Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Ambiguity’ Category

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 | 1 Comment »

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

Image Provided By:

Image Provided By:

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

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

Succeeds at Neither Entertaining Nor Informing.

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

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

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

I’ll represent the meaning Doug intended like so:

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

And the second meaning that I got, like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

She succeeds at not entertaining.

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

She doesn’t succeed at entertaining.

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

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

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

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

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

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 »

Thoughts on Just Because X Doesn’t Mean Y

Posted by Neal on April 4, 2014

On her Grammar Girl podcast this week, Mignon Fogarty is running a guest script that I wrote on the just because X doesn’t mean Y construction, a thriving piece of English syntax that has come into its own in the last 50 years or so. My favorite example of JBX-DMY is

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

In this post, I go into some of the details that didn’t make it into the script. First off, quite a bit has been written about this construction; the sources I read while writing the Grammar Girl script are:

Weird syntax
JBX-DMY is so common that it’s easy to overlook that it doesn’t follow the regular syntactic or semantic rules. On the syntactic side, what’s the subject of doesn’t mean? Is it the just because clause? Or is it an understood subject that sometimes gets pronounced, as in Just because it’s easier to raise VC money, that doesn’t mean you should, or Just because it’s wrong, it doesn’t mean it’s not funny?

Weird semanticsFor comparison, let’s look at more regular sentences that contain just because. For example, think about the scope of the “cause” meaning and the negation meaning in Bill isn’t speaking to me, just because I served him a cat-food sandwich as a joke. Depending on the intonation, we can get two readings. I’ll illustrate them by using the notation CAUSE(A)(B) to mean that A caused B. With the intonation suggested by the comma I put in the sentence, we get this reading, with CAUSE taking scope over the negation:

CAUSE(serve cat-food sandwich)(NOT(speaking to me))
(i.e. my serving Bill the CFS caused him to not speak to me)

Without a pause before the just because, and with a a rise-fall intonation at the end of the sentence, we get a reading with a wide-scoping negation:

NOT(CAUSE(serve cat-food sandwich)(speaking to me))
(i.e. Bill is speaking to me, but for reasons other than my serving him a CFS)

However, when we put the just because clause in front, as in Just because I served him a cat-food sandwich as a joke, Bill isn’t speaking to me, the only reading we get is the wide-scoping CAUSE.

Now consider just because X doesn’t mean Y. In passing, let’s note that just because is now not talking strictly about cause and effect, but about inference. This is not unusual in and of itself, because “inferential because” is a well-known phenomenon. For example, you can say, “Classes just let out, because the hallways are full of students,” but not mean that the crowded hallways caused classes to let out. What you really mean is that the fact that the hallways are full of students allows you to infer that classes have just let out. But what’s interesting about just because X doesn’t mean Y requires that NEG scope wider than (inferential) CAUSE, just the opposite of our cat-food sandwich example:


Variations on the just because and the doesn’t mean
Another point made in several of the articles is that JBS-DMY requires neither just because nor doesn’t mean to work. You can do it with simply because, or in the right context, plain old because. And instead of doesn’t mean, you’ll also hear other negations, such as is no reason to, or doesn’t make, or even rhetorical questions that imply a negative answer.

Just because with of complements, and “because X”
By analogy with ordinary because and because of, Kanetani observes, the just because construction now has a variant with just because of, as in

Just because of his dominance doesn’t mean they’re going to win games of footy or win or the clearances. (link)

The much-talked-about because X construction (in which X is something other than a full clause, such as a noun phrase, an adjective, a participle, or an interjection) has also now been folded into the analogy. Taking the top result from Tyler Schnoebelen’s listing of the most common words to appear in tweets after because, I did a search for “just because YOLO doesn’t mean” and found numerous examples like Just because YOLO doesn’t mean you can act like a moron.

Hilpert believes that the origin of the unusual semantics of JBX-DMY followed a sequence like this:

  1. Unremarkable sentences beginning with just because were already in the grammar, and some of them happened to have negated main clauses; for example, Just because I served him a cat-food sandwich as a joke, Bill isn’t speaking to me.
  2. Such constructions eventually came to be used with the inferential CAUSE meaning rather than a pure causation meaning.
  3. Finally, the inference-denying meaning of today’s JBX-DMY.

There’s a problem, though. In step 1, the semantics has CAUSEcausation>NOT, as discussed earlier. In step 3, the semantics has NOT>CAUSEinference. So there are two changes that have to happen in between: the scope change, and the change from causal to inferential just because. Whichever of those changes happens first, we end up with something that doesn’t seem to have the appropriate meaning, as illustrated below:

Just because he’s my nephew I didn’t hire him!
(Desired meaning impossible: that I hired my nephew for non-nepotistic reasons.)
Just because the streets are wet, it didn’t rain.
(Desired meaning impossible: that the sole fact of wet streets allows us to infer that it rained.)

I think a more likely progression is suggested by Bender and Kathol’s paper. Noting that there is flexibility over how the DMY part gets negated, imagine a sentence like this, in which the speaker seems to question the validity of an inference:

Just because I let him borrow my computer once, he seems to think he is allowed to use it any time he wants to.

The semantics here is the straightforward one you’d expect: For the sole reason that I let him borrow my computer once, he thinks he can use it whenever he wants. The negation, which is unspoken, permeates the whole utterance: This guy is wrong to think he can borrow my computer any old time now. From here, it’s a short step to turn that implied negative he seems to think into an actual one:

Just because I let him borrow my computer once, he shouldn’t think it’s his to borrow whenever.

Now we have NOT>CAUSEcausation, which we couldn’t get in our nepotism example. From here to that doesn’t mean doesn’t seem quite such a jump now. Subsequent elimination of the overt subject that or it, Hilpert argues, was due to the mostly empty meaning of the pronouns, plus the phonetic similarity of their final /t/ and the beginning /d/ of doesn’t. This part of his argument I’m inclined to believe.

Update, April 14, 2015: Doug was re-watching Iron Man this afternoon, and I heard this line of dialogue, uttered by bad guy Obadiah Stane to Tony Stark:

Do you really think that just because you have an idea, it belongs to you?

Without the framing rhetorical question of Do you really think…?, this is a straightforward instance of causal just because: if you have an idea, that makes it yours. But inside the rhetorical question, the clear meaning is that simply having an idea doesn’t make it yours. It’s an example, in the wild, of the type I was describing in the original post.

Posted in Scope ambiguity, Syntax | 2 Comments »

Sara Squint

Posted by Neal on February 21, 2014

In an issue of Entertainment Weekly a few weeks ago, I read an article about Sara Bareilles, a name I recognized from a music video that used to play on the overhead TVs at the gym, back when I used to go to the gym. The song was called “King of Anything,” and aside from having a good hook, it piqued my interest with the mismatch between its title and its lyrics. The title suggested “free-choice anything,” as in “I can do anything I want!” But in the song, it turns up in a line in the chorus: “Who made you king of anything?” Bait and switch! This is negative polarity anything! I even considered blogging about it at the time, but never got around to it.

However, this article wasn’t about “King of Anything.” It was about “Brave,” a song Bareilles released last year, and which was nominated for a Grammy. I found it, listened to it, and bought it. Not only is it a great tune with inspiring lyrics, but as a bonus, there is linguistic commentary to be made on it.

First of all, there’s the Lehrer-worthy rhyme in the first verse:

You can be amazin’, you can turn a phrase in-
to a weapon or a drug.

Love that enjambment!

As you can tell from the title, the theme of this song is bravery, but it always appears (as in the title) as the adjective brave, even in this line, where Bareilles shamelessly turns brave into a noun:

Show me how big your brave is!

By itself that’s not worth a blog post, but since I’m blogging anyway, there it is. The main things I wanted to comment on were from the chorus, which goes like this:

Say what you want to say
And let the words fall out
I want to see you be brave!

The first time she sings it, she leads into it smoothly from the last line of the previous verse, like this:

I wonder what would happen if you
Say what you want to say

I was just talking to my ESL students about open and remote conditionals last week, after having them watch my video about them. What tense is would, I asked them? Right, past. And what time is this sentence talking about? The future. So what kind of conditional is it? Remote: We’re talking about something that’s not likely. Since what would happen is the main clause of a remote conditional, we also expect a past tense in the if clause, to continue showing this remoteness. What we get, though, is say what you want to say, in the present tense: an open conditional. Why did Bareilles say that instead of said what you want to say? The students came up with several good answers:

  1. The way Bareilles does it, you get the repetition of say at the beginning and end of the line.
  2. It’s easier to put emphasis on say, with its open syllable, than on the closed syllable said.
  3. Maybe it’s a stand-alone sentence, not part of an if-clause. (This is definitely true for the later repetitions of the chorus; for here, it’s probably done for consistency.)
  4. In addition to all that, maybe she’s aiming for the semantic difference, starting with a phrasing showing that something is unlikely to happen, and then changing her mind and ending with more confidence that it can and will happen. (OK, that one was mine.)

Finally, let’s look at the Honestly in the chorus. It’s a squinting modifier! Or as I like to call these constructions, a forwards-backwards attachment ambiguity. Should we parse it as

And let the words fall out honestly

or as

Honestly, I want to see you be brave!

Both parses make sense. The song is about telling the truth, so you could easily take honestly as a manner adverb to modify let the words fall out. However, honestly also works as a sentential adverb, like frankly or seriously, so the second parse works, too. In fact, this is the first squinting ambiguity I’ve seen in which the adverb works as both a manner adverb and a sentential adverb.

So which one is it? You don’t get a clue from timing, because in the song there’s a pause both before and after honestly. Of the few written versions of the lyrics that I looked up, most don’t have punctuation there, but they do break the lines so that honestly goes with I want to see you be brave, so I suspect they’re going with the sentential-adverb parse. But honestly, I think the manner-adverb parse is better.

Posted in Ambiguous song lyrics, Attachment ambiguity, Conditionals, Music | Leave a Comment »

Don’t Follow to Unfollow

Posted by Neal on February 9, 2014

“Don’t follow to unfollow,” said the last line in the Instagram profile.

What did that mean? It seemed to be saying, “To unfollow me, simply don’t follow me!” But that interpretation didn’t make sense!

Morphologically and semantically, the prefix un- doesn’t work that way. When you attach it to a verb, it refers to reversing an action. So unfollowing someone wouldn’t mean simply not following them; it requires that you follow them first. In fact, even that verb meaning makes sense only with the reversible social-media sense of follow: In Instagram, Twitter, or whatever app you’re using, follow means “click a button once to add someone’s updates to your news feed”; unfollow means to click again to remove them. In real life, though, following isn’t a reversible action. The closest you can come is to stop following someone. The reverse of following would be … what? Following their footsteps backward to find out where they started? In any case, you can’t unfollow someone on social media without first following them.

But wait, you say: Untied shoes can be shoes that were never tied! The unopened can of chocolate-covered peanut brittle like the one my wife gave me tonight had never been opened. (It’s open now.) This is true, and it’s because of the other way that un- can be used: It can prefix an adjective to form the negation of that adjective. So untied is not the verb untie with the suffix -ed turning it into an adjectival past participle; it’s the adjectival past participle tied, with the prefix un- giving it the meaning “not having been tied”. As for the verb untie, you don’t untie something by leaving it alone. It has to be in a knot already, and you remove the knot. For more on all this, read Ben Zimmer’s 2009 Boston Globe column.

“Don’t follow to unfollow”–was it a Zen thing? Kind of like “The only way to win is not to play”? I decided to ask Doug and Adam, who are more familiar with the latest trends in this area.

“Oh, I hate when people say that!” Doug said. “Some will even say, ‘Don’t unfollow, I have the app.’ “


Some people, Doug explained, advertise that they will follow anyone who follows them; “follow back,” in the parlance. Right, I said.

Some other people, Doug went on, will follow those people, and then when those other people follow these followers back, the original followers will turn around and unfollow the people they just followed.


To get their follower-to-following ratio up! So when people say “Don’t follow to unfollow,” what they mean is, don’t pull this kind of funny business.

Suddenly, it clicked into place for me. It was an attachment ambiguity. I had been interpreting to unfollow as a purpose infinitive modifying the imperative Don’t follow, as in the diagram on the left. In actuality, to unfollow was modifying just the verb follow, as in the diagram on the right.

The reading I was getting

The reading I was getting

The reading I was supposed to get

The reading I was supposed to get

Even if I had parsed the sentence correctly, though, my interpretation wouldn’t have been right. In my grammar follow to unfollow makes even less sense than my earlier interpretation. It means, “In order to unfollow me, follow me!” The intended meaning is really “Don’t [[follow to get me to follow you back] and [then unfollow me]]. A shorter phrase that would probably also work: Don’t [follow only to unfollow later]. Actually, that does get a few Google hits, but only 28, compared to the thousands for “Don’t follow to unfollow.”

But all this really brought home a kind of sad side of social media that I hadn’t been aware of. First of all, that there are people who care so much about their following size, and believe that so many others share the sentiment, that they promise to follow everyone back. They don’t care how dull or stupid anyone’s stream of content is; they just want that person to follow them. Second, that some of these people try to break the rules of this pitiful game by buying a follower and then stopping payment. Third, that players of this game are so invested in their bogus follower numbers that they send out pre-emptive threats: “Don’t follow to unfollow; I have the app.” The app, I’m assuming, is Who Unfollowed Me? or something like it, as the guy in the video describes. These apps typically advertise how easy it is to unfollow those that unfollow you, as if that’s just naturally the next step to take when you find out that someone unfollowed you. What next? Apps that find out who unfollowed you, and then force them to refollow you?

Now that I understand Don’t follow to unfollow better, I guess my original interpretation could work after all. The users who don’t want me following and then unfollowing really would prefer that I did my unfollowing by never following in the first place: To unfollow, don’t follow.

Posted in Attachment ambiguity, Lexical semantics, Morphology, Negation | 6 Comments »

Getting Away Without It

Posted by Neal on January 27, 2014

When the previous blast of arctic air passed through last week, it put enough snow on our driveway and sidewalk that I really should have shoveled it, but it wasn’t enough to force me to do it in order to get the car from the garage to the street. And, you know, I was in a hurry… I knew I’d regret it later, as I backed the car down the driveway and looked at my tire tracks cutting through the blanket of snow. It would be icy and compacted there when I eventually did shovel.

But when I got home that afternoon, I saw that someone had shoveled our sidewalk! I guessed it was good karma kicking in from the times I’d shoveled the sidewalk in front of our next door neighbors’ houses. No more snow had fallen, and this snow was kind of the dry, crunchy kind, so it wasn’t really a slipping hazard on the driveway and walk to the front door… And a couple of days later, it was even starting to melt!

Then the weekend came, and the current cold snap hit us, kicking off with another couple of inches of snow. I drove Doug to school on Tuesday morning, and as we backed down the driveway, I looked at the fresh set of tire tracks in the fresh layer of snow.

“Until last night,” I said to Doug, “I was like, ‘Wow, I totally got away without shoveling the driveway!’ ”

Thirty seconds later, I asked Doug, “Would you have said ‘got away without shoveling,’ or ‘got away with not shoveling’?”

“‘Got away with not having to shovel,’ ” Doug said.

Interesting. On the one hand, we have a division between the string get away with and the thing that you’re not supposed to do: not shoveling. That’s right, you’re not supposed to not shovel. On the other hand, I took the with from one side of the break, and the not from the other, and combined them into the negative version of with: without. Could I do that? Is getting away without something even a thing?

The OED has the expression get away with as a piece of American slang dating to the 1878. As I had imagined, the earliest examples have get away in its sense of escaping some situation, and to “get away with X” meant to make your escape while in possession of X, often something you’re not supposed to have. Here’s the OED‘s example from 1886:

They got away with the pennant three successive seasons.

The modern examples have a more abstract meaning of simply not being punished for something, without a physical escape from a place required. The nouns that show up in them are more abstract, too, such as shoddy work or murder. To further tease out the meaning difference between this usage and the current one, let’s compare how they can be paraphrased:

  1. Newer use
    1. He got away with (doing) shoddy work.
    2. She gets away with (committing) murder. [Note: Inserting the gerund takes away the figurative meaning, so that we’re saying she gets away with actual murder. However, this is often the case with idioms, and the literal meaning is available with both phrasings.]
  2. Older use
    1. He got away with (*doing, *making) $1,000,000.
    2. She got away with (*doing, *making) the artifact.

In short, the meaning has shifted from escaping a place while possessing something you shouldn’t possess, to escaping punishment for doing something you shouldn’t do. The OED‘s first attestation of get away with with this more abstract meaning is this one from 1912:

In the Elizabethan days you could assault the watch..and have a jolly set-to with the blades in any convenient angle of a wall and ‘get away with it’.

As for get away without X, that goes back to about the same time as get away with X. I found this example in Google Books from 1882:

Was it a clean job if he was caught in the act, or if he got away without being caught? If he got away without being caught it was a cleaner job. (Link)

Two things to notice about this early example of get away without X:

  1. Even though it already has an abstract noun for X (being caught), it still has a comparably literal meaning to the older get away with X: something like, “escape from a situation without X occurring.”
  2. It just means not getting caught; it does not mean not getting caught and never suffering undesirable consequences for it.

For comparison, here’s a more modern example of get away without X from 2011:

Likewise, it is an affront to honest taxpayers that one, let alone most, of the clients of John Mathewson’s Cayman Islands bank got away without paying.

Going through the above two points in this later example:

  1. It has followed the same concrete-to-abstract path as get away with X: The meaning here doesn’t involve physical escape.
  2. Unlike the 1882 example, it doesn’t just mean the clients didn’t pay; it means they never suffered undesirable consequences for not paying.

Summing up, it looks like getting away without X is indeed a thing, and whether you choose it over getting away with X depends on whether you think of X as something you shouldn’t do or something you should do. If I had been thinking of not shoveling snow as an act in itself that I should not do, get away with not shoveling might have been the better choice. But thinking in terms of shoveling snow being something I should do, I chose get away without shoveling. The only choice that’s not available is referring to X with the pronoun it if you’re using the without version of the expression: You can’t “get away without it.”

In any case, I’m not getting away with not shoveling or without shoveling anymore. After the additional six inches we got over the weekend, I’ve now shoveled our walk and driveway twice in 48 hours!

Posted in Ambiguity, Ohioana, Syntax | Leave a Comment »

How to Talk to Drug-Free Kids

Posted by Neal on January 18, 2014

I was listening to Terry Gross interview Gabriel Sherman, the author of a book on the history of Fox News founder Roger Ailes. Sherman was talking about TVN, a precursor to Fox News that ran for a time in the 1970s. Its producers wanted to provide a counterweight to the liberal media, and consulted extensively with conservative groups as they tried to hammer out how they would run the program. Summing up, Sherman said,

They were basically saying, “How do we package the news that is going to appeal to a conservative audience?” (13:34)

If it’s news that already appeals to a conservative audience, I thought. why is how to package it such a big question? In the context of the story, of course, the actual meaning was “How do we package (any) news in such a way that it will appeal to a conservative audience?”

I remembered the title of an article I’d seen advertised on the cover of a Reader’s Digest one time:

How to raise drug-free kids

Step one, I had thought at the time: Acquire some kids who are drug-free. Step two: Raise them. Like the sentence from Gabriel Sherman, this sentence was ambiguous between two readings:

    How to VERB NOUN with PROPERTY X

  1. (Intended meaning) Let y be a NOUN; how to VERB y such that y comes to have PROPERTY X
  2. (Stupid meaning) Let y be a NOUN with PROPERTY X; how to VERB y

But standing in the checkout line, looking at a Reader’s Digest cover, I had been in an ornery mood, looking for an obtuse reading of the title. The intended meaning was one that the grammar licensed, even though I was overlooking it for my own amusement. Listening to the interview with Gabriel Sherman, I was just interested in hearing about this Roger Ailes guy, but the goofy reading was still the one that jumped out at me. In fact, now that I think about it, I don’t think the quotation was ambiguous after all. The only available reading is the unintended one, and the intended, resultative meaning is delivered only by sheer force of context, in the same way that I’d know that We had a talk about our son with drugs actually meant “We had a talk with our son about drugs.” So my question is: Why are both readings available with the Reader’s Digest title, but not with the Gabriel Sherman quotation?

Here are the syntactic and semantic differences between the two quotations that I notice:

  1. finite (do we package) vs. infinitive (to raise)
  2. relative clause (that is…) vs. adjective phrase (drug-free)
  3. creation nature of verb: package (no) vs. raise (yes)
  4. definite noun (the news) vs. generic (kids)

Flipping these conditions one by one in the Sherman quotation, I judge that the resultative reading becomes available when package is swapped for a verb whose meaning involves creating something. Red font indicates that the resultative meaning is unavailable; green font that it is available:

  1. (original) How do we package the news that is going to appeal to a conservative audience?
  2. (finite > infinitive) How to package the news that is going to appeal to a conservative audience
  3. (relative clause > adjective phrase) How do we package the conservative-appealing news?
  4. (ordinary verb > verb of creation) How do we create the news that is going to appeal to a conservative audience?
  5. (definite noun > indefinite noun) How do we package news that is going to appeal to a conservative audience?

How about when we do the same thing to the Reader’s Digest title? When does the resultative reading here become unavailable? As expected, it looks like replacing the creation-verb raise with a non-creation verb (talk to) bars the resultative meaning. Furthermore, changing the indefinite drug-free kids to the definite the drug-free kids also makes the goofy reading the only one available.

  1. (original) How to raise drug-free kids
  2. (infinitive > finite) How do we raise drug-free kids?
  3. (adjective phrase > relative clause) How to raise kids who will stay off drugs
  4. (verb of creation > ordinary verb) How to talk to drug-free kids
  5. (indefinite > definite) How to raise the drug-free kids

To sum up, you need a verb of creation and an indefinite direct object in order to be sure of having a resultative reading in sentences like these. Sometimes you can get the resultative reading even with a definite object (as in How do we create the news that…), but it doesn’t always work (as in how to raise the drug-free kids). I still don’t know why the definiteness of the direct object makes a difference, at least in these two examples, but that’s as far as I’m pushing the issue tonight.


Ten years ago today, I published my first blog post, on my brother Glen’s blog, where I continued to post for several months. In June of 2004, I had the opportunity to be a guest on The Volokh Conspiracy, and used the platform to announce my own blog, on the Blogger platform. A year or so later, I moved the blog to WordPress, where it has been ever since. (And the old Blogger web address has been taken over by a spam blog, which remains there to this day, with a final, spammy post from November 21, 2007 up top.) Thanks to all the readers over the years, and especially to those that have been reading the whole time, or close to it: The Ridger, Ellen K, Ran Ari-Gur, Ingeborg Norden, Ben Zimmer, Gordon Hemsley, and Glen are those that come most immediately to mind, as I post my 806th post today.

Posted in Ambiguity, Lexical semantics, Politics | 1 Comment »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 851 other followers