now a first-year law student (at Yale and UCLA respectively).

Lastly, Language Hippie came on the scene in June. It’s written by Joe Kessler, a linguistics grad student at the University of Buffalo.

In addition to the new blogs, here‘s one of Grammar Girl’s more linguistically bent podcasts. This one’s on the needs done construction (which I’ve blogged about), and for it Mignon Fogarty did some field research, gathering data from her Facebook and Google+ followers to find out where people used this construction. She created a nice map of the results, a good supplement to the one in the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project that I mentioned last month.

As for the contest, the people at are holding a contest to choose, by votes alone, the Best Grammar Blog of 2011. Today is the halfway point in the 10-day nomination period. You’re thinking I’m going to ask you to nominate me? Wrong! I can nominate myself. But actually, I don’t even need to do that, because they tell me that I’m one of the 50 blogs they’ve personally selected to make it to the actual voting, which takes place from September 26 through October 17. So, thanks,! I’m honored to be in a list that includes blogs such as John Wells’s Phonetic Blog, Gabe Doyle’s Motivated Grammar, and Lynne Murphy’s Separated by a Common Language. Come September 26, I’ll casually mention this contest again, but in the meantime, go and make sure your (other) favorite linguistics blogs are on the list of nominations.

Posted in Linkfests, Self-promotion | Leave a Comment »

RNWs: Theory and Evidence

Posted by Neal on March 28, 2009

"Written by some of the leading scholars in the field" ... and me!

This month, my categorial-grammar analysis of right-node wrapping (RNW, aka “Friends in Low Places” coordinations) was published in Theory and Evidence in Semantics, a book edited by Erhard Hinrichs and John Nerbonne. Here’s what Nerbonne says about the article in the book’s introduction:

Neal Whitman’s piece “Right-Node Wrapping: Multimodal Categorial Grammar and the ‘Friends in Low Places’ Coordination” appears to describe a novel sort of construction, which he christens right-node wrapping. These coordinations have the form [A conjunction B] C D and are understood as if the element C were distributed over both sides of the conjunction, while the element D is interpreted only with respect to the second conjunct. Whitman offers the following example from the Los Angeles Times, 16 Oct. 2003:

(9) The blast [upended] and [nearly sliced] a […] Chevrolet in half.

The bracketed phrases are the conjuncts A and B, a Chevrolet is the distributed object C, while the underscored in half is understood solely in combination with the likewise underscored second verb sliced, and crucially not with the first conjunct upended. Whitman provides a long list of examples from actual use, demonstrating the existence of the construction, in spite of the suspicion which Whitman himself confesses to having felt when he first encountered it. Coordination has been studied intensively in several grammatical frameworks, and especially within categorial grammar, so that it is surprising to see a new sort of coordination discovered, even more so one which is readily instantiated in newspaper prose (and elsewhere).

Whitman’s work is a clear continuation of other work on coordination in categorial grammar, most specifically work on non-constituent coordination, the earliest examples of which we are aware of being Dowty (1988) and Steedman (1985, 1990). Dowty (1988) based his account of non-constituent coordination on functional composition and type raising. In a sentence such as (10), the objects Mary and Bill are first raised from the type NP to the type (VP/NP)\VP which then compose leftwardly with the VP\VP-category adverbs yesterday and today:

(10) John saw [Mary yesterday] and [Bill today].

This paves the way for straightforward cancellation with respect to the VP/NP transitive verb saw and the subject.

Whitman formalizes his analysis within multi-modal categorial grammar, using a Gentzen-style rule system with an accompanying semantics. It turns out that it is sufficient to add a single rule of “mixed associativity”, which is assumed not to be universal, but rather specific for English. The author contrasts this with an alternative analysis which makes uses of a unary constructor. Although both analyses cover a good deal of the data, Whitman notes some overgeneration in both analyses, as well as undergeneration of data with respect to the first.

The “long list of examples from actual use” was compiled from the various posts on RNWs. I was disappointed to find — some weeks after submitting the final draft — that I’d left out one of my favorite examples because I had neglected to put a “‘Friends in Low Places’ coordination” tag on the relevant post, and missed it during my blog search. So if you read the article, you won’t see this grimly fascinating RNW in it:

Alternatively, infanticide was carried out by [burying alive], [smothering], or [turning a newborn infant on its face].
(Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, 2005, p. 290)

Then there are the RNWs that I only found in the first place after submitting the final draft, like the one about Victoria Beckham’s dress, or the one about Abu Ghraib. In addition to those, there’s also this handful of attestations that I’ve had accumulating for a while:

  • The Department of Housing and Urban Development, which manages the FHA, has [fined], [sued], and even [removed some of the rogue lenders from the program], but they keep coming back. (Froma Harrop, column of Jan. 7, 2009)
  • Until and unless we find it in ourselves to [confront] and [roll that culture back], our inner cities will remained blighted places …. (Leonard Pitts, Jr., column of Feb. 7. 2009)
  • [Wash] and [put wet lettuce/vegetables directly into Salad Sac]. (Instructions on a terrycloth bag to hold your salad. A Christmas present from Mom and Dad!)
  • With the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, players can [collect], [trade] and even [take their dinosaurs into battle with friends to see who will become the ultimate Dinosaur King]! (Product description for Dino-King video game.)
  • [Color], [cut out], and [mount game cards on tagboard]. (Instructions in a book of do-it-yourself games for teachers. I saw it when I was visiting Adam’s classroom.)
  • You don’t [owe] or [have to pay anything back] at the end of the problem. (Answer to the riddle “Why is borrowing a good thing in math?” on one of Doug’s worksheets.)

In addition to the above examples, here are a couple that Ben Zimmer noticed and sent to me last fall:

  • DeCroce said the people of New Jersey would be better served if Gov. Corzine actually stayed in the state long enough to deal with the state’s economic problems instead of traveling around the country and doing the TV talk show circuit “alternately [praising] and [begging President-elect Obama for money].” (link)
  • Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce (R-Morris) said Senate President Richard Codey (D-Essex) alternately [threatened] and [tempted him with state grant money] in an effort to halt a Republican hunt for documents that would expose how state funds were really being doled out by ruling Democrats. (link)

Thanks, Ben! I especially like the last one: “He threatened me with state grant money!”

Meanwhile, I’m still waiting to get my author’s copy of Theory and Evidence in Semantics. There’s stuff in there by Chris Barker, Erhard Hinrichs, Jack Hoeksema, Pauline Jacobson, Manfred Krifka, Peter Lasersohn, John Nerbonne, Craige Roberts, and Greg Stump that I want to read. It’s supposed to be here by now!

UPDATE, Apr. 5, 2009: I’ve now received my copy. Looking at my own paper with fresh eyes, I see that I wrote on p. 248 that one drawback of my analysis is that it would generate sentences like *John [put away] and [got the dishes back out], where both verbs (not just the second one) are phrasal verbs. I said, “[I]n the years in which I have been hyperaware of RNW coordinations, I have yet to hear one with this pattern.” Except, of course, for the example on p. 239: Hey, Dad, can you [bring over] and [squirt some ketchup on my plate]? That’s what I get for putting in last minute examples. Oh well, at least what I thought was an overgeneration problem might not be one after all.

I also pointed out two examples on p. 240 in which the shared direct object was an unstressed pronoun (specifically them). My point was that these direct objects therefore had to split up the phrasal verb they appeared in, and could not conceivably be moved out to make the coordinated verb phrases nice and parallel. For some reason, I neglected to make the same observation about the example killing or allowing them to die from the previous page.

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

The Literal-Minded Linguistics Supplement

Posted by Neal on November 29, 2006

UPDATE, May 31, 2011: This file is no longer available.

This posting is primarily for instructors of introductory linguistics classes. If you’ve sometimes directed your students to read linguistics-related blog postings, or have put linguistics humor into course packets, then I offer The Literal-Minded Linguistics Supplement for your consideration, just in time for planning winter semester/quarter syllabuses. (Yes, I say syllabuses.)

It’s 76 pages of selected and revised postings from this very blog, formatted, with table of contents, organized into sections on phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. Within each section, the first entries are of general interest within the particular field. They’re followed by entries concerning language acquisition (i.e., stuff I’ve written about Doug and Adam and their peers), and then entries that deal with variation among people or over time.

Best of all, it’s freely reproducible (for a period of time). Put particular entries in course packets, or copy the whole thing if you want, with none of the troublesome “fair use” questions you’d need to ask with other material. All I ask is that you email me later and tell what worked, what didn’t, how you used it, etc.

Posted in Self-promotion | 7 Comments »

A Panphonic Poem for Mission: Impossible 3

Posted by Neal on May 5, 2006

This weekend, I want to see Mission: Impossible 3, in spite of Tom Cruise. Wait, no. Not in spite of Tom Cruise. That sounds like Mr. Cruise doesn’t want me to go see this movie, and I want to go and see it anyway, just so he’ll make a little bit more money. I’m not too enthusiastic about doing that for this increasingly creepy, couch-jumping, not-content-to-
girls-with-it celebrity. What I should say is that I want to see the movie in spite of the fact that Tom Cruise is in it. (Interesting that this ambiguity only arises when the object of in spite of is animate: I lived there in spite of the polluted air isn’t ambiguous.)

Why, you may ask, do I want to see Mission: Impossible 3 in spite of the fact that Tom Cruise is in it? That goes back to the “other story” I mentioned at the end of my last post.
MILD SPOILER AHEAD Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Movies, Panphonic Phun, Self-promotion | 12 Comments »

The What and How of Self-Promotion

Posted by Neal on January 27, 2005

I know, I know: You’ve been wanting to read my dissertation, but didn’t want to download it and have to print it out or view it on a computer screen. Well, the wait is over. It has been published by Routledge, and a handsomely bound, hardcover edition of my contribution to the literature can now be yours. It’s available here (discounted), here, or from the publisher itself. It’s tastefully done, too–the f-word appears on only one page (215), and even there it’s in a quoted title.

This seems like a good time to do a post or two about some of the topics I covered in my dissertation. One of them came up just last week in a book I was reading, specifically in this sentence:

Every company has its own idea of what and how information should appear….
Richard Curtis, How to Be Your Own Literary Agent, p. 116.

Is that sentence a little odd for you? It is for me, in the coordination of what and how. I’ll expand out the coordination so that each of these words heads up its own question:

Every company has its own idea of:

  • what information should appear

  • how information should appear

In the what question, information is used as a noun. You can substitute other nouns for it and still have a syntactically well-formed sentence: what person should appear, what item should appear, etc.

In the how question, however, information draws on its powers as a mass noun (see previous post) to function not as a mere noun, but as a complete noun phrase! If you try to substitute an ordinary noun into this question, it won’t work: *how person should appear, *how item should appear, etc. By contrast, if you substitute a noun phrase for information, it works just fine: how the report should appear, how Kim should appear, etc.

Therefore, in the coordinated what-and-how sentence earlier, information is used simultaneously as a noun and a noun phrase. That’s pretty weird, especially being as how nouns and noun phrases are typically viewed as having different semantic types (predicates and individuals, respectively). Conventional wisdom has been that words (or phrases) can’t be used with more than one semantic type at a time–at least, not outside of puns. So is the quotation from Richard Curtis a mistake, or is it actually generated in his (and maybe other people’s) grammar? Corpus linguistic and experimental research on this kind (and other kinds) of “mixed-wh interrogative” is presented in Chapter 3 of my dissertation. Own it today!

Posted in Coordinated WH words, Mass and Count Nouns, Self-promotion, Semantics | 3 Comments »