Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Stuff my family says’ Category

Photogenic People Take the Best Pictures

Posted by Neal on September 26, 2018

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

Adam, you took a great picture!

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

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

I take crappy pictures.

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

This screw screws in easily.

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

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

I don’t embarrass easily.

These cookies freeze well.

Our kit sells for $10.99.

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

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

Kim took a picture,

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

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

Your receipt is printing.

The program is downloading.

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

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

*These pictures took well,

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

The photographer took a great picture of Adam.

Adam took a great picture.

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

My wife made a fantastic pie from these apples.

These apples would make a great pie.

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

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

I’m Tired of Taking Clothes On and Off

Posted by Neal on July 31, 2018

My wife needed to buy a black suit, and spent most of the day Sunday doing it. After visiting about a dozen stores and logging 10,000 steps on her pedometer, she finally found what she needed. I haven’t seen it yet, though. At home last night, I asked if she was going to model it for Adam and me. She said,

I’m tired of taking clothes on and off.

Taking clothes on and off?

I know she can take clothes off; I’ve seen her do it. But I don’t think I’ve seen her or anyone else take clothes on. They’ve only put them on. Or maybe thrown them on if they were in a hurry. (The people were in a hurry, not the clothes.) What my wife must have meant was she was tired of putting clothes on and taking them off. So was this simply a production error after a long day of shopping? I don’t think so.

First of all, she judged all of the following to be ungrammatical, while standing by her original utterance:

  • *I’m tired of taking clothes off and on.
  • *I’m tired of putting clothes off and on.
  • *I’m tired of putting clothes on and off.
  • Second, the corpus data favors the phrasing she used. First, I searched COCA for any form of take followed by any word and then “off and on” (search term “TAKE_vv* * off and on” if you’re interested). I got only five hits, and of them only two were relevant:

    TAKE_vv* * off and on

  • you don’t have the labor problems of taking covers off and on
  • it’s, you know, hard getting on the ladder, taking them off and on
  • (The irrelevant hits had off and on as a verb phrase modifier meaning “occasionally” (taking Pilates off and on), or just near each other by accident (takes Fridays off and on weekends gets….)

    On the other hand, when I did the same search with on and off (“TAKE_vv* * on and off”), I got nine hits, and of them five were true examples what I was looking for. The last one in the list even has on and off taking an object: windrows (which I’ve learned from Dictionary.com are “long line[s] of raked hay or sheaves of grain laid out to dry in the wind”).

    TAKE_vv* * on and off

  • The youngster fidgets with an unusual looking pair of sunglasses, taking them on and off.
  • In fact, you had to take them on and off, and stroke them several times, right?
  • If I wear it here, I have to take it on and off all the time.
  • hadn’t developed a mechanical method to take covers on and off.
  • you’re buying covers and taking them on and off windrows for a year or five years,
  • Then I did the same two searches with the verb put. For put [something] off and on (“PUT_vv* * off and on”), I got nothing at all. For put [something] on and off (“PUT_vv* * on and ff”), I only got one hit, with on and off taking an object:

    PUT_vv* * on and off

  • she was able to put herself on and off her ventilator
  • Because I got so few results on COCA, I took my search to Brigham Young University’s iWeb corpus. With 14 billion words instead of 520 million, I got enough more hits that I wasn’t going to try to look through them to find the true positives, but the pattern seems to hold. take [something] on and off (758 hits) still wins over take [something] off and on (187 hits), and over either order with put (231 hits for on and off; a mere 6 for off and on). Here is a relevant hit of each type that I found:

  • with an adjustable wide quick-strap closure so you can easily take them on and off.
  • The kids goggles will stay put and taking them off and on will result in less complaining from the little ones.
  • I like the fancy straps for putting them on and off.
  • they stayed on well (when he wasn’t playing at putting them off and on).
  • What does this all mean? I’m not sure I can generalize much of anything from this pair off antonyms, put on and take off. Further investigation will have to wait.

    Posted in Coordination, The wife | 2 Comments »

    Flappin’ Shit

    Posted by Neal on January 19, 2018

    A few years ago, I blogged about hearing some English speakers pronouncing their /t/’s as glottal stops in an unexpected place: after a stressed vowel, before an /h/. Some of the examples I talked about were a local public radio news reporter’s pronunciation of Statehouse,and Doug’s pronunciation of pothole. Another example, which I thought I’d blogged about but apparently hadn’t, is Doug’s pronunciation of warthog, which is different from the others in that there’s an /r/ between the vowel and /t/. But they’re all similar in that I would personally pronounce the /t/ as a flap [ɾ] in these words, and I heard other speakers using a glottal stop [ʔ].

    Last week, I happened to think of another word with a /t/ between a stressed vowel and an /h/. It was shithole! For me, the /t/ in this word is pronounced as a flap, just like in Statehouse, pothole, and warthog: shi[ɾ]hole.

    But the events of last week’s news cycle naturally got me to wondering: How are other people pronouncing shithole these days? With a flap, like me? As shi[t]hole, with an ordinary [t]–shi[t]hole? Or maybe even as shi[ʔ]hole with a glottal stop?

    In this montage of newscasters reporting on Trump’s comments about Haiti, El Salvador, and (some?) African countries, I hear mostly shi[ɾ]hole, with a few shi[t]holes thrown in. No glottal-stop shi[ʔ]holes.

    I also searched for shithole in YouGlish, this website I learned about in the course of teaching English pronunciation to my international students. You search for your word, and it brings you video clips of people saying that word in real contexts. Their four entries for shithole all use the flap pronunciation. (In unrelated findings, all eight of their clips of coup de grace pronounce it as if it were coup de gras.)

    Among the family and friends I asked, the flapped pronunciation is also the most common. I was even surprised to find that this was the pronunciation that Doug used, when I asked him to repeat this word of the week. I wonder how he pronounces pothole, butthole, and warthog now…

    Three people in my sample of 14 used the [t] pronunciation. One is a co-worker who later mentioned that he thought of shithole as two words: shit hole.

    I did find two speakers with glottal-stop shithole. One was one of my in-laws, and the other was one of Doug’s floormates in his dorm. That’s right: He’s a freshman in college now, and when I called him with my linguistic question, he gave me his answer and offered to pass the phone around to the other residents in the room, and one by one they got on the line and said “shithole” to me.

    UPDATE, Feb. 5, 2018

    When I tweeted this post, Michael Covarrubias (@wishydog) responded, “i hear your flap and /h/. i hear a lot of glottal stops in the video. apparently, my /t/ is a glottal stop very often.” So I went back for another listen. It turns out I listened too quickly the first time. On closer inspection, and with the use of the phonetics software Praat, I have segmented out 57 tokens of shithole (or a related form, such as the plural, or the derived form shitholer), and of them, eight have the glottal stop pronunciation, for 14%. Seven tokens have the [t] pronunciation, making 12.3%. Tokens with a flap make up the remaining 73.7%.

    I labeled each token impressionistically by hear, but then also examined their spectrograms using Praat, labeling the duration of the air stoppage for the /t/, doing my best to separate it from the pronunciation of the /h/. Sometimes I had to give up. I also tried to record whether the /t/ and following /h/ were voiced or not, but sometimes had to give up on this, too. If anyone is interested in looking at or listening to the data, you can find the WAV file, accompanying Praat text grid, and a spreadsheet with the data for each of the 57 tokens in a Google Drive folder I’ve named the Vice Shithole Corpus.

    Posted in Doug, Flap (tap), Glottal stops, Politics, Taboo | Leave a Comment »

    Classroom Debate

    Posted by Neal on October 15, 2016

    Me: So what did you guys do in history class today?

    Adam: We had a debate on which was more effective, Progressives or Populists. I argued for Populists.

    Doug: Why did you say Populists were more effective?

    Adam: Because I was sitting on the left side of the room, and Mr. Ridgway said that people on the left would be–

    Doug: Wait, what I meant was—

    Me: Ha! An attachment ambiguity involving an extracted adjunct! Nice!

    Doug: –what reasons did you give for why Populists were more effective?

    Adam: Oh! Because they drew from a lot of parties: Socialists, Marxists, and others. Also, they paved the way for the Progressives like Woodrow Wilson…

    While Doug and Adam continued their conversation, I thought about the question Doug had intended to ask Adam:

    whydidyousay1

    The WH adverb Why at the beginning of the sentence has a subscript 1, indicating that it corresponds to the GAP category on the other side of the diagram. This GAP category appears where it does because that’s where you’d expect an explanatory phrase or clause to appear, such as because they drew from a lot of parties: Socialists, Marxists, and others. A clause like that basically takes the entire sentence Populists were more effective and turns it into a bigger sentence, which is shown by the lower S node spanning Populists were more effective, and the upper S node spanning both that and the GAP category.

    The connectivity between the WH words and the gap is informally called extraction. I’m deliberately avoiding calling the gap an adverb or adverb clause, though, because I’m reserving the term adverb to refer to words such as confidently, never, and fortunately. To refer more generally to adverbs, adverb phrases, prepositional phrases and subordinate clauses that modify verb phrases or sentences, syntacticians typically use the term adjunct. Hence my appreciative remark about an extracted adjunct.

    Anyway, here’s the question Adam took Doug to be asking:

    whydidyousay2

    The words are the same, but this time the GAP category takes the inverted sentence did you say Populists were more effective and make a larger Sinv out of it, as you can see by the stacked Sinv tents. It’s looking for an answer to the question of why Adam said what he said; in this case, the answer was that the teacher just divided the class down the middle and had one side take one position and the other take the other.

    Although in English, extracted adjuncts can give rise to ambiguities like this one, some languages mark the difference overtly. For example, if we had conducted our conversation in the Mayan language Kaqchikel, instead of containing an inaudible gap, the question would have had the particle wi to show where the adjunct took scope, kind of like this:

    1. (Doug’s intended question) Why did you say Populists were-wi more effective?
    2. (Adam’s interpretation) Why did you say-wi Populists were more effective?

    Alas, we weren’t speaking in Kaqchikel, so we just had to rely on context, which in this case gave insufficient clues.

    Update, Oct. 16, 2016: Added some clarifying details.

    Posted in Adam, Attachment ambiguity, Doug, Fillers and gaps, Inversion | 1 Comment »

    Bongo Is Wrongo!

    Posted by Neal on June 19, 2016

    At lunch today, Doug and Adam were looking at a Twitter poll that one of their friends had put up. He had a new guinea pig, and was trying to decide what to name it.

    tweet

    Enter a caption

    Doug and Adam both liked Lúcio, the name of a character in a videogame they’ve been playing recently. I was partial to Phillip, even though it was spelled with too many L’s. “I like Bongo,” Doug said.

    Now since they’d only read this poll, and hadn’t talked to their friend about it yet, I could see at once that there was a problem, a little orthographic ambiguity that would have to be cleared up before Doug could make a valid judgment on this name. “But is it [bɑŋgo] or [bɑŋo]?”  I asked.

    “[bɑŋgo] or … what?”

    “[bɑŋo]”

    Doug tried again: “[bɑŋgo] … no, that’s not it…”

    “[bɑŋo],” Adam said.

    I tried to break it down. “OK, just say ‘Bong!’ and then say, ‘Oh!'”

    Doug focused. “[bɑŋ…o]–oh, that sounds so bad! [bɑŋgo]–ugh, I can’t even say it, it sounds so bad! How do you do it again?” He was laughing because the name was so ridiculous.

    “[bɑŋo],” Adam and I said. “It has to do with how strong you say the G,” Adam added.

    “Almost. It’s like this,” I said, and drew a table. “See that little letter next to the G? That’s the ng sound. And sometimes you’ll actually pronounce a G after it, and sometimes you won’t. It’s why finger and dinger don’t actually rhyme. Or fungus and among us.”

    1. finger /fɪŋgɹ̩/  dinger /dɪŋɹ̩/
    2. fungus /fʌŋgəs/  among us /əmʌŋ əs/
    3. Bongo /bɑŋgo/  Bong-o? /bɑŋo/

    “I’m gonna have to say this to him the next time we talk. ‘So hey, did you name your guinea pig [bɑ̃ŋo]?'” Doug could hardly finish the sentence because he was laughing so much. “It just sounds so wrong!”

    “You mean [ɹɑŋo]?” That was me, getting the last word.

    That conversation was so much fun that I’m going to suggest Doug tweet his friend with this response:

    None of above. Instead, “Butch,” not w the vowel in “foot,” but the one in “but”. Like starting to say “buttcheek” & stopping<

    Posted in Adam, Doug, Phonetics and phonology | 2 Comments »

    Further Developments of Quotative Like

    Posted by Neal on December 30, 2015

    More than ten years ago, back when my blogging still consisted of guest posts on my brother’s blog, I wrote about my then-five-year-old son’s interesting use of quotative like. I provided this example, which was Doug saying what had just happened when he had done something or other that confused our cat:

    He was like, “Why’d you do that?” That’s what he was like, Daddy.

    The innovation was in the second sentence, where he used be like to form a wh-question. I wrote at the time, “I predict we will all hear a lot more of sentences like [that one] as members of Doug’s cohort grow up.” It’s been a while since I gave a lot of thought to the development of quotative like. Doug seems to have outgrown it, and I’ve never heard it from my younger son Adam. But I was thrilled to read a recent blog post from Stan Carey which embedded a Twitter conversation between like-expert Alexandra D’Arcy and linguistic anthropologist Sarah Shulist. Shulist began by tweeting D’Arcy to say,

    friend’s 4yo just asked “what’s Ernie like?” After some offers of attributes etc we realized she meant “what’s he saying”

    You can read the rest of the conversation by clicking on the last link, but I liked one detail that Shulist offered:

    her frustration when we couldn’t understand – “No, what’s Ernie like ON THIS PAGE?” suggests adults don’t get it

    I decided it was time for a new look at the syntactic regularization of be like into wh-questions, with better search tools and a wealth of social-media text that didn’t exist in 2005. I began by searching Twitter for the string “what * was like when you”, and got a lot of irrelevant stuff

    A search on Google for “what was * like when” and “what * was like when” at large got me a few good examples. One was item #22 in a quiz called “Does he REALLY like you?”:

    What was he like when you embarrassed yourself?

    1. Pretended not to notice
    2. Laughed his head off and made fun of u
    3. Made a funny comment to get you laughing about it

    Another was in a comment on a picture of someone sleeping with his arms wrapped around a new video game system as if it were a stuffed animal. The commenter wrote:

    That’s what I was like when I got that same ps4 because Xbox can’t run 1080p correctly

    Still, there was a lot of irrelevant stuff to get past, like “what was she like when you knew her?”–in other words, the ordinary, non-quotative use of be like. (Side note: Even that usage is a bit unusual cross-linguistically. What is he like? calls for a description as an answer, not a noun naming a thing that he resembles. For more on this, check out this episode of Lexicon Valley, which discusses this paper by Anne Seaton.)

    Eventually, it occurred to me that one productive source of quotative like comes from an internet meme that uses quotative like in conjunction with African American English habitual beas a preface to describe various cliché behaviors and catchphrases associated with a specific group of people.” The habitual be indicates that we’re not talking about permanent qualities of someone; we’re talking about temporary (although habitual) states. This is useful, because it means that when you search for “what * be like” instead of “what * was/is like,” you’re more likely to hit pay dirt.

    Unfortunately, “cliché behaviors and catchphrases associated with a specific group of people” means stereotypes, and in this case we’re talking misogynistic and racist stereotypes. The canonical form of the meme begins with “Bitches be like,” which is the name that the website Know Your Meme (quoted above) has given this family of memes. Ickiness aside, this meant that I could get more results more efficiently by asking for specific racist and misogynistic nouns: “what {bitches, hoes, niggas} be like”. So I did. Here’s a sampling of what I got:

    On the other hand, searching for “be like” without the A search for “what black/white * be like” turned up these:

    I also did a few searches for stereotypical “be like” examples without the overtly racist or misogynistic language, asking for “what * people/guys/girls/women/men be like,” and am happy to report that some of the examples I turned up, rather than being racist/misogynistic, comment on the racism/misogyny of these memes:

    I also did a few searches for stereotypical “be like” examples without the overtly racist or misogynistic language, asking for “what * people/guys/girls/women/men be like,” and That search also got this beauty, where the what is extracted from an embedded clause. In other words, it’s not just “what people be like”, it’s “what they think people be like”–further documentation of the journey of be like into syntactic regularity:

    there are plenty of videos of white people acting out what they think “black people be like…” and men acting out what they think “girls be like…” in gross stereotypes.

    This search also pulled in the best example of quotative like in wh-questions that I’ve found yet, so I’ll end with it. “Them Girls Be Like” is a song released last year by a group called Fifth Harmony.

    It has plenty of clear examples of quotative like in declarative sentences, but in the chorus, we also get “That’s what we be like” as a response:

    Them girls be like
    Them girls be like
    Them girls be like
    Them girls be like
    Oh hey
    Hey
    That’s what we be like
    (That’s what we be like yeah, lovin’ this life cus we really don’t care)
    Oh hey
    Hey
    That’s what we be like
    (That’s what we be like yeah, lovin’ this life cus we really don’t care)
    (Lyrics taken from musixmatch.com)

    So it looks like my prediction came true. What does that make you like?

    UPDATE, Jan. 3, 2015: Based on the reasonable comment made by the “White Girls Be Like” blogger, I have made a couple of revisions seen above. The additions are shown in green.

    Posted in Diachronic, Doug, Fillers and gaps | 10 Comments »

    Superior Complements, Superior Adjuncts

    Posted by Neal on August 31, 2015

    Adam is a high-school freshman this year, and is now a member of the school’s marching band. Over the weekend, I had to take him in to get measured for his bibbers and jacket. While he was busy with the band’s uniform chair, I noticed this message on the whiteboard in the uniform room:

    We're inferior to you!

    I stared at this message for a good half-minute or so, trying to figure out what it meant, because I couldn’t believe the writer actually intended to send the message this sentence seemed to be sending–that the band members’ parents and even the band director himself, Mr. Jason Gibson, were inferior to the band members themselves. We were telling a group of teenagers, in essence, “We’re not worthy!”

    Having been a band parent for several years now, I knew the significance of the word superior: It’s the word associated with a “1” rating in an Ohio Music Education Association competition. A rating of “2” is “excellent,” and a “3” is merely “good”–basically, “thank you for participating.” I see from the OMEA handbook that there are also ratings of 4 “fair” and 5 “poor,” though I’ve never seen those awarded. I guess bands that are fair or poor know it, and don’t bother coming to the competitions. In any case, band boosters (that is, the band parents and other supporters) love to work superior into any words of encouragement to the band. Instead of saying, “Have a great season,” they’ll say, “Have a superior season!” Get it? Score lots of “superior” ratings at the competitions.

    These competitions are a big deal. In fact, many band members and boosters see halftime shows at football games as mere rehearsals for the competitions. If a band gets enough “superior” ratings at OMEA local or regional competitions, it qualifies for the OMEA state competition. (By the way, in central Ohio, when a marching band or sports team qualifies for a state-level competition, they are said to be “going to states,” plural. Not “going to state,” as you may have heard in Friday Night Lights or in your own high school days. I take this to be an analogical extension of “regionals,” which is plural in my dialect. Of course, although there can be several regional competitions, there’s only one state competition, but I guess morphological regularity trumps logic here.)

    Last year, the Raider Marching Pride did, in fact, make it to states. It was no small feat, either, given that two weeks of practices had to take place without the direction of Mr. Gibson, who with most other teachers in the district was on strike. The student band leadership and the band boosters stepped up to keep things going during that time.

    At states, though, the Marching Pride fell short of a “superior,” earning an “excellent” instead. This message on the board must have gone up as a message of consolation. Remembering that, I had enough pieces to recover the intended message:

    In the opinion of these parents and Mr. Gibson, you are all superior!

    In syntactic terms, the ambiguity hinged on whether to these parents and Gibson was a complement to superior, or an adjunct to it. When I took superior as an adjective that required a to-phrase to complete it by designating the inferior party, I was taking to these parents and Gibson as a complement. (The mnemonic I use to remember this is that complement and complete come from the same Latin root.) But for the intended meaning, superior doesn’t need a complement to complete it. All by itself, it has its specialized meaning of “worthy of a rating of 1.” In that case, the phrase to these parents and Gibson is an adjunct, because it simply adds some extra information: “in our eyes, in our opinion, as far as we’re concerned.”

    This year, though, there’s no strike looming; the show is shaping up to be awesome; the band is ahead of schedule; and Adam’s in it playing baritone! We are anticipating superiority.

    Posted in Adam, Adjuncts and complements, Ambiguity, Ohioana | 2 Comments »

    The Flesh-Presser

    Posted by Neal on August 16, 2015

    “So you’re going to be at the Tomato Festival?” Doug asked me. That would be the Reynoldsburg Tomato Festival, our own addition to the list of small-town festivals celebrating odd things. In nearby towns we have the Circleville Pumpkin Show and the Millersburg Sweet Corn Festival, but here in Reynoldsburg we honor the tomato.

    In any case, yes, I was going to the Tomato Festival, not so much because I’m a big fan of tomatoes (they’re OK in a salad or sandwich, or chili or spaghetti sauce), but because like many such festivals, it’s an opportunity for political candidates to get out and meet a lot of people, and during the teacher strike in our school district last year, I decided to run for a seat on the Board of Education.

    campaignphoto

    In elementary school it was Neal the Banana Peel

    “Yep,” I said. “I reckon I’ve got to get out there and press the flesh, as they say.”

    “What?!” Doug said. “What do you mean?”

    “You know, going out and shaking lots of people’s hands,” I answered.

    “Ugh, don’t say that. It sounds obscene!”

    “Really?” I asked. I searched for the term on my phone, and the first hit that came up was an Urban Dictionary definition. If there really was an X-rated meaning for press the flesh, this would be the place to find it. But the most popular definition read:

    To meet people in person, particularly at an event where you can network with other people. The actual pressing of flesh here refers to shaking hands with people.

    All the other definitions said essentially the same thing. Later, at the Tomato Festival, while Doug was off with his girlfriend and some of their friends, I saw her mother and father and told them the story. Her mother laughed. “Just because his mind’s in the gutter…!”

    The girlfriend’s father, whom I”ll call Mr. J, just chuckled and wished me well as I went to continue my flesh-pressing.

    Or at least, that’s all he did in my presence. When he caught up with Doug and his daughter later that night, he made sure to say to Doug, “So your dad’s off pressing the flesh, huh?” I learned this when we were all back home, and Doug asked, “Dad, did you tell Mr. J. to use the expression pressing the flesh with me?

    Nice going, Mr. J.! Now I’ll just have to push it a little further by morphing the idiom into a gerund (flesh-pressing), or an agentive noun (flesh-presser), or maybe really mess with Doug by turning it in to a backformed compound verb, and saying things like, “I flesh-pressed a lot of potential voters out there last week!”

    Posted in Backformation, Doug, Ohioana, Politics, Taboo | 2 Comments »

    Answers Must Be in the Form of a Cleft

    Posted by Neal on March 30, 2015

    Here’s a draft that’s been sitting in the blogpile since September 2007. School had just begun, and Doug and Adam were beginning third grade and first grade. I wrote at the time…

    Now that school has resumed, at the end of every week, Doug and Adam are required to take their schoolwork that’s been sent home during the week, and put it in their respective boxes under their beds. So far, though, they haven’t been able to do it because the boxes have been full of all their schoolwork from last year. So last weekend I finally emptied the boxes, and as I was sorting through the papers, I came across one of Doug’s history worksheets from the unit on the Constitution.

    One of the questions was:

    Where does the Constitution guarantee freedom of speech?

    Doug’s answer:

    Where the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech is in the First Amendment.

    I remember when Doug first brought this paper home. Hey, nice pseudo-cleft, I’d thought when I read it. A pseudo-cleft is a sentence of form:

    noninverted wh-question + be + answer to wh-question

    I’m not sure how it got the name “pseudo-“cleft. There are various kinds of clefts; I think the “real” cleft that the pseudo-cleft was being compared to when it was named was the it-cleft: It’s in the First Amendment that…. Other examples of pseudo-clefts would be:

    Where he keeps it is under the bed.
    Who really got upset was Sam.

    I’d thought it was interesting that Doug would have used such intricate syntax to express the thought, but I hadn’t looked at the rest of the paper.

    That was as much as I wrote back in 2007. I was probably waiting to copy some other sentences off the homework, but it’s seven years gone now. But I remember that as I looked closer at the homework, and read question after question and pseudo-cleft after pseudo-cleft in response, I realized that Doug had misunderstood his second-grade teacher’s instructions. In order to get the kids to write their answers in complete sentences, she would always tell them, “Restate the question.”
    Of course, questions are sentences, too.
    Doug would have answered this question about Jackie Robinson by saying

    How Jackie Robinson demonstrated the trait of perseverance was by …

    Like saying “Rhyming words sound the same,” telling kids to “restate the question” is a good example of giving a rule in rather vague terms and figuring that they’ll will click on to the right idea and you won’t have to go into the troublesome details. But in Doug’s case, he was told to use the same words in the question in his answer, so he did!

    Posted in Clefts, Doug, Fused relatives | 2 Comments »

    Succeeds at Neither Entertaining Nor Informing

    Posted by Neal on February 26, 2015

    Image Provided By: www.StockMonkeys.com

    Image Provided By: www.StockMonkeys.com

    Through June, July, and August, Doug complained about his summer reading assignment, a book called Strange As This Weather Has Been, by an author with the unusual name of Ann Pancake. He hated it. It was a story about mountaintop-removal coal mining in Appalachia, told through an erratic combination of first-person and third-person narrative, with a plot that only started to move in the last few chapters of the book. Maybe it wasn’t about plot, I suggested. Maybe Pancake was just trying to give us a picture of the effects of this kind of mining through a character study of a family affected by it. Maybe so, Doug said, but none of the characters were likable people. And if she was trying to give him a lot of information about mountaintop-removal mining, in particular the Buffalo Creek disaster that was continually alluded to, he learned more about both those topics from their Wikipedia entries than he did from the entire book.

    When it was time for him to write the report, he poured his frustration into his title:

    Succeeds at Neither Entertaining Nor Informing.

    Well-primed by Doug’s repeated complaints about the book, I told him his thesis sounded great. By that time, I was reading the book, too, fulfilling my promise to read the whole damn thing myself if he read it first. Doug’s criticisms were on the mark. In addition, the author had a disconcerting habit of having her characters use verbs (such as go) and adjectives (such as wet) as nouns without any morphological change (a go, a wet). Trying too hard to be creative with the language, and ending up just distracting and annoying the reader instead.

    That was in August. In January, I came across an early printout of Doug’s paper in a pile of paper to recycle. Without the priming of Doug’s complaints, this time I read the sentence differently. This time, Ann Pancake succeeded! She succeeded at avoiding two things: entertaining, and informing.

    I’ve often blogged about different, kinds, of ambiguity, here. But I was surprised to find that I couldn’t fit this ambiguity into one of the categories. I still haven’t quite nailed down where the ambiguity is coming from, but I’ll record some of my observations.

    I’ll represent the meaning Doug intended like so:

    NOT(succeed(entertain))(ann) & NOT(succeed(inform))(ann)

    And the second meaning that I got, like this:

    succeed(NOT(entertain) & NOT(inform))(ann)

    One thing I notice is that I’ve pulled a fast one with the NOT. In the earlier translation, it was negating an entire proposition about SOMEONE succeeding. Here, I just have it negating individual verbs. Somewhere along the way, I’ll have to figure out what NOT means when applied to a verb instead of a proposition in my system.

    The fact that I’m dealing with verb forms seems to be essential. Replace them with, say, prepositional phrases, and the ambiguity goes away. For example:

    She succeeds neither at work nor at school.
    NOT(succeed(work)(ann)) & NOT(succeed(school)(ann))

    This sentence can’t mean that she succeeds at something that is neither work nor school. It can’t mean, for example, that she succeeds at love.

    The ambiguity also disappears if instead of the double-barreled negation of neither…nor, we have the single negation of not:

    She succeeds at not entertaining.
    succeed(NOT(entertain))(ann)

    Now the only reading we get is the funny one, and once again I’m doing some funny business with the NOT by applying it to just a verb. If we want to get the reading in which someone fails, we have to use a negation suitable for present-tense verbs, i.e. doesn’t:

    She doesn’t succeed at entertaining.
    NOT(succeed(entertain)(ann))

    On the other hand, the ambiguity remains if we replace the correlative conjunction neither…nor with both…and. It’s not as obvious a difference as the difference between succeeding and not succeeding, but one reading is that she succeeds at entertaining, and she also succeeds at informing, while the other is that she succeeds at doing both those things at once:

    She succeeds at both entertaining and informing.
    succeed(entertain)(ann) & succeed(inform)(ann)
    succeed(entertain & inform)(ann)

    The same kind of ambiguity comes with either … or and even not … but.

    Hopefully, I’ll have further analysis to present here in the near future.

    Posted in Ambiguity, Books, Coordination, Doug, Negation | 5 Comments »