Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Zeugmatic’ Category

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 »

Gluten, Lactose, and Nonconstituent Coordination

Posted by Neal on September 28, 2011

Longtime reader and occasional blogger Blar sent me an unusual coordination, complete with a picture:

The meaning of this phrase is clear enough: The kefir (whatever that is) is gluten-free and for the most part lactose free. (Actually, does 99% lactose free mean that 1% of the kefir consists of lactose, or that 99% of whatever lactose was there has been removed? Either way, I’ll just leave it as “for the most part lactose free”.) But the syntax is so, so bad! It just goes to show that you can’t always factor out the common part of two coordinated phrases and end up with something assume that the resulting coordination will be grammatical. Just because you can replace John sang and Marsha sang with John and Marsha sang doesn’t mean you can replace gluten free and 99% lactose free with gluten and 99% lactose free. But why not?

Let’s take a look at gluten-free and 99% lactose free separately. Gluten is a noun; free is an adjective; and together they form the compound adjective gluten free. The compound adjective lactose free is composed in the same way. In addition, the noun 99% modifies the compound adjective lactose free to create the bigger adjective 99% lactose free. In the diagram, this structure is shown by having lactose and free under one roof, or in syntactic jargon, forming a constituent. 99% lactose free is a larger constituent, all contained under the bigger roof.

99% lactose, however, is not a constituent. So maybe gluten and 99% lactose don’t coordinate well because 99% lactose isn’t a constituent.

Unfortunately, that alone won’t explain the ungrammaticality, because nonconstituent coordination (NCC) happens a lot, in phrases like I sent the package by UPS and the tax return via the postal service. The package by UPS is not a constituent, and neither is the tax return via the postal service. NCC tends to flow more smoothly when the coordinated pieces have similar structures (i.e. when they’re “parallel”), as in this example, with both coordinates consisting of a noun phrase naming a thing sent and a prepositional phrase naming the deliverer. Gluten and 99% lactose, in contrast, are not parallel in this way.

So what happens if we make them parallel? How about:

100% gluten and 99% lactose free

Nope, still no good for me. How is it for you?

Posted in Food-related, Zeugmatic | 16 Comments »

Special Need and Transitive Need: Two Verbs in One!

Posted by Neal on August 3, 2010

Wow, here it is August and it’s almost time for back to school. We got a letter from Doug’s school today, telling us when to drop by the school to pick up his class assignment, and oh, by the way, pay his $30 in school fees, too. Actually, they didn’t need to send that letter. I’ve had that date, and his first day back at school, marked down since the newsletter they sent home on the last day of school in June. But it was still interesting to read the letter. Check out this line:

Enclosed in the assignment packet will be several forms that need your attention and returned during the first week of school.

One sentence with two items of linguistic interest in it!

First, there’s the needs done construction, in forms that need … returned.

Second, there’s the fact that this needs done syntax is part of a coordination: needs your attention and returned. In this verb phrase, needs is acting as an ordinary transitive verb (needs your attention) and as this special needs that takes a past participial verb phrase for a complement (needs returned during the first week of school). Diagrammed out, this VP would be something like this:

The question marks point out the problem with all non-parallel coordinations: If the things being coordinated don’t have to have the same category, how different are the categories allowed to be? Actually, I have a way of doing it so that your attention and returned… do have the same category, but you wouldn’t be interested in seeing that…

What? You say you would? Welllll, oh-kay, you twisted my arm. Here it is:

Here’s how it works: needs has a compound category. One part is VP/NP, which means that it looks for an NP on its right, and when it finds one, forms a VP. (In other words, it’s a transitive verb.) The other part is VP/PastPart, which means that it looks for a past participle on its right, and when it finds one, forms a VP. (Its “special” category.) Meanwhile, via some derivation steps that I didn’t show, your attention is not a mere NP, but something that looks to its left for a verb that has precisely this double category that we’ve given to needs, and when it finds one, forms a VP. Returned, likewise, is looking to its left for a verb with this double category. Now these two words have the same category, so that’s the category of the coordination your attention and returned.

Now at least some of you are probably asking, “Isn’t that phrase just a mistake? Why bother giving it an analysis?” Maybe it is, and maybe it’s not. It may be that this is completely normal syntax for the whoever wrote the letter. If there are any needs done speakers reading this, what do you think of this sentence?

The school faculty also wants us to buy Doug’s official day planner, which they call an agenda, which will be an important communication tool between the parents and teachers, as well as being the place where Doug records all his homework assignments, and doubling as his hall pass. That’s what they said last year, too, but the only reason Doug ever took his planner to school was so that he could get permission to go to the bathroom. Otherwise, it was a waste of paper. I hope they make better use of the agendas this year. But anyway, here’s what the letter said when it brought up the agendas:

School agenda’s will be on sale for $3 each….

Now there’s a mistake!

Posted in Syntax, Variation, Zeugmatic | 8 Comments »

More Zeugma with Make and Get

Posted by Neal on November 19, 2008

If you browse the zeugma tab (under Syntax|Coordination), you’ll find several posts talking about the verb make, as used in sentences such as:

  • It makes my hair big and my pits sweat.
  • The jigging made Tabby nervous and Zeke itch.
  • They helped him forget what had made his father sad and his mother cry.
  • It would just make everyone in back of you angry and want to pulverize ya!
  • The sun makes you hot and sneeze.

As I noted in one of the posts, every example has a single token of make used in two ways, in the same order. First is the make that is followed by a noun phrase (or pronoun) and an adjective phrase: makes my hair big, made Tabby nervous, made his father sad, make everyone angry, makes you. Second is the make that is followed by a noun phrase (or pronoun) and a verb phrase: makes my pits sweat, made Zeke itch, made his mother cry, make everyone want to pulverize ya, makes you sneeze. The last two examples even have the same NP, everyone in back of you and just plain you, going with both the adjective (angry, hot) and the VP (want to pulverize ya, sneeze), but still, we have the adjective complement first, and then the VP complement.

Continuing the pattern is this example, taken from the newspaper several months ago, quoting one Andrew Stove on what makes a fast Pinewood Derby car:

It has to be aerodynamic. Make it small and come to a point.
(Amanda Dolasinski, “Like boy, like grown man,” The Columbus Dispatch, June 27, 2008, p. B2)

A single make, a single direct object (it), and both an adjective and a VP complement, in that order (small, come to a point). I’m still waiting to hear an example like Make it come to a point, and small.

It sounds a bit weirder (to my ear) when the meanings of make are a little farther apart, with one of the “cause something to be in a certain state” meanings of the above examples paired with the meaning of “create”, as in this example from the zeugma files:

Is that what made the blender noise and the sky turn purple?

Browsing through the zeugma posts, you may also notice that get is a popular verb for them. We’ve noted:

  • …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.

Often now, I’ll even be tempted to say things like, “OK, Doug and Adam, get your jackets and into the car,” but I can’t trust that that’s part of my grammar: I’ve been contaminated by too much thinking about the kind of sentences I listed above. Anyway, these get examples use get in the same two ways. One is get meaning “become” or “be”, as in gotten dressed and get to bed on time. The other is the causative version of the “become” meaning: “cause [something] to become or be”, which takes a direct object before the adjective that says how the direct object ends up: get your teeth brushed, get your bed made, get your stuff done. But unlike with the make sentences, these sentences have both possible orders for the two meanings: The first sentence has the causative meaning coming second (and third), while the second sentence has the causative meaning coming first.

We’ve also had a case of a single get used with farther apart meanings, putting the “become” meaning with the “acquire” or “receive” meaning:

A 17-year-old gets arrested and a $1,000 bond for failing to show at a court appearance for … a seatbelt violation.

Now, writing about country music for the first time in quite a while, I have another “become/acquire” usage of get from a song I heard on the radio:

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)

Here we have dudes acquirin’ facials, and becomin’ manicured, waxed, and botoxed.

As always, I welcome your grammar judgments on any of these examples, and other examples you’ve heard or seen.

add to : Bookmark Post in Technorati : Add to Blinkslist : add to furl : Digg it : add to ma.gnolia : Stumble It! : add to simpy : seed the vine : : : post to facebook : Bookmark on Google

Posted in Lexical semantics, Zeugmatic | 1 Comment »

Ex-Haustion and -Crement

Posted by Neal on October 8, 2008

“I’m pooped!” Doug said as he flopped into the chair.

“Did you say am, or have?” I asked.

Am,” Doug said.

So that was OK. But now I wonder: Under the right circumstances, could one say, “I am and have pooped”?

add to : Bookmark Post in Technorati : Add to Blinkslist : add to furl : Digg it : add to ma.gnolia : Stumble It! : add to simpy : seed the vine : : : post to facebook : Bookmark on Google

Posted in Potty on, dudes!, Zeugmatic | 7 Comments »

An Overnegation and a Zeugma

Posted by Neal on August 24, 2007

Here are a couple of catches from Glen that I’ve been meaning to write about. First, a sentence he noticed in a post by his co-blogger Tom Bell. It’s one of Bell’s many posts about the law school rankings in US News and World Report, and the sentence is quoted from Greg C. Anderson, Director of Career Opportunities and Development at Northern Illinois University College of Law:

Given the amount of information disclosed to USNWR in the survey, I find it hard to believe that errors such as ours are not uncommon.

Wait, doesn’t he mean it’s easy to believe these errors are not uncommon? It’s another case of overnegation. By itself, the not plus theun- is fairly easy to handle: These errors are not uncommon. Packed inside the hard to believe… phrase, though, it’s tough to untangle. It’s not worth the trouble, either, because when you’ve done it, you end up with a meaning that is clearly opposite of what Anderson meant. In one of the earlier Language Log posts on this topic, Mark Liberman says:

The extra negations are sometimes explicit negative words (like not and no) and sometimes implicit parts of words with negative meanings (like refute, fail, avoid and ignore).

In this case, it seems that hard is a word with implicit negative meaning: “not easy”. But why isn’t easy an implicitly negative word meaning “not difficult”? Why isn’t I find it easy to believe that these errors are not uncommon just as hard to untangle as its counterpart with hard? I’m sure this has been written about, but not wanting to search the literature right now, I’ll just speculate: If someones judges something to be easy to do, it’s more likely that they will do it; if they judge that it’s hard to do, it’s more likely that they willnot do it. And as a check to make sure I’m not just calling hard an implicit negative because I’m expecting it to fit Liberman’s generalization, let’s see if it allows negative polarity items (NPIs):

  • It’s {hard/*easy} to get any help around here.

  • It’s {hard/*easy} to give a damn about what happens to Scarlett.
  • It’s {hard/*easy} to find cheap gas anymore.
    [Assuming your dialect does not have positive anymore.]

The next item is from an August 4 post from The Agitator:

A 17-year-old gets arrested and a $1,000 bond for failing to show at a court appearance for…a seatbelt violation.

Here we have gets acting as an auxiliary verb in the passive verb phrase gets arrested, and as an ordinary transitive verb meaning “receive” in the verb phrase gets … a $1,000 bond. Pretty weird, to my ears. How does it sound to you?

Posted in Negative polarity items, Overnegation, Zeugmatic | 2 Comments »

Linguistically Lost

Posted by Neal on October 23, 2006

I’ve run across two unusual chunks of syntax related to the show Lost in the past week. As is often the case on this blog, they involve coordination. First: We’re now three episodes into the new season of Lost, which ended its second season with three characters apparently killed by an explosion destroying the mysterious underground bunker known as the hatch. The disturbance was heard and felt all over the island, and even picked up by two chess-playing Russian dudes in a research station in Antarctica. Last week, we learned that (to give away as little as possible) at least one of these three characters (namely Desmond) survived, when the character Hurley found him naked in the jungle. Desmond described the events at the hatch to Hurley, who asked him:

Is that what made [the blender noise] and [the sky turn purple]?”

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Subject and object gaps, Zeugmatic | 4 Comments »

It Makes Me Angry and Want to Pulverize You!

Posted by Neal on October 9, 2006

Longtime readers may remember this quotation from a while back:

It makes [my hair big] and [my pits sweat].

It caught my eye because a chunk consisting of a noun phrase (NP) and an adjective (my hair big) was coordinated with a chunk consisting of an NP and a verb (my pits sweat). This non-parallel structure was interesting because it was possible only you parsed the one, single, solitary make in two ways: as a verb taking NP+Adj, and as a verb taking NP+V.

Now this unusual coordination with make has company. First is one from a book I read to Doug and Adam:

They helped him forget what had made [his father sad] and [his mother cry].
James Cross Giblin, The Boy Who Saved Cleveland

Next is one from a comment on a posting at Tasty Research. The post summarizes some research on when and why people who cut in line (or as they say here in central Ohio, ditch) get away with it. (I told my brother about this posting, and he offers his hypotheses here.) Some of the comments are from quite unashamed line-cutters, and this comment responds to them:

why would ya cut in line? it would just make every1 in back of you [ANGRY] AND [WANT TO PULVARIZE YA]!

This one factors out the NP every1 in back of you, and coordinates only an adjective (angry) and a verb phrase (want to pulverize ya), but you still have to parse make in two ways for it to work.

I wonder if it’s coincidence that all three of these non-parallel coordinations with make have the adjective first, and the verb phrase second. Could they go in the other order? Let’s see…

It makes [my pits sweat] and [my hair big].

They helped him forget what had made [his mother cry] and [his father sad].

*it would just make every1 in back of you [WANT TO PULVARIZE YA] AND [ANGRY]!

The first two sound good/strange to about the same extent as their originals, but the last one I starred, because it’s definitely worse. That may be just because longer items in a coordinated list tend to sound better at the end. So what if I made the adjective phrase even longer? How about…

it would just make every1 in back of you [want to pulverize ya] and [angry as hell at your lack of respect]!

I do believe it’s better. What do you think?

Posted in Zeugmatic | 4 Comments »

Serving Spaghetti and a Loving Companion

Posted by Neal on August 4, 2006

The fact that serve as a transitive verb has more than one meaning has been the basis of jokes, notably the Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man”. While I was writing my dissertation, I had occasion to wonder if, outside a joke, serve could ever be used with both meanings at once. In ordinary circumstances, I’d say no; the only readings I can get for

I served the cake and Glen

are the two bizarre ones, one in which the cake is animate, one in which Glen is food. If someone said this and I managed to get past these interpretations, my next guess would be that the speaker had intended to say “served the cake to Glen.” But, I wondered, could you have just the right context to make it work? Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Zeugmatic | 7 Comments »

Get Dressed, Your Bed Made, and Your Teeth Brushed

Posted by Neal on October 3, 2005

The other morning, I was surprised to hear myself saying to Doug that he could do something or other that he wanted to do,

…after you’ve gotten dressed, your bed made, and your teeth brushed.

Using only a single get, I finished the sentence with a three-piece coordination, which would look like this if it were (partially) unpacked:

After you’ve

  1. gotten dressed,

  2. gotten your bed made,
  3. gotten your teeth brushed.

In the first item in the list, we have the intranstive variety of get, followed only by an adjective (dressed). In the second and third items, it’s transitive get, followed by a direct object (your bed, your teeth) and then the adjective (made, brushed). So in the quotation from me, get has to be both intransitive and transitive.

I’ve learned that using a verb as both intransitive and transitive simultaneously isn’t that unusual. Verbs such as eat can do it pretty easily, as in this sentence from a letter to the editor I once read:

Don’t eat fast food, or at restaurants, food-service companies, or caterers.

Followed by the noun phrase fast food, the verb eat is transitive, but followed by the prepositional phrase at R’s, FSC’s, or C’s, it’s intransitive.

But with eat, whether it’s transitive or intransitive, the subject is still the one doing the biting, chewing, and swallowing. If you choose a verb whose transitive and intransitive subjects don’t play the same role, using it both ways at once is much more difficult. For example, the subject of intransitive walk is the one who does the walking; but the subject of transitive walk is the one who makes someone else do the walking. If we try a coordination that forces burn to be parsed both ways, it doesn’t work:

*This morning I walked three times around the block and my dog.
*This morning I walked my dog and three times around the block.

Actually, the first of those sentence is grammatical, but only if you mean that you walked around the block and your dog three times–in other words, if walked is only intransitive. And come to think of it, the second one could be grammatical, too, if you mean something like, “I walked my dog, and I did it three times around the block.” (Russel Lee-Goldman of Noncompositional talks about this kind of “Do it, and fast” coordination here.) But again, it’s parsed in only one way, this time as a transitive.

And so my spontaneous coordination with get was surprising, since the subject of intransitive get is the one undergoing some change of state, while the subject of transitive get is the one causing something else to undergo some change of state. In fact, I’ve heard it used this way only once before, from my sister-in-law a few years ago, when she said,

[The karate lessons] make it tough for him to get his things done and to bed on time.

Well, that’s enough. Now I need to get this post done, and busy with the stuff I really need to do tonight.

Posted in Zeugmatic | 11 Comments »