Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Focus-sensitive operators’ Category

Only the Celebrity’s Name

Posted by Neal on June 13, 2011

I was reading an article in the newspaper last week about how celebrity-written novels are almost always ghost-written. It’s kind of funny how insistently celebrities will say they really wrote the novels themselves, and then still admit they used ghost writers. This passage made me laugh:

When [Snooki] Polizzi appeared on Today in January, Matt Lauer asked, “Did you really write this book?”
“I did,” Polizzi said, “because, if you read it, you’ll know the first page that I wrote it — ’cause, like, it’s all my language.” (When pressed further, she admitted she had a co-writer.)

This one, too:

[Hillary] Duff … said in an interview that she came up with the plot and characters. … “It is my story,” Duff said. “It is my book. I wrote it, and she helped guide me through the process.”

But this sentence was quite surprising to me:

When the typical celebrity novel is published, only the celebrity’s name is printed on the book cover.

No kidding? They seriously leave off the title? I thought the celebrity’s name usually went above the title, and in a bigger typeface than the title, but always, there was a title. Looking at the pictures accompanying the article, I could see that Snooki’s book had “SNOOKI” across the top, but underneath was the title, A Shore Thing. Nicole Richie’s book clearly had the title Priceless on it. Turning again to the text, I read on:

Generally, publishers think two names on a cover is a turnoff to readers, especially in fiction.

Aha! It’s another case of only scoping not over an entire noun phrase, but on something within the noun phrase. In 2009, I wrote about thinking the sentence Only the manly men came in meant that no women came in; the only people who came in were men (and manly ones at that). Really, it meant that, in addition to whatever women may have come in, the only men who showed up were manly ones. I was thinking only scoped over the manly men, but really it was scoping over just the adjective manly. This time, I thought only was scoping over the noun phrase the celebrity’s name, but really it was scoping over just the possessive noun celebrity’s.

Once again, it just goes to show that even following the rule of placing only closest to what it modifies won’t always make things clear.

Posted in Books, Focus-sensitive operators, Scope ambiguity | 8 Comments »


Posted by Neal on March 2, 2011

In one of Grammar Girl’s podcasts, I came across a term that was unfamiliar to me: the squinting modifier, a modifier placed so that it’s unclear whether it’s modifying something just before it or something just after it. Her example:

Children who laugh rarely are shy.

Are we talking about laughing rarely, or rarely being shy? A genuine ambiguity, although the name didn’t make sense to me, and Grammar Girl didn’t explain its origin. To me, this is just a variety of attachment ambiguity. In the attachment ambiguities I’ve talked about before, it was a question of whether a modifier phrase attached “low” or “high”, but both possibilities had it looking backward for what it modified. (Refer to the tree diagrams in the other posts under this category to see how “low” and “high” make sense.) For example, in I resolve to call her up a thousand times a day, we could be talking about a thousand calls (low) or a thousand resolutions (high), but either way, the modified phrase is before the modifier a thousand times a day. In a squinting ambiguity, it’s a question of whether the phrase attaches forwards or backwards. So to my mind, a more transparant name would be forward/backward attachment ambiguity. But what does that have to do with squinting?

It turns out squint has a meaning I never knew. When I think of squinting, I think of this:

I checked to see what the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage had to say on the subject. It was skeptical that such a thing was found very much in the wild:

The squinting modifier resides chiefly in college-level handbooks. … [In our opinion], the squinting modifier is more of a theoretical possibility — with, it must be admitted, a catchy title — than a real problem. It would seem most likely to occur when a split infinitive is being carefully avoided by putting the would-be splitting adverb ahead of the infinitive….

Their reasoning was that a native English speaker would not write, for example, rarely are shy; they’d write are rarely shy, unless they’re trying to follow some half-baked rule about not letting adverbs split up whatever they think they’re not supposed to split. Well, I’ve seen squinting modifiers. They’re real. They’re out there, and in sentences that weren’t written with an eye toward avoiding splitting infinitives or other things. A couple that I’ve had sitting in the draft posts:

Quitting smoking now greatly reduces serious risks to your health.
Place the appliance on a hard, flat level surface only to avoid interruption of airflow underneath it.

In the first sentence, does the now modify quitting smoking, or greatly reduces serious risks to your health? For real-world reasons, we know it modifies quitting smoking: Otherwise it would be implying that previously, quitting smoking didn’t greatly reduce serious threats to your health. In the second example, does the only modify hard, flat level surface, or to avoid interruption of airflow underneath it? Well, if it modified to avoid interruption…, it would be saying in essence, “There’s only one reason you should be placing this appliance on a hard, flat level surface, and that’s to avoid interruption of the airflow underneath it. Otherwise, place it on a surface that isn’t hard, flat, and level.”

Hmm. Well, I guess MWDEU‘s point still stands after all. Even though both meanings were phrased in a natural way, the ambiguity was still only a theoretical possibility in each, this time because of real-world knowledge.

But that still doesn’t answer my question: Why are these things called squinting modifiers?

Through Google Books, I tracked the term back to George Campbell’s The Philosophy of Rhetoric, published in 1776. Here’s what Campbell said:

Apparently, Campbell thought he was explaining the term by telling what I already knew: The modifier could attach forwards or backwards. But he did give a clue: squinting construction is a calque (i.e. a term borrowed from another language, but translated first) of the French term construction louche. In my French-to-English dictionary, louche is translated as “cross-eyed,” as well as “ambiguous, suspicious.” It’s related to the verb loucher, which means to slant, or wander, like an eye that can’t focus correctly. Now that made some sense: A modifier that seemed to be looking in two directions. My question now: Why was louche translated into English as squinting?

The answer turns out to be simple: Because squint can mean to be cross-eyed, and also to be wall-eyed. The earliest definition in the OED is “To have the axes of the eyes not coincident, so that one or both habitually look obliquely; to be affected with strabismus,” followed by “To look with the eyes differently directed; to glance obliquely or in other than the direct line of vision; also, to glance hastily or casually, to peep,” and a couple of definitions later, “To move or branch off in an oblique direction.” My definition isn’t in there at all, but I know I’m not the only one with that meaning for squint: I got my narrowed-eyes illustrations by doing a search for squint in Google Images.

So squinting modifier (or squinting construction) is an apt name after all, if you have the right definition for squint. I never did until today. Did you?

Posted in Ambiguity, Focus-sensitive operators, Prescriptive grammar | 14 Comments »

Even Goes Where Only Can’t

Posted by Neal on April 12, 2010

Even and only have a lot in common. They’re both members of a class of words called focus-sensitive operators, items whose meaning depends on the intonation of the phrase they’re in. They behave so similarly that you can make jokes by swapping one for the other. In his album That Was the Year That Was (the same one with “National Brotherhood Week”), Tom Lehrer sang about New Math (or as they call it now, math). In the refrain, he declared,

It’s so simple … so very simple … that only a child can do it!

Recently, though, I’ve noticed something even can do that only can’t. As a preview, here’s an example of what even can do that arrived in today’s Sunday paper, in the Stone Soup comic:

Look! The dog doesn’t even want it!!

I don’t have the technology to paste in the strip, but you can look for it in the Stone Soup archive (April 11, 2010), or you can read Mark Liberman’s post about this strip on Language Log, although he’s commenting on it for a different reason.

Do you see what even is doing that only can’t? If not, read on.

I’ve written about only before, in the sentence

Squiggly only ate chocolate.

I brought up this sentence in a review of Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. One meaning of this sentence is that all Squiggly ever did with chocolate was eat it. Specifically, this is the meaning you get if you put the focal stress on ate: Squiggly only ate chocolate. Another meaning, and the one that grammar mavens would like to disallow for the sentence, is that all Squiggly ever ate was chocolate. This is the meaning you get if you put the focal stress on chocolate: Squiggly only ate chocolate. Unfortunately, the way focal stress in English works, in Squiggly only ate chocolate, the stress on chocolate could indicate focus on just chocolate, or on the entire VP ate chocolate. If the focus is on the entire VP, then the meaning is that the only activity Squiggly ever engaged in was to eat chocolate.

As a side note, it’s probably this kind of ambiguity that leads writers on language to urge us to put only right next to the word it modifies. In the Squiggly/chocolate sentence, if you want to modify chocolate, you should write Squiggly ate only chocolate. That’s good advice, but it’s a matter of style, not grammar. Squiggly only ate chocolate may be ambiguous, but the “ate nothing but chocolate” reading is still perfectly grammatical. Furthermore, this emphasis on what word is being modified causes grammar writers to overlook the possibility that only might be modifying an entire phrase (e.g. ate chocolate) rather than a single word (such as ate).

Last year, I wrote a post on a similar sentence with the word even:

Stewart even hit Phil on the nose.

In this sentence, even could modify just hit: Stewart did a lot of things to Phil’s nose, the most amazing or outrageous of which was that he hit Phil on it. Alternatively, even could modify just Phil: Stewart hit many people on the nose, up to and including the unlikeliest victim, Phil. (Grammar mavens would require it to be phrased hit even Phil.) Or, even could modify the phrase on the nose: Stewart hit Phil in a lot of places, including the most unlikely place, on Phil’s nose. Finally, even could modify the entire VP hit Phil on the nose. That would mean that of all the socially unacceptable things Stewart did (or courageous things, or unpredictable things), the most surprising was to hit Phil on the nose.

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Posted in Ambiguity, Focus-sensitive operators | 8 Comments »

Time to Get Even

Posted by Neal on April 1, 2009

I have some advice to share today with all the people who have asked me for tips on how to improve their writing. There’s a lot of advice out there, but personally, I have found that nothing will do more to sharpen your writing than learning the proper placement of even. For that reason, I am happy to present my first annual blog post on even.

(A side note: If you’re writing about a special event that is the first of its kind, let’s say the Veeblefester Family Reunion, and you think there’s even a chance of its becoming an annual occurrence, the best practice is to call it the first annual event of its kind. You don’t want to be in the ridiculous position, a year later, of announcing the Second Annual Veeblefester Family Reunion when there hasn’t been a first one. You could retroactively call the previous year’s reunion the First Annual VFR, but that tactic is sloppy, and best reserved for events that one doesn’t envision recurring, such as the Great War/World War I.)

Did you say A Hawaiian punch, or SOME Hawaiian punch?Learning where to place even is quite simple, really. You just need to place it as close as possible to the word it modifies. Let’s take an example. Suppose there’s a fight in the schoolyard. The teacher on duty investigates, and finds that Stewart hit Phil on the nose. In fact, she learns that:

Even Stewart hit Phil on the nose.

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Posted in Focus-sensitive operators, Prescriptive grammar | 9 Comments »

Only the Manly

Posted by Neal on February 7, 2009

noodle12“You’d never catch me sticking my bare hand down a hole like that!” Laura said, as she ran the clippers over the back of my neck. Jim and Stan, two of the other barbers, were sitting in the waiting chairs talking about an outdoor activity that I’d never heard of called noodling. Noodling, I learned, was the sport of catching catfish with just your hand, usually by sticking it into a likely-looking hole in a creek and, if you were lucky enough for a catfish to bite it, pulling out the catfish by its jaw. Part of the thrill was not knowing what might be in one of these holes. Instead of a catfish, it might be nothing at all, or a muskrat, or a snapping turtle. In fact, Stan said, the guy who’d introduced him to noodling was missing a finger — because of an incident involving a gun that he’d picked up by putting his hand over the muzzle.

Then talk turned to the snowstorm we had last week, the one that canceled two days of school for Doug and Adam. That got me to thinking about how many of the allotted “calamity days” for the school year had been used, and while I was doing that, I missed what Jim said next. Laura laughed and I came back to the present.

“Did you hear what they said?” she asked. “Jim and Stan and Harry all came to work that day, but Len was snowed in. So Jim said that only the manly men came in.”

“Ha!” I laughed, and then thought. Hmmm…

Only the manly men came in.

Laura seemed to be speaking from firsthand knowledge when she told me that Jim and Stan and Harry had come in. It sounded like she’d been able to make it to work that day, too. So if my intuition was right, it was not true that only the manly men came in: Only the manly men and Laura had come in!

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Posted in Focus-sensitive operators, Phonetics and phonology, Prescriptive grammar, Scope ambiguity | 2 Comments »

Kilpatrick’s Rule Works Only Sometimes

Posted by Neal on January 7, 2009

It’s January, and you know what happens in January, right?

Yes, yes, of course there’s the annual meeting of the Linguistic Society of America. That goes without saying. And of course, the concurrent meeting of the American Dialect Society, with its annual, headline-grabbing Word of the Year selection. I meant the other thing that happens in January: the publication of James J. Kilpatrick’s annual column on only! Here’s how it begins this year:

kilpatrick_jamesEvery January for 20 years I’ve written an “only” column. The theme’s the same: No little dog trick of the writer’s art will sharpen your style quite so effectively as the proper placement of “only.” And its mastery is no trick at all.

The annual illustration remains the same. Several schoolboys get into a fistfight. They are hauled off to the principal’s office. There we learn that (1) only John hit Peter in the nose, (2) John hit Peter only in the nose, (3) John only hit Peter in the nose, and (4) John hit only Peter in the nose. The elements of the offense are now clear. Punishment may be fairly administered. Justice has been served.

The trick is to snuggle the limiting “only” as closely as possible to the noun [sic] it modifies. It works every time.

Kilpatrick’s example is clever, and does illustrate the difference that the placement of only can make. And when he says to put only as close as possible to the noun it modifies, I’m sure he meant word, since Kilpatrick certainly knows that hit is a verb, and in a preposition. The trouble is that Kilpatrick’s rule doesn’t work every time. (And when I say it doesn’t work every time, I mean that it is not the case that it works every time, not that it never works.) He is assuming, and leading his readers to believe, that the only things that only can modify are words. In fact, it can modify whole phrases. Allow me to repeat some of what I said in my review of Grammar Girl’s book. (If Kilpatrick can recycle chunks of his material, so can I. And I don’t even get paid for it!)

[I]n the entry on misplaced modifiers, Fogarty gives these two sentences:

Squiggly ate only chocolate.
Squiggly only ate chocolate.

Both sentences are grammatically correct, but they don’t mean the same thing. Fogarty argues that the second sentence means “all Squiggly did with chocolate was eat it. He didn’t buy, melt, or sell it. He only ate it.” Indeed, it can mean this—if you say it with the emphasis on ate. However, it can also mean that all Squiggly ever did was eat chocolate; he never played baseball, wore sweaters, or drank cappuccino in Italian restaurants with Oriental women. How will you know the difference? By intonation and context. And this where Fogarty falls into the same trap that ordinary grammar mavens fall into: In spoken English, intonation is part of the grammar that tells you what only is restricting. In only ate chocolate, the word only can apply to just the verb ate (Fogarty’s reading); to the entire verb phrase ate chocolate (my alternative reading); and indeed, to just the direct object chocolate (the supposedly incorrect reading that means the same as Squiggly ate only chocolate). Certainly, if you can reduce ambiguity in your writing by judicious placement of only, you should do so, but there are cases where ambiguity persists regardless of how carefully you position the only. Fogarty’s failure to recognize this could confuse readers who wonder why Squiggly only ate chocolate can’t mean that all he ever did was eat chocolate, and leave them less confident than before on how to handle only.

Similar comments apply to only hit Peter in the nose.

Aside from the ambiguity that can’t be eliminated by careful placement of only, there’s another ambiguity in Kilpatrick’s example that can be eliminated this way. In his sentence (2), only is not modifying just the preposition in — unless we allow that it needs to be established that John hit Peter in the nose, not above it, below it, or around it. But of course, that’s unrealistic, you say. When would a situation ever arise where we had to make a distinction like that? I agree, not often; but Kilpatrick is all about precision in getting exactly the meaning you want when you use only. If he wants only to narrow down just what parts of Peter’s body John hit, he should follow his own advice and put only as close as possible to the noun it modifies, and write John hit Peter in only the nose. Now Kilpatrick could respond: “Only is limiting general regions of the body: in the nose as opposed to in the stomach, on the ears, or about the head and neck.” That’s fine. In that case, only is modifying neither the preposition nor the noun, but the entire prepositional phrase. And if you recognize (once again) that only can modify an entire phrase, then you have to admit that it’s syntactically ambiguous whether this particular only is modifying just the in that it’s next to, or the entire in the nose that it’s next to.

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Posted in Ambiguity, Focus-sensitive operators, Prescriptive grammar, Syntax | 9 Comments »

Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Book

Posted by Neal on July 20, 2008

Back in February, I wrote about the podcast Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. As I noted at the time, Grammar Girl (aka Mignon Fogarty) forgoes the ranting tone often taken by writers on grammar and usage (think James J. Kilpatrick) or punctuation (Lynne Truss), and instead provides friendly and humorous tips and mnemonics to improve your writing. Although Fogarty admits to having grammar peeves, and is sympathetic to the peeves of her listeners, she also says, “I often have to tell people their pet peeves aren’t actually hard-and-fast grammar rules,” and points out that the most fertile ground for grammar peeves is those areas where the rules aren’t so clear-cut.

The podcast has led to the publication of a book by the same name. If you like the podcast, you’ll probably like the book: It consists mostly of material taken from the podcast scripts, though with some material that seems to be new. Better yet, the entries are organized into chapters covering broad topics, which makes it easier to find all the entries on, say, word usage than it is on the website. If you’re unfamiliar with the podcast, you should know that despite her chosen nickname, Fogarty does not restrict her tips to just grammar. In addition to word choice and issues of syntax and word forms, the book covers punctuation, capitalization, online writing, and even how to generate ideas and overcome writer’s block. If it will in some way improve your writing, it’s fair game for Grammar Girl. Nevertheless, this book is not intended for people who make their living as professional writers, and who presumably already have other, more thorough references on their desktops. This is a guide for “everyday writers” who would like to write clearer memos, emails, blog posts, and the like.

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Posted in Focus-sensitive operators, Prescriptive grammar, Reviews | 7 Comments »