Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Ambiguity’ Category


Posted by Neal on March 16, 2017

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton hit it big last year. I gradually became aware of it during the winter and spring, and eventually bought the original cast recording for my wife. The songs soon made their way onto all of our mobile devices, and the CD itself stayed in our car player for at least a month. Like any respectable musical, Hamilton has an “I Want” song near the beginning. It’s called “My Shot,” and the chorus goes like this:

I am not throwing away my shot!
I am not throwing away my shot!
Hey yo, I’m just like my country,
I’m young scrappy and hungry,
And I’m not throwing away my shot!

Aside from the audacity of rhyming country with hungry, the line caught my attention with its double-barreled discourse marker, hey yo. The hey yo was there in every repetition of the chorus, and it always had both parts: the hey and the yo. The character of Alexander Hamilton didn’t ever, just for variety, rap “Hey, I’m just like my country,” or “Yo, I’m just like my country.” Elsewhere in the play, yo shows up by itself. In fact, just a few minutes earlier, the character of John Laurens interrupts the song “Aaron Burr, Sir” with “Yo yo yo yo yo!” A few songs later, Hamilton challenges a loyalist with “Yo!” before tearing down his argument in rap form. Later still, Aaron Burr starts off with a yo before telling Hamilton that he should try to marry one of the Schuyler sisters.

Even so, I began to wonder if maybe hey and yo had begun to coalesce into a single word. That kind of thing happens frequently in language. A great example in English is the “immediate future” construction of going to. It’s gone from being pronounced as two words to being pronounced (and even written) as gonna, and for some speakers it has even merged with I’m in the first person singular, so that instead of I am going to, or I’m gonna, we get Ima.

Evidence bearing on my question about hey yo arrived before I even finished listening to the Hamilton CD. Before the end of Act 1, the character of George Washington convinces Hamilton, by way of a rap, that his talents would be better used as Washington’s personal assistant than as a soldier. In the song “Right Hand Man,” he says:

We are outgunned, outmanned,
outnumbered, outplanned.
We gotta make an all out stand
Ayo, I’m gonna need a right-hand man!

There it was again! The same two syllables in the same order, doing the same job of telling the listener to pay attention to what comes next. But looking at the liner notes, I could see that there was a difference. This time, instead of being written as two words, the interjection was written as a single word, spelled A-Y-O. The initial H was gone, but that’s a phonetically weak sound anyway. It’s always disappearing from places where it used to be. If you’ve ever taken Spanish classes, you know this from all those Spanish words that have an H at the beginning that you’re supposed to ignore, such as hablar. You’ve also encountered this phonetic instability if you’ve ever been in an argument about whether something is a historic occasion or an historic occasion. The clincher is that the chorus from “My Shot” is repeated by the ensemble later in the song, and this time, the line that rhymes country and hungry begins with ayo, this time spelled A-Y-O.

The last of the hey yo’s or ayo’s (which from now on I’ll just refer to as hey yo, in boldface italics, to indicate its status as a single lexical item) comes in the last song of Act 1, “Yorktown.” Here, once again, the ensemble sings the chorus from “My Shot,” and this time, we’re back to the spelling H-E-Y, space, Y-O. This back-and-forth with the spelling is indicative of hey yo’s status as a primarily spoken rather than written piece of the language. As a primarily spoken rather than written interjection, hey yo has not succumbed to the pressure of standardization and settled into one accepted spelling.

I got to wondering how other spellings were out there. The writer of one definition on Urban Dictionary tried to cover all bases, by tagging their definition with eight spellings, but they underestimated. Have you ever read an entry for a word in the Oxford English Dictionary and seen a dozen or more alternate spellings from 800 years ago, from before English had a standard dialect? Of course you have! That’s what I felt like when I started looking for, and finding, different spellings of hey yo.

First there’s the choice of starting with H or a vowel; that’s two possibilities. Then there’s the choice of writing it as one word, two words, or as a hyphenated word, which gives us six possibilities. Next, there’s the choice of which letter to use to spell the first vowel: E or A? That brings us to 12 possibilities. Now, let’s talk about that Y. So…ah, forget it. Just look at the table below, where I’ve laid it all out. I come up with 64 possibilities. The two from Hamilton are spellings 15 and 33.

Highlighted in green are the spellings I’ve found attested. Some of them are attested a lot, such as the hey yo and ayo spellings from Hamilton. Others were rather thin on the ground, only appearing in, say, a single Urban Dictionary entry with no likes or dislikes. In fact, I found most of my examples in Urban Dictionary. My rule is not to accept a UD definition until I’ve found independent confirmation somewhere else. In this case, though, I accepted even the attestations that I found only in a single UD entry, if the definitions were essentially the same as those for the other spellings. Here are some of the things I’ve learned.

First, hey yo is popular in song titles. For one of them, hey yo is part of the title: “Hey Yoh, Here We Go,” using spelling number 31, released in 1993 by Technotronic. For others, hey yo IS the title. For example, in 2009, Melanie Fiona released a song simply called “Ay Yo,” using spelling number 45. In that same year, Methodman and Redman released the song “A-Yo,” using spelling number 37. That’s the same spelling that was used just last year, in the title of a song by Lady Gaga. But maybe the best-known use of hey yo is in a song where it’s not part of the official title, but is listed as a secondary title. It’s “Snow (Hey Oh),” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, released in 2006. You know this one: It’s the one with the chorus that goes, “And I said hey oh, listen what I say oh.” This one uses spelling number 23.

The Chili Peppers song actually opened up a whole new direction of inquiry. The song is believed by many to be about addiction, and possibly about addiction to cocaine in particular. (This belief is also vehemently disputed, to judge from some of the posts and comment threads I read.) Why cocaine? A commenter on a webpage discussing the song’s lyrics points out the similarity of hey oh to yeyo, which is borrowed Spanish slang for cocaine–spelled llello in Spanish. After further investigation, I learned that the word yeyo (or yayo) became popular following the 1983 movie Scarface, in which Latin American drug runners referred to cocaine this way. And completing the circle, a 2003 song by Andre Nickatina is called “Ayo for Yayo,” and is definitely about cocaine. The title seems to mean “crazy for cocaine,” which means that this ayo is not a discourse marker, but an adjective, so I’m not sure we’re dealing with the same word. Besides, searching for all the possible spellings of yeyo would have meant another 32 searches, so that’s as far as I explored the drug connection.

The next thing I noticed about the variants of hey yo was that people disagreed about its origins. Some just took it to be a concatenation of hey and yo, as I did. Comments to this effect were more common in definitions where the interjection was not simply spelled as hey plus yo (in other words, spellings 14-16). For example, one definition with the E-Y-O spelling (number 39), calls it a “fast way of sayin hey yo.” Another one, with the A-Y-O spelling (number 33), says the same thing, but with a prescriptive edge: “An incredibly poor, not to mention grammatically incorrect way to say ‘Hey, yo.’

Other definers took hey yo (or more specifically, spellings 33, 39, and 44) to be derived from hey you, which I don’t buy. If you is going to be reduced, it typically turns into ya, with that unstressed schwa vowel. Yo has an unreduced /o/ vowel. Still other definition writers (such as this one for spelling number 6) seemed unaware of any connection to hey or yo, judging it to be “just another way of saying hello.”

So it looks like hey yo has indeed become a thing in its own right, not simply a combination of hey and yo, even if it did arise that way. It’s similar to how y’all isn’t simply a contraction of you plus all anymore. If it were, phrases like three of y’all and not all of y’all wouldn’t make sense, any more than *three of them all or *not all of them all do. And once a word’s connection to its components has been lost, shifts in meaning become easier. This is happening a little bit in the use of hey yo as just a greeting, as many of the definitions classify it. But I was quite surprised to learn of a possible sex-related meaning shift with hey yo.

At first, I didn’t believe it. I figured this Urban Dictionary entry for hey-o (spelling number 8) was just a test of gullibility:

Something said after a conversational phrase that could be interpreted as a sexual reference is said.
John: “Dude, did you do the Bio assignment?”
Mark: “Yes. That was so hard, it kept me up all night!”
John: “Hey-O!”
#that’s what she said #do it big #get some #awkward #last night
by atxlonestar21 September 08, 2009

But when I found it in at least seven other Urban Dictionary definitions, for spellings 15, 16, 23, 24, 33, 48, and 51, I had to take it seriously. So I started searching for irresistible double-entendre phrases followed by various spellings of hey yo, and found some examples in the wild, including:

Being a hot gay guy is just so hard. (HEY-YO!!) Like, women have no idea how easy they have it.

I am aware that my celibacy is a slightly short month… like a February. Black history and celibacy get the short end of the stick on this one, but the symbolism of Valentine’s day to the Ides of March is too good to mess with. Tomorrow is the Ides of March. The date Julius Caesar was stabbed and killed. I don’t know about killing, but ladies, beware the Ides of March because some stabbing is bound to go down. Heyo.

MB: “I suggest you all get off—” HEYO “—this planet—” ugh “—as soon as possible.”

This sexual meaning is developing its own variant meanings. For some speakers, it’s appropriate for any sexual innuendo, but for others, it highlights a homosexual one. A couple of the definitions specifically mention its functional similarity to the heteronormative phrase no homo.

So is this sexy hey yo the same hey yo that we’ve been seeing as a discourse marker or greeting? On the one hand, it sounds the same, and exhibits the same variations in spelling. On the other hand, it occurs at the end of an utterance instead of the beginning, or even stands alone, and of course there’s a big difference in meaning. Continuing the “different items” idea, we could account for the similar variations in spelling by saying that we just have a pair of homonyms that are both informal, primarily spoken items, so spelling variation is to be expected, and since they sound the same, we should expect the variations to be similar. But if they’re just homonyms, we’re still left with the question of where the sexy hey yo came from.

When I told Ben Zimmer about this use of hey yo, he pointed me to a possible connection with Ed McMahon. I didn’t regularly watch The Tonight Show back when it was hosted by Johnny Carson, but if I had watched it enough, I might have picked up on co-host Ed McMahon’s habit of saying “Hiyo!” to draw attention to a joke or insult made by Carson. Here’s an Urban Dictionary definition that explains it:

An expression originally coined by Ed McMahon during his sidekick status on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.

These days, it now is used to follow a witty response or comment to insult someone or “zing” them…
“Dad said I should be over 6 ft tall in a few years”.
“Yeah, but he also said you were going to be intelligent, but that never happened….HIYOOOOOOO”.
#hiyo #zing #clever response #humorous #funny
by Debasser! August 23, 2010

If this connection is legit, then hiyo has gone from being a general insult highlighter, to a more specific usage of highlighting a sexual insult, to a somewhat more general usage of highlighting any sexual double entendre–and along the way got absorbed into the hey yo stream, ending up with a different vowel in its first syllable. However, I would also expect to be able to do searches like “so hard hiyo” or “go down hiyo” like I did for hey yo and find at least a few hits. So far, I haven’t gotten lucky (hiyo!).

If hey yo is in your vocabulary, how do you spell it, and what does it mean to you?

Posted in Ambiguity, Lexical semantics, Music, Taboo, TV, Variation | 3 Comments »


Posted by Neal on December 1, 2016

This post began as an exploration of a head-scratcher of a sentence I heard on an episode of Radiotopia’s Criminal podcast. In it, a woman described being an inmate in a prison that housed both men and women. (She described it as a “co-ed prison,” which is worthy of comment in itself, but not the main thing I was interested in.) The men greatly outnumbered the women, which was good for her, because she was addicted to drugs, and could do favors of the sexual kind for male prisoners who had them. Or as she put it:

I’d be whoever’s girlfriend had the dope.

Sheer context allowed me to twist this sentence into a shape that matched (for me) the meaning she was getting at:

I’d be the girlfriend of whoever had the dope.

or perhaps

I’d be whoever had the dope‘s girlfriend.

Context notwithstanding, the only meaning I can get from the actual utterance is that:

  1. Some person X has girlfriend Y.
  2. Y has the dope.
  3. The speaker will somehow become Y.

Was this simply an error, or is it something licensed by the mental grammars of other English speakers? I’ll table that question for now, because in the course of trying to answer it, I’ve discovered there’s another oddity involving the possessive form of whoever that I’d never even noticed–and as far as I’ve been able to tell so far, others haven’t, either.

Take a look at this handful of COCA examples I found that contain a fused relative involving whoever’s:

  1. Ronnie is whoever’s agent he needs to be.
  2. Now take the dead battery and put it in whoever’s car you got the good one out of.
  3. It happened on the second month of his presidency. He went on for 94 more months with whoever’s blood was in him.
  4. …playing strip poker in whoever’s house had no parents in it on rainy days
  5. whoever’s brain is highest in coherence dominates. do you believe this? whosoever’s brain is highest in chaos will dominate if brains are like crowds, or greed,

In these sentences, the fused relative performs a grammatical function in the larger sentence. For example, in (1), whoever’s agent he needs to be is the complement of is. In (2), whoever’s car you got the good one out of is the object of the preposition in. And so on.

Now I want to focus specifically on the heads of the free relatives: the whoever’s followed by the noun: agent, car, blood,…. Notice that this noun is the part that delivers the primary meaning to the verb in the larger sentence (or as linguists call it, the matrix clause). In (1), Ronnie is an agent. In (2), the command is to put something in a car. In (3), Ronald Reagan has someone’s transfused blood in him. In (4), we’re talking about playing strip poker in a house. And in (5), the thing that dominates is a brain. I’ll call this the “noun head” parse.

So far, so good. Now let’s consider these other sentences, also from COCA:

  1. it feels like they are living the life of whoever’s brain was recorded.
  2. Whoever’s pitch is chosen will earn a major promotion.
  3. Or we’ll each pick a [Jeopardy!] contestant at the beginning and whoever’s contestant wins doesn’t have to do dishes.
  4. But they knew that whoever’s DNA this was would be the killer.
  5. Whoever’s shack this is, is a Tupac Shakur freak.

In these examples, it’s not the nouns (brain, pitch, contestant, DNA, shack) that provide the meaning that completes the meaning of the verb in the matrix clause. So in (6), it feels like we’re living the life of the person whose brain was recorded–not the life of the brain of that person. In (7), it’s a person, not a pitch, that will earn a major promotion. In (8), the person who doesn’t have to do the dishes is not the Jeopardy! contestant, but the TV watcher who chose that contestant. In (9), the killer is a person, not that person’s DNA. In (10), the Tupac Shakur freak is a person, not that person’s shack. In short, in these examples, it’s the whoever’s that’s providing the main meaning to the matrix clause. I’ll call this the “pronoun head” parse.

All of these sentences are grammatical for me, but possessive fused relatives are so rare that I’ve only ever had to deal with one such sentence at a time. This COCA search was the first time that I came face-to-face with the two ways of parsing them, because it was the first time I had so many all in one place. Furthermore, the even split you see in the lists above is what I found in the data: After I discarded irrelevant examples, and examples that were ambiguous between the noun-head and pronoun-head parses, the ones I’ve listed here were all the ones that remained.

For completeness, I also did the search with the much rarer whosever, and what do you know, of the two relevant examples I found, there’s one of each:

  1. then match up the plaster casts with whosever shoes they are, and that way you could catch him
  2. Whosever pole lands the straightest and farthest wins.

In (11), we have a noun-head parse: You match up plaster casts with shoes, not with people. In (12), we have a pronoun-head parse: The winner is a person, not a pole.

I looked in CGEL, expecting to find that the interesting discovery I’d just made was listed as a matter of course on page 1302 or somewhere. That’s what usually happens. But CGEL didn’t even touch on whoever’s/whosever at all, much less the details like the kind I’m discussing. I haven’t found it in some classic works on fused relatives (e.g. Bresnan & Grimshaw 1978, for those who are into this subject). If you know of anything that’s been published on this, please mention it in the comments!

Posted in Ambiguity, Fused relatives, Pronouns | 6 Comments »

Classroom Debate

Posted by Neal on October 15, 2016

Me: So what did you guys do in history class today?

Adam: We had a debate on which was more effective, Progressives or Populists. I argued for Populists.

Doug: Why did you say Populists were more effective?

Adam: Because I was sitting on the left side of the room, and Mr. Ridgway said that people on the left would be–

Doug: Wait, what I meant was—

Me: Ha! An attachment ambiguity involving an extracted adjunct! Nice!

Doug: –what reasons did you give for why Populists were more effective?

Adam: Oh! Because they drew from a lot of parties: Socialists, Marxists, and others. Also, they paved the way for the Progressives like Woodrow Wilson…

While Doug and Adam continued their conversation, I thought about the question Doug had intended to ask Adam:


The WH adverb Why at the beginning of the sentence has a subscript 1, indicating that it corresponds to the GAP category on the other side of the diagram. This GAP category appears where it does because that’s where you’d expect an explanatory phrase or clause to appear, such as because they drew from a lot of parties: Socialists, Marxists, and others. A clause like that basically takes the entire sentence Populists were more effective and turns it into a bigger sentence, which is shown by the lower S node spanning Populists were more effective, and the upper S node spanning both that and the GAP category.

The connectivity between the WH words and the gap is informally called extraction. I’m deliberately avoiding calling the gap an adverb or adverb clause, though, because I’m reserving the term adverb to refer to words such as confidently, never, and fortunately. To refer more generally to adverbs, adverb phrases, prepositional phrases and subordinate clauses that modify verb phrases or sentences, syntacticians typically use the term adjunct. Hence my appreciative remark about an extracted adjunct.

Anyway, here’s the question Adam took Doug to be asking:


The words are the same, but this time the GAP category takes the inverted sentence did you say Populists were more effective and make a larger Sinv out of it, as you can see by the stacked Sinv tents. It’s looking for an answer to the question of why Adam said what he said; in this case, the answer was that the teacher just divided the class down the middle and had one side take one position and the other take the other.

Although in English, extracted adjuncts can give rise to ambiguities like this one, some languages mark the difference overtly. For example, if we had conducted our conversation in the Mayan language Kaqchikel, instead of containing an inaudible gap, the question would have had the particle wi to show where the adjunct took scope, kind of like this:

  1. (Doug’s intended question) Why did you say Populists were-wi more effective?
  2. (Adam’s interpretation) Why did you say-wi Populists were more effective?

Alas, we weren’t speaking in Kaqchikel, so we just had to rely on context, which in this case gave insufficient clues.

Update, Oct. 16, 2016: Added some clarifying details.

Posted in Adam, Attachment ambiguity, Doug, Fillers and gaps, Inversion | 1 Comment »

Don’t Believe Me Just Watch

Posted by Neal on March 12, 2016

I’ve been thinking about “Uptown Funk,” the song b Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars that spent fully one quarter of the year 2015 at the top of the US Billboard chart. You’ve heard it, of course. There was no escaping it two years ago. But if you need a memory refresher, it went like this:

The hook consists of Mars singing (in this order) the five words don’t, believe, me, just, and watch. But which of the following three structures is the one that Mars has in mind?

  1. [If you] don’t believe me, just watch.
  2. {You] don’t believe me? Just watch.
  3. Don’t believe me; just watch.

We could answer the question easily with a look at the official sheet music, couldn’t we? Of course we could, but do you want the easy answer or the fun answer? That’s what I thought.

[If you] don’t believe me, just watch.

When I first heard the song, I interpreted the hook this way, without questioning it. I took it as a heavily elliptical conditional sentence, which has suppressed not only the if, but also the subject you. Kind of like how if you snooze, you lose became you snooze, you lose, and ultimately the telegraphic snooze you lose. Or maybe a better example would be Mess with the bull, get the horns, where the main clause get the horns has also lost its subject.

The more I thought about it, though, the less certain I was about this interpretation, because just watch is pretty clearly a command, but in all my comparable examples, the main clause was a declaration. You lose is a declaration. Even in Mess with the bull, get the horns, where there’s no explicit subject for get the horns, it’s clearly a statement. It doesn’t mean that if you mess with the bulls, you’re obligated to get the horns; it means you will get the horns.

Don’t believe me? Just watch.

That’s when it occurred to me that what I might be hearing was an elliptical yes/no question. These abbreviated questions can omit the auxiliary verb if it’s clear from the context (as in 1-4 below), or the auxiliary verb along with the subject, if the subject is you (see 5 and 6). Negative elliptical questions like this are interesting because in them, you omit the subject you while keeping the negated auxiliary verb, which has to be contracted (see 7-9).

  1. [Does] anybody want to play cards?
  2. [Has] everyone used the bathroom?
  3. [Is] Kim sitting here?
  4. *[Can] anyone give me a hand?
  5. [Do you] like it?
  6. *[Does anybody] want to play cards?
  7. [You] don’t believe me?
  8. *[You] do not believe me?
  9. *[You do] not believe me?

This question-plus-command structure is essentially an imperative conditional, functionally equivalent to If you don’t believe me, just watch. To comply with the command, you have a choice. You can believe Mars, thus negating the if clause, or you can watch him. You could even take the “trust but verify” option of doing both: believing him and watching him.

Don’t believe me; just watch.

Unless, of course, Mars had our third option in mind, and is saying, “Don’t take my word for it–see the evidence for yourself!” In this interpretation, Don’t believe me is neither an elliptical conditional missing an If you, nor an elliptical question missing just a you. Instead, it’s just an ordinary imperative, like the second clause. To comply with these two commands, you no longer have the option of simply believing Mars and being done with it. He’s ordering you not to do that, and to watch him as well.

So which is it?

During the four-and-a-half minutes of the song, Mars sings the DBMJW refrain a total of 18 times. Ruling out the first interpretation for the reasons I stated above, that leaves the question/command combination and the double command. Based on science, I conclude that the first through fourth utterances, the eleventh and twelfth, and the fifteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth are question/command combinations, and the remaining instances are pairs of commands.

Don’t believe me … ?

Posted in Ambiguous song lyrics, Music | 1 Comment »

She’ll Tell Them All!

Posted by Neal on January 20, 2016

It’s 2016, and summer will be here in a few short months. Time to start planning your vacations! At least, it was time to start for one Reynoldsburg resident, who went to the school district website to find out when school started for the 2017 school year. She was taken by surprise when she found that the first day of school would be August 10. Had she read right? Was it really August 20? No! August 10 it was. Who decided that?

She put the question on Facebook, and the comments came streaming in. I followed them, not only because the start date affects my family’s summer plans, too, but also because I was elected to the school board last November, just took office a couple of weeks ago, and have been appointed to the board’s calendar committee. I’ll be one of the people making decisions about starting and ending dates for future school years. At one point, someone suggested that the school board’s calendar committee would be the appropriate people to complain to, and then the comment thread took a turn for the funny:


Louis and Lisa’s repartee hinged on a nice syntactic ambiguity made possible by the oddity of the English word all. All is funny. What part of speech is it? The easiest classification to make is to call it a determiner (D), when it appears before plural or non-count nouns to make a noun phrase, as in all cows eat grass. But the kind you’re more likely to encounter is in sentences like They all laughed at me when I said I wanted to be a comedian! or Gimme all your lovin’. It’s still a determiner, but it’s not functioning in the same way. It’s appearing in places where you can’t use other determiners: Notice the badness of *They none laughed at me and *Gimme some your lovin’.

Louis’s original comment has all modifying the pronoun them: Don’t just email some members of the committee your complaints; email all of them! (I’ve changed email for the more common verb tell, but the analysis is the same.)
The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language analyzes them all (or us all or you all) in sentences like this as a compound pronoun.

Slight detour: I was surprised to learn that CGEL did not go with a similar analysis for a sentence like They all laughed at me. In a sentence like that, they classify all as a quantificational adjunct–in other words, it’s acting like an adverb. Here are some differences they point out between they all with a quantificational adjunct and compound pronoun them all:

  1. Quantificational adjunct all can go with pronouns or nouns. All as part of a compound pronoun does not allow non-pronouns.
    • Quantificational adjunct: They all laughed. / The guys all laughed.
    • Compound pronoun: She saw them all. / *She saw the guys all.
  2. You can insert an adverb between a pronoun and quantificational-adjunct all. However, you can’t break up a compound pronoun with an adverb.
    • Quantificational adjunct: They all definitely laughed. / They definitely all laughed.
    • Compound pronoun: She definitely saw them all. / *She saw them definitely all.

Returning to Louis and Lisa’s exchange, Lisa chose an alternative parse for Louis’s comment. She took all to modify my opinions.
CGEL‘s name for something that comes right before a noun phrase that’s already complete (such as my opinions) is predeterminer.

This ambiguity between whether all associates to the left with them all, or to the right with all my opinions reminds me of squinting ambiguities such as Quitting smoking now greatly reduces risks to your health. It also reminds me of the time a cashier asked me, “Is that all for you?” and I was like, “That’s none of your business!”

Anyway, I’m sure that we members of the calendar committee will all hear all of Lisa’s opinions on the school calendar–and other people’s opinions, too. I’m looking forward to it!

Posted in Attachment ambiguity, Ohioana, Pronouns | 1 Comment »

Superior Complements, Superior Adjuncts

Posted by Neal on August 31, 2015

Adam is a high-school freshman this year, and is now a member of the school’s marching band. Over the weekend, I had to take him in to get measured for his bibbers and jacket. While he was busy with the band’s uniform chair, I noticed this message on the whiteboard in the uniform room:

We're inferior to you!

I stared at this message for a good half-minute or so, trying to figure out what it meant, because I couldn’t believe the writer actually intended to send the message this sentence seemed to be sending–that the band members’ parents and even the band director himself, Mr. Jason Gibson, were inferior to the band members themselves. We were telling a group of teenagers, in essence, “We’re not worthy!”

Having been a band parent for several years now, I knew the significance of the word superior: It’s the word associated with a “1” rating in an Ohio Music Education Association competition. A rating of “2” is “excellent,” and a “3” is merely “good”–basically, “thank you for participating.” I see from the OMEA handbook that there are also ratings of 4 “fair” and 5 “poor,” though I’ve never seen those awarded. I guess bands that are fair or poor know it, and don’t bother coming to the competitions. In any case, band boosters (that is, the band parents and other supporters) love to work superior into any words of encouragement to the band. Instead of saying, “Have a great season,” they’ll say, “Have a superior season!” Get it? Score lots of “superior” ratings at the competitions.

These competitions are a big deal. In fact, many band members and boosters see halftime shows at football games as mere rehearsals for the competitions. If a band gets enough “superior” ratings at OMEA local or regional competitions, it qualifies for the OMEA state competition. (By the way, in central Ohio, when a marching band or sports team qualifies for a state-level competition, they are said to be “going to states,” plural. Not “going to state,” as you may have heard in Friday Night Lights or in your own high school days. I take this to be an analogical extension of “regionals,” which is plural in my dialect. Of course, although there can be several regional competitions, there’s only one state competition, but I guess morphological regularity trumps logic here.)

Last year, the Raider Marching Pride did, in fact, make it to states. It was no small feat, either, given that two weeks of practices had to take place without the direction of Mr. Gibson, who with most other teachers in the district was on strike. The student band leadership and the band boosters stepped up to keep things going during that time.

At states, though, the Marching Pride fell short of a “superior,” earning an “excellent” instead. This message on the board must have gone up as a message of consolation. Remembering that, I had enough pieces to recover the intended message:

In the opinion of these parents and Mr. Gibson, you are all superior!

In syntactic terms, the ambiguity hinged on whether to these parents and Gibson was a complement to superior, or an adjunct to it. When I took superior as an adjective that required a to-phrase to complete it by designating the inferior party, I was taking to these parents and Gibson as a complement. (The mnemonic I use to remember this is that complement and complete come from the same Latin root.) But for the intended meaning, superior doesn’t need a complement to complete it. All by itself, it has its specialized meaning of “worthy of a rating of 1.” In that case, the phrase to these parents and Gibson is an adjunct, because it simply adds some extra information: “in our eyes, in our opinion, as far as we’re concerned.”

This year, though, there’s no strike looming; the show is shaping up to be awesome; the band is ahead of schedule; and Adam’s in it playing baritone! We are anticipating superiority.

Posted in Adam, Adjuncts and complements, Ambiguity, Ohioana | 2 Comments »

Content with Nothing

Posted by Neal on April 4, 2015

Today’s newspaper had a story from AP about one Dylan Miller, a college student in Pennsylvania who has been living, Thoreau-like, in a hut in the woods since last summer, as part of a research project. As I read in the article:

The title of his project–Content with Nothing–carries a double meaning.

Of course it does. It’s the old ambiguity between the quantificational meaning and the state-of-affairs meaning. Why don’t we let Miller explain it for us? He starts with the quantificational meaning (emphasis mine):

We can’t be content with anything, really. Nothing can make us content; we’re always looking for something else,” Miller said.

In other words, there exists no x such that we are content with x. Now how about the state-of-affiars meaning? Miller explains this one, too:

“And then the solution, content with nothing, means we are content with having nothing. We don’t look externally for satisfaction or desire luxury. So the whole project is how to get to that final state of contentment.”

"The title has a quantificational meaning, and a state-of-affairs meaning!"

I call this the state-of-affairs meaning because in it, nothing means the state in which we have nothing, or nothing exists. Miller expressed it more concisely by using a gerund phrase: having nothing.

Miller seems pretty taken with the double meaning in his project title. Maybe he hasn’t been sensitized to quantifier/SOA ambiguities; he’d’ve only been five or six years old when the “show about nothing” aired its last episode. And I’m pretty sure he didn’t stop by my 2011 LSA poster presentation on the subject, either.

Posted in Quantifier/SOA ambiguity | 2 Comments »

Succeeds at Neither Entertaining Nor Informing

Posted by Neal on February 26, 2015

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

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

Succeeds at Neither Entertaining Nor Informing.

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

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

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

I’ll represent the meaning Doug intended like so:

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

And the second meaning that I got, like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

She succeeds at not entertaining.

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

She doesn’t succeed at entertaining.

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

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

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

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

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

He Conquers Who Endures

Posted by Neal on November 29, 2014

I saw this on the back of a T-shirt when I was at the grocery store:

He conquers who endures.

Too bad for those people who endure. Even after all their endurance, they get conquered in the end. He, whoever “he” is, is a patient conquerer.

However, I suspect the wearer of the T-shirt probably didn’t realize that this was the meaning it was conveying. He probably thought it meant something like “The person who endures conquers,” or “He who endures conquers.” (Or to put it more gender-neutrally, “They who endure conquer.”) But that would mean that two unusual things were going on in this sentence. Neither of them is unprecedented, but both of them happening in one short sentence is noteworthy.

First, the clause who endures would have to be a relative clause modifying he. This doesn’t happen so much in present-day English. The best-known example in recent years is probably the epithet He Who Must Not Be Named for Voldemort in the Harry Potter novels. And even here, speakers didn’t realize they could change the He to Him when the name was a direct object, as observed by Q. Pheevr here.

Second, this relative clause who endures is separated from he. Now sometimes relative clauses do get separated from their head nouns: a book was published that would be read for centuries by countless generations; a woman appeared who was also carrying her head in her hands; What type of workers were there who participated in building the Pyramids. However, this usually happens when the subject of a clause would be ridiculously long if you refused to break it up. He who endures is just three words.

With my interpretation, though, there’s only one unusual thing going on: who endures isn’t modifying a noun at all, but is acting like a noun phrase all by itself. This is somewhat unusual, but not terribly so. It’s unusual because this kind of clause (known as a fused relative), more typically refers to things than to people. In other words, although sentences like That’s what I want and What you did was inexcusable are common enough, fused relatives like this one and the one in Who told me was my dad are somewhat rare. Exceptions include Can I help who’s next? and To whom it may concern.

Overall, then, my parse is the better choice syntactically. After a bit of internet-searching, though, I found that this is a translation of a Latin quotation from an ancient Roman satirist named Persius, although the opinion seems to be that he wasn’t being satirical when he wrote this:

Vincit qui patitur.

People who explain this quotation talk about the need for persistence in order to achieve victory, which definitely sounds more like the “They who endure conquer” interpretation. OK, so maybe it’s possible that I chose the incorrect interpretation for that guy’s T-shirt. But now I can write about how Latin is more precise than English, and you pick up this ambiguity in translation! Except that the same ambiguity exists in the Latin phrasing. Here’s how…

Vincit means “conquers”. Like its English translation, it can be transitive (as in Omnia vincit amor, “Love conquers all”) or intransitive (as in In hoc signo vinces, “By this sign you will conquer”), so you have to use the context to tell whether a nearby noun phrase is a subject or direct object. Usually in Latin, case endings do this, as illustrated below:

Vincit rex. “The king conquers.”
Vincit regem. “He/she conquers the king.”

Qui patitur means “who suffers (or endures)”, and it’s acting as a fused relative, just like its translation in English. Even in Latin, though, we can’t tell if that fused relative is a subject or an object. It’s the same problem that confuses English speakers about whoever and whomever. So actually, what we have here is a translation that is faithful even in preserving the ambiguity of the original!

Posted in Ambiguity, Fused relatives, Pronouns, Relative clauses | 8 Comments »

Sleep Like Death, Death Like Sleep

Posted by Neal on May 19, 2014

The boys, the wife and I watched the latest episode of the rebooted Cosmos last night. About 10 minutes in, Neil deGrasse Tyson began talking about the idea that life on Earth may have begun by arriving on meteorites. It’s known that rocks from Mars, for example, have ended up on Earth this way. It’s also known that some bacteria are able to survive in space, as proven by bacteria that survived a stint traveling on the outside of the International Space Station. Finally, it’s known that some bacteria can survive for a long time without a food source. On this point, Tyson talks about some recently revived bacteria found in Antarctic ice:

Even more amazing are these creatures, awakened from a death-like sleep of eight million years…

I was interested to hear Tyson put it that way, because I’ve also been hearing another person talking about death-like sleeps recently, but she phrases it differently:

Did you hear that? She said:

Before the sun sets on her sixteenth birthday, she will fall into a sleep like death!

Both phrases are talking about a sleep, not about death. We know this from the context, and from the fact that the verbs fall and awaken collocate more strongly with sleep than with death. But they’re phrased in completely opposite orders from each other! Furthermore, it’s syntactically possible for each phrase to be referring to death, not to a sleep. No, I haven’t actually found any examples of this, but it could happen, OK?

Here are the structural differences all sorted out. The diagrams on the left refer first to a death that is like sleep, and then to a sleep that is like death. In these parses, the adjective like is looking for a noun-phrase complement on its right to form an adjective phrase. The diagrams on the right refer to a sleep that is death-like, then to a death that is sleep-like. Here, the adjective like forms a compound adjective with the noun phrase on its left.

Dead, or Just Resting?

The situation reminds me of Shel Silverstein’s “snake eating cake”.

Posted in Attachment ambiguity, Compound words, Diagramming, Movies, TV | Leave a Comment »