Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Inversion’ Category

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:


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:


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 »

Seldom Is Heard a Discouraging Word

Posted by Neal on August 2, 2014

The wife has spent numerous hours planning the itinerary for a trip we’re going to take out west later this summer. She has tricks up her sleeve that I never would have thought of for finding the best prices for airfare, car rentals, and hotels, so I bow to her travel-savvy. But all our discussions about the American West did get me to do some intense thinking of my own.

So you know the song “Home on the Range”? When I first heard it sung, on Captain Kangaroo when I was probably four or five years old, there were two lines in it that nagged at me. One was Where the skies are not cloudy all day, with its strange scope interaction between the negation of not and the universal of all. (Only cloudy some of the day? Uncloudy all day?) The other was the line that came right before it:

Where seldom is heard a discouraging word

Seldom was not in my vocabulary yet, but whatever it meant, it apparently must be a real bummer of a word to hear. Why might that be? And why would you be so likely to hear it? Were people out west in the habit of just walking up to one another and saying this particular discouraging word? “Hey, guess what!” “What?” “Seldom! Ahahaha!”

Some years later I learned what seldom meant, and eventually plugged the meaning into the “Home on the Range” lyrics. Then I was able to parse the line as a kind of negation inversion along the lines of Never have I ever…, Only rarely is he in his office, or Not a word did she speak. Mystery solved!

Or was it?

Let’s start off by taking out the seldom, an dputting this line into non-inverted, ordinary English word order of subject verb complement:

(no inversion) A discouraging word is heard.

If the line in the song were the same kind of negation inversion as in my examples, I’d expect the negative-like word first, then the auxiliary verb (which in this case is also the main verb, is), and then the subject and any complements, like this:

(Negative inversion) Seldom is a discouraging word heard.

…instead of what we actually have:

Seldom is heard a discouraging word.

Compared to the typical negative inversion, the subject and the complement have swapped places. This seems more like copular inversion, where a subject and a complement connected by a finite form of be switch places. This is the kind of inversion we get in utterances like Of greater concern is the fact that you lied, or Absorbent and yellow and porous is he. But this doesn’t get us our desired output, either. If we take a discouraging word as the subject (as we’ve been doing), and take the phrase seldom heard to be the complement (instead of just heard, as we’ve been doing), we get this:

(Copular inversion) Seldom heard is a discouraging word.

To sum up: two kinds of inversion, and neither of them produces the relevant line in our classic American folk song. At least, not individually…

Together, copular inversion and negative inversion can get us what we want, if we just assume that seldom doesn’t get into the picture until step 3:

  1. (no inversion) A discouraging word is heard.
  2. (copular inversion) Heard is a discouraging word.
  3. (negative inversion) Seldom is heard a discouraging word.

I find it interesting that this negative inversion can do its work on whatever appears in the typical subject position, whether or not it’s a subject. Does this really happen in other examples? Let’s try another one:

  1. (no inversion) The man who finds wisdom is happy.
  2. (copular inversion) Happy is the man who finds wisdom.
  3. (negative inversion) ??Seldom is happy the man who finds wisdom.

That one doesn’t work so well, so now I’m not sure I’ve identified what’s going on in “Home on the Range.” Maybe there’s some locative inversion with the where going on as well, like what Robert Burns has in his poem “Tam O’Shanter”. The poem is about how this guy and his friends like to have fun drinking together, and don’t worry about how late they’re going to arrive home,

Where sits our sulky sullen dame.
Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.

I’ve tried locative inversion, though, and haven’t found a satisfactory combination of moves to get the desired output yet. Now isn’t that a discouraging word?

Posted in Inversion, Music | 8 Comments »

Diagramming Interrogatives

Posted by Neal on November 15, 2011

A couple of months ago, Rentz and Lentz at the Bcomm Teacher Xchange blog were kind enough to include one of my posts in their list of resources for learning how to diagram sentences. However, they express their preference for Reed-Kellogg diagrams over tree diagrams:

This blog post illustrates the differences between the Reed-Kellogg diagram and tree diagram methods for diagramming sentences. I prefer the Reed-Kellogg method. I know linguists prefer tree diagrams for their precision and more nuanced representation of sentence structures, but I’m not a linguist. I just want a visually accessible way for students to look at sentences, and (at least for me) the left-right reading orientation of the Reed-Kellogg diagram presents sentence structures more clearly than the top-down reading orientation of the tree diagram.

I’ll respond to their two reasons. First, it’s true that if you’re a linguist, you probably prefer tree diagrams to Reed-Kellogg diagrams. It’s also true that if you’re a cat, you prefer meat to vegetables. But if you’re not a cat, that doesn’t mean you prefer vegetables to meat. Case in point: my son Doug, who is not a cat, yet still likes his pizza with pepperoni and bacon when he can get it, and will pick off any peppers or onions. Likewise, you don’t have to be a linguist to like tree diagrams (if you like diagrams at all). I respect Rentz and Lentz’s preference for Reed-Kellogg diagrams, but dispute their non-linguisthood as a valid reason for the preference.

As for the “left-right reading orientation of the Reed-Kellogg diagram”, I’m afraid I don’t understand. One of the advantages of tree diagrams is that they preserve the linear order of an utterance. Reed-Kellogg diagrams use a mixture of left-right and top-down orientations, and if you don’t know the original sentence that is being diagrammed, you can’t always get back to it by reading off a Reed-Kellogg diagram. If you don’t believe me, check out this Reed-Kellogg diagram of the opening sentence from the Declaration of Independence, and then compare it to this tree diagram of the same sentence (you’ll need to use the magnifying-glass icon). Both diagrams are big and unwieldy, but only the tree diagram lets you read back the original sentence in unwavering left-to-right order.

This willingness to undo a sentence’s linear order to get at its structure shows up especially in Reed-Kellogg diagrams of interrogatives. An interrogative like Do you like cats? in a Reed-Kellogg diagram is indistinguishable from the emphatic You do like cats!, because subject-auxiliary inversion (e.g. Do you) is ignored.

Also, wh elements are always left in situ in Reed-Kellogg diagrams. That is, a sentence like What did you see? is diagrammed as if it were the question Did you see what? — or more accurately, as if it were You did see what?, what with the undoing of the subject-auxiliary inversion in Did you. That would be the question you might ask someone if they said to you, “I did see it!” and you didn’t know what the heck they were talking about.

There are even diagrams in which the combination of undoing subject-auxiliary inversion and leaving all wh items in situ collapse even more sentences into one representation. Take the sentence

Brynn will say who stole the cookies.

In a Reed-Kellogg diagram, but it looks like this:

We already know this will be indistinguishable from Will Brynn say who stole the cookies?, but there’s more. This is also the diagram for the interrogative sentence

Who will Brynn say stole the cookies?

In English, the who in these sentences is placed at the front of whichever clause is a question. If the question is about who stole the cookies, the who stays at the front of stole the cookies. If the question is about whom Brynn will accuse, the who goes in front of will Brynn say. But when you diagram it in situ, you don’t know which sentence you’re dealing with, and the semantic difference is more than just whether you’re asking about or stating the same proposition. In a language like Chinese, where all wh items really are in situ, the ambiguity of this diagram would be excusable, because the actual sentence would be ambiguous, too — but we’re diagramming English, not Chinese.

In fact, the above diagram is even the same as the one for …who Brynn will say stole the cookies, but we can cut a little slack here, since this is a subordinate clause, not a complete sentence. A Reed-Kellogg diagram would have to connect situate this clause within a larger one; for example, Fenster knows who Brynn will say stole the cookies.

For comparison, here’s how Brynn will say who stole the cookies and Who will Brynn say stole the cookies? look in tree diagrams (click to embiggen):

It’s worth noting that only the first of these four English sentences can be read off the diagram left-to-right.

A couple of other reasons I prefer tree diagrams can be seen in the diagrams in this post. First, it’s easier to collapse tree diagrams into triangles to hide the details. In the Reed-Kellogg diagram, even though I wasn’t interested in the internal structure of the verb phrase stole the cookies, I had to diagram it out, right down to hanging the the underneath cookies. In the tree diagram, I just took it down to the level of VP and left that phrase in a triangle of its own. Second, tree diagrams let you diagram a phrase without insisting that you diagram the entire sentence it came from. If I wanted to diagram just the structure of the predicate stole the cookies, I could do that easily with a tree diagram, whereas a Reed-Kellogg diagram would look incomplete with a predicate on one side of the vertical bar and no subject on the other side.

I’m not saying that tree diagrams always have it over Reed-Kellogg ones. For some sentences, neither kind has an advantage, and for some, Reed-Kellogg might even have an advantage. For example, Reed-Kellogg diagrams do a better job than tree diagrams of showing the unity of phrasal verbs such as throw away when they wrap around a direct object. For many sentences, though, especially the kind that syntacticians think about and traditional grammarians tend to overlook, tree diagrams are the way to go.

Posted in Diagramming, Fillers and gaps, Inversion | 18 Comments »

Not Once But Twice

Posted by Neal on June 27, 2011

I was reading a column by Charles Krauthammer yesterday, and read this sentence:

Not once but twice (Afghanistan and then Iraq) did Bush seek and receive congressional authorization, as his father did for the Gulf War.

One peculiarity of English syntax is that the same subject-auxiliary inversion that we associate with questions (e.g. What will you say? instead of *What you will say?) is also mandatory in sentences beginning with a negative adverb, or a fronted negative quantifier. For example:

  • Not only should you say thanks in person; you should also send a thank-you note.
  • Never have I been so insulted!
  • Not once has she said hi to me.
  • Not a drop did he touch.

It also happens with what CGEL calls approximate negators, like these:

  • Rarely/seldom do they see the light of day.
  • Little does he know that…
  • Scarcely a bite did he swallow.

And also with adverbs or quantifiers that emphasize the limitation of some action:

  • Only then will we grant you permission.
  • Only seven seeds did she eat.

Now, back to Krauthammer’s sentence. The adverb phrase not once is interesting. Taken literally, it could refer to a number of times less than one (i.e. zero), or greater than one. In practice, however, it always means “zero times, never”; in other words, it’s understood as “not even once.” As such, it triggers the inversion I’ve been talking about. So if the sentence had started off with not once, without the but twice

Not once did Bush seek and receive congressional authorization.

–it would have been grammatical (although false).

What about the phrase not once but twice? That’s not a negative adverbial. Krauthammer’s not saying George W. Bush never asked for congressional authorization for a war; he’s saying Bush did it twice. For that reason, I wouldn’t expect the inversion. Also, there’s a syntactic difference between not once and not once but twice that shows how not once but twice patterns with ordinary adverbs, and not with negative ones: Of the two, only not once but twice can go at the end of a sentence:

*Bush sought congressional authorization {not once, not, never}. [Although at no time does work.]
Bush sought congressional authorization {not once but twice, sometimes, many times}.

So that’s why Not once did Bush seek congressional authorization sounds fine to me, but Not once but twice did Bush seek congressional authorization is surprising. However, I did some Googling, and found some other examples of not once but twice followed by an inverted subject and auxiliary:

  • NOT ONCE BUT TWICE did gold demonstrate a classic failure (link)
  • Indeed, not once, but twice did my gaze hold too high for my feet to follow safe motions, and a trip or two resulted. (link)

  • Not once, but twice did the coaster gods have it out for him. (<a href="link)
  • Not once but twice did Rageh Al-Murisi try to get into the cockpit while the plane descended for a landing while shouting Allahu Akbar. (link)

  • Not once, but twice did he come out into the crowd to play…. (link)
  • Not once, but twice was Kobe Bryant publicly asked for a comment regarding Mike Brown’s hire as Lakers coach. (link)
  • Not once but twice have you linked to a @joshgarrels interview that does not (yet) exist. (link)
  • Not once but twice was Robert Evans picked, seemingly off the street by Norma Shearer and Darryl Zanuck no less, to act in blockbuster movies. (link)
  • Not once but twice will it send its arrows. (link)

Searching for examples of not once but twice without inversion was more difficult, since you don’t know how long the subject NP might be. On the Corpus of Contemporary English, I tried searching for not once but twice followed by a proper noun, or just the word the. No results. If you find such a sentence, i.e. something like

Not once but twice, Bush sought and received congressional authorization.

please tell us about it in the comments. Also, how do the examples of not once but twice with inversion sound to you?

Posted in Inversion, Negation | 10 Comments »

Or Will We Have?

Posted by Neal on April 11, 2010

Doug likes to say he has no interest in the kind of linguistic stuff I talk about, but every now and then something will catch his ear. For a while, there was a videogame that Doug and Adam had been helping each other on, and one day Adam said to Doug that after they completed their current quest, “We will have gotten all the items!” (Nice future perfect tense, Adam!)

“Yeah!” Doug said. But his confidence was quickly replaced by doubt. “Or will we?”

A pause. Then: “Or will have we? Or have we?” I was charmed by his grappling with the finer points of subject-auxiliary inversion, verb-phrase ellipsis, and perfect tenses. For the record, he should have said, “Or will we have?”

Or should he have?

Posted in Doug, Ellipsis, Inversion, Syntax | 7 Comments »

Away to the Window I Flew, Tore, and Threw

Posted by Neal on December 23, 2009

I’ve written about “The Night Before Christmas” (the poem formerly known as “A Visit from St. Nicholas”) a couple of times before. Once it was to untangle the dense syntax of As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly, when they meet with an obstacle mount to the sky, so up to the housetop his coursers they flew, with a sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas, too. The other time, it was on the nonparallel coordination (a multiple-level coordination, in fact, like the ones in my last post) He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle, and away they all flew like the down of a thistle. Now I’ve noticed another nonparallel coordination in this poem, in a line that’s usually more noted for the ambiguity of throw up:

Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Christmas songs, Inversion, Kids' entertainment, Other weird coordinations | 4 Comments »

More on Coordination, Quotative Inversion, and Beverly Cleary

Posted by Neal on January 14, 2009

“So how was school today?” I asked Doug as we walked from the bus stop.

“Good,” he said. Then he remembered something: “I checked out Strider at the library today!”

“For me?” I asked. “Wow, that was really thoughtful of you, Doug! They let you check out two books?”

“No, but I had this one book, and while we were standing in line to check out, I noticed Strider on the shelf, and I rushed out of the line to ask if I could switch books –“

“You sacrificed your own library book so I could get my hands on Strider!” I said. “That was really nice of you, Doug.”

“No, not really,” he said. “I didn’t really want the other book anyway.”

Eventually, Doug will learn the finer points of situations like this, and get the hang of saying, “Aw, that’s OK,” and “I didn’t mind,” to maximize the favored party’s indebtedness. Too late this time, though!

So why did I want to find a copy of this book Strider, anyway? It started about a week earlier, during our read-aloud time. I’m remembering it now …

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Coordination and quotation fronting, Inversion, Kids' entertainment, Prescriptive grammar | 5 Comments »

Tolkien, Rowling, and Quotative Inversion

Posted by Neal on August 31, 2007

Yesterday I finished reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban to Doug and Adam, and that’s enough Harry Potter for a while. I haven’t decided what we’ll take up next, but I did read them a little bit out of The Hobbit tonight to see how they liked it. We read only five and a half pages, but look what I found:

“We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. …I can’t think what anybody sees in them,” said our Mr. Baggins, and stuck one thumb behind his braces, and blew out another even bigger smoke-ring. (p. 7)

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Coordination and quotation fronting, Inversion, Kids' entertainment | 3 Comments »

Coordination and Quotative Inversion Meet Again

Posted by Neal on December 13, 2006

I’ve been reading another book by Beverly Cleary to Doug and Adam. This one is Muggie Maggie, which was published in 1990. As I read it, every now and then I notice a sentence that, although perfectly good standard English, strikes me as unusual style for Cleary. Finally, I decided I had to go through the whole book and find all these sentences. Luckily, the story is only 70 pages, so within ten minutes I had picked out:

  1. “Many letters start up slowly, just like a roller coaster, and then drop down,” she said, and she traced over the first stroke of each letter with colored chalk. (14)
  2. “Today we practice our signatures,” she said, and she looked at Maggie. (32)
  3. “Well, it’s wrong,” she said, and she sighed so hard that Kisser looked anxious. (61)
  4. I will not enjoy it, thought Maggie, and she said, “All those loops and squiggles. I don’t think I’ll do it.” (8-9)
  5. “Oops,” said Mr. Schultz, and he closed his loops. (20)
  6. “Good for you, Goldilocks,” said her father, and he rumpled her hair. (43)

Now, compare those sentences with these, from a post from back in June. These are from Cleary’s Henry and Ribsy, published in 1954:

  1. “Boy, is he mad about something!” he exclaimed, and ran over to the driveway. (46)
  2. “Wuf,” he said mildly, and waited patiently while Beezus frantically pried Ramona’s fingers loose from his tail. (64)
  3. “Hi,” she answered, and entered the kitchen with her arms full of packages. (73)
  4. “Ow,” he exclaimed, and pulled away. (78)
  5. “Wuf!” he said, and looked hungrily at the lunch box. (129)
  6. Come on, salmon, bite, he thought, and tossed out his line.
  7. “I won’t,” promised Henry, and got back into the car. (15-17)
  8. “I have come to haunt you,” said Henry in his hollow voice, and let out a groan. (19)
  9. “I just stepped into the market to buy a pint of milk to drink with my lunch,” began the officer, and went on to explain what had happened. (30)
  10. “Wuf,” said Ribsy, and went to the refrigerator to show that what he really wanted was another piece of horse meat. (37)
  11. “Day in and day out,” said Mrs. Huggins, and laughed. (39)
  12. “Aw, keep quiet,” answered Henry, and grinned. (70)
  13. “Oh, it’s nothing,” said Henry modestly, and bared his teeth. (90)
  14. “Ribsy!” yelled Henry, and grabbed his dog by the collar. (94)
  15. “Try and get it,” taunted Scooter, and began to laugh. (96)
  16. “I wonder if…” began Mrs. Huggins and paused. (100)
  17. “O.K., you old dog,” muttered Henry, and steeled himself for the meeting with Scooter and Robert. (103)
  18. “Good old Ribsy,” said Henry, and hugged him. (111)
  19. “Wuf,” answered Ribsy, and worried the rope. (112)
  20. “Better not count on it,” said Mr. Grumbie, and yawned. (148)
  21. “Don’t lean out,” said Mr. Huggins sharply, and rewound the rope. (167)

See the difference? In H&R, whenever (1) Cleary uses and to indicate a sequence of two events; (2) the verbs for each event have the same subject; and (3) the first event is one of speech or thought, Cleary regularly omits the subject for the second verb. Thus for example, “Boy, is he mad about something!” he exclaimed, and ran over to the driveway, and not “Boy, is he mad about something!” he exclaimed, and he ran over to the driveway. In the whole book, you will not find a sentence like that. In MM, however, a book half the length of H&R, there are the six such sentences reported above. Moreover, there is not a single instance of Cleary omitting the subject for the second verb when the three conditions are met.

What happened between 1954 and 1990 to cause such a complete flip-flop? My guess is that a prescriptive grammarian got to her, and convinced her that the non-parallelism of “Ow,” he exclaimed, and pulled away was ungrammatical (unlike the non-parallelism of, say, John came early, and Marsha, late). All you linguists out there reading books by Beverly Cleary, check out how she handles sentences like these. With enough books for data points, we can answer important questions such as: When did the switch occur? Was it gradual? Has she alternated between styles over the years? Hey, we could make this the Beverly Cleary meme! On second thought, let’s not. If I launched a meme, then I’d feel guilty about ignoring memes I get tagged with.

Posted in Coordination and quotation fronting, Inversion, Kids' entertainment, Prescriptive grammar | 2 Comments »