Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Syntax’ Category

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 | 7 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

Image Provided By:

Image Provided By:

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 »

Tense Travel

Posted by Neal on October 14, 2014

My wife called me in to her office last night to make me watch this segment of The Big Bang Theory, in which Sheldon, Leonard, Raj, and Howard are watching Back to the Future, Part ii. Harrison Tran has helpfully bootlegged it onto YouTube, complete with a transcript:

Howard: Wait, hold on. Pause.
[music stops]
Howard: Something doesn’t make sense. Look. In 2015 Biff steals the Sports Almanac and takes the time machine back to 1955 to give it to his younger self. But as soon as he does that he changes the future, so the 2015 he returns to would be a different 2015. Not the 2015 that Marty and Doc were in.
Leonard: This is Hot Tub Time Machine all over again. Look. If future Biff goes back to 2015 right after he gives young Biff the Almanac, he could get back to the 2015 with Marty and Doc in it. Because it wasn’t until his 21st birthday that 1955 Biff placed his first bet.
Sheldon: But whoa, whoa. Is placed right?
Leonard: What do you mean?
Sheldon: Is placed the right the right tense for something that would’ve happened in the future of a past that was affected by something from the future?
Leonard: [thinks] Had will have placed?
Sheldon: That’s my boy.
Leonard: Okay. So, it wasn’t until his 21st birthday that Biff had will have placed his first bet and made his millions. That’s when he alters the timeline.
Sheldon: But he had will haven’t placed it.
Howard: What?
Sheldon: Unlike Hot Tub Time Machine, this couldn’t be more simple. [laugh track] When Biff gets the Almanac in 1955, the alternate future he creates isn’t the one in which Marty and Doc Brown ever used the time machine to travel to 2015. Therefore, in the new timeline, Marty and Doc never brought the time machine.
Leonard: Wait, wait, wait. Is brought right?
Sheldon: [thinks] Marty and Doc never had have had brought?
Leonard: I don’t know, you did it to me.
Sheldon: I’m going with it. Marty and Doc never had have had brought the time machine to 2015. That means 2015 Biff could also not had have had brought the Almanac to 1955 Biff. Therefore, the timeline in which 1955 Biff gets the Almanac is also the timeline in which 1955 Biff never gets the Almanac and not just never gets: never have, never hasn’t, never had have hasn’t.
Raj: He’s right.

I love that Harrison included the laugh track in his transcript.

So of course all this is just a good excuse to combine two kinds of geekery: sci-fi and grammar. The main way Sheldon and Leonard twist the verb-tense syntax is to allow auxiliary have to take complements that it doesn’t take in monolinear-time Standard English. First, they put it with the modal will, when modal auxilaries are always the first in a series of auxiliary verbs, even in outlandish strings such as will have been being eaten. Second, they put it with itself, in had have had brought and had have hasn’t.

Another kind of auxiliary combination we don’t get in monolinear-time Standard English is the past tense (or past participle) auxiliary had after a modal, in could not had have had brought. In our English, modals always take a base form, not a past-tense form.

Finally, there’s the combination of the negative contraction haven’t with will in will haven’t placed. In our English, the contraction has to come in the first auxiliary verb: won’t have placed.

But never mind the seeming syntactic violations. In a world with time travel, the language will have to evolve. My question was whether Sheldon and Leonard’s new syntactic rules for these tenses were semantically consistent with each other. In short, they’re not.

The main situation Sheldon and Leonard are discussing is an event time (young Biff placing a bet) that occurs later than a reference time (when young Biff receives the Almanac), but before the time of utterance (2014, in Sheldon and Leonard’s apartment). Ordinarily, this kind of situation would call for the so-called “future in the past“: Biff would place his bet sometime later. The complication is that the event time and the utterance time are now in separate timelines. Even for this situation, though, ordinary English has an appropriate choice: the perfective version of this future in the past: would have placed. But there’s one more complication: We’re talking about an event that not only did not happen in our own timeline, but also did happen in an alternative timeline. So how do Sheldon and Leonard propose to designate such an event? They use the past-tense form had, followed by a normal future perfect tense (will have had), to get had will have had. Let’s call this the alternate future in the past tense. This tense also puts its negative contractions in a different place, as noted earlier: had will haven’t placed.

However, Sheldon and Leonard don’t follow these rules the very next time they discuss an event that occurs later than a reference time but before the time of utterance, in an alternative timeline: Doc and Marty’s trip in the time machine. By the rules created so far, it would be never had will have brought (or if they wanted to use a negative contraction, had will haven’t brought), but instead, they go for the stacking of forms of have instead, leading to Sheldon’s culminating string never have, never hasn’t, never had have hasn’t. These are elliptical forms, which I surmise would all finish with gotten if they were fully spoken.

Still amusing, but it would have been funnier if these tenses had turned out to be consistent with each other, even after my poking at them.

Don't panic.

The grammar problem posed by time travel was also explored in 1980, in Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. I was inspired to look up what he wrote, and was hoping to compare his tenses with Sheldon and Leonard’s. After reading the first paragraph below, I was excited to notice that Adams’ subscribed to the view of time travel in which you cannot alter timelines, unlike the Back to the Future scenario in which you can. Would this differing assumptions be reflected in the hypothetical grammars?

Sadly, no. Although Adams imagines more kinds of twisted temporal situations than Sheldon and Leonard discuss, he never bothers creating new verb tenses. Instead, he chooses to leave them to the readers’ imaginations, while using funny grammar jargon to name them. Here’s the relevant part, from the beginning of Chapter 15:

One of the major problems encountered in time travel is not that of accidentally becoming your own father or mother. There is no problem involved in becoming your own father or mother than a broad-minded and well-adjusted family can’t cope with. There is no problem about changing the course of history–the course of history does not change because it all fits together like a jigsaw. All the important changes have happened before the things they were supposed to change and it all sorts itself out in the end.

The major problem is quite simply one of grammar, and the main work to consult in this matter is Dr. Dan Streetmentioner’s Time Traveler’s Handbook of 1001 Tense Formations. It will tell you, for instance, how to describe something that was about to happen to you in the past before you avoided it by time-jumping forward two days in order to avoid it. The event will be described differently according to whether you are talking about it from the standpoint of your own natural time, from a time further in the future, or a time in the further past and is further complicated by the possibility of conducting conversations while you are actually traveling from one time to another with the intention of becoming your own mother or father.

Most readers get as far as the Future Semiconditionally Modified Subinverted Plagal Past Subjunctive Intentional before giving up; and in fact in later editions of the book all the pages beyond this point have been left blank to save on printing costs.

These two examples are the only pieces of pop culture I know of that specifically deal with new verb tenses to handle time travel, although collisions between time travel and ordinary English verb tenses have their own page on TV Tropes and Idioms.

Posted in Books, TV, Verb tense | 8 Comments »

He’ll Be None the Wiser

Posted by Neal on October 9, 2014

Since I began this blog in 2004, I’ve been vague about where in central Ohio I live, but tonight I’m proud to say that I live in Reynoldsburg, where phenomenal community support for our public school teachers has seen them through a summer of appalling disrespect from the local board of education (except for one notable member) and superintendent, who did everything they could to cause a teacher strike. That strike began on September 19, and might finally be ending today, if a tentative agreement is approved by the teachers.

In other news, Doug and Adam, who have been sick this entire time, might finally be showing signs of recovery. In the mornings, I’ve still been packing a lunch for Adam before I head to work. It’s not that he can’t get himself lunch, but if I don’t make him one, he’ll end up just eating Cheerios for every meal. So a couple of days ago, I opened the bag of bread and pulled out the three slices that were left: two heels and a whatever-you-call-a-slice-that’s-not-a-heel. Dang it, it had happened again!

I remembered a conversation from a month ago, when I had been encouraging Adam to make his own sandwich for a change, and he said he couldn’t, because he’d have to use a heel.

“That’s not a problem,” I told him. “Just do what I do. I put the pieces of bread together, like this, and turn the heel crust-side-in, like this. Then I grab these kitchen shears and cut off the edges of both pieces of bread, like I always do.” (Yes, I cut off the crusts. I don’t have to anymore, because Adam has recently started to eat his sandwiches with the crusts left on.) “Then I spread the peanut butter on the crusty side of the heel, finish making the sandwich, and you’re none the wiser.”

“Oh, I most certainly am the wiser!” Adam said. “Every time you do that, my sandwich tastes funny.”

Almost as interesting as the fact that Adam was, and had been, hip to my trick, was his phrasing I am the wiser. At first I thought he had used a negative polarity item in a positive polarity context, you know, like he did when he was four years old, during another sandwich-related occurrence. But as I thought about it more, I realized that the plus any comparative did happen outside negations and questions, in phrases like all the better and even somewhat the wiser. In any case, you can use NPIs in positive contexts if you’re really emphasizing them, as in Yes, I do give a damn!, and Adam was definitely emphatic. Well, maybe it was because Adam used the wiser without a specifier saying how much the wiser he was: No somewhat, no all, not even very much. But a specifier isn’t necessary, either: I could just as easily have said: You’re never the wiser. So maybe it was the combination of his using the wiser with positive polarity and without a specifier. I don’t know, so that’s one reason I never wrote it up here. Besides, delivering “We Support Reynoldsburg Teachers” yard signs, going to rallies, passing around petitions, writing letters, and picketing the residences of members of the board of education on top of my actual job made it tough to find the time.

Anyway, here I was again, making a sandwich out of a heel. So I put the pieces of bread together, turned the heel crust-side-in, grabbed the kitchen shears and cut off the edges of both pieces of bread, like I used to do. I spread the peanut butter on the crusty side of the heel, sliced the banana on top of it, and laid on the top slice of bread. I put the whole thing in a sandwich container, and stuck a note to the top. The note read, “He’ll be none the wiser.”

When I arrived home that afternoon, Adam had eaten the lunch I’d made. On the table, he’d left my note, with an edit:

Oh, heel naw!

Ha! The linguistic hook of my potential post about the syntax and semantics of none the wiser had just become a post about the homophony of he’ll and heel … or rather, the homophony of he’ll and hill outside of careful speech, and not in a dialect that lowers [i] to [I] before [l] as a matter of course. My guess is that it’s a frequency effect, because he’ll is such a common word. Similarly for we’ll/will and she’ll/shill, but not for Neal/nil.

Posted in Adam, Food-related, Negative polarity items, Ohioana, Syntax | 6 Comments »

Willing and Able

Posted by Neal on August 19, 2014

Nine years ago, I was inspired to write a post after hearing a flight attendant give the pre-flight safety presentation, and say, “Please move from the exit rows if you are unwilling or unable to perform the necessary actions without injury.” On my most recent flight, instead of listening to the attendant, I tried to pick up some Spanish vocabulary by reading the safety-information card from the seatback in front of me. And what do you know, inspiration struck again, when I read this Spanish sentence on the very same topic of sitting in the exit rows:

Toda persona que esté sentada en un asiento de salida debe estar dispuesta y ser capaz de realizar las siguientes funciones.
Every person who is seated in an exit seat must be willing and be able to execute the following functions.


Once again, the interesting part comes from trying to coordinate the adjectives for “willing” and “able”. If you’ve taken even first-year Spanish, you’ve had to learn about the two Spanish verbs that both mean “be”: ser, and estar. The former usually goes with what semanticists call individual-level predicates: properties that are generally true of someone, and less subject to change, such as hair color or nationality. These predicates stand in contrast to stage-level predicates, which are true of someone only for a limited time, such as emotional state or physical location. Now if I had thought of it when I was learning about ser and estar in junior high school, I would have tried to stump the teacher by asking something like, “What if you want to say that someone is Chinese and happy? Do you use ser or estar?”

It looks like the answer is that you don’t choose one or the other; you use both, each laying claim to one of the adjectives: estar dispuesta “be willing”; ser capaz “be able”. What a burn! English speakers don’t have to say be twice, but Spanish speakers do! A similar thing happens in French. If you like your salad with oil, it’s à l’huile (literally “at the oil”). If you like it with with vinegar, it’s au vinaigre (“at the vinegar,” with “at the” collapsed into the single word au). But if you’re like me, and like your salad with oil and vinegar, do you choose à or au? Neither! You have to use them both: à l’huile et au vinaigre.

On the subject of prepositions, though, I realized I needed to take a closer look at the adjectives dispuesto and capaz. The single preposition de goes with both of them in this sentence, but is de actually the preposition that typically goes with dispuesto in Spanish? A bit of Googling indicates that it’s not; the typical collocation seems to be dispuesto a. So why didn’t the translation have to use both a and de, along with both ser and estar, like this?

estar dispuesta a y ser capaz de realizar las siguientes funciones

One possibility is that for adjectives that take complements with mismatching prepositions, you just choose the one that goes with the closest adjective, in the same way in English we say Neither you nor I am the winner, because the closer subject is I. (This kind of solution is known as a resolution rule.) Another possibility is that both prepositions should have been used, and the translator simply made a mistake by using only one.

If we’re considering that possibility, though, maybe Spanish uses a rule of resolution to choose between ser and estar, too, and the translator should have just used the one appropriate for the nearest adjective, dispuesto.

So now I’m curious. I ask my Spanish-speaking readers, which of the following sounds best?

Posted in Other weird coordinations | 3 Comments »


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