Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Coordination’ Category

Make Sure and What?

Posted by Neal on February 9, 2013

Ben Zimmer passed an interesting coordination my way, from Buzzfeed, from an article on a new website called Agency Wank, which “is collecting the wankiest, cringiest copy lines from ad agency websites”:

Make sure and bookmark and visit Agency Wank. It’s updated daily.

Something about the phrase is a little odd. Not actually bad, but enough to stumble over and notice. It wasn’t the make sure and instead of make sure to (or be sure and). That’s interesting, but not odd. Like the idiom try and X, the phrase make/be sure and X is an example of asymmetric coordination. Make sure and go doesn’t mean the same thing as go and make sure.

Was it the coordination of the two verbs bookmark and visit after make sure? This coordination is a symmetric one; visit and bookmark Agency Wank means the same as bookmark and visit Agency Wank. So maybe the coexistence of an asymmetric and a symmetric coordination in the same verb phrase is what’s sounding strange.

Or not. I went to COCA and found 17 hits for the asymmetric make sure and X. In 15 of them, X consisted of just one VP, but two of them had two–nay, three or four:

  • So make sure and cultivate those and hug together, cry together, and just be community.
  • You make sure and come back and drop by and visit us again.

Those sound fine to me. OK, so maybe it was the fact that X does not consist of two coordinated VPs, but a single VP consisting of two verbs (bookmark, visit) and a shared direct object (Agency Wank). But why should that make a difference? Make sure and X is OK; bookmark and visit Agency Wank is OK; why wouldn’t make sure and bookmark and visit Agency Wank just as good?

I don’t know. I decided to go beyond Google and search Google for “make sure and * and *” and “try and * and *” to see if I could find other examples, and hear how they sounded. What I founded sounded OK:

  • Don’t try and mix and match print tops with your print jeans. (link)
  • To try and equalize and standardize child support throughout CA, the legislature created an algabraic equation….(link)
  • requiring students to try and recall and record information gathered in classroom interaction (link)

You might be able to throw out the first one if you take mix and match to be an idiom that acts as a single verb. But not the other two. After reading a few examples like those, I had to wonder what could possibly have made the original example stand out. Now I notice that all the new Google examples have try and X instead of make sure and X, but if I blame the weirdness on that, I’m just looking for a scapegoat. In fact, looking at the original example again, I have concluded…

…that actually, it’s not so bad. That’s the trouble with poking around at weird syntax. Repeat it enough, and unlike individual words, what started off as an odd phrase starts to sound better. I’m OK with Make sure and bookmark and visit Agency Wank now. And what’s more, just look what else I found in my search:

Before stacking the cakes make sure and carve and cover all of your cakes in fondant.

That’s right–it’s an asymmetric make sure and X construction, with the shared direct object thing going on, in a right-node wrapping coordination!

Posted in Other weird coordinations, Right-node wrapping ("Friends in Low Places" coordinations) | 7 Comments »

To Kill a Mockingbird RNW

Posted by Neal on December 1, 2012

I found this hastily scribbled line in my linguistics spiral notebook recently:

They chewed up and spat out the bark of a tree into a communal pot and then got drunk on it.

I had written it down as soon as I heard it sometime in the past few months, but I couldn’t remember where. I’d forgotten I’d even heard it until I saw that page in my notebook again, but it was clear enough why I’d written it down. It was another right-node wrapping. The transitive phrasal verb chewed up is coordinated with the transitive phrasal verb spat out, with the shared direct the bark of a tree. But after that shared direct object, there’s one more phrase in this sentence’s predicate, and it belongs just to spat out. It’s the prepositional phrase into a communal pot.

Googling the phrase, I see that it’s from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which I listened to in the car during the summer. Mystery solved!

Posted in Books, Right-node wrapping ("Friends in Low Places" coordinations) | 2 Comments »

Got Zeugma?

Posted by Neal on November 10, 2012

In this 2008 post, I pulled together several examples of zeugma involving the word make, and these involving the word get. Some of the get examples involved two somewhat similar meanings of get: the intransitive meaning of “become”, and the transitive meaning of “cause to become”:

  • …after you’ve gotten dressed, your bed made, and your teeth brushed.
  • [The karate lessons] make it tough for him to get his things done and to bed on time.

Others involved the “become” meaning with the more-distantly related meaning of “acquire”:

    A 17-year-old gets arrested and a $1,000 bond for failing to show at a court appearance for … a seatbelt violation.
  • These days there’s dudes gettin’ facials, manicured, waxed, and botoxed.
    (“I’m Still a Guy,” by John Kelley Lovelace, Lee Thomas Miller, and Brad Douglas Paisley)

Now, four years later, the latest addition to the “become/acquire” get-zeugma collection comes from Ben Zimmer, who sent me this:

What conservative Washington Post readers got, when they traded in Dave Weigel for Rubin, was a lot more hackery and a lot less informed about the presidential election. (link)

What’s especially nice about this example is that it’s not just a straightforward coordination of complements after the verb get. Oh no. This time the get is spotlighted in a so-called pseudo-cleft construction. It’s too complicated to give a formal definition of a pseudocleft here, but a few examples should give you the idea:


  • What I want is money.
  • What it was was football.
  • Where I live is Ohio.

You can also read about pseudo-clefts in a wider context in this post. Anyway, this pseudo-cleft construction heightens the weirdness of the zeugma, because it’s weird already to do pseudo-clefts with predicate adjectives. In other words, even if we just had “become” get, it would sound odd in a pseudo-cleft:

What they got was a lot less-informed.

Actually, predicative adjectives sound weird in any kind of cleft construction, not just pseudo-clefts, and not just with the verb get. Here’s one done for (I assume) deliberate effect, in an all-cleft from the song “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”:

And when he died, all that he left us was alone.

And another in an it-cleft:

It was less-informed that they got.

And now, it’s to bed and a good night’s rest that I need to get!

Posted in Zeugmatic | 4 Comments »

Songs We Have to Play or the Fans Get Angry

Posted by Neal on September 15, 2012

If you read an interview with some classic rock act that still goes on tour, sometimes they’ll talk about their greatest hits that the audiences always expect to hear, and say something like

There are songs [we have to play ___] or [the fans will get angry].

Sentences like that one interest me, because they appear to be one variety of a well-studied family of unusual coordinate structures, but somehow this variety hasn’t been fit into the family picture yet. Before I go further, I’d better introduce the family for newer readers, or re-introduce it for longtime readers who might not remember the details.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Non-ATB coordinations | 5 Comments »

I Forgot to Go to the Store and Get Any

Posted by Neal on July 23, 2012

A few days ago, as I was pulling into the garage, I suddenly said to myself,

Well, crap! I forgot to go to the store and get any club soda.

How annoying. We had run out of club soda two days before, so my wife couldn’t make any more of her favorite drink: club soda with cranberry juice (the sweetened kind, with lime flavor already in it). I couldn’t make any more for myself, either, and when that happens and there’s no iced tea made, it gives me an unfortunate excuse to continue my love-hate relationship with Coke.

Of course, that’s not what compels me to write about my utterance here on the blog. As with my last post, I was interested in a negative polarity item (NPI), in this case, the word any. You can’t say things like,

*I got any club soda.
*I want to get any club soda.
*I went to the store and got any club soda.

There has to be a negation or question or something similar involved; for example,

I didn’t get any club soda.
Do you want any club soda?

The verb forget counts as something similar, with its implicitly negative meaning of “not remember,” so you can certainly say,

I forgot to get any club soda.

So because my sentence had forgot as its main verb, there should be nothing surprising about having the NPI any somewhere in the complement to forgot, right? But in that case, why doesn’t this next sentence work?

*I forgot to scoop out the litterboxes and get any club soda.

At least, I don’t think it works. Do you? And the reason it doesn’t is the same reason that you can’t say something like

*Club soda is what I forgot to scoop out the litterboxes and get [ ].

For you to make a relative clause out of club soda, which plays a part in only one of the coordinated verb phrases, those verb phrases have to have some sensible relation to each other. Go to the store and get club soda go together as two steps in a single undertaking. On the other hand, scoop out the litterboxes and get club soda don’t have any relation to each other. Unless…

  • …you keep bottles of club soda buried in your litterboxes.
  • …scooping out the litterboxes is something that always happens right before you get club soda.
  • …scooping out the litterboxes sets a Rube Goldberg apparatus in motion that results in the delivery of club soda.

In those situations, that sentence would work, and so would I forgot to scoop out the litterboxes and get any club soda, I think. This is interesting. I hadn’t read or thought about NPI licensing as something that could be relevant to these coordinations that require a special relationship between the coordinated items.

P.S. I see that when I view the preview for this post using Chrome, the words continue, housecleaning, and filled are hyperlinked to spammy sites. I’ve been using Firefox up until now, and I see that these tacky ads don’t show up in that browser. Good on you, Firefox, and Chrome, I’m very disappointed.

Posted in Negative polarity items, Non-ATB coordinations | 15 Comments »

A Couple More RNWs

Posted by Neal on July 3, 2012

A reader named Ari Blenkhorn (I’m guessing it’s this one) emailed me a few weeks ago. She has been reading this blog long enough to have picked up on my partiality to a kind of coordinate structure I’ve named right-node wrapping (RNW). She sent me this one that she’d found in the wild:

Like any firewall, IPFW needs to examine packets and then decide to drop, modify, or pass the packets unchanged through the system.

As Ari wrote in her email:

What the author means, of course, is that the three choices are to drop the packets, modify the packets, or pass the packets unchanged through the system. “Drop the packets unchanged through the system” might make sense in other contexts, but “modify the packets unchanged…” ? Nope.

His example nicely fills out a trio of new RNW examples, heard in the wild, that I now present here. One of them, I heard on an episode of the On the Media podcast back in October. It was about the Occupy Wall Street protesters, and talked about

Police tear gassing and hitting protesters with sticks

Hitting protesters with sticks? Sure. Tear-gassing them with sticks? No.

As it happens, the third RNW example also comes from On the Media, specifically the June 15 episode, which talks about oppressive, violent dictatorships hiring PR firms to polish their international reputation. The reporter is Ken Silverstein from Harper’s, and at about eight and a half minutes in, Ken says that one such firm

…said they would write and place op/eds in American newspapers.

This example is a little different from the others, because there are a couple of ways you might argue that it’s not necessarily an RNW. Before I talk about those arguments, I’ll just say that the reading I get is “writing op/eds and placing them in American newspapers”: the true RNW parsing, with the shared direct object, and some kind of phrase following that direct object that is intended to go only with the final coordinate (in this case place).

One way of disqualifying this example as an RNW is to say, “What’s the problem? Place op/eds in American newspapers makes sense, and so does write op/eds in American newspapers.” My response is that in place op/eds in American newspapers, the PP modifies the verb place, whereas in write op/eds in American newspapers, it modifies the noun op/eds. In the original phrasing, I can’t get the reading where the PP does both those jobs at once.

Another way of disqualifying this example is to say that in American newspapers actually does modify the verb both times; i.e. write op/eds in American newspapers means to do the writing while in a newspaper. This is ridiculous, of course. I might be able to accept someone saying they write “in” a newspaper and mentally correct it to “for” in my own dialect, but in that case, we’re talking about the newspaper as a company, not the actual printed page or screen. In that case, instead of having a single PP do two jobs in the original phrasing, we now have to have newspapers with two simultaneous meanings. Again, I can’t get that reading. Besides, the people who would be writing these op/eds are not newspaper employees; they work for the PR firm.

Yet another argument could be that write is used intransitively here, so that the coordinated VPs are (1) write and (2) place op/eds in American newspapers. It’s syntactically parallel now, but I think the intended meaning is almost certainly “write op/eds”.

So much for those three RNWs. Actually, I thought I had four, because I heard another one on an episode of Planet Money, in which they played a clip of Franklin Roosevelt explaining the creation of the FDIC. But I later remembered that they’d played that same clip on an episode in 2008, and I blogged about it then.

Posted in Right-node wrapping ("Friends in Low Places" coordinations) | 4 Comments »

Linguistically Lost Again

Posted by Neal on March 12, 2012

For the past couple of months, the Netflix traffic in our house has ground to a halt, with The Bourne Supremacy and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog languishing on our mantel. During that time, our family movie nights have been spent pushing our way through seasons 1 and 2 of Lost on DVD, now that Doug and Adam are old enough to follow it. I wonder if we’re engaging in binge-viewing, a term I just heard in the past couple of weeks, but which seems to have been around since at least 2001. Maybe not; maybe you have to watch all the episodes without stopping to do other things like work or go to school before you can claim to have binge-viewed a set of episodes. (Did you catch my backformed compound verb there?)

I blogged about Lost a couple of times back in 2006. Now, during a second viewing, I’m catching not only foreshadowing and character connections that I missed the first time; I’m picking up linguistically interesting utterances that I missed, too.

First is essentially the same phrase, spoken by two characters in two episodes:

The button we have to push every 108 minutes or the island’s gonna explode [Charlie]

The button you gotta push every 108 minutes or the world ends. [Dave]

This is one of those coordinated relative clauses in which one of the clauses contains a gap and the other doesn’t. The one with the gap is we gotta push __ every 108 minutes; the one without the gap is the island’s gonna explode. Together, they sound fine, but try to make the one without a gap stand alone, and it’s no good:

[*]The button the island’s gonna explode. (only grammatical if the island will cause the button to explode)

[*]The button the world ends. (only grammatical if the world will end the button)

More specifically, it’s one of these asymmetric coordinations in which the conjunction is or instead of and. Those are a bit rarer, and tend to be overlooked in the literature on the subject (at least, in the papers I’ve read). I’ve blogged about them most recently in this post, about “the pot we have to shit or get off of”.

The other phrase I noted during these second viewings was one from Hurley, who was asked if he knew were Ana Lucia had gone, and answered sardonically:

That would assume that anyone actually tells me anything.

Anyone and anything are negative polarity items (click on the category label for all the relevant posts, or here for a short one that will give you the idea). They are most at home in negated sentences (I don’t want anything), questions (Do you want anything?), or sentences that express some kind of limitation (Only a few people know anything about this). But none of those is the case in Hurley’s sentence. The only negation there is an implied one, the unspoken proposition, “No one tells me anything.” I asked negation expert Larry Horn what he thought about NPIs in this sentence, and he observed that NPIs like the ones in Hurley’s sentence sound bad again when you specifically say that the assumption could actually be correct. He offered this comparison:

on the unlikely assumption that anyone would ever touch a drop of that punch (here’s some guacamole that would go nicely on the side)

#on the plausible assumption that anyone would ever touch a drop of that punch,…

So tell me, how does this sound?

That would assume, correctly, that anyone tells me anything.

Posted in Negative polarity items, Non-ATB coordinations, TV | 9 Comments »

Little Women: Gapping and Wrapping

Posted by Neal on March 7, 2012

Two posts ago, I wrote about a right-node wrapping that I found in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. It was this:

At the door her sisters seized and bore her to the parlor in a triumphal procession.

An ordinary transitive verb (seized) and a transitive followed by a directional prepositional phrase (bore … to the parlor) are coordinated, and share a single direct object, her. The V+PP bore … to the parlor wraps around this direct object, giving rise to a syntactically non-parallel coordination that, if phrased in a parallel manner, would probably be written

…her sisters [seized her] and [bore her to the parlor in a triumphal procession].

Tonight I was reading aloud some more of Little Women, and it occurred to me that Alcott really seemed to like using another kind of non-parallel coordination that I’ve blogged about a few times: gapping. This is a coordination of two or more clauses that have the same verb, but different subjects, and different content following the verb. In this kind of coordination, some or all of the verb is simply left out, just like a shared subject or shared direct object might be omitted from a more typical coordination. You can find other examples in the other posts in the Gapping category; here’s what I was noticing in Chapter 8 of Little Women:

  • Sitting on the floor with one boot on, Amy began to cry and Meg [began] to reason with her, when Laurie called from below, and the two girls hurried down, leaving their sister wailing.
  • Meg flew to rescue Amy, and Beth [flew] to pacify Jo, but Jo was quite beside herself….
  • Laurie had vanished round the bend, Jo was just at the turn, and Amy [was] far behind, striking out toward the smoother ice in the middle of the river.

Then, only a page or so after that last example (it’s hard to tell with the Kindle), I came to this sentence:

“She is not hurt, and won’t even take cold, I think, you were so sensible in covering and getting her home quickly,” replied her mother cheerfully.

I had to read that one twice. They covered her, and got her home. They didn’t cover her home and get her home. Wow — in one chapter, three cases of gapping, capped off with a right-node wrapping!

Posted in Books, Gapping, Right-node wrapping ("Friends in Low Places" coordinations) | 7 Comments »

Little Women Right-Node Wrapping

Posted by Neal on February 27, 2012

Doug has been dragging his feet on his school reading list this year. He’s been coasting, taking advantage of the fact that he’s already read Treasure Island, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and The Call of the Wild. He made it through the copy of The Hunt for Red October that he got for Christmas (not on the list) in less than a week, and I figured the book would be done so soon that it wasn’t necessary to remind him of his reading list. He’d be back to it soon enough. But when I saw Patriot Games appear on his nightstand the day after Red October was done, I insisted that he get back to the list.

To help, I even downloaded free copies of the public domain novels on the list onto our family Christmas present, a Kindle. After that he read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but has now found himself slowed to a creep, as he agonizes his way through The Scarlet Letter, recently arriving at 5% of the way through. I keep telling him that the story has got to be really good, in order for the book to have obtained status as a classic despite passages like this:

In my native town of Salem, at the head of what, half a century ago, in the days of old King Derby, was a bustling wharf–but which is now burdened with decayed wooden warehouses, and exhibits few or no symptoms of commercial life; except, perhaps, a bark or brig, half-way down its melancholy length, discharging hides; or, nearer at hand, a Nova Scotia schooner, pitching out her cargo of firewood–at the head, I say, of this dilapidated wharf, which the tide often overflows, and along which, at the base and in the rear of the row of buildings, the track of many languid years is seen in a border of unthrifty grass–here, with a view from its front windows adown this not very enlivening prospect, and thence across the harbour, stands a spacious edifice of brick.

So while Doug continues to chip away at the hard crust of The Scarlet Letter to get to the good stuff that must be inside, I’ve taken another step to move him along his list, and have made Little Women our latest read-aloud book. It moves a little slowly, too, and despite what you may have heard, it’s not about SW fetishes at all, but you don’t get as lost in its syntax as you do in Hawthorne’s stuff. And some passages are funny, like this rant from Jo, when Meg reminds her that she is a young lady:

I’m not! And if turning up my hair makes me one, I’ll wear it in two tails till I’m twenty…. I hate to think I’ve got to grow up, and be Miss March, and wear long gowns, and look as prim as a China aster! It’s bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boy’s games and work and manners! I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy. How I wish that I had a penis! And it’s worse than ever now, for I’m dying to go and fight with Papa. And I can only stay home and knit, like a poky old woman!

Doug and Adam refused to believe the line about the penis was really in the book. Their mother didn’t believe it, either. “I would have remembered that!” she said. Meanwhile, sometimes I’ll speculate with the boys about what’s going to happen later in the book, and wonder if Jo will ever get her “special operation.”

Anyway, now we’re at Chapter 7, 12% of the way through the book. (It’s amazing how reading on a Kindle gets you used to thinking about being 5% or 12% through a book, and not about what page you’re on.) A couple of nights ago, I was pleasantly surprised to read this passage:

Beth hurried on in a flutter of suspense. At the door her sisters seized and bore her to the parlor in a triumphal procession.

This may be my earliest right-node wrapping yet. For those who are just joining us, or for those who need a refresher, the main thing is that if you read the parts that are joined by and as a strictly parallel coordination, it means that Beth’s sisters (1) seized her to the parlor, and (2) bore her to the parlor. Even if it were idiomatic English to “seize someone to someplace” (which it isn’t; I checked the Corpora of both Contemporary and Historical American English), it wouldn’t make sense to seize Beth to the parlor, and then to bear her there again. What Louisa Alcott clearly meant was that the sisters (1) seized Beth, and (2) bore her to the parlor.

Now that I’ve been reminded of RNWs again, I’m interested to hear if they turn up in other texts from the 1800s or earlier. If you find one, leave a comment.

Posted in Books, Right-node wrapping ("Friends in Low Places" coordinations) | 5 Comments »

New Data Points

Posted by Neal on December 16, 2011

Here are a few items I’ve come across in the past several months. If this were my first year writing this blog, each of them would have been immediately worth a whole post. But since I’ve been doing this for more than seven years, I’ve already written about these topics, in some cases numerous times. So now they’ve just been sitting in my drafts pile until I had enough of them scraped together to put in a combined post.

On a Language Log post on a malnegation from Newt Gingrich, commenter Tom Recht went slightly off topic to offer the following:

A colleague, on hearing that a mutual friend had applied for the same fellowship she had applied for, recently said to me: “I hope he doesn’t get it and I don’t get it.”

What she meant was not “I hope that [[he doesn’t get it] and [I don’t get it]]”, but “I hope that [not [he gets it and I don’t get it]]”. She was morphosyntactically negating only the first of the two coordinated clauses even though the negation applied to the entire coordination — grammatically impossible, you might think, but immediately intelligible in context.

A nice summation of exactly the kind of coordination that first grabbed my attention in a set of phenomena that I first called “coordination with half-negation” but now call by the more general term of wide-scoping operators.

Next, here’s something Glen sent me back in March:

Just found the following sentence in a student paper I’m grading:

“George believes that making the [website] template was better than buying [from an outside designer] because the integration costs associated with testing and integrating an external design into our existing system would be too high.”


FLoP, of course, is the initial name “Friends in Low Places” coordination, which I gave to the kind of nonparallel coordinations that I now call right-node wrapping. Not just any nonparallel coordination is an RNW. The last coordinate has to wrap around something that actually belongs to both coordinates. In this case, the complex verb integrate … into our existing system wraps around the direct object an external design. By all rights, that should encapsulate this noun phrase inside the second coordinate, but in fact, it’s also the direct object for the first verb, testing.

My wife and I were discussing the latest news from the hyper-religious Arkansas Duggar family. You know, Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, who decided they would use no form of birth control, “let God decide” how many children they should have, and give them all names that begin with J, no matter how ridiculous those names became after they used the obvious ones. (Jinger? Does that rhyme with ringer or is it homophonous with ginger? I hope the latter.) God may have been indicating a decision when Michelle recently miscarried their 20th child. Giving me the news, my wife said,

The Duggars lost their 20th child.

I noticed the same ambiguity here that I noticed in sentences like Doug lost his first tooth. If you look just at first tooth or 20th child, you have to figure out what sequence you’re talking about. For Doug’s first tooth, you probably mean “first tooth to erupt in Doug’s mouth.” For 20th child, you probably mean “the 20th child that they conceived.” But in the construction VERB one’s Nth NOUN, the verb overrides the default set of ordered events, and the whole thing means “VERB a NOUN for the Nth time.” So Doug lost his first tooth has the intended meaning of “lost a tooth for the first time” along with the unintended meaning of “lost the first tooth that he cut”. And The Duggars lost their 20th child, in addition to the sad intended meaning of “lose the 20th child that they conceived,” could also have the much sadder, not-intended meaning of “lose a child for the 20th time.”

Lastly, here’s a sentence I heard from someone talking about picky eaters:

What is something similar to raw carrots that you’d be willing to give a shot?

Nice extraposition of the relative clause that you’d be willing to give a shot from the something it modifies, but what really interested me was the fact that in the verb phrase give [something] a shot, it’s the indirect object that got pulled out to be the modified noun: something … that you’d be willing to give a shot. In a recent post, I discussed why Who Brynn gave the cookies (with who as an extracted indirect object) sounded so much worse than Who Brynn gave the cookies to (with who as an extracted object of a preposition). Most commenters agreed that it was, but Glen commented:

Well, let me just register my surprise. None of the *-marked constructions here sound even slightly bad to me. Not that I object to the ‘to’, because it can help clarify things in some cases. But omitting it just isn’t a problem at all for me.

Well, Glen, here’s one that popped right out in spontaneous conversation. Now I’m the one registering surprise!

Posted in Ambiguity, Fillers and gaps, Right-node wrapping ("Friends in Low Places" coordinations), Wide-scoping operators | 13 Comments »