Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Ambiguity’ Category

Photogenic People Take the Best Pictures

Posted by Neal on September 26, 2018

Now that it’s Adam’s senior year in the marching band, a vinyl poster with a picture of him in uniform is hanging at the football stadium, along with posters of all the other senior band members, cheerleaders, and football players. My wife and I saw it at the first home game, and he looked really good in it. We’d been a little nervous, since Doug had been dissatisfied with how he looked in his senior band picture two years ago. At lunch the next day, my wife said,

Adam, you took a great picture!

“No, he didn’t,” I said. “The photographer took a great picture.”

I was amazed to hear that sentence, because only hours earlier, I had heard a similar sentence from an instructor at the gym. At the end of a class, the instructor was making some small talk with the participants, and she got to telling about how it didn’t matter what she was wearing or how she did her hair,

I take crappy pictures.

It instantly set off my syntactic tripwire: The teacher wasn’t taking the pictures. People with cameras took pictures of her. Yet here she was, making herself the subject of the verb phrase take crappy pictures. I was especially alert for sentences like this because at the time, I’d just finished writing a script for the Grammar Girl podcast (which I’ll link to when Mignon runs it). One of her listeners had asked about sentences like

This screw screws in easily.

and she’d passed it on to me to see if I could do something with it. I figured it would be a pretty quick piece to write. This kind of sentence is sometimes said to use the middle voice, since it has characteristics of both active voice and passive voice. On the one hand, the verb phrase looks to be in the active voice, with that active verb screws instead of the passive is screwed. On the other hand, the subject is not the do-er of the action (i.e. the agent); it’s the undergoer of the action (i.e. the patient), the hallmark of passive voice. (At least, it’s the hallmark when both an agent and a patient are involved. For verbs like die, which require only a patient, active-voice verb forms are expected.)

In addition to these characteristics, there are a couple of other things that linguists have noticed about these middle-voice sentences. One is that they often don’t refer to a specific event. Of course, sometimes they do, like the sentence talking about that time when the band photographer took a picture of Adam. But a more typical middle-voice sentence would be ones like these:

I don’t embarrass easily.

These cookies freeze well.

Our kit sells for $10.99.

Speakers of these sentences aren’t talking about particular embarrassments, or a specific time when they froze some cookies (even if they’ve done it many times), or all the times that someone paid $11 for their product. These speakers are more focused on saying something about themselves, or the cookies, or the item for sale.

This brings us to the next characteristic of middle-voice sentences: the subject gets the credit or the blame. In a prototypical active-voice sentence, such as

Kim took a picture,

the subject is not only the one taking the action (i.e. the agent), but is also the one exercising their volition. The subject is responsible for this action happening. On the other hand, in the middle-voice sentences, even though the subject isn’t the agent anymore, it is still at least partially responsible for pictures turning out great or crappy, or someone getting embarrassed, or the successful freezing of the cookies.

The third characteristic of middle-voice sentences is that they often have an adverbial element to them. In the example sentences we have easily and well. As with the event-reference tendency, there are exceptions that don’t contain adverbs. I tend to notice them in computer contexts:

Your receipt is printing.

The program is downloading.

And of course, our photography sentences don’t have adverbs. But look closer: Even these sentences manage to convey some idea of how the photographing goes, by modifying picture(s) with the adjectives great and crappy.

I wrote about all these kinds of sentences in the Grammar Girl script except for one: Sentences like You took a great picture and I take crappy pictures. These sentences have something that the others don’t: a direct object! In all the other sentences, this middle-voice construction takes a verb that’s ordinarily transitive and makes it intransitive, but in the two sentences I heard on that Saturday a few weeks ago, the transitive verb take is still transitive, taking the same direct object, picture(s) that it usually does. And instead of pictures becoming the subject, in a sentence like

*These pictures took well,

we have a noun taken from somewhere inside what would have been the direct object in an active sentence. Here, I’ll illustrate:

The photographer took a great picture of Adam.

Adam took a great picture.

The noun Adam is inside the of prepositional phrase, inside the direct object a great picture of Adam. In all the reading I’ve done on middle voice in previous years, and in the more recent reading I did in order to write the Grammar Girl episode, I haven’t come across this kind middle-yet-still-transitive sentence. I’ve tried to think of others, and so far I have only one candidate. It’s make, as in this pair of sentences:

My wife made a fantastic pie from these apples.

These apples would make a great pie.

Other examples, real or imagined, are welcome in the comments.

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Posted in Ambiguity, Passive voice, The wife, Verbal diathesis alternations | 4 Comments »

Through Houses They Had Never Been Through Before

Posted by Neal on June 30, 2018

It’s been a while since I wrote about things I noticed in books I read to Doug and Adam at bedtime. It started to be tough to do that when they started going to bed later than I did, and became just about impossible while Doug was off at his freshman year at college. But a member of the extended family is having a baby soon, and one of the gifts we’re sending is a book that the wife and I would read to them about 15 years ago. It’s Mr. Putter and Tabby Walk the Dog, by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Arthur Howard.

Pictured: Tabby, Mr. Putter, Zeke

We like the series because it has an adopted, aged cat in it; the mother-to-be will like it (we hope) because she likes English bulldogs, and will get a kick out of Mr. Putter’s neighbor’s English bulldog Zeke. Also, as I wrote inside the cover:

One of us particularly likes the ambiguity in the phrase "through houses they had never been through before"--look carefully at the illustrations both times it's used!

Here’s the first time: “He tugged Mr. Putter and Tabby through yards and creeks, and houses they had never been through before.”

The first time I read it, it was startling to read “through yards and creeks and houses”–what, was Zeke actually dragging Mr. Putter right through the front door and into and out of an individual house? Then I looked at the illustration and realized that Zeke was pulling Mr. Putter between two houses. In other words, the first time, “through houses they had never been through before” has a collective reading: Considering a group of houses all at once, Zeke pulled Mr. Putter through the group.

Now, here’s the second one: “The big dogs pulled them through yards and creeks, and houses they had never been through before.”
The big dogs pulled them through yards and creeks, and houses they had never been through before.Having gotten used to the idea of the collective reading, I was surprised and amused to see that this time, the illustration showed exactly the implausible distributive reading I had questioned before! This time, Zeke is pulling Mr. Putter right through a single house.

Lots and lots of research has been done on collective and distributive readings. I’ve been reading a 1996 paper by Brendan Gillon on the subject, and he even has an example with through: “Bill drove through the redwoods”, and imagines the distributive reading that involves Bill either destroying a redwood or using a tunnel. For more details, with a lot of mathy details, you can read Gillon’s paper. Or if it’s behind a paywall from where you are, you might like this set of slides from a presentation in 2009 from Eytan Zweig at the University of York.

Posted in Ambiguity, Books, Distributivity and collectivity, Kids' entertainment | Leave a Comment »

She Never Saw a Dog and Didn’t Smile

Posted by Neal on April 30, 2018

A tweet about a dog lover and friend of Los Angeles Parks named Nicole Campbell went viral yesterday. More accurately, it was a tweet about the message on a plaque memorializing Ms. Campbell on a park bench in LA. Here’s the tweet, from Twitter user Jen d’Angelo:

Like Jen, I feel bad for laughing at this memorial to someone who must have been a lovely person to know, and who was clearly loved and admired by the people who bought this plaque. But I can’t help chuckling at the message that so neatly manages to say (under one parse) the complete opposite of what it intended. The intended message, of course, was one that could also have been phrased who never saw a dog without smiling, or who smiled whenever she saw a dog–or to put it the way they’d do in a semantics textbooks, a statement confirmed by one of Campbell’s friends in a reply to d’Angelo’s tweet. But I’m still smiling at responses such as “Why didn’t someone just show this poor woman a dog?”

The sentence is a nice example of an attachment ambiguity, which I’ve diagrammed below. The intended reading is on the left, in which never attaches “high”, to the entire verb phrase saw a dog and didn’t smile. The funny reading is on the right, where never attaches “low”, to just the VP saw a dog.

I think one of the factors that makes the sober-faced dogless reading so easy to get is that under the smiling-at-dogs reading, you have to mentally expand the sentence out to

…who never saw a dog, and never didn’t smile.

Here, you get a double negative that actually is intended to be read as making an affirmation: She always smiled. Negatives like that are harder to parse, although you do get them for effect sometimes…

Posted in Attachment ambiguity | 4 Comments »

Whoever’s Team We Like

Posted by Neal on December 1, 2017

In a post from exactly one year ago, I began with a sentence that I’d heard on the “Criminal” podcast. Here’s the original sentence, followed by the way that I would express the intended thought:

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

In the original sentence, instead of the possessive ‘s attaching to the entire fused relative whoever had the dope, it attaches just to the word whoever, and takes the word girlfriend along with it. It was so unusual that I went looking for similar examples in COCA, although I ended up noticing something even more interesting that ended up taking over the rest of the post. Now, though, I want to get back to whoever’s girlfriend had the dope. As it happens, I did find an analogous example when I searched COCA. Here it is, with my paraphrase underneath it.

  1. I mean we want to have whoever’s team we like to win so that we can get lucky later.
  2. I mean we want to have whoever we like’s team to win so that we can get lucky later.

Looking at these two examples, one explanation that comes to mind is that it’s just easier to go ahead and put the possessive marker on whoever right away, and postpone saying the rest of the clause until it’s not breaking up a determiner-noun cluster. Unfortunately, it isn’t easy to check for counterexamples on COCA, because searching for whoever’s is not going to bring you any examples of whoever+[some clause]+‘s.

So instead, I did some ordinary Google searches for a few whoever clauses I made from scratch. I started with whoever as a subject, and found these examples:

  1. The picture itself wasn’t scary but it would strike fear in whoever saw it’s hearts.
  2. When we did have the odd beer thrown up on stage I just wish I could go to whoever did it’s place of work, if he actually had a job, and tip it over his head and think, ‘what do you reckon? Is it funny?’
  3. Dirt Clod, just lay off if you dont like it dont buy it, its whoever buys it’s deal
  4. Well sure, but then it’s still your (or whoever bought it’s) land, so you just turf them off.

Then I created a few with whoever as an object, and found more examples:

  1. You just closed your eyes and guessed the amount of cash you put into whoever you bought it from’s hand?
  2. Yeah like /u/cmedrano said you’d just need to add your vehicle to whoever you bought it from’s account.
  3. They’ll be signed on to the alliance in a day, and then we can track down whoever you saw’s planet.
  4. Whoever you saw’s gembox spawned in the 2 hours they were able to spawn.
  5. There is an upper management level above customer service, whoever you talked to’s boss would be in that level, but they don’t generally speak directly to customers.

Evidently, some speakers are not put off by the inconvenience of putting the possessive ‘s at the end of a clause instead of directly on the whoever. How about you?

Posted in Ambiguity, Fused relatives, Pronouns | 1 Comment »

/(h)ej(ː)o/

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:

Hey-O
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:

Hiyo
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 »

Whoever’s

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 | 7 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:

whydidyousay1

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:

whydidyousay2

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 | 2 Comments »

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:

FB_AllMyOpinions

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.)
ThemAll
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.
AllMyOpinions
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 »