Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Lexical semantics’ Category


Posted by Neal on March 16, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrapped Carrots

Posted by Neal on February 29, 2016

The wife and I recently had occasion to spend a weekend at a resort in Cancun on someone else’s expense account, which was nice. I learned some Spanish vocabulary, including gorra “baseball cap”, estiro “sea urchin”, and ama de llaves “housekeeping” (literally “lover of keys keymaster”). But it being a resort that catered to a mostly American clientele, the menus were mostly in English, including the one we got a few weeks in advance so that we could choose what we wanted to eat at the dinner that our hosts were paying for. One of the dessert items was “wrapped carrot,” which piqued my curiosity. What would they wrap the carrot in? I’ve seen carrot sticks wrapped in bacon, but that didn’t really sound dessert-like to me, so I didn’t order it. Instead, I went with “textures of chocolate”.

At the dinner, I was pleased to see that my inferences was correct: My dessert was not merely the texture of chocolate, but some actual chocolate, in the form of some kind of mousse. Looking across the table, I saw the wrapped carrot that someone else had ordered. It looked like this:

A wrapped carrot

What?! How could they possibly call that a wrapped carrot? It wasn’t a carrot! It was some kind of cake (carrot cake?), with a thin, lengthwise slice of carrot wrapped around–

Whoa … it was a wrapped carrot! If you wrap a carrot around something, then there exists a thing around which that carrot has been wrapped. In other words, it’s a wrapped carrot. Isn’t it?

Wrap, like many other verbs, participates in a so-called diathesis alternation, more specifically a “locative alternation,” and more specifically still, the so-called spray/load alternation. Verbs that participate in this alternation have a couple of semantic roles associated with them. One is LOCATION, the role for the thing that stays more or less in place while other stuff is moved into or onto it. LOCATUM is the role for the stuff that gets moved to the LOCATION. It’s unfortunate that the names are so similar, but there you are. Anyway, verbs that participate in this alternation can be used in two kinds of syntactic frame. In one, the LOCATION is the direct object, and the LOCATUM as the object of with:

  1. We sprayed the wall with paint.
  2. We loaded the cart with apples.
  3. We wrapped the carrots with bacon.

The other frame has the LOCATUM as the direct object, and the LOCATION as the object of some other preposition:

  1. We sprayed paint onto the wall.
  2. We loaded apples onto the cart.
  3. We wrapped bacon around the carrots.

In addition to the frames that have a direct object and a prepositional-phrase complement, many spray/load verbs also have a simple transitive frame. The question is, which role shows up as the direct object in that frame? LOCATION or LOCATUM? For some verbs, either is OK:

We loaded the cart. / We loaded the apples.

For others, both roles are OK, but one is still better than the other. With spray, I tend to prefer a LOCATUM role:

?We sprayed the wall. / We sprayed the paint.

This intuition is supported by COCA: Doing a quick search, I found many more examples of simple transitives with water than with face. In contrast, the only role that works for wrap as a simple transitive verb in my grammar is LOCATION:

We wrapped the carrots. / [*]We wrapped the bacon.

The [*] indicates that the sentence is grammatical, but not with the meaning we’re looking for. In other words, it’s fine if you mean that you wrapped something else around the bacon, but not that you wrapped the bacon around something else.

So now I wonder: Is this a peculiarity of my own grammar? From my quick COCA searches, I don’t think so. I have yet to find an example of transitive wrap with a LOCATUM argument. So is this a case of negative transfer on the part of Spanish speakers writing an English menu? In other words, can the Spanish equivalent of wrap be used as a simple transitive with a LOCATUM argument? I don’t have anywhere near enough Spanish to know that yet. If you do, I’d love to hear the answer!

Posted in Food-related, Lexical semantics, Spanish, Verbal diathesis alternations | 17 Comments »

Modal Miscommunication

Posted by Neal on July 31, 2015

I got a Facebook message from someone who had friended me based on my linguistical online presence. From his profile, he seems to be Middle Eastern. He was asking about graduate linguistic programs in the United States, and whether I knew of professors who had similar research interests to his. Trying to be helpful, I asked about his research interests, then mentioned a few of the professors at Ohio State, and wrote:

I would check the CVs or webpages for [these syntacticians] and email them if you’re interested in asking about studying at Ohio State.

I saw later that the Facebook friend had responded. I was startled to see that he was thanking me for being willing to do that for him.

Whoa! I wanted to be helpful, but not that helpful! At least, not for someone that I only know through Facebook. Where did he get the idea I was offering to actually craft an email for him? I looked again at my previous message, and then wrote back:

I’m sorry, I miscommunicated. When I wrote “I would email them”, I was using an implicit conditional sentence, in which I left an “if” clause unsaid. If I had written it fully, it would have gone “If I were in your situation, I would email them.” This is a way of making a suggestion or giving advice, but it was not an offer to email these professors for you. I think an email coming directly from you would be better, although if you wish, you can mention my name (for example, “Neal Whitman recommended that I …”).

By the way, to make an offer, I would probably write “I COULD email them” (to mean “I could email them if you wanted me to do so”), or “I CAN email them” (to make the same offer, but more emphatically), or “I WILL email them” (to indicate that I intend to do it without waiting for you to accept my offer).

I know that it’s often tough for English-language learners to get a grip on all the shades of meaning for all the modal verbs in their different tenses. If any of you have learned both English and some other language that’s not your native language, what do you think? Are English modal verbs (and quasi-modals like ought to and have to) harder to learn than similar verbs in other languages?

Posted in Language learning, Lexical semantics, Modal verbs, Politeness | 7 Comments »

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 | 7 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 »