Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Adjective ordering’ Category

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 either 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 | 1 Comment »

Ordering Your Adjectives

Posted by Neal on July 14, 2011

It’s time to make good on my pledge to write about the three most interesting topic suggestions I got during the Grammar Girl book giveaway contest. Actually, I got significantly more than three suggestions that would be interesting to write about, and they’ll be a source of inspiration in months to come. But I only have three books to give away, so with some difficulty I’ve settled on the three topics that I’m going to write about first. (Well, first, second, and third, actually, but you get my generalized meaning of first, don’t you? Of course you do.) I’ll start with a suggestion from Carlos Iriarte, who wrote:

As a non native speaker, I would love to see a discussion about the possessive apostrophe, or the proper order of adjectives.

Carlos, you’ll have to go somewhere else to learn more about apostrophes, but as it happens, adjective ordering is a topic that I’ve been curious about for years. I remember trying to do a research paper on it as a grad student, for a seminar in lexical semantics, and finding the topic so complicated that I repeatedly narrowed the focus of the paper, eventually ended up with a sorry piece of work investigating restrictive and non-restrictive uses of just one single adjective, and got the paper back with the comment, “I would not spend any more time pursuing this line of research.” But a blog post, I think I can handle.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Adjective ordering, Movies, Music | 28 Comments »

The Forensic Fringe

Posted by Neal on October 17, 2008

My wife and I have watched several episodes of Fringe now, mostly out of curiosity due to Glen’s being on the writing staff. Parts of each episode reveal more of the show’s overall “mythology” (hey, Ben, how long has mythology been used to refer to the slowly revealed backstory in a TV show that prominently features weirdness?), but each episode also has one particular mystery or problem to solve, and the solution always involves some kind of fringe science. In this respect, it’s like Numbers, where each week the solution comes from some kind of mathematics. Also as in Numbers, the progression from having the crazy idea that just might work, to actually implementing it, to solving the problem, is really fast. And the crazy idea always works.

This is a greater barrier to disbelief-suspension in Fringe than it is in Numbers, because in Numbers, the mathematical concepts are sound, but in Fringe, it’s all based on pseudoscience. What I’d like to see on this show is a situation where eccentric scientist Walter Bishop thinks they just might be able to enable agent Olivia Dunham to use, let’s say, telekinesis in order to avert some disaster. He and his team, in less time than it takes to buy, have delivered, and install a high-definition TV and connect it to your cable box, gather and set up equipment that it would take well-funded university labs weeks just to acquire. They hook up Dunham to the device, and … it just doesn’t work. Bishop’s son Peter is stunned.

“I can’t believe it didn’t work!” he says.

“Well, this is fringe science we’re talking here,” says Dunham’s assistant Astrid (a linguistics major, BTW). “Just because they call it fringe science doesn’t mean it’s not bullshit.”

But aside from Astrid’s major in college, what does any of this have to do with linguistics? During one of the episodes, I got to thinking, “This isn’t so much fringe science as forensic science.”

But on second thought: “Wait, no, this baloney is definitely fringe science.”

I thought about it some more: “No, no, they’re using it to solve crimes. It’s forensic science!”

Suddenly I realized: It didn’t have to be one or the other. It was both! It was … forensic fringe science! Fringe forensic science! Wow, this is like sweet mashed potatoes all over again. I got zero hits for both fringe forensic science and forensic fringe science, both in the Corpus of Contemporary American English and with Google. For some reason, there doesn’t seem to be much call for such a term. But if there ever were, what would determine which f-word came first?

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Posted in Adjective ordering, Compound words, TV | 9 Comments »

Stuffing, Dressing, and Sweet Mashed Potatoes

Posted by Neal on November 23, 2007

I made my lunch today out of Thanksgiving leftovers. It’s the first time in at least a decade that I’ve done that, because it’s the first time our family has had Thanksgiving dinner here instead of at my wife’s uncle’s house. I loaded the plate with the good, juicy dark meat that there was plenty of, not the dry white meat that everyone else so strangely prefers. Then some of the stuffing — oh, wait, I can just hear my dad saying that it’s not stuffing unless you’ve actually stuffed the turkey with it. It’s dressing. If you go calling the mixture of breadcrumbs, eggs, turkey stock, and herbs that my mom would cook in a baking dish stuffing, people will get it confused with that portion of the same mixture of breadcrumbs, eggs, turkey stock, and herbs that actually got cooked inside the bird. Maybe the distinction is worth making, since the inside-the-bird stuffing has soaked up some of the juices from the turkey and tastes somewhat different from the baking-dish-stuffing. But on the other hand, if I call it dressing, people could confuse it with what you put on your salad.

Another dish that my wife had picked up for the meal, she referred to as sweet mashed potatoes. That sounded like an interesting recipe. Not good, necessarily, but interesting. I like my mashed potatoes buttery and salty, not sweet. As it turned out, however, what was in the container was not mashed potatoes that had been sweetened, but mashed sweet potatoes. Mashed sweet, or sweet mashed? If an adjective and a noun have fused into a compound noun, then other adjectives can’t go putting them asunder: spoiled hot dogs is grammatical, but hot spoiled dogs isn’t — at least, not with the same meaning as you get with spoiled hot dogs. So in my grammar, it has to be mashed sweet potatoes, since sweet potato is a compound noun (as evidenced by the stress on sweet), and mashed potatoes is not (with its stress on potatoes). It looks like most other speakers agree, since I got 200K Google hits for mashed sweet potatoes and less than 1000 for sweet mashed potatoes. Even among those hits, though, I didn’t find any that referred to mashed white potatoes that had been sweetened; mostly they referred to what I would call mashed sweet potatoes, though a few were talking about a dish containing potatoes and sweet potatoes. Maybe for those few people for whom mashed sweet potatoes and sweet mashed potatoes mean the same thing, mashed potatoes is as much a compound as sweet potato is, leading to variation in naming something that qualifies as both. One website even used both phrasings to refer to the same item.

BTW, for a fascinating investigation of when and why Thanksgiving came to be (for many, but not all people) pronounced with stress on the giv-, see this post from Mark Liberman at Language Log.

Posted in Adjective ordering, Compound words, Food-related, Lexical semantics, Variation | 3 Comments »

Straiten Out Your Syntax

Posted by Neal on April 1, 2005

So I’m sitting here deciding which tracks to rip from a couple of George Strait CDs. I grab some of them because they’re so darn catchy. For example, I know that if I listen to “Fool-Hearted Memory,” I’m going to be whistling, singing, or hearing it run through my head for the next two days.* Even better are the ones that are good ear-candy with clever lyrics, too. The wordplay in this upbeat swing/two-step still cracks me up:

Like the Pony Express in the wild wild West
I’ll ride hard all night long.
I can saddle up fast, get you there first class,
Long before the dawn.
You know your mail’s gonna get to you
come snow, rain, sleet, or hail
‘Cause I’m a top-flight, hold-you-tight, get-you-there-by-daylight,
do-you-right overnight male.

But what to make of the song “Blue Clear Sky“? Yes, that’s right, “blue clear,” not “clear blue.” Any native English speaker knows you can’t do that, separating a color adjective from the noun it modifies. Doug and Adam never let me get away with Clifford the Red Big Dog when I’m reading to them (or for that matter, the Bad Big Wolf). The songwriter must have had a reason for doing this. Maybe he (or she) is rhyming it with nuclear somewhere. Not a perfect rhyme, but clever enough to score a few points. But, as it happens, there is no blue clear / nuclear rhyme in the song. The phrase mainly shows up in the chorus:

Here she comes, a walkin’ talkin’ true love,
Sayin’ I’ve been lookin’ for you, love.
Surprise! Your new love has arrived
Out of a blue clear sky.

No excuse! Blue and clear could easily be switched with no effect on either the rhyme or the meter. And every time I listen to the song, that blue clear business is going to catch me. The tune had better be a good one in order to outweigh that little bit of annoyance that’s going to come with every listen.

Sorry, “Blue Clear Sky.” You don’t make the cut.

*Hey, did you catch my “Friends in Low Places” coordination in that sentence?

Posted in Adjective ordering | 4 Comments »

Make Like a Chicken and Split

Posted by Neal on March 22, 2005

The newest (as far as I know) addition to the linguistiblogosphere is Heidi Harley’s HeiDeas (thanks to Semantic Compositions for quickly noticing and announcing it). In her second post she asks: Why is it grand theft auto, instead of grand auto theft, or auto grand theft? She has a reasonable story for why it’s not auto grand theft (modifiers in compound nouns, such as auto in auto theft, occur closer to the noun than other adjectives), but that still leaves auto grand theft a theoretical possibility. My first guess was that it was useful to have grand theft at the front for easier listing in law references, but the trouble with this explanation is that it’s dangerously ad hoc. That is, if it’s true, why don’t we have lots of other compounds that get lexicalized head-first this way? Thyroid cancer may appear in a medical book’s index as cancer, thyroid, people still refer to it as thyroid cancer and not cancer thyroid. (Comments along these lines from several linguabloggers appear after Harley’s post.) But despite the shakiness of this kind of explanation, I still favor it for another strangely ordered compound noun I’ve seen…

In the meat section at the grocery store, I see packages of split chicken breasts, labeled

Chicken Split Breasts

That sounds so klunky it brings me up short every time. Even a little kid would know to put the adjective split first, leaving the compound chicken breasts intact. Chicken split breasts sounds like breasts that have been split by a chicken (or chickens). Chicken split breasts causes one to wonder what kind of thing a “chicken split” might be. Would it be anything like a banana split? I don’t think I’d want to eat a chicken split. And where would the breasts on a chicken split or banana split be located? Would they be the three scoops of ice cream? And wouldn’t that be really strange, referring to something that comes in threes as a breast?

After those thoughts have run their course, I just figure that the packagers didn’t like having the word split breaking up the chicken-first pattern on the rest of the shelf: chicken thighs, chicken drumsticks, chicken wings, split chicken breasts. Swap split and chicken and conformity is achieved.

But what about pick of the chick?

Posted in Adjective ordering, Food-related | 5 Comments »