Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Lexical semantics’ Category

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)
  • BRITAIN DEPORTS CYPRUS PRELATE IN WAR ON TERROR (New York Times, Mar. 10, 1956)
  • 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 »

The Gadhafi Bounty

Posted by Neal on August 28, 2011

I read the front page of the Columbus Dispatch earlier this week, and saw this headline:

I thought, they’re offering the guy a bounty? That is, I read it as diagrammed on the right. I saw the verb offer, and automatically seized the name that followed as the recipient of the offer (in syntactic terms the indirect object). The noun after that was the item offered (i.e. the direct object). This parse was also easy to fall into because of the line break, putting Gadhafi all by itself next to offer.

Real-world knowledge forced a re-read, and I quickly got the intended reading, as diagrammed on the left. Instead of taking offer as a two-object verb (direct and indirect), this time I took it as a simple transitive verb, and grabbed onto Gadhafi bounty as a single noun phrase for the direct object: “a bounty on Gadhafi”. Much more sensible, although it required a little more thinking to make Gadhafi an attributive noun describing bounty.

Of course, like McDonald’s fries holy grail for potato farmers, this ambiguity exists only because of the telegraphic style of newspaper headlines. In regular English, it would have been

The rebels offered A Gadhafi bounty

and there would have been no question. Or, if you really meant it the crazy way, it would be

The rebels offered Gadhafi A bounty.

Of course, if Gadhafi turns himself in to collect the bounty, I guess both readings could be true.

Posted in Ambiguity, Lexical semantics, Syntax | 11 Comments »

One Bright Day in the Middle of the Night

Posted by Neal on August 18, 2011

One of the poems Dad taught me when I was a kid went like this:

One bright day in the middle of the night,
Two dead boys began to fight.
Back to back they faced each other;
Drew their knives and shot each other.
A deaf policeman heard the noise,
And came and killed the two dead boys.
If you don’t believe this lie is true,
Ask the blind man; he saw it, too.

I, of course, have taught it to Doug and Adam, along with other poems I learned from Dad, including “Don’t you laugh when the hearse goes by” and “Roses are red, violets are blue; I can ride a bicycle, can you swim?” The last time I recited it, I added, “Of course, this must have taken place in a polar region during the summer.”

Thinking more, I said, “And clearly it happened before the boys were dead. Kind of like saying, ‘The late so-and-so once said…’ and it’s understood that he said it when he was still alive.”

Doug and Adam started to get into it, too. You can face each other while you’re back to back if you each have a mirror you’re holding up. “And they must have had ballistic knives!” added Doug, who has learned about such things from playing Call of Duty. (This wouldn’t work so well in versions of the poem that have “Drew their guns and stabbed each other.”)

Hey, that was good. With ballistic knives in the picture, we were now on the home stretch. “‘A deaf policeman heard the noise’ — oh, that’s easy. Just like the boys weren’t dead at the time, this policeman wasn’t deaf yet, although he’s deaf now. And he killed the two dead boys? Well, clearly, that’s how they came to be dead.” The same reasoning also cleared the part about the blind man “who saw it, too.”

That just left the part about true lies. But then all of a sudden I realized: It didn’t matter! The clause about true lies was the complement of an opacity-inducing verb! “Hey, we don’t have to explain anything about true lies!” I told Doug and Adam. “You can believe that two plus two equals five, and there’s no contradiction. You can believe that a purple dinosaur lives under your bed, and the sentence is still true, even though you’re wrong.” Believe, unlike know, doesn’t presuppose that what follows is true.

I’m glad I was able to enrich this poem for Doug and Adam, and make it so much more fun and meaningful.

Posted in Lexical semantics, Semantics | 6 Comments »

Make Me One with Everything

Posted by Neal on August 7, 2011

Glen drew my attention to a Language Log post a couple of months ago, which commented on the cultural knowledge you needed in order to get the joke

The Dalai Lama walks into a pizza joint and says, “Make me one with everything.”

Actually, the way I heard this joke years ago was, “What did the Zen master say to the hot dog vendor?”, but no matter. Glen wrote:

But oddly, given the source, the post doesn’t mention the linguistic knowledge (perhaps implicit) that you must also have. It seems like the joke requires understanding how direct and indirect objects can occupy the same spot in a sentence.

Indeed it does, and more specifically, it requires knowledge of two different syntactic frames that make can fit into. To the right is a diagram of make me one with everything with its meaning of “make for me a pizza that has every topping on it”. The first branch is the verb make; the second branch is the NP consisting of the pronoun me. The third branch is the NP one with everything, which itself consists of the NP one, modified by the PP with everything.

Now let’s take a look at the diagram for the other meaning. Which one, though? There is the Zen punch line reading: “Unify my essence with that of the universe.” But there’s also another reading where one with everything still refers to a pizza with all the toppings: “Turn me into a pizza that has every topping on it.” That’s the reading Glen and I would play with when our baby sister Ellen (she’s a second-year medical resident now, by the way) would ask us, “Will you make me a peanut butter sandwich?” We’d say, “Sure! Abracadabra — you’re a peanut butter sandwich!” Then she’d say, “No! A real peanut butter sandwich!” And we’d say, “Oh, well why didn’t you say so! You’re a real peanut butter sandwich!”

The “turn me into a pizza with everything” reading would correspond to … well, actually, that would correspond to the same structure I had in that last diagram. In fact, so would the nirvana reading. Some ambiguities just don’t correspond to different syntactic structures. To distinguish the structures associated with these different meanings, we need to label the branches with not only their syntactic categories, but also the grammatical functions that the phrases they’re labeling play. The diagram on the left below belongs to the no-funny-business meaning, with me as indirect object, and one with everything as direct object. The one on the right belongs to the funny “you’re a pizza” reading, with me as direct object, and one with everything as a predicate complement. And … it also belongs to the funny Zen reading. The two funny readings still are identical structurally. Unless…












It seems to me that the special meaning of one to mean “integrated with, coextensive with” is more of an adjectival meaning. But it’s hard to find a reason to justify that claim. You can’t have comparative or superlative forms of this adjective: *oner, *onest. It can’t be used attributively: *a one-with-everything Zen master. Of course, there are other adjectives that aren’t gradable, such as binary and nonexistent, and other adjectives that can’t be attributive, such as asleep, ajar, afraid, etc. But having one of those properties would make for a more decisive labeling. There is one fact, though, that may be what is tilting me toward an adjective diagnosis: You can only use one with X as a predicative when it has this meaning. You can’t use it as a subject, direct or indirect object, or object of a preposition: [*]One with everything just walked through the door, [*]I saw one with everything. (The asterisks mean that the sentence is grammatical, but not with the meaning you’re looking for.) So with that in mind, we could diagram the Zen meaning of make me one with everything like this:

Posted in Ambiguity, Lexical semantics, Syntax | 10 Comments »

When We Get Married

Posted by Neal on July 9, 2011

It’s been light blogging during the past week, since my parents were visiting. Pretty much all I did was check in on the Grammar Girl giveaway a few times and put links to relevant GG podcasts or blog posts (here or elsewhere) for topics people asked about that I probably won’t choose because they’ve already been covered. The puzzling entries are the ones that say something like, “I’d love to win one of these books!” and nothing else. I don’t think they read the post as closely as they should have.

Anyway, one night while Mom and Dad were here, we went out to eat to celebrate their 45th anniversary (from a few days earlier) and my wife’s and my 15th anniversary (that day). Dad made a comment about our anniversaries being 30 years apart but so close to the same day. Adam spoke up.

“Maybe someday when Doug and I get married, we’ll get married in July, too!”

“Oh, you couldn’t do that!” I said. “He’s your brother! And you’re both boys!” (OK, so that last part might not be a problem in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Washington, D.C., or who knows where else in a dozen years.)

“Adam, these guys are really literal!” my wife said.

Yes, to interpret Doug and Adam get married to mean that they’re marrying each other is a literal interpretation. But it’s also a literal interpretation to interpret it the way Adam meant it: that Doug is getting married to some woman (or man, I suppose), and Adam is getting married to some other woman (or man, yes, OK). The ambiguity isn’t a matter of literal vs. figurative; it’s just that marry (or more commonly, get married) participates in the understood reciprocal object alternation. So do the verbs kiss and fight, but not hit or kick,. (I realize I’ve written enough posts about these kinds of verbal diathesis alternations to give them their own category, which I have now done.)

As I wrote in 2007 about Amelia Bedelia, it’s not about going for the unintended literal meaning of something; it’s about choosing, in the face of ambiguity, the maximally funny reading, be it literal or not. I remember a time about sixteen years ago when the “married to someone else” interpretation was the funnier one. It was around the time of my wife’s and my negative-first anniversary. I was introducing her to Mom and Dad, and telling them that we were going to get married. Then I added, “To each other!”

Posted in Adam, Lexical semantics, The darndest things, Verbal diathesis alternations | 7 Comments »

Tobo-Linguistics

Posted by Neal on June 2, 2011

In 1988 I saw the movie Mississippi Burning. I stayed for the credits at the end because I wanted to find out the name of the actor who’d played the Ku Klux Klan leader. He’d had an interesting voice and resembled one of my favorite uncles, Uncle Ricky. (Decide for yourself: Uncle Ricky is the one standing in this picture.) Unfortunately, I hadn’t caught the character’s name, so I had to wait until I saw Great Balls of Fire the next year, where I saw him again and this time learned that his name was Stephen Tobolowsky. The guy kept turning up in movies here and there after that, so that when I saw him as Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day (1993), I was glad to see his familiar face in a great movie.

What I didn’t realize until recently is that Tobolowsky is an amazing storyteller. I came across his podcast, “The Tobolowsky Files,” immediately recognized the name, and listened to an episode out of curiosity. Since then I’ve been listening to all the back episodes of his “stories of life, love, and the entertainment industry”. I also listen to several other podcasts that feature storytelling: “The Moth,” “NPR’s Story Corps,” “Risk,” “This American Life”. They’re good, but sometimes a story on these podcasts will have me wanting to fast-forward to the next one. Not Tobolowsky’s. Even his dullest stories are interesting. And some of his stories are masterpieces. For out-and-out hilariousness, try “The Dangerous Animals Club” (episode 22). For suspense followed by inspiration and life lessons, listen to “Conference Hour” (episode 13). True, Tobolowsky does have some mildly annoying habits: his tendency to actually say “Pause” when he makes a dramatic pause; his consistent pronunciation of Cerberus as Cerebus when talking about an evil neighbor dog; his distortion of math and science concepts when he turns them into analogies for life. (It’s great that he likes and respects the math and science, but I still gritted my teeth every time he referred to “the x/y axis” in an episode called “The Moment Before Zero”). But overall, I recommend TTF right up there with those other podcasts I mentioned, and certainly above wearisome podcasts like “Tales from the South” and “Second Story”.

All well and good, but what’s the linguistic angle? First, a phonetic one. In listening to Stephen Tobolowsky talk a lot, I’ve realized he pronounces most of his /l/s as a uvular nasal, [N]. It’s easiest to hear when he has an /l/ between vowels, for example, in a lot. In light of this, it’s surprising that I can’t really tell if he’s pronouncing /l/ as [N] when he says his name at the end of the podcast (when he gives his Twitter and Facebook addresses), but I’m pretty sure that’s what I’m hearing during the rest of the show.

Second, Tobolowsky recounts a funny misunderstanding in episode 35, “Playing It As It Lays”:

Whenever I wanted to spend money, Mom and Dad would look at me very disapprovingly and tell me some gem of folk wisdom, like “A fool and his money are soon parted.” I never told Mom, but I never really knew what that meant. I never got the syntax that the money was parted from the fool. I always thought it was like some Quentin Tarantino movie where the fool and the money is chainsawed in two….

Or, I might add, one gruesome scene in The Running Man with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Anyway, Tobolowsky talks about the syntax of this proverb, but this ambiguity is actually a matter of semantics, and has gotten a lot of attention from various semanticists. I read about it in Flexibility Principles in Boolean Semantics by Yoad Winter, who cites about half a dozen other linguists on the topic. Here’s the background: Certain verbs require a subject that’s composed of multiple entities; for example, meet. You can’t just say, I have never met, but Stephen and I have never met is OK. The subject doesn’t have to be compound; a singular works if it denotes a group of things. For example: The committee meets the first Monday of every month. However, if you do have a compound subject, the strong tendency is to interpret each of the noun phrases joined by and as one of the participants in the meeting.

Now, what happens if you coordinate two subjects, and each of them denotes a group of things? Something like…

The budget committee and the speakers’ committee meet the first Monday of every month.

If we mean that the budget committee meets with the speakers’ committee, that’s known as the “non-Boolean conjunction” reading. The Boolean conjunction reading would be the one in which the budget committee meets and the speakers’ committee meets, possibly in different locations.

Separate is another verb like meet, with a slight relaxing of the requirements for its subject. Instead of having to be composed of more than one individual, all that’s necessary is that the subject be something that can be split into more than one portion. Thus, in addition to parting fighting siblings, you can part your hair or part the waves. As with meet, though, the elements in a compound subject will tend to be interpreted as the different participants in the separation event. So in A fool and his money are soon parted, the non-Boolean reading in which the money is parted from the fool, is the most natural one.

Not to Stephen Tobolowsky, though. He got the strange Boolean reading, in which the fool is parted and his money is parted. Cool. I wonder if anyone has put up that same misunderstanding on I Used to Believe.

Lastly, a loosely pragmatics-related observation. The podcast was inspired by a 2005 movie called Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party, in which Tobolowsky plays himself, telling stories to the camera operator while preparing for his birthday party that night, and during the party itself. I don’t recommend this movie. First of all, many of the stories can also be found in the podcast. Second, it’s one thing to listen to a guy tell lots of his life stories in his own podcast that you choose to listen to. But as I watched him entertain his crowd of guests with story after story in the movie, I kept having trouble suspending my disbelief and imagining that this was a regular party. The only one who did any talking in the crowd scenes was this guy that no one ever interrupted, even with a comment like, “What did you do?”, and who never yielded the floor to anyone else who might be reminded of a story that happened to them. The whole setup results in Tobolowsky coming off as a narcissistic, patronizing conversation hog. Better to stick with the podcast, where the same stories’ entertainment value is undiluted.

Posted in Ambiguity, Lexical semantics, Movies, What the L | 3 Comments »

If You Can Say “Graduated College,” Can You Say “Graduated Harvard”?

Posted by Neal on May 31, 2011

Over at Visual Thesaurus, my latest column is on the annual (or at least, annually relevant) arguments over whether it’s grammatical to say that someone “graduated college” or “graduated high school” (or even “graduated elementary school”), instead of “graduated from college/high school,” etc. I talk about the different versions of graduate that take different combinations of direct objects and prepositional phrases, and put them in a larger context of verbal diathesis alternations. My columns are usually behind a paywall there, so if you don’t have a membership, you have several options. One, of course, is to get a membership for something like $20, which you might find worth it just for the articles alone, by Ben Zimmer, Nancy Friedman, Mark Peters, Stan Carey, and others. Another, of course, is not to bother reading the column. But now there’s a third option: Wait three months and then go to the Vocabulary.com magazine. There you can find the formerly premium content that is more than three months old.

Anyway, here’s a detail that didn’t make it into the VT column. For me, although graduate from college/high school is the normal phrasing, graduate college/high school is not too bad. However, once you put in the name of a particular school, you can’t drop the preposition. So to my ears, graduated college is a little sloppy but OK, whereas graduated the University of Texas is out. I asked my followers on Twitter what they thought, and got a couple of responses that agreed with me, but as I thought more about it, I began to wonder if speakers would say graduate plus a school name after all. Here’s what I found in a small search in COCA:

  • graduate from Harvard vs. graduate Harvard: 115 to 1
    The one example of graduate Harvard was I guess my middle-schoolers would be graduating Harvard this year if the bumblers at their school had know [sic] about this smaller class size.
  • graduate from (the) Ohio State University vs. graduate (the) Ohio State University: 5 to 0
  • graduate from Stanford vs. graduate Stanford: 40 to 2
    The two: I graduated Stanford, and I’m also a member of the Horror Writers Association, and Lives in Palo Alto, Calif, and graduated Stanford in’ 98 with a political science degree.

Feel free to try this with other school names, and report in the comments!

One of the Twitter respondents was L. Michelle Baker, who goes by the handle of corpwritingpro. After her first tweet (which stated that from was customary before the school name), she surprised me with this one:

Wow! A professional writer was not simply dismissing graduate high school, nor even grudgingly accepting it in informal contexts, but actually granting it fully standard status, complete with a semantic distinction between graduate high school and graduate from high school. Furthermore, the part about describing an accomplishment is precisely what I found in Beth Levin’s English Verb Classes and Alternations as the difference between, for example, walked on the grounds and walked the grounds, or escaped from New York and escaped New York. I’m confused by how graduating from high school denotes less of an accomplishment than graduating high school, but maybe the fact that speakers look upon graduation as an accomplishment is what’s driving the loss of the preposition. Have any other readers noticed, or developed in your own usage, a semantic distinction between graduate from X and graduate X? And does it matter whether X is a common noun like college or high school, or a proper noun naming the institution?

Posted in Diachronic, Lexical semantics, Prescriptive grammar, Verbal diathesis alternations | 7 Comments »