Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Lexical semantics’ Category

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 »

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 »

Conditional Imperfection

Posted by Neal on November 15, 2013

“Rocco was doing it again today,” Adam told Doug at supper one night. His classmate Rocco has a habit of making contrarian claims, seemingly just for the purpose of arguing about them. “He was saying that Jews can be atheists.”

Maybe Rocco had some kind of idea that an atheist Jew would be something like a fasting carnivore, or a celibate homosexual (or heterosexual or bisexual), and hadn’t quite grasped the concept of criterial definitions. Or maybe he was thinking of Jew in a more cultural sense, like I just read about in this Wikipedia article. Whatever he had in mind, Doug and Adam weren’t buying it.

Adam tried to explain Rocco’s argument, not very satisfactorily, but that was because of the material he had to work with. He and Doug were laughing as they tried to dissect Rocco’s reasoning.

“You’re a Jew,” Doug said, “if and only if you believe in God!”

Well, you can’t say “if and only if” to a semanticist and expect it to pass unexamined. “So … Muslims are Jews?” I asked.

“No, Dad,” Doug explained. He then summarized for me the concept of only if, concluding, “You’ve out-literaled yourself!”

Later on, I drew a truth table for if and one for only if, and showed them to Doug. He found that, after all, he and I agreed about the meaning of only if. So what’s the difference between only if and if and only if, I asked.

“I don’t think there is one,” Doug said.

I drew up the table for if and only if, and Doug understood it, but in his opinion, in ordinary conversation, if and only if was just an emphatic way of saying “only if”.

“I’m with Doug on this one,” my wife offered. In a casual, dinner-table conversation, I shouldn’t have taken Doug’s if and only if in this technical sense.

Technical sense? This was my first inkling that there was more than one sense!

This weakening of if and only if to mean just only if is an interesting opposite to a pragmatic effect that Mike Geis and Arnold Zwicky named conditional perfection. Here’s the canonical example:

“I’ll give you $5 if you mow the lawn” taken to mean “I’ll give you $5 if and only if you mow the lawn.”

Now, in the opposite direction, we have

“You’re a Jew if and only if you believe in God” to mean “You’re a Jew only if you believe in God.”

I’m not totally convinced it’s real yet, though. I checked the spoken segment of COCA for if and only if and got a measly three hits. For what it’s worth, they all seem to have been used in the technical sense:

  1. Republicans in the house are embarking on their own effort, promising to cut spending and raise the debt ceiling if and only if both Houses of Congress vote for a balanced budget amendment in the coming days.
  2. We simply should never have been in the business of saying to a 16-year-old girl,’ If and only if you have a child out of wedlock, we’ll send you a check in the mail.’
  3. we may have now a normative principle that that action is legitimate if and only if it proceeds on this model through the U.N.

What do you think? Have you used, or heard others use, if and only if to mean only if?

Posted in Conditionals, Doug, Lexical semantics | 9 Comments »

All of Which

Posted by Neal on November 8, 2013

Picture from

Picture from

Last week was the last football game of the season for Doug’s high school. As such, it was “senior night,” when the seniors on the football team received a pre-game recognition. As I looked on, I heard the announcer say

…our senior players, all of which are donning their uniform for the final time tonight.

All of which?

I know that which hasn’t always been reserved for inanimate things. Just look at the Lord’s Prayer in the King James version of the Bible: “Our Father, which art in heaven….” But I’m not used to hearing it in present-day English. I suspect that the preposition is responsible, because speakers are trying to avoid saying whom but aren’t quite comfortable with saying of who, either. Actually, I was surprised at how much confusion there was on the issue in the answers to this question on One commenter even stated that friends, most of which was “technically correct,” but that he would say friends, most of whom only because he hated the sound of friends, most of which.

In COCA, I looked for sequences of a determiner (like all, some, none) or a number followed by of which, and found about 15,000 hits. Inspecting a few pages of hits, I found which with mostly inanimate antecedents, but I did turn up a few animate whiches:

  • Now you have got a field of candidates, some of which are perceived to be to his right.
  • …the increase has pushed illegal immigrants to the streets, “some of which go on to commit further crimes.”
  • This is what he said in confidence to his friends, one of which went to gossip to Don Honorato…
  • The task recorded by the helicopter’s night view camera was to try find and rescue survivors. Two of which were who were found bobbing in a life raft.
  • Well, but do you think that congressmen, the two of which I just cited, are they capable of moving beyond that calculation?
  • Between 1946 and 1966 more than 2,500,000 immigrants were admitted to Canada, 900,000 of which were sponsored.
  • According to British estimates in February 1949 the total number of former “Palestinians” — those who remained behind and those who fled — was around 900,000 of which 320,000 … now lived in the Jordanian territory in the West Bank or across the Jordan

Four of these are from spoken English, so it’s possible they were speech errors, or whom avoidance. But the other three are from fiction and academic prose, and in the academic stuff I don’t imagine whom avoidance would play a role. So it’s just possible that animate which lives on, at least after prepositions.

That wasn’t the only linguistic surprise last Friday night. One by one, the senior players marched to the middle of the field, as the announcer introduced them, and added “escorted by” and the name of their parents, or a parent. I did a double-take when one player walked out cradling a baby in his right arm.

I mean, really, doesn’t that seem to stretch the definition of escort?

Posted in Lexical semantics, Pronouns | 8 Comments »

Illegal Immigrants

Posted by Neal on October 15, 2012

With the recently re-ignited debate over the term illegal immigrant, I have heard all the arguments against using the term, including:

  1. It is politically divisive or inflammatory.
  2. It presumes guilt before due process has been done.
  3. It is inaccurate in characterizing people who entered legally but overstayed their visa, or did not come here of their own accord.
  4. It is nonsensical, because illegal refers to acts, not to people.

I will grant (1), and add that the same applies to the euphemistic undocumented immigrant (and the dysphemistic illegal alien). I will also grant (2), but add that this is fixable with the well-accepted use of alleged in cases where there is doubt. I will also grant (3). But as for (4), this argument is just plain silly, and grasping at straws.

I will grant that when illegal modifies a noun, that noun usually refers to an action. I will further grant that when it does modify a noun that refers to a thing, it usually means that the thing is illegal to possess, as in illegal drugs and illegal weapons. Using those collocations as analogies, we would expect illegal immigrant to mean an immigrant that it is illegal for someone to possess–in other words, a victim of human trafficking. That, of course, is not the meaning that it has.

In fact, that is a good argument (in addition to arguments about dehumanization) for abandoning the term illegal alien. However, that still doesn’t mean that illegal immigrant is nonsense. When the noun is the agentive form of a verb, and the adjective is the morphological analog of a manner adverb, there is a common, productive rule of semantic composition that gets you to the accepted meaning. Let me illustrate with an example unburdened by controversy. If I were to say, “Sandy is a deep thinker,” it would be willfully obtuse to say, “Hey, wait a minute! People can’t be deep!” If I were to tell you, “Lee is a beautiful dancer,” I could be telling the truth even if Lee’s face, when covered by a paper bag, could still make clocks lose two minutes per hour. In short,

dances beautifully : beautiful dancer :: thinks deeply : deep thinker :: immigrates illegally : illegal immigrant

Object to the term illegal immigrant on ethical, political, or legal grounds if you want to. But don’t resort to claiming the term embodies sloppy semantics, when it’s the most natural way to refer to someone who immigrated illegally. That just makes it look like you’ll accept any old argument that favors your side, and weakens the more valid ones.

Update, Oct. 16, 2012: Changed list item #2 from “were born here” (which I’ve known since elementary school automatically confers citizenship) to what I meant to say: “entered legally but overstayed their visa”.

Posted in Lexical semantics, Morphology, Politics | 17 Comments »

Guest Post: Reflections on the Words Love and Hate

Posted by Neal on June 29, 2012

In a first for this blog, we have a guest post, written by Elena Lathrop. Elena is a recent UCLA graduate with a B.A. in Sociology and a Linguistics minor, and a freelance writer. (In addition to having a freelance writer, she also is a freelance writer.) You can follow her on Twitter at @ElenaLathrop.

I studied linguistics at UCLA, and one of my favorite topics to study was historical linguistics, or language change. There is a phenomenon called hyperbole, in which words take on multiple meanings due to overstatement. Take the word kill for example. When you say that your back is “killing” you, do you literally mean it’s taking your life? Of course not. You just mean it’s bothering you. However, you can still use kill in its original literal sense. It still maintains that meaning. What differentiates the two meanings is context. Make sense? Or is trying to understand this “killing you”? If you know what I was trying to say in that sentence, then you get it. Awesome. Moving on…

I pay a lot of attention to language and the way people speak. It’s just what linguists do. We can’t even help it. My friends often ask me to analyze their speech and point out anything unusual or interesting about the way they pronounce certain words or their word choice. For example, I have a few friends who say /ɪɾ ̃ əɹɛstIŋ/ (in-ter-es-ting) instead of /ɪntɹəstIŋ/ (in-tres-ting). Recently, I’ve been noticing a phenomenon involving the words “love” and “hate”. They’ve undergone hyperbole, just like the word kill. As a woman, I can tell any of my female friends that I love them, and they won’t question my sexuality. I can even say it to my close guy friends, and they won’t question my motives or my true feelings towards them (well, as long as it’s already been established that it’s a completely platonic relationship). In these contexts, love simply means that you’re very fond of the person you’re saying it to and you value your friendship with him or her.

Think of love being said in a different context – the early stages of a relationship. Of course, if you say “I love you” to the person you’re dating in this circumstance, it will most likely not be interpreted with the “very fond of you/value our friendship” meaning. It takes on the stronger, more serious connotation of romantic love. Again, what’s important here is context, just like with kill. If you said “I’m going to kill you” to someone you’re pointing a loaded gun at, they’re likely to think you are actually about to take their life. However, if you said that same sentence after a friend pulled a funny prank on you, it would not be interpreted in that sense. Just like how real estate is all about location, location, location, semantics in linguistics is context, context, context.

Now on to the word hate, the antonym of love. This word has also undergone hyperbole, but in a slightly different way than love has. The end result is actually similar to what occurred with kill. If you were to text a friend and say “I hate you”, what are the chances that friend would take that literally and be worried they did something wrong? Probably pretty slim, as long as that friend knows you well and understands the concept of sarcasm. I jokingly say it to my friends all the time in attempt to be playful and funny. In this context, it’s basically sarcasm. However, hate has taken on another meaning as well. Consider this exchange, occurring on Facebook:

A (status update): Just finished my last final! Spending the rest of the day laying out on the beach
B (comment on the status update, from someone who isn’t finished with finals): I hate you.

In this type of context, hate means something more like “be jealous of” or “wish I were in someone’s position right now”. I’ve found, at least in my experience, that it can also mean you’re slightly angry or disappointed in a friend. For example, say a friend starts telling you about her incredibly awesome drunken night out, and you weren’t invited. You may something like “I hate you. You should have texted me!” Do you really mean that you now hate your friend due to such a trivial event? No. You’re just a little upset that they didn’t bring you along, but your friendship is still intact.

So there you have, in a nutshell, the evolution of the words love and hate, and the new meanings they have taken on. You may be asking yourself if this is a bad thing. I’ve heard plenty of people complain about this, saying that the word love has been devalued and reduced to some lesser form. Similarly, many people complain that hatevis a strong word and should not be used so freely. Frankly, linguists couldn’t care less about these types of complaints. Our job is to sit back and watch language evolve without making judgments on what it has become and if it’s a good or bad thing. It’s natural and inevitable for words to change meaning in this way, which is why I personally don’t criticize the phenomenon. Words change meaning. It happens. And everyone is entitled to their opinion on it…love it or hate it.

Posted in Diachronic, Lexical semantics | 2 Comments »

Ask the Cashier

Posted by Neal on March 4, 2012

I’ve been teaching academic writing at Ohio State University’s ESL Composition Program this quarter (hence the sparse blogging). After class one day last week, I stopped at a coffee shop that was right inside the building to get a Coke to go with my lunch. As I handed my money to the cashier, I noticed the sign on the register:

Ask him if I’d like a receipt? What was I supposed to say, something like “Uh, would I like a receipt?”

What kind of weird question was that? Then, to use a phrase I’ve used before, like a Necker cube flipping inside out, the phrase shifted to match its meaning. I’d been parsing it like in the diagram on the left, when really it was intended to be read like the one on the right:

In the diagram on the left, the subordinate clause if you want a receipt is a complement to the verb, just like the cashier. The role the cashier plays is the person who gets asked something, and the subordinate clause has the role of whatever question is to be asked. You can parse it this way because if is something like an honorary wh word, so subordinate clauses it heads up can go with verbs like ask or wonder: I asked {what he was doing / where they were going / whether there was any pizza left / if we were free to go}.

In the diagram on the right, on the other hand, the verb ask only has one complement: the cashier. The question that gets asked goes unspoken, and you have to get it from the context, the same as you would in sentences like Ask mom. The if-clause, meanwhile, modifies the whole thing, saying under which conditions you should ask the cashier whatever question you have. We can parse it this way because if can also be used in its regular old “if” conditional sense.

So the intended meaning was this: If the circumstance arise in which you want a receipt, ask the cashier something. From context, the most obvious question is, “May I have a receipt?”

Meanwhile, the food court in the new student union has it right:

Posted in Attachment ambiguity, Lexical semantics | 3 Comments »

Dip Your Card

Posted by Neal on December 9, 2011

Over at Visual Thesaurus, I have a column talking about how diphthong (or dipthong) has joined a family of dip-based insults, including dipstick, dipshit, and just plain dip. When I researched the column, I was surprised to learn that my imagined chronology for these insults was backwards. I first heard dipstick in the early 1980s, as my peers picked it up from Rosco P. Coltrane in The Dukes of Hazzard. When I later heard dipshit, I figured it was some kind of folk-etymology/eggcornization of dipstick by people who didn’t understand what was so insulting about the stick part, and figured it ought to be something legitimately taboo. Then when I started hearing dip in the mid-1980s, I thought it was simply a clipped version of (depending on the speaker) either dipstick or dipshit, done by speakers who were too embarrassed to say either of the longer words. But I’ve come to find out that dip probably originated in the early 1930s; dipshit came next, in the 1960s, and at about the same time or a little later came dipstick. At least, in its insult sense. The literal meaning was in use for quite a while prior to that.

But I could still be right, you know. I really never did hear dip as an insult until after dipstick and dipshit, so I think it’s at least plausible that the dip of the 1930s died out, only to be reinvented as a clipping of one of the dip compounds.

All this writing about dips reminded me of something I saw during our family trip to New York City during the summer. We stayed in Jersey City, where we went out to eat one night with Ben Zimmer’s family, and Doug and Adam played Cut the Rope with Ben’s son on Ben’s iPad. The next morning, we took the subway into Manhattan. At the station, we were buying a fare card at an automated dispenser, and paid with a credit card. When it was time to pay, the instructions on the screen said, “Dip your credit card.” But the slot to put the credit card into wasn’t vertical; it was horizontal! At gas stations where I live, this instruction is usually rendered as “Insert and withdraw credit card in one smooth motion.” In my lexical semantics, that meaning can only go with dip if the motion is vertical. The same goes for the programmers of the credit card readers, too, I think. Otherwise, why wouldn’t they opt for the four words of Dip your credit card over the eight words that I usually see? Is this a New York thing? A generational thing? Who else has noticed this semantic broadening?

Posted in Diachronic, Lexical semantics, Taboo, Variation | 4 Comments »

Don’t Beat Yourself Up

Posted by Neal on October 23, 2011

Last Friday I found myself talking with Sarah Wayland, a linguist at the University of Maryland’s Center for Advanced Study of Language, not so much about linguistics, but about another point of commonality between us: being a parent of a son (in her case, two sons) with an autism spectrum disorder. But of course, that topic soon turned back to matters of language. One of her sons, Sarah told me, had a tendency to criticize himself harshly, and she and others would tell him, “Don’t beat yourself up.”

Knowing, as you do, about the literal-minded tendencies that people with ASDs often have, you’re probably imagining this kid objecting that he wasn’t hitting himself. But he didn’t. He got the intended message just fine. That’s because he had had the good fortune never to have been beaten up, hadn’t seen people getting beaten up, simply hadn’t had the right kind of experiences tagged with the verb beat up to have that as its literal meaning. As far as he was concerned, “criticize harshly” was the literal meaning.

No one was the wiser until he came home from school a couple of times with stories of how “my teacher beat me up today.” Luckily, they got that resolved before police or social workers got called in.

I had never thought about how the phrasal verb beat (someone) up has only a literal meaning with most direct objects, but only a figurative meaning when it takes a reflexive direct object. Or does it? Let me just fact-check my ass…

The Corpus of Contemporary American English returns 170 examples of beat up with a reflexive pronoun for a direct object. Most of them are examples of the figurative “criticize” meaning, as I expected, but seven of them had a still-figurative but closer-to-literal meaning of “subject oneself to physical hardship or damage”. Four were from sports magazines; two were from musicians talking about the exertion of giving a concert (Billy Joel, Jon Bon Jovi); the last one was from Martin Scorsese talking about a drug abuse problem:

  1. The tendency is to beat yourself up with a 125-or 150-mile ride, then take the next day off.
  2. You have to be in great shape,’ he says. You beat yourself up every week. We use a lot of ibuprofen and Gatorade.
  3. Before, I’d do hill repeats and beat myself up until I was ragged and then recover in a few days….
  4. From the top, skiers look across into the glaciers of 11,000-foot Marmolada, the tallest peak in the Dolomites, and back down into challenging runs toward Arabba. After beating ourselves up on these steeps, we barely had time to zip through our fourth valley of the day, Canazei, and get back to Val Gardena at sunset.
  5. “This is not an easy job,” Joel said. “This is how you beat yourself up. You run around on the stage, you smash into things. I wake up with black and blue marks, scrapes and cuts. You’re so adrenalized you don’t realize it happened.”
  6. I have to think every night like I’m a prizefighter going out on that stage, that it’s going to be the last fight. You’d think, why would I beat myself up like that after 25 years?
  7. After it was released, he began abusing drugs, eventually winding up in the hospital from a near-fatal mixture of asthma medication and cocaine. Mr-SCORSESE: I beat myself up so much that the doctors said,’ You just have to stay here until we can — listen — look, you may get a brain hemorrhage at any moment.’

In addition to those somewhat-literal examples, I was surprised to find two fully literal ones. The first one is from a Geraldo Rivera TV show about people with multiple personalities, and the other from a police-beat section of a newspaper:

  1. Woman 3: Thank you. How can you beat yourself up with concrete and not realize you’re hurting yourself? Even though it’s a different personality, it’s the same body.
  2. A man beat himself up and got arrested for it about 10:30 Sunday evening. He is 21 and was very intoxicated and unruly, a witness said, when he began hitting himself in the face with his fists.

So reflexive beat up can have a literal meaning after all; in this corpus, it happened 5.3% of the time. Now, what about beat up with non-reflexive pronouns? Does it ever occur with a figurative meaning?

I found 30 examples of beat up with indefinite pronoun (somebody, someone, anyone, everyone, no one, etc.), all of them literal; that is, 0% figurative. For beat up with personal pronouns, there were 710 examples, less two for beat it with the idiomatic meaning of “depart quickly”. That’s too many for me to check for a blog post, so I just checked the first example of each set of strings returned. For example, beat him up had 160 examples, of which I examined only the first. If I wasn’t sure about the first example, I moved to the second one. I found the following examples with the meaning of “criticize”:

  1. HANNITY: I thought the speech was extraordinary well delivered. I thought it was eloquent at times. I thought he hit the right pitch and the right tone. That surprises you? WILLIAMS: I’m speechless. I’m not allowed to be speechless. But basically, you know, I mean you beat him up a lot, so yes.
  2. Ms-IVEY: Well, I think Taryn really is just backpedaling now because she knows Dani and I were going to beat her up in the elevator. MARTIN: No violence. (Soundbite-of-laugh) MARTIN: This is a civil zone.
  3. In politics, when you fail, it’s like the end of the world because the press keeps piling on you and beating you up and all of those kind of things.

That’s three out of 25 examples, for 12% figurative. Just today, I also heard a broadcaster talking about politicians “getting beaten up” in the news, which is a reminder that transitive beat up can be passivized, too, so you also have to check for figurative meanings there. COCA returns 494 examples of beaten up, and I’m not going to check all those out, either. And never mind all the examples of beat up with non-pronoun direct objects, which I’m also not going to check. But from the searches I did do, it looks like beat up with non-reflexive direct objects really is used for the most part in a literal way, though it ventures into figurative territory more often than reflexive beat up goes literal.

I don’t recall having come across other verbs that tended to have literal vs. figurative meanings corresponding (more or less) to reflexive vs. non-reflexive uses. Other examples are welcome in the comments.

Posted in Lexical semantics | 5 Comments »

The Recency Illusion and the War on Terror

Posted by Neal on September 9, 2011

As you perhaps have heard, the tenth anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001, is tomorrow. I was considering writing something language-related about 9/11, but others have done a better job than I would have done, so I’ll link to them. First of all, there’s Geoff Nunberg’s piece on Fresh Air this week, noting that there actually haven’t been that many notable additions or changes, a thesis also argued by Dennis Baron on The Web of Language. Both Baron and Nunberg note that the name 9/11 itself is the most significant linguistic legacy of the events of 9/11. For more on that, read this other Fresh Air pieces by Nunberg, this one from 2003, in which he notes that Americans are unusual compared to other nationalities in not referring to historical events by their month and day. September 11, has become the one exception, and even more unusual is the reference to the events as simply 9/11.

Another change that may have run its course is the use of the term ground zero to refer to the site of the World Trade Center. It became essentially a proper noun and was often capitalized as such. But when my family visited New York City last month, we took the Port Authority subway from Jersey City to the World Trade Center stop, and that was how we heard New Yorkers refer to it. Furthermore, on a tour bus, the 29-year-old native New Yorker narrating the tour said it was insulting to call it Ground Zero. One World Trade Center was not Ground Zero; it was at ground 55 and counting. NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg said essentially the same thing earlier this week. In this Sunday’s Boston Globe Word column, Ben Zimmer talks about these developments as well as the history of the term ground zero from the beginning of the atomic age.

A change I noticed in the months and years following 9/11 was what I thought of as “hero inflation”. The concept of hero went from people performing amazing and noble acts of strength or bravery above the call of duty, to people doing those things within the call of duty (i.e. some firefighters and military servicemembers), to people whose job merely entailed the possibility of heroism (all firefighters and military), and finally to people who just do useful jobs. That was, I think, the high-water mark of hero inflation, embodied in the kids’ show Higglytown Heroes, in which the heroes are people who do useful jobs. I wasn’t the only one to notice, apparently. I did a search for “hero inflation” and found that the phrase had been independently invented by others with the same complaint I had. It’s particularly well argued in this article from 2002 from what appears to be a think tank called the New America Foundation.

What I thought was the most noticeable piece of language to emerge in the aftermath of 9/11 was the phrase war on terrorism, or its clipped form, war on terror. I know I’ve heard plenty of one-liners from people like Jon Stewart, wondering how one could declare war on a feeling. My sentiments exactly. I attributed it to a clumsy phrasing from the mouth of President George W. Bush, one that inexplicably caught on. Was I surprised when I did some Internet searches. First of all, here’s a Google Ngram comparing war on terrorism to war on terror, and it seems that it was only in 2005 or so that war on terror took the lead. But look: You can also find it in the 1970s and 1980s.

And when I did a Google News Archive search, I found attestations (albeit sparse) of war on terror regarding other events in almost every decade since the 1930s:

  • SOVIET ARRESTS 71 IN WAR ON ‘TERROR'(The New York Times, Dec. 04, 1934)
  • Jewry rejects request to aid in war on terror (Meriden Record Feb. 11, 1947)
  • International War On Terror (Windsor Star, Sept. 25, 1972)
  • Haig vows war on terror (Chicago Tribune, Jan. 29, 1981)

Anyway, enough about the trivial effects of September 11, 2001. On Sunday, let’s reflect on the much more serious effects, and take a moment to remember the actual, non-inflated heroism of 9/11 — of the passengers and crew of United Flight 93, and of the first responders in New York City and Washington, D.C.

Posted in Lexical semantics, Morphology | 13 Comments »


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