Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Syntax’ Category

Photogenic People Take the Best Pictures

Posted by Neal on September 26, 2018

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

Adam, you took a great picture!

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

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

I take crappy pictures.

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

This screw screws in easily.

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

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

I don’t embarrass easily.

These cookies freeze well.

Our kit sells for $10.99.

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

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

Kim took a picture,

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

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

Your receipt is printing.

The program is downloading.

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

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

*These pictures took well,

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

The photographer took a great picture of Adam.

Adam took a great picture.

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

My wife made a fantastic pie from these apples.

These apples would make a great pie.

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

Advertisements

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

I’m Tired of Taking Clothes On and Off

Posted by Neal on July 31, 2018

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

I’m tired of taking clothes on and off.

Taking clothes on and off?

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

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

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

    TAKE_vv* * off and on

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

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

    TAKE_vv* * on and off

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

    PUT_vv* * on and off

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

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

    Posted in Coordination, The wife | 2 Comments »

    Forcibly Arriving

    Posted by Neal on May 31, 2018

    Last month, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in Montgomery, Alabama. That rather vague name may not ring a bell for you, but if you’ve been hearing news stories about a “lynching memorial,” that’s the place. An article by Kelly Macias in the Daily Kos argued for the need for such a memorial, calling it a

    space that is intentionally designed for us to finally have an adult conversation about the generational trauma and terror black people have experienced since we forcibly arrived upon America’s shores

    By context and historical knowledge, I could make sense of forcibly arrive: The blacks arrived, but the action wasn’t voluntary; they were taken by force and transported here. But seeing forcibly used in this sentence was surprising to me.

    Forcibly, like a number of adverbs, is agent-oriented. To show what this means, let’s compare it to an adverb that is subject-oriented: willingly. In the first sentence below, willingly describes how Dr. Riviera did the examination. In the second sentence, it describes how Homer underwent the examination. In both cases, willingly says something about the subject of the sentence. On the other hand, when we put in forcibly, then in both sentences, it’s talking about Dr. Riviera. Although Riviera is the subject in one, and the object of the preposition by in the other, in both cases he’s the agent.

    1. Dr. Riviera willingly examined Homer.
    2. Homer was willingly examined by Dr. Riviera.
    3. Dr. Riviera forcibly examined Homer.
    4. Homer was forcibly examined by Dr. Riviera.

    So I’m accustomed to agent-oriented adverbs with verbs that can be either in active voice (examined) or passive voice (was examined)–i.e. transitive verbs. What about intransitive verbs? Those can work, provided you have a verb that refers to something that can be dumb forcibly:

    1. Bart forcibly jumped over the curb.
    2. ?Marge forcibly slept.

    Now let’s talk about arrive. It’s a member of a class of verbs called unaccusatives, whose subjects don’t have the role of agent. Other members include suffer, die, and the intransitive versions of verbs such as melt. These verbs definitely don’t go well with agent-oriented adverbs:

    1. *Seymour forcibly suffered.
    2. *Maud forcibly died.

    So now, coming back to arrive, it’s often classified as an unaccusative verb. The subject is not an agent, and since the verb is intransitive, there’s no object to be the agent, either. No agent in sight. And in that case, how does forcibly get to describe the causer of the arriving? My guess at the beginning of this post was “pure context,” and it still is. Maybe it was even a cut-and-paste error, with an original were forcibly transported replaced by arrived, and forcibly never got changed accordingly. However, I can’t say it’s something that people just don’t say or write, because I’ve found a couple of other examples:

    • In Brazil and Cuba, where thousands of African slaves forcibly arrived each year, slavery dominated most economic activities…. (link)
    • With their ancestors having forcibly arrived to the New World enslaved, and with African females becoming “beast[s] of burden,” newly freed southern black … (link)

    Posted in Adjuncts and complements, Lexical semantics | Leave a Comment »

    Black Deaf People

    Posted by Neal on December 2, 2017

    A couple of posts back, I tackled my brother’s question of whether one would say “black little people” (yes), or “little black people” (not so much). M. Makino commented,

    I usually try to shorthand the order of adjectives for students by telling them that the stuff people feel is closest to their identities comes last. It seems feasible that someone whose ethnicity was of extreme importance might put it after “little”.

    My response:

    … Your point gives me an idea for another collocation battle to carry out in a corpus: “Deaf” vs. “black”.

    So what are we waiting for? Let’s go!

    Let’s start by pulling up our handy adjective-ordering template:

    evaluation size shape condition human propensity age color origin material attributive noun

    OK, let’s see…black is a color adjective. Deaf is a human propensity adjective (more specifically, one of physical state, as opposed to mental state or behavior). So we would expect deaf black to be the usual way of ordering theses adjectives. Now let’s see what we actually get.

    Searching COCA for deaf black, I got nothing. Searching for black deaf, I got two examples, both in the same sentence:

    Merriweather, a member of the Atlanta Black Deaf Advocates Board and Miss Black Deaf America 1991, is featured in the October issue of the magazine.

    In search of a larger sample, I turned to the NOW Corpus. For deaf black, I got a single hit:

    You can imagine the delight of students when the first deaf black woman lawyer in the US visited them last Monday.

    The clear winner turned out to be black deaf, which returned the following examples, among others:

    • Childress was a founding member of National Black Deaf Advocates, and established BRIDGES, an organization assisting black deaf interpreters and their clients
    • advocate, founder, fighter and creator of things that are now part of black deaf community, as well as an interpreter, ” says Fred Beam, a deaf
    • And she particularly cared about black deaf people being able to be their best selves
    • to safeguard the general health and welfare of Black deaf and hard of hearing people
    • hiring more black deaf and hearing ASL interpreters; and hosting a public town hall to update the community
    • the hiring more black deaf and ASL interpreters and black trans women, indigenous people, and others from vulnerable
    • The son of a deaf woman and volunteer with the Detroit Black Deaf Advocates, Smith hopes to one day blend his fluency in American Sign Language with
    • So now it’s the LGBT community vs. us black deaf. Sigh!
    • the Blade expressed disagreement with this person’s claim that LGBT deaf people and black deaf people at Gallaudet were at odds with each other.
    • While at the university, Whyte also met and worked with Miss Black Deaf America 2011-2013, Ericka Baylor.

    What gives? Well, with black little person/people, I concluded that whereas black person/people was an ordinary phrase, little person/people was a compound noun, and that was why it didn’t get broken up by black. Maybe deaf person/people is a compound, too. Let’s run it through the same tests we did with little person/people and black person/people in the other post:

    1. Stress shift: deaf person and deaf person have the same meaning and are both acceptable depending on context. Indication: Phrasal
    2. Idiosyncratic meaning: deaf person/people has a mostly compositional meaning here. Indication: Phrasal
    3. Suitability of other nouns: deaf men, deaf women, deaf children, deaf bakers, and deaf CEOs are all still deaf people. Indication: Phrasal
    4. One-replacement: deaf people and hearing ones is grammatical. Indication: Phrasal

    No luck, then. Both black and deaf seem to form phrases with the nouns they modify, so we would still expect deaf black rather than black deaf. So does Makino’s rule of thumb about closeness to your identity may work better than the adjective-ordering template when it comes to describing people? Maybe; do black Deaf people consider deafness to be a more fundamental part of their identity than their race? I don’t know. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that some do and some don’t.

    Posted in Adjective ordering, Compound words | 9 Comments »

    Whoever’s Team We Like

    Posted by Neal on December 1, 2017

    In a post from exactly one year ago, I began with a sentence that I’d heard on the “Criminal” podcast. Here’s the original sentence, followed by the way that I would express the intended thought:

    1. I’d be whoever’s girlfriend had the dope.
    2. I’d be whoever had the dope’s girlfriend.

    In the original sentence, instead of the possessive ‘s attaching to the entire fused relative whoever had the dope, it attaches just to the word whoever, and takes the word girlfriend along with it. It was so unusual that I went looking for similar examples in COCA, although I ended up noticing something even more interesting that ended up taking over the rest of the post. Now, though, I want to get back to whoever’s girlfriend had the dope. As it happens, I did find an analogous example when I searched COCA. Here it is, with my paraphrase underneath it.

    1. I mean we want to have whoever’s team we like to win so that we can get lucky later.
    2. I mean we want to have whoever we like’s team to win so that we can get lucky later.

    Looking at these two examples, one explanation that comes to mind is that it’s just easier to go ahead and put the possessive marker on whoever right away, and postpone saying the rest of the clause until it’s not breaking up a determiner-noun cluster. Unfortunately, it isn’t easy to check for counterexamples on COCA, because searching for whoever’s is not going to bring you any examples of whoever+[some clause]+‘s.

    So instead, I did some ordinary Google searches for a few whoever clauses I made from scratch. I started with whoever as a subject, and found these examples:

    1. The picture itself wasn’t scary but it would strike fear in whoever saw it’s hearts.
    2. When we did have the odd beer thrown up on stage I just wish I could go to whoever did it’s place of work, if he actually had a job, and tip it over his head and think, ‘what do you reckon? Is it funny?’
    3. Dirt Clod, just lay off if you dont like it dont buy it, its whoever buys it’s deal
    4. Well sure, but then it’s still your (or whoever bought it’s) land, so you just turf them off.

    Then I created a few with whoever as an object, and found more examples:

    1. You just closed your eyes and guessed the amount of cash you put into whoever you bought it from’s hand?
    2. Yeah like /u/cmedrano said you’d just need to add your vehicle to whoever you bought it from’s account.
    3. They’ll be signed on to the alliance in a day, and then we can track down whoever you saw’s planet.
    4. Whoever you saw’s gembox spawned in the 2 hours they were able to spawn.
    5. There is an upper management level above customer service, whoever you talked to’s boss would be in that level, but they don’t generally speak directly to customers.

    Evidently, some speakers are not put off by the inconvenience of putting the possessive ‘s at the end of a clause instead of directly on the whoever. How about you?

    Posted in Ambiguity, Fused relatives, Pronouns | 1 Comment »

    Black Little People

    Posted by Neal on October 19, 2017

    My brother Glen is a fan of Game of Thrones, and recently he came across a this blog post by Adrienne Marie Brown, where she proposes an all-black cast for GoT. However, when Glen reached the bottom of the list, he realized that one important character was missing: Tyrion Lannister. For non-Thronie readers, Tyrion Lannister is played by Peter Dinklage, who before GoT was best known to me from his scene-stealing role in Elf:

    You’ll have noticed that Dinklage is a little person, which is why Glen found himself wondering (in his words), “What, you couldn’t think of any black little people… um, little black people… no, black little people actors?”

    His question had run him straight into the old adjective-ordering issue. According to this table that I copied from my 2011 post on this topic…

    evaluation size shape condition human propensity age color origin material attributive noun

    …we would expect little black person. But it’s not what we get. To find out whether little black person/people or black little person/people was more common, I had to leave the curated corpora and venture out into the larger internet, since neither phrase appeared in COCA or the NOW Corpus–with the exception of a single sentence in the NOW corpus that contained little black person twice:

    I remember friends of mine saying, “yo soy negrito, pero un negrito fino,” which literally translates to “I am a little black person, but a fine little black person.”

    (As it turns out, this use of the diminutive negrito in Spanish to refer to black people is a different rabbit hole to fall into, so those who are interested can start with this article.)

    Doing an ordinary Google search, the only examples I found of little black person/people were translations of negrito. But searching for black little person/people, I quickly found examples such as:

    • Cara Reedy is an actor, writer, comedian, and blogger with achondroplastic dwarfism. … Reedy explains that as an individual with dwarfism, “I have to do everything everybody else does, but better. I have to be a better writer, I have to tell better jokes. I have to do everything better because everyone already believes I can’t do it. I’m a female, black, little person. It’s a lot.” (link)
    • Before she was on Little Women: LA, [Tonya] Banks was an actress. … Banks joined the entertainment industry in 1984 as an actress and stuntwoman. …
      Banks wants to be the first black little person woman to win an Academy Award. She overcame difficult odds to become the only black little person in Hollywood. (link)
    • Have seen Black little person of both sexes here in DC – one fellow who also appears to have additional handicaps, and a woman who seems otherwise unaffected by handicaps (I hesitate to use the word “normal” since I don’t want to imply anything negative about her physical appearance). (link)
    • I was also “friends” with a black little person when I worked in a pharmacy in Macon, GA. (link)
    • … notorious pinhead who inspired Verdi’s Rigoletto; and the black little person, only thirty-four inches tall, who was very happily married to a 264-pound woman. (link)
    • The black little person in the Nexium commercial (link)
    • The Midnight Thud, a “demonic” black little person dressed in S&M gear who smokes crack and knows martial arts, dwells in the bowels of the eponymous penitentiary, forced there by unknown circumstances (link)

    So where did our nice adjective-ordering chart go astray?

    First, notice that the final item is “attributive noun”–in other words, the first noun in a compound noun, such as table tennis. In other words, we could shorten the list by lopping off “attributive noun” and noting that compound nouns don’t get broken up.

    Second, remember that ordinary adjectives can still become part of compound nouns. This happens in well-known pairs such as black bird (which could be a crow, a raven, a grackle, a black vulture, a flamingo dipped in tar, or any other bird that happens to be black), and blackbird (which has to be one of several specific species of birds). It seems that little person/people is a compound, whereas black person/people is not–or at least, not as much of one as little person/people is. So how do we know this, other than the fact that people actually use the term black little person, but by and large avoid little black person?

    First of all, there’s the stress shift. Many (maybe even most) compounds in English are stressed on their first element. So for example, we have black bird, but blackbird; green house but greenhouse. (You can hear a lot more about this “backshift” in this episode of the Lexicon Valley podcast hosted by John McWhorter.) And in the case at hand, it’s little person/people. If you say little person, I’ll assume you’re just talking about some small person.

    And speaking of small, notice that you pronounce small person with the stress on the noun: small person. If you said you’d seen a small person, I wouldn’t know what you meant, even though I know the meanings of small and person. This brings us to the second property of compound words: They have idiosyncratic meanings that you don’t arrive at by putting together the meanings of the individual words. A small person is just a small person, but a little person is someone with achondroplasia or some similar disorder.

    This idiosyncratic meaning also reveals itself when you try replacing person/people with another word, even if it’s a word for another kind of human being. Little men, little women, and little children are not the same as little people. The reality show Little Women mentioned above, which centers on women who are little people, gets its cleverness by playing on this expectation. Note also the phrase black little person woman in that same example: Tonya Banks said this instead of the seemingly more concise black little woman. Furthermore, even if a little person is an actor, an engineer, or an asshole, calling them a little actor, little engineer, or little asshole doesn’t convey that meaning.

    A third piece of evidence is the one-replacement test. Noun phrases like white cats and black ones are fine, indicating that white cats is a phrase instead of a compound. But if you try to do this with cat people and dog people, you get the ungrammatical *cat people and dog ones, which indicates that cat person and dog person are compounds. In our case, cat people and little ones won’t fly. It’s grammatical, but it doesn’t mean people who love cats and people with achondroplasia; it means people who love cats, and people who are children. Even big people and little ones doesn’t work: little is now just an antonym to big, with its ordinary meaning.

    Here’s a quick comparison to see how black person/people fares with these tests:

    1. Stress shift: black person and black person have the same meaning and are both acceptable depending on context. Indication: Phrasal
    2. Idiosyncratic meaning: black person/people need not actually be the color black, so there is some idiosyncratic meaning here. Indication: Compound
    3. Suitability of other nouns: black men, black women, black children, black bakers, and black CEOs are all still black people. Indication: Phrasal
    4. One-replacement: black people and brown ones is grammatical. Indication: Phrasal

    So with all these facts favoring black little person over little black person, its seeming violation of the adjective-ordering rule isn’t such a mystery after all. But getting back to the task of casting a black Game of Thrones, Glen had a more practical question: “Linguistics aside, I wonder why that website didn’t go with Tony Cox, the black little person from Bad Santa?” Why not, indeed?

    So to Adrienne Marie Browne, courtesy of my brother Glen, here is the latest proposed addition to your #blackGOTcast:

    Posted in Adjective ordering, Christmas-related, Compound words, TV | 3 Comments »

    I’ll Diagram a Sentence for You!

    Posted by Neal on February 8, 2017

    This is something I posted on Facebook, mainly for people who live in my adopted hometown of Reynoldsburg, Ohio. But I’m happy to extend this offer to any of my wider audience!

    swimming
    For the language enthusiast in your life, have a favorite proverb, punchline, or inside joke diagrammed, linguist-style. I will create a diagram like the one you see here, and email it to you for printing, framing, or social-media sharing.

    The cost? A donation to Citizens To Improve Quality Of Life For Reynoldsburg, P.O. Box 1518, Reynoldsburg, Ohio, USA 43068. This is the committee that will be campaigning for an income tax increase in Reynoldsburg, which will allow the city to do some boring but essential things like repairing the sewers, and some exciting and fun things like bringing in a swimming pool and community center.

    I’ve donated, and now I’m encouraging you to do the same, by adding the all-but-irresistible incentive of an enticingly visualized piece of grammatical analysis!

    Suggested donation levels:

      Simple sentence, or phrase that isn’t a sentence: $20
      Compound sentence: $30
      Complex sentence: $45
      Compound-complex sentence: $60

    For sentences or phrases that are particularly long, I may suggest a larger donation. For details, email me at nealwhitman@yahoo.com. Oh, and by the way, that node label at the top is an abbreviation for “S(entence), exclam(ative)”. Sex clam is not, as far as I know, a recognized syntactic category.

    Posted in Ohioana, Syntax | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

    Whoever’s

    Posted by Neal on December 1, 2016

    This post began as an exploration of a head-scratcher of a sentence I heard on an episode of Radiotopia’s Criminal podcast. In it, a woman described being an inmate in a prison that housed both men and women. (She described it as a “co-ed prison,” which is worthy of comment in itself, but not the main thing I was interested in.) The men greatly outnumbered the women, which was good for her, because she was addicted to drugs, and could do favors of the sexual kind for male prisoners who had them. Or as she put it:

    I’d be whoever’s girlfriend had the dope.

    Sheer context allowed me to twist this sentence into a shape that matched (for me) the meaning she was getting at:

    I’d be the girlfriend of whoever had the dope.

    or perhaps

    I’d be whoever had the dope‘s girlfriend.

    Context notwithstanding, the only meaning I can get from the actual utterance is that:

    1. Some person X has girlfriend Y.
    2. Y has the dope.
    3. The speaker will somehow become Y.

    Was this simply an error, or is it something licensed by the mental grammars of other English speakers? I’ll table that question for now, because in the course of trying to answer it, I’ve discovered there’s another oddity involving the possessive form of whoever that I’d never even noticed–and as far as I’ve been able to tell so far, others haven’t, either.

    Take a look at this handful of COCA examples I found that contain a fused relative involving whoever’s:

    1. Ronnie is whoever’s agent he needs to be.
    2. Now take the dead battery and put it in whoever’s car you got the good one out of.
    3. It happened on the second month of his presidency. He went on for 94 more months with whoever’s blood was in him.
    4. …playing strip poker in whoever’s house had no parents in it on rainy days
    5. whoever’s brain is highest in coherence dominates. do you believe this? whosoever’s brain is highest in chaos will dominate if brains are like crowds, or greed,

    In these sentences, the fused relative performs a grammatical function in the larger sentence. For example, in (1), whoever’s agent he needs to be is the complement of is. In (2), whoever’s car you got the good one out of is the object of the preposition in. And so on.

    Now I want to focus specifically on the heads of the free relatives: the whoever’s followed by the noun: agent, car, blood,…. Notice that this noun is the part that delivers the primary meaning to the verb in the larger sentence (or as linguists call it, the matrix clause). In (1), Ronnie is an agent. In (2), the command is to put something in a car. In (3), Ronald Reagan has someone’s transfused blood in him. In (4), we’re talking about playing strip poker in a house. And in (5), the thing that dominates is a brain. I’ll call this the “noun head” parse.

    So far, so good. Now let’s consider these other sentences, also from COCA:

    1. it feels like they are living the life of whoever’s brain was recorded.
    2. Whoever’s pitch is chosen will earn a major promotion.
    3. Or we’ll each pick a [Jeopardy!] contestant at the beginning and whoever’s contestant wins doesn’t have to do dishes.
    4. But they knew that whoever’s DNA this was would be the killer.
    5. Whoever’s shack this is, is a Tupac Shakur freak.

    In these examples, it’s not the nouns (brain, pitch, contestant, DNA, shack) that provide the meaning that completes the meaning of the verb in the matrix clause. So in (6), it feels like we’re living the life of the person whose brain was recorded–not the life of the brain of that person. In (7), it’s a person, not a pitch, that will earn a major promotion. In (8), the person who doesn’t have to do the dishes is not the Jeopardy! contestant, but the TV watcher who chose that contestant. In (9), the killer is a person, not that person’s DNA. In (10), the Tupac Shakur freak is a person, not that person’s shack. In short, in these examples, it’s the whoever’s that’s providing the main meaning to the matrix clause. I’ll call this the “pronoun head” parse.

    All of these sentences are grammatical for me, but possessive fused relatives are so rare that I’ve only ever had to deal with one such sentence at a time. This COCA search was the first time that I came face-to-face with the two ways of parsing them, because it was the first time I had so many all in one place. Furthermore, the even split you see in the lists above is what I found in the data: After I discarded irrelevant examples, and examples that were ambiguous between the noun-head and pronoun-head parses, the ones I’ve listed here were all the ones that remained.

    For completeness, I also did the search with the much rarer whosever, and what do you know, of the two relevant examples I found, there’s one of each:

    1. then match up the plaster casts with whosever shoes they are, and that way you could catch him
    2. Whosever pole lands the straightest and farthest wins.

    In (11), we have a noun-head parse: You match up plaster casts with shoes, not with people. In (12), we have a pronoun-head parse: The winner is a person, not a pole.

    I looked in CGEL, expecting to find that the interesting discovery I’d just made was listed as a matter of course on page 1302 or somewhere. That’s what usually happens. But CGEL didn’t even touch on whoever’s/whosever at all, much less the details like the kind I’m discussing. I haven’t found it in some classic works on fused relatives (e.g. Bresnan & Grimshaw 1978, for those who are into this subject). If you know of anything that’s been published on this, please mention it in the comments!

    Posted in Ambiguity, Fused relatives, Pronouns | 7 Comments »

    All or Nothing On the Field

    Posted by Neal on November 13, 2016

    Last Wednesday, as I watched Hillary Clinton’s concession speech, she told her campaign workers:

    You left it all on the field, every single one of you.

    On the other hand, the week before, Cleveland Indians coach Terry Francona said this about their historic World Series run that ended in a loss with game seven:

    To be associated with those players in that clubhouse, it is an honor and I just told them that it’s going to hurt. It hurts because we care. But they need to walk with their heads held high because they left nothing on the field. That’s all the things we ever ask them to do. They tried until there was nothing left.

    So which is it? Do you leave everything on the field, or nothing on the field? The expression I’m used to is Leave everything on the field or Leave it all on the field. And in fact, this is the original phrasing. In a thread on the American Dialect Society email list, Ben Zimmer linked us to this post by etymologist Barry Popik, who wrote:

    To “leave everything on the court/ice/field” is to give total effort, to the point of exhaustion. Nothing is held in reserve for a future contest.

    “It was evident the Giants had left it all on the field” was cited in print in 1961.

    “After the game, if you can say that you left everything on the field and if you had it to do over again tomorrow, you couldn’t have done it any better—then and only then is there no disgrace in losing,” a high school football coach said in 1966.

    “Our kids gave everything they had. They didn’t leave a thing off the field, they left it all on the field,” a college football coach said in 1969. The now-common expression is not known to have any particular author.

    The first example of leave nothing on the field that I’ve been able to find is from November 10, 2000:

    South River left nothing on the field in final loss

    Hits are kind of scarce after that, but pick up again from 2007 onwards. I wondered if it might have been spread by a book by Tim Irwin called Run with the Bulls without Getting Trampled, published in 2006, which had this passage:

    …the head coach of the opposing team walked across the field directly toward us. He turned to me and said, “Sir, may I speak with your son?”

    I moved away as he put his hands on my son’s shoulders and looked directly into his reddened eyes. Barely audible to me, I heard the coach pay this young player the supreme compliment. “Son, tonight you left nothing on the field. You gave it your all, and it was an honor to play against you.”

    However, I think the increase in nothing-variants probably had more to do with a 2007 Nike TV commercial called “Leave Nothing”, brought to my attention by ADS-L contributor Wilson Gray:

    So how did we get from leaving everything on the field to leaving nothing, without even a stop at 75%, or 33%? My suspicion is that it’s an idiom blend between leave everything on the field and hold nothing back, or maybe leave nothing in the locker room, which I’ve found as early as 2005. Alternatively, it could be some confusion with the business expression leave money on the table, which you don’t want to do. That seems to be this blogger’s understanding, except that he thinks leave money on the table is related to poker.

    How can this expression and its complete opposite both express the same idea? As far as my family members are concerned, they could care less.

    Posted in Politics, Sports, Syntactic blending | 9 Comments »

    Classroom Debate

    Posted by Neal on October 15, 2016

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

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

    Doug: Why did you say Populists were more effective?

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

    Doug: Wait, what I meant was—

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

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

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

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

    whydidyousay1

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

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

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

    whydidyousay2

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

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

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

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

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

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