Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Syntax’ Category

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:


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:


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 »

Relative Clauses, Complex Passives, and Rainbow Farts

Posted by Neal on August 9, 2016

I was reading an article in one of the issues of New Scientist magazine that that tend to accumulate around here, and came across this sentence:

The benefits of unsaturated fats, traditionally seen as good for the heart, may vary due to their omega-3 content, which is thought could have anti-inflammatory effects.

It seemed to me there was a word missing. In my ESL composition classes, we sometimes talk about “complex passives” as a means of reporting some claim or discovery when it’s not important who made the claim or discovery. For example, suppose we’re starting with the following claim:

  1. Unicorns fart rainbows.
Unicorn-Flying-Rainbow-Fart-Cloud, courtesy of Eye Candy by Referral Candy (Creative Commons)

Unicorn-Flying-Rainbow-Fart-Cloud, courtesy of Eye Candy by Referral Candy (Creative Commons)

Now let’s suppose we’re not prepared to support this claim, so we want to say it’s someone else who believes it:

  1. Some people think that unicorns fart rainbows.

Next, let’s say you still want to put more focus on the claim than on the unnamed people who believe it. Two rather unusual versions of the passive voice, known as complex passives, will let you do this. One of them makes use of a dummy it, and leaves the entire clause unicorns poop rainbows unchanged:

  1. It is thought that unicorns fart rainbows.

The other kind of complex passive allows you to put the focus more specifically on unicorns, by turning the subject of the embedded clause (unicorns) into the subject of the passive reporting verb (are thought–note the change from is to are to agree with unicorns), and turning the remainder of that embedded clause into an infinitive phrase (to poop rainbows), like so:

  1. Unicorns are thought to fart rainbows.

Now let’s suppose that we want to combine that last sentence with this next one, by means of a relative clause:

  1. Silicon Valley startups that are valued at a billion dollars are called unicorns.

One way of doing it is to take item #4 and use it as the basis for your relative clause. I’ve shown this by color-coding the word unicorns and the place where this word has been removed from the embedded clause, which I’ve labeled “GAP”:

  1. Silicon Valley startups that are valued at a billion dollars are called unicorns, which GAP are thought to fart rainbows.

A somewhat more awkward way of doing it is to use item #3, with the dummy it, and use that as your basis:

  1. Silicon Valley startups that are valued at a billion dollars are called unicorns, which it is thought GAP fart rainbows.

So depending on which kind of complex passive you go with, your relative clause will have either (1) an infinitive after your reporting verb, or (2) a dummy it, and then a finite verb phrase after your reporting verb. The sentence from New Scientist stuck out because it has a finite verb phrase (could have anti-inflammatory effects), but no dummy it!

Thanks to New Scientist, I’ve become aware of several idioms and unusual syntax in British English, such as down to to mean “attributable to,” the usage of so to conjoin verb phrases (as opposed to entire clauses), and it’s early days for X to mean “X is a field or endeavor in its infancy.” So maybe this was thought could phrasing was a British English thing. However, after searching the NS website for strings such as “are thought could” and “is thought might”, the only example I found was one that used both a dummy it and a finite verb:

…immediately after being given hormone treatment to harvest their eggs – which it is thought could impair the process of implantation.

It occurred to me that it might be no accident that the finite verb in this unusual sentence was a modal verb. After all, if the claim they’re talking about is something like this–

  1. Unsaturated fats’ omega-3 content could have anti-inflammatory effects.

–and you go for the complex passive that allows you to put unsaturated fats’ omega-3 content at the front of the sentence, then you need to make could into an infinitive, but English modal verbs don’t have infinitives. So what do you do? Maybe you just leave the verb as it is, and end up with:

  1. Unsaturated fats’ omega-3 content could have anti-inflammatory effects.

Then, when you turn that into a relative clause, you get out item #1. With that hypothesis, I predicted I would not find similar examples with ordinary (aka “lexical”) verbs if I went searching through some corpora. And mostly, I didn’t. Here’s what I found from the BYU British National Corpus:

  • …if he is to join the powerful Irish representation which is anticipated will cross the Atlantic to take on the Americans…
  • Thus a rise in monetary growth which is anticipated will have no effect on the level of unemployment.
  • Duty (charged at one per cent) on properties costing less that 250,000, which is hoped will kick-start the housing market.

Here’s what I found in BYU’s Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA):

  • And with a slightly increased budget of $50 million–much of which is assumed will go to leads asking for heftier paydays, location shoots in Italy, and ramped-up F/X–Summit will have to scrimp somewhere.

And here’s what I found in their NOW corpus:

  • Reportedly, both drinks can often be high in polyphenol, a nutrient which is believed could give chocolate its beneficial effects on health.
  • …leading to the development of a dilation zone which is believed could hold significant mineral potential.
  • Beijing claims almost the whole of the South China Sea, which is believed could sit atop vast oil and gas deposits.
  • His sin is his godson relationship with Obasanjo which is believed could be used against the incumbent president in 2015 if Andy becomes governor.
  • …including the on-going electronic voters registration which is believed could deny millions…

So yay, my hypothesis stood up … until I found this example in BYU’s Corpus of Historical American English (COHA):

  • The following is nearly all we could glean, which was thought had reference to the subject under consideration (1841)

Fluke? Did someone just forget to put in that short, meaningless it? Or is it possible that this construction got started with modal verbs as a workaround, and then got extended to lexical verbs (and it’s just by chance that the earliest example I found involves a lexical verb)?

I don’t know. How do these examples sound to you? Have you heard or read others? Let’s have them!

Posted in Passive voice, Relative clauses, Syntax | 4 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 »

Those Sophisticated of Missiles

Posted by Neal on January 29, 2016

Picture adapted from original by Daniel Foster, Creative Commons

Picture adapted from original by Daniel Foster, Creative Commons

In guest post on The Volokh Conspiracy in 2004, I wrote about what I’ve since learned is sometimes called “intrusive of,” in phrases like too big of a deal, instead of the more-standard too big a deal. That post focused on the adverb too, but there’s actually a handful of adverbs that participate in this unusual kind of noun phrase, in which:

  1. an adverb, such as too,
  2. modifies an adjective, such as big,
  3. which in turn modifies a noun, such as deal.

The strange thing–well, one of the strange things–about this kind of noun phrase is that the indefinite article a(n) goes not before the whole adverb-adjective-noun string, as in *a too big deal, but between the adjective and the noun: too big a deal. Arnold Zwicky has coined the term exceptional degree marking (EDM) for these structures. The other adverbs that work in EDM constructions are so, as, and how:

  • I didn’t know it was so big a deal.
  • It wasn’t as big a deal as I’d thought it would be.
  • How big a deal did they make of it?

In addition to those adverbs, the determiners this and that can also do the job of specifying the degree of an adjective in an EDM construction:

  • Was it really that big a deal?
  • If it’s this big a deal, let’s do it!

I’ll follow the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language and use degree modifiers to cover the degree-modifying adverbs and the degree-modifying determiners this and that. EDM constructions are easiest to form with singular, count nouns, such as deal–in other words, nouns that are compatible with the singular determiner a(n). When you try to make an EDM construction with a mass noun or a plural noun, it’s not so easy:

  • ?/*It’s not too good coffee.
  • ?/*I didn’t know it was so good coffee.
  • ?/*It wasn’t as good coffee as I’d thought it would be.
  • ?/*How good coffee did they serve?
  • ?/*Was it really that good coffee?
  • ?/*If it’s this good coffee, we can sell it.
  • ?/*They’re not too good coffeemakers.
  • ?/*I didn’t know they were so good coffeemakers.
  • ?/*They weren’t as good coffeemakers as I’d thought they would be.
  • ?/*How good coffeemakers do they make?
  • ?/*Were they really that good coffeemakers?
  • ?/*If they’re this good coffeemakers, we can sell them.

This is where the intrusive of proves its worth. All the sentences involving the big deal could be phrased with big of a deal, too, and be considered completely standard by many speakers, and at worst as a somewhat nonstandard variant by others (and as the favored cliche “nails on a chalkboard” by a shrinking number of speakers). But the sentences with mass nouns and plural nouns don’t work at all without something like an intrusive of in them. Here are the examples I found and posted in 2004:

  • a2ps using too big of paper on dj500, and magicfilter eats text
  • Too Deep of Water
  • Too small of rooms for the price!!
  • Checkout/processing with too long of titles
  • Too high of volumes for CORSIM

When I was thinking about EDMs recently, as we all do on occasion, it occurred to me that an extra complication was possible with the degree-modifying determiners this/that that wasn’t possible with too/so/as/how. As determiners, this and that have plural forms! So what happened, I wondered, when speakers set out to create an EDM construction, with a plural noun, with a degree-modifying determiner? Would they still use singular this or that without regard to the plurality of the noun? In other words, would they treat this or that as if it wasn’t even a determiner at all? As it turns out, yes, as these hits from COCA show. I searched for “this|that”+ADJ+”of”+PLURAL_NOUN, as well as “this|that”+ADJ+”a”+PLURAL_NOUN, and got these few hits:

  • Maybe the standard one doesn’t have that big of pecs.
  • You know, the news of the settlement didn’t really make that big of headlines in the state, but it showed two things.
  • Whenever Dignan came to visit me he would act like he and Swifty weren’t that good of friends, but that was just to make me feel better.
  • And we really before her didn’t have that good of doctors.
  • Well, we had problems. But they weren’t that big a problems.

But COCA also shows that a few speakers are starting to swap out the singular this/that for a plural these/those to degree-modifying purposes in EDMs involving plural nouns. For this search, I looked for “these|those”+ADJ+”of”+PLURAL_NOUN and “these|those”+ADJ+”a”+PLURAL_NOUN:

  • These deep of lines in my cheeks ain’t all due to hard wind and burnin’ sun.
  • Well, I mean, they didn’t say in those harsh a terms
  • And then we would go right over Afghanistan after that and the Taliban and stuff didn’t — wasn’t known to have these — those sophisticated of missiles.

I love the little stutter in the last one, as the speaker struggles with how to handle the syntax. Would you have stuttered, too? What do you think of these odd of noun phrases?

Posted in Exceptional degree marking, Morphology | 5 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
That’s what we be like
(That’s what we be like yeah, lovin’ this life cus we really don’t care)
Oh 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

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 »

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

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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.

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.

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 »

Multiple-Level Coordination with And and But

Posted by Neal on December 31, 2014

I’ve continually been hearing this one ad on a podcast I listen to, promoting some kind of investing service. The speaker introduces the subject like this:

Want to save more, invest for the future, but don’t have time to be a full-on investor?

The fact that this sentence is an interrogative gets in the way of what I actually want to talk about, so I’ll just rephrase it as a declarative:

I want to save more, invest for the future, but don’t have time to be a full-on investor.

If you take this sentence to contain a syntactically parallel coordination, then it is saying that these three things are true about me:

  1. I want to save more.
  2. I invest for the future.
  3. I don’t have time to be a full-on investor.

That’s not the intended meaning, though. The intended meaning is that:

  1. I want to save more.
  2. I want to invest for the future.
  3. I don’t have time to be a full-on investor.

In short, this sentence is another example of a multiple-level coordination. Depending on how you parse the coordination, the first conjunct is either the present-tense verb phrase want to save more or the plain-form verb phrase save more; the second is the plain-form verb phrase invest for the future; and the final conjunct is the present-tense verb phrase don’t have time to be a full-on investor. Whichever way you go, the conjuncts are not of the same syntactic category.

In previous posts, I’ve summarized the analysis of Beavers & Sag (2004) for this kind of coordination, and written too-hastily about what seemed like a problem for their analysis. This sentence, though, really is a problem for B&S … that is, if it’s truly grammatical, and not simply a mistake.

As a recap, here is how B&S analyze the MLCs It’s sick, twisted, and smells like old socks and women who are nursing, pregnant, or may become pregnant. For the first one, the and is conjoining these three clauses:

  1. is sick
  2. is twisted
  3. smells like old socks

Because the second conjunct begins with some material that’s identical to the beginning of the first conjunct (namely is), that can be ellipsed (i.e., left unspoken). For the second MLC, or is conjoining these other three clauses:

  1. are pregnant
  2. are nursing
  3. may become pregnant

Applying B&S’s analysis to our investment example, we get something like the diagram below. (Actually, they have it so that it’s binary-branching all the way down, with want to save more coordinated with the entire chunk want to invest for the future but don’t have time…. But my diagram will do for our purposes.)

The second "want to" is not pronounced

B&S argue against interpreting MLCs as having a structure like the following, which the and or or is coordinating two items rather than three, and there is an understood extra conjunction in there, coordinating two smaller items within the first conjunct:

  1. is sick and twisted
  2. smells like old socks
  1. are pregnant or nursing
  2. may become pregnant

Applied to our investment example, the kind of analysis that B&S advise against would give us a structure like the one below. In this diagram, I put an explicit conjunction between the first two conjuncts, to show where the understood conjunction would go. Notice that the main coordination has only two conjuncts, one being want to save more and want to invest for the future, and the other being but don’t have ….

See the extra conjunction I put in there?

One of B&S’s reasons for not favoring such an interpretation is that you can’t just go calling commas or pauses conjunctions. Where would it end? Going that way would license sentences like I saw a dog a cat as grammatical. There other reason is that there is nothing to force that understood conjunction to be the same as the explicit one. In other words, why couldn’t we take these examples to mean “It’s sick or twisted, and smells like old socks” and “woman who are pregnant and nursing, or who may become pregnant”?

With that in mind, notice that the extra conjunction I supplied was not another but, but rather an and, so that the meaning of the whole coordinate structure is “A and B but C.” This makes sense, because the two things I want are similar, and should be joined by and. The but serves to draw a contrast between them on the one hand and the thing I don’t have time for on the other.

So if that second diagram is incorrect, let’s look again at B&S’s analysis, shown in the first one. There’s a problem with this one, too. As I wrote in this Grammar Girl episode, but isn’t like and and or, able to coordinate any number of items. It’s only able to coordinate two:

That’s because and shows addition, and or shows alternatives, and it’s easy to imagine lots of additions to a set, and lots of alternatives. But, on the other hand, shows contrast, and it’s hard to conceive of a contrast between more than two things. We can say slow but steady, but we can’t say slow, careful, but steady.

According to the B&S analysis, our example sentence could be expanded out to have the form “A but B but C,” in violation of the two-conjuncts limit for but.

So what now? We could appeal to semantics. Although but conventionally implicates that there is a contrast between two propositions, there is no truth-conditional difference between and and but. So we could say that’s why the but gets away with this sort of behavior here.

Or there’s the cop-out solution of saying that the sentence is a grammar mistake, something that the writer would correct by themself if they thought about if more carefully. In favor of the cop-out solution is the fact that MLCs depending on and and or are too numerous for me even to bother blogging about anymore, whereas this is the only MLC with but that I’ve ever come across. So if you come across more MLCs with but, definitely leave a comment and tell me about them!

Posted in Multiple-level coordination | 4 Comments »

He Conquers Who Endures

Posted by Neal on November 29, 2014

I saw this on the back of a T-shirt when I was at the grocery store:

He conquers who endures.

Too bad for those people who endure. Even after all their endurance, they get conquered in the end. He, whoever “he” is, is a patient conquerer.

However, I suspect the wearer of the T-shirt probably didn’t realize that this was the meaning it was conveying. He probably thought it meant something like “The person who endures conquers,” or “He who endures conquers.” (Or to put it more gender-neutrally, “They who endure conquer.”) But that would mean that two unusual things were going on in this sentence. Neither of them is unprecedented, but both of them happening in one short sentence is noteworthy.

First, the clause who endures would have to be a relative clause modifying he. This doesn’t happen so much in present-day English. The best-known example in recent years is probably the epithet He Who Must Not Be Named for Voldemort in the Harry Potter novels. And even here, speakers didn’t realize they could change the He to Him when the name was a direct object, as observed by Q. Pheevr here.

Second, this relative clause who endures is separated from he. Now sometimes relative clauses do get separated from their head nouns: a book was published that would be read for centuries by countless generations; a woman appeared who was also carrying her head in her hands; What type of workers were there who participated in building the Pyramids. However, this usually happens when the subject of a clause would be ridiculously long if you refused to break it up. He who endures is just three words.

With my interpretation, though, there’s only one unusual thing going on: who endures isn’t modifying a noun at all, but is acting like a noun phrase all by itself. This is somewhat unusual, but not terribly so. It’s unusual because this kind of clause (known as a fused relative), more typically refers to things than to people. In other words, although sentences like That’s what I want and What you did was inexcusable are common enough, fused relatives like this one and the one in Who told me was my dad are somewhat rare. Exceptions include Can I help who’s next? and To whom it may concern.

Overall, then, my parse is the better choice syntactically. After a bit of internet-searching, though, I found that this is a translation of a Latin quotation from an ancient Roman satirist named Persius, although the opinion seems to be that he wasn’t being satirical when he wrote this:

Vincit qui patitur.

People who explain this quotation talk about the need for persistence in order to achieve victory, which definitely sounds more like the “They who endure conquer” interpretation. OK, so maybe it’s possible that I chose the incorrect interpretation for that guy’s T-shirt. But now I can write about how Latin is more precise than English, and you pick up this ambiguity in translation! Except that the same ambiguity exists in the Latin phrasing. Here’s how…

Vincit means “conquers”. Like its English translation, it can be transitive (as in Omnia vincit amor, “Love conquers all”) or intransitive (as in In hoc signo vinces, “By this sign you will conquer”), so you have to use the context to tell whether a nearby noun phrase is a subject or direct object. Usually in Latin, case endings do this, as illustrated below:

Vincit rex. “The king conquers.”
Vincit regem. “He/she conquers the king.”

Qui patitur means “who suffers (or endures)”, and it’s acting as a fused relative, just like its translation in English. Even in Latin, though, we can’t tell if that fused relative is a subject or an object. It’s the same problem that confuses English speakers about whoever and whomever. So actually, what we have here is a translation that is faithful even in preserving the ambiguity of the original!

Posted in Ambiguity, Fused relatives, Pronouns, Relative clauses | 8 Comments »