Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Syntax’ Category

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 »

Sleep Like Death, Death Like Sleep

Posted by Neal on May 19, 2014

The boys, the wife and I watched the latest episode of the rebooted Cosmos last night. About 10 minutes in, Neil deGrasse Tyson began talking about the idea that life on Earth may have begun by arriving on meteorites. It’s known that rocks from Mars, for example, have ended up on Earth this way. It’s also known that some bacteria are able to survive in space, as proven by bacteria that survived a stint traveling on the outside of the International Space Station. Finally, it’s known that some bacteria can survive for a long time without a food source. On this point, Tyson talks about some recently revived bacteria found in Antarctic ice:

Even more amazing are these creatures, awakened from a death-like sleep of eight million years…

I was interested to hear Tyson put it that way, because I’ve also been hearing another person talking about death-like sleeps recently, but she phrases it differently:

Did you hear that? She said:

Before the sun sets on her sixteenth birthday, she will fall into a sleep like death!

Both phrases are talking about a sleep, not about death. We know this from the context, and from the fact that the verbs fall and awaken collocate more strongly with sleep than with death. But they’re phrased in completely opposite orders from each other! Furthermore, it’s syntactically possible for each phrase to be referring to death, not to a sleep. No, I haven’t actually found any examples of this, but it could happen, OK?

Here are the structural differences all sorted out. The diagrams on the left refer first to a death that is like sleep, and then to a sleep that is like death. In these parses, the adjective like is looking for a noun-phrase complement on its right to form an adjective phrase. The diagrams on the right refer to a sleep that is death-like, then to a death that is sleep-like. Here, the adjective like forms a compound adjective with the noun phrase on its left.

Dead, or Just Resting?

The situation reminds me of Shel Silverstein’s “snake eating cake”.

Posted in Attachment ambiguity, Compound words, Diagramming, Movies, TV | Leave a Comment »

Chemicals, Castro, and Last Year’s Jeans

Posted by Neal on May 8, 2014

Here are a few items I recorded some time ago, and just found lying in my stash of draft posts.

Doug and Adam each spontaneously uttered a double passive within a day or two of each other sometime in the past year. Here’s Doug’s:

… standing in front of a chemical plant that‘s threatened to be bombed.

I don’t even remember what the context was for that. It’s a good thing I wrote this down, or it’d be a memory lost forever, like all that thing he did that one time that I didn’t bother putting in his baby book, or that other thing he did that other time that I never put in a diary or anything. Anyway, if the clause about the chemical plant were in the active voice, it would be something like “a chemical plant that someone threatens to bomb.” But if you don’t know who made the threat, how do you say this? You do like Doug did, and use the passive voice. The trouble is, you have two verbs to deal with: threatened, and bomb. Which one do you make passive? Option 1 below

just doesn’t make any sense. Option 2 is grammatical, but it removes the human agency from threaten. It sounds like conditions are such that the chemical plant is likely to be bombed, in the same way that It’s threatening to rain means, “Conditions are such that it’s likely to rain.” So he went with option 3, making both verbs passive.

  1. *a chemical plant that is threatened to bomb
  2. a chemical plant that threatens to be bombed
  3. a chemical plant that is threatened to be bombed

Now, on to Adam’s double passive:

Fidel Castro has been attempted to be assassinated over 600 times.

I think he got this off a history website or something, like maybe this Mental Floss article.

Robin Dodsworth sent me the weirdest case of possible right-node wrapping that I’ve seen. I’ve come to believe that nonparallel coordinate structures such as

wash and put the dishes away

are actually part of many people’s English grammar. Usually they consist of an ordinary transitive verb (e.g. wash) and a phrasal transitive verb (put away) taking a single direct object, with the preposition from the phrasal verb coming after the direct object. Phrased as a parallel coordinate structure, this would be “Wash the dishes and put them away.” Robin’s example, though, is different. An old high school friend wrote on Facebook:

Scariest moment of the year — the first cool day of Fall when you have to put on (and find out) if last year’s jeans still fit.

Put into a parallel structure, this would be “Put on last year’s jeans and find out if they still fit.” So instead of being a direct object with respect to the parts I’ve colored red and green in the quotation, it’s a direct object for put on, and an embedded subject in find out if ___ still fit. This is so unlike other RNW examples that I suspect it was just a mistake, but I don’t know. Does it sound comparable to wash and put the dishes away to you?

Posted in Adam, Double passives, Doug, Right-node wrapping ("Friends in Low Places" coordinations) | 6 Comments »

Thoughts on Just Because X Doesn’t Mean Y

Posted by Neal on April 4, 2014

On her Grammar Girl podcast this week, Mignon Fogarty is running a guest script that I wrote on the just because X doesn’t mean Y construction, a thriving piece of English syntax that has come into its own in the last 50 years or so. My favorite example of JBX-DMY is

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

In this post, I go into some of the details that didn’t make it into the script. First off, quite a bit has been written about this construction; the sources I read while writing the Grammar Girl script are:

Weird syntax
JBX-DMY is so common that it’s easy to overlook that it doesn’t follow the regular syntactic or semantic rules. On the syntactic side, what’s the subject of doesn’t mean? Is it the just because clause? Or is it an understood subject that sometimes gets pronounced, as in Just because it’s easier to raise VC money, that doesn’t mean you should, or Just because it’s wrong, it doesn’t mean it’s not funny?

Weird semanticsFor comparison, let’s look at more regular sentences that contain just because. For example, think about the scope of the “cause” meaning and the negation meaning in Bill isn’t speaking to me, just because I served him a cat-food sandwich as a joke. Depending on the intonation, we can get two readings. I’ll illustrate them by using the notation CAUSE(A)(B) to mean that A caused B. With the intonation suggested by the comma I put in the sentence, we get this reading, with CAUSE taking scope over the negation:

CAUSE(serve cat-food sandwich)(NOT(speaking to me))
(i.e. my serving Bill the CFS caused him to not speak to me)

Without a pause before the just because, and with a a rise-fall intonation at the end of the sentence, we get a reading with a wide-scoping negation:

NOT(CAUSE(serve cat-food sandwich)(speaking to me))
(i.e. Bill is speaking to me, but for reasons other than my serving him a CFS)

However, when we put the just because clause in front, as in Just because I served him a cat-food sandwich as a joke, Bill isn’t speaking to me, the only reading we get is the wide-scoping CAUSE.

Now consider just because X doesn’t mean Y. In passing, let’s note that just because is now not talking strictly about cause and effect, but about inference. This is not unusual in and of itself, because “inferential because” is a well-known phenomenon. For example, you can say, “Classes just let out, because the hallways are full of students,” but not mean that the crowded hallways caused classes to let out. What you really mean is that the fact that the hallways are full of students allows you to infer that classes have just let out. But what’s interesting about just because X doesn’t mean Y requires that NEG scope wider than (inferential) CAUSE, just the opposite of our cat-food sandwich example:


Variations on the just because and the doesn’t mean
Another point made in several of the articles is that JBS-DMY requires neither just because nor doesn’t mean to work. You can do it with simply because, or in the right context, plain old because. And instead of doesn’t mean, you’ll also hear other negations, such as is no reason to, or doesn’t make, or even rhetorical questions that imply a negative answer.

Just because with of complements, and “because X”
By analogy with ordinary because and because of, Kanetani observes, the just because construction now has a variant with just because of, as in

Just because of his dominance doesn’t mean they’re going to win games of footy or win or the clearances. (link)

The much-talked-about because X construction (in which X is something other than a full clause, such as a noun phrase, an adjective, a participle, or an interjection) has also now been folded into the analogy. Taking the top result from Tyler Schnoebelen’s listing of the most common words to appear in tweets after because, I did a search for “just because YOLO doesn’t mean” and found numerous examples like Just because YOLO doesn’t mean you can act like a moron.

Hilpert believes that the origin of the unusual semantics of JBX-DMY followed a sequence like this:

  1. Unremarkable sentences beginning with just because were already in the grammar, and some of them happened to have negated main clauses; for example, Just because I served him a cat-food sandwich as a joke, Bill isn’t speaking to me.
  2. Such constructions eventually came to be used with the inferential CAUSE meaning rather than a pure causation meaning.
  3. Finally, the inference-denying meaning of today’s JBX-DMY.

There’s a problem, though. In step 1, the semantics has CAUSEcausation>NOT, as discussed earlier. In step 3, the semantics has NOT>CAUSEinference. So there are two changes that have to happen in between: the scope change, and the change from causal to inferential just because. Whichever of those changes happens first, we end up with something that doesn’t seem to have the appropriate meaning, as illustrated below:

Just because he’s my nephew I didn’t hire him!
(Desired meaning impossible: that I hired my nephew for non-nepotistic reasons.)
Just because the streets are wet, it didn’t rain.
(Desired meaning impossible: that the sole fact of wet streets allows us to infer that it rained.)

I think a more likely progression is suggested by Bender and Kathol’s paper. Noting that there is flexibility over how the DMY part gets negated, imagine a sentence like this, in which the speaker seems to question the validity of an inference:

Just because I let him borrow my computer once, he seems to think he is allowed to use it any time he wants to.

The semantics here is the straightforward one you’d expect: For the sole reason that I let him borrow my computer once, he thinks he can use it whenever he wants. The negation, which is unspoken, permeates the whole utterance: This guy is wrong to think he can borrow my computer any old time now. From here, it’s a short step to turn that implied negative he seems to think into an actual one:

Just because I let him borrow my computer once, he shouldn’t think it’s his to borrow whenever.

Now we have NOT>CAUSEcausation, which we couldn’t get in our nepotism example. From here to that doesn’t mean doesn’t seem quite such a jump now. Subsequent elimination of the overt subject that or it, Hilpert argues, was due to the mostly empty meaning of the pronouns, plus the phonetic similarity of their final /t/ and the beginning /d/ of doesn’t. This part of his argument I’m inclined to believe.

Update, April 14, 2015: Doug was re-watching Iron Man this afternoon, and I heard this line of dialogue, uttered by bad guy Obadiah Stane to Tony Stark:

Do you really think that just because you have an idea, it belongs to you?

Without the framing rhetorical question of Do you really think…?, this is a straightforward instance of causal just because: if you have an idea, that makes it yours. But inside the rhetorical question, the clear meaning is that simply having an idea doesn’t make it yours. It’s an example, in the wild, of the type I was describing in the original post.

Posted in Scope ambiguity, Syntax | 2 Comments »

What She Cooks Like

Posted by Neal on March 9, 2014

One day last month, Doug and his classmates watched part of a Disney movie during one of the many wasted class periods he’s had this year (thanks to the busiest, most pointless, and most disruptive standardized-test schedule I’ve ever seen). He liked it, he said, and he’d figured out that the person who voiced a dragon in the movie was that guy who had done Donkey in Shrek.

“Oh! Mulan!” I said. “That’s one of the last movies your mom and I saw before you were born.” I also clued him in on the name of “that guy who did the voice of Donkey,” as he and his classmates think of Eddie Murphy. He wanted to put it on our Netflix queue so he could see the rest, so we did.


I didn’t tell Doug my secret reason for putting Mulan in the queue: a line in one of the songs that I’ve occasionally considered blogging about, but hadn’t wanted to go to the trouble of watching the movie again so I could get the exact wording. But if Doug wanted to watch the movie anyway, I could conveniently accomplish the goal.

So last weekend, I saw Mulan for the second time. Adam pointed out that the voice of Mulan herself was done by one of the stars of Agents of SHIELD. Doug noticed that the enemies that were clearly supposed to be Mongols were actually referred to as Huns, probably because Huns was easier to rhyme in a song than Mongols. (They rhymed it with sons.) The wife noticed an “American Gothic” reference she hadn’t remembered. And I got to hear the line in the song I’d been trying to remember. I had to pause and rewind a couple of times before I could write it all down, but luckily, nobody minded.

It comes in the song “A Girl Worth Fighting For,” as the members of the Chinese army who are prominent enough to have names sing about their dream women. About 40 seconds into the song, the baby-faced big fat one, named Chien Po, sings

I couldn’t care less what she’ll wear or what she looks like.
It all depends on what she cooks like.

Hah! Looks like … cooks like! Oh, and notice the standardly negated couldn’t care less, too. But still: You can say someone looks like a god, or cooks like a chef, so why is looks like … cooks like so funny?

In the question what she looks like, the what corresponds to the missing object of like. But the key, I think, is that what she looks like has essentially the same meaning as how she looks, where how could be standing in for an adjective (she looks good) or a prepositional phrase (she looks like a statue). With these two equivalent sentences available, we can set up an analogy:

how she looks : what she looks like :: how she cooks : X

What does X equal? what she cooks like, naturally! But why is it so funny?

How is the question word we use in order to ask about a predicate adjective. Questions like How do you feel?, How does it taste?, How did they sound?, and How does she look? are typically answered with adjectives: great, good, bad, swell, or maybe prepositional phrases such as like a million bucks. But how is also the question word we use to ask about the manner in which something was done. Questions like How did he do it? and How does she cook? are typically answered with an adverb, like well or poorly, or some other kind of phrase that tells how something was done: with a ball-peen hammer, for example. Only the how corresponding to an adjective means the same thing as what … like, and the analogy that gets us what she cooks like totally ignores this fact.

Posted in Kids' entertainment, Movies, Syntax | Leave a Comment »

Getting Away Without It

Posted by Neal on January 27, 2014

When the previous blast of arctic air passed through last week, it put enough snow on our driveway and sidewalk that I really should have shoveled it, but it wasn’t enough to force me to do it in order to get the car from the garage to the street. And, you know, I was in a hurry… I knew I’d regret it later, as I backed the car down the driveway and looked at my tire tracks cutting through the blanket of snow. It would be icy and compacted there when I eventually did shovel.

But when I got home that afternoon, I saw that someone had shoveled our sidewalk! I guessed it was good karma kicking in from the times I’d shoveled the sidewalk in front of our next door neighbors’ houses. No more snow had fallen, and this snow was kind of the dry, crunchy kind, so it wasn’t really a slipping hazard on the driveway and walk to the front door… And a couple of days later, it was even starting to melt!

Then the weekend came, and the current cold snap hit us, kicking off with another couple of inches of snow. I drove Doug to school on Tuesday morning, and as we backed down the driveway, I looked at the fresh set of tire tracks in the fresh layer of snow.

“Until last night,” I said to Doug, “I was like, ‘Wow, I totally got away without shoveling the driveway!’ ”

Thirty seconds later, I asked Doug, “Would you have said ‘got away without shoveling,’ or ‘got away with not shoveling’?”

“‘Got away with not having to shovel,’ ” Doug said.

Interesting. On the one hand, we have a division between the string get away with and the thing that you’re not supposed to do: not shoveling. That’s right, you’re not supposed to not shovel. On the other hand, I took the with from one side of the break, and the not from the other, and combined them into the negative version of with: without. Could I do that? Is getting away without something even a thing?

The OED has the expression get away with as a piece of American slang dating to the 1878. As I had imagined, the earliest examples have get away in its sense of escaping some situation, and to “get away with X” meant to make your escape while in possession of X, often something you’re not supposed to have. Here’s the OED‘s example from 1886:

They got away with the pennant three successive seasons.

The modern examples have a more abstract meaning of simply not being punished for something, without a physical escape from a place required. The nouns that show up in them are more abstract, too, such as shoddy work or murder. To further tease out the meaning difference between this usage and the current one, let’s compare how they can be paraphrased:

  1. Newer use
    1. He got away with (doing) shoddy work.
    2. She gets away with (committing) murder. [Note: Inserting the gerund takes away the figurative meaning, so that we’re saying she gets away with actual murder. However, this is often the case with idioms, and the literal meaning is available with both phrasings.]
  2. Older use
    1. He got away with (*doing, *making) $1,000,000.
    2. She got away with (*doing, *making) the artifact.

In short, the meaning has shifted from escaping a place while possessing something you shouldn’t possess, to escaping punishment for doing something you shouldn’t do. The OED‘s first attestation of get away with with this more abstract meaning is this one from 1912:

In the Elizabethan days you could assault the watch..and have a jolly set-to with the blades in any convenient angle of a wall and ‘get away with it’.

As for get away without X, that goes back to about the same time as get away with X. I found this example in Google Books from 1882:

Was it a clean job if he was caught in the act, or if he got away without being caught? If he got away without being caught it was a cleaner job. (Link)

Two things to notice about this early example of get away without X:

  1. Even though it already has an abstract noun for X (being caught), it still has a comparably literal meaning to the older get away with X: something like, “escape from a situation without X occurring.”
  2. It just means not getting caught; it does not mean not getting caught and never suffering undesirable consequences for it.

For comparison, here’s a more modern example of get away without X from 2011:

Likewise, it is an affront to honest taxpayers that one, let alone most, of the clients of John Mathewson’s Cayman Islands bank got away without paying.

Going through the above two points in this later example:

  1. It has followed the same concrete-to-abstract path as get away with X: The meaning here doesn’t involve physical escape.
  2. Unlike the 1882 example, it doesn’t just mean the clients didn’t pay; it means they never suffered undesirable consequences for not paying.

Summing up, it looks like getting away without X is indeed a thing, and whether you choose it over getting away with X depends on whether you think of X as something you shouldn’t do or something you should do. If I had been thinking of not shoveling snow as an act in itself that I should not do, get away with not shoveling might have been the better choice. But thinking in terms of shoveling snow being something I should do, I chose get away without shoveling. The only choice that’s not available is referring to X with the pronoun it if you’re using the without version of the expression: You can’t “get away without it.”

In any case, I’m not getting away with not shoveling or without shoveling anymore. After the additional six inches we got over the weekend, I’ve now shoveled our walk and driveway twice in 48 hours!

Posted in Ambiguity, Ohioana, Syntax | Leave a Comment »

Stop Creating!

Posted by Neal on January 13, 2014

You know, I really liked the first film I saw Shia LaBeouf in, and the second one wasn’t too bad. I was always a bit bugged by the clear misspelling of his last name, which I knew from high school French II should have been LaBoeuf, but I wouldn’t let a petty thing like that cause me to boycott a movie. But I’ve been increasingly incredulous of the unfolding story about LaBeouf and a graphic novelist named Daniel Clowes, and I’m inclined to boycott LaBeouf now. Here’s the recap for those who haven’t been following it:

  1. LaBeouf produced a movie titled Howard
  2. Daniel Clowes observed that large portions of the dialogue were plagiarized from his book Justin B. Damiano.
  3. LaBeouf apologized on Twitter.
  4. LaBeouf apologized numerous other times on Twitter, plagiarizing other notable apologies.
  5. LaBeouf apologized via a message in skywriting over LA.
  6. LaBeouf then tweeted a storyboard, supposedly for his next movie project, which clearly plagiarized from another of Daniel Clowes’s works.
  7. Clowes’s lawyer sent LaBeouf a cease-and-desist letter demanding that “he must stop all efforts to create and produce another short film that misappropriates Mr. Clowes’ work….”

You can read more about this here, here, and here, but here’s where the story takes a linguistic turn, so this is our stop.

Ben Zimmer emailed me to tell me about how LaBeouf was deliberately misreading the cease-and-desist letter. He sent along a few links that I’ll share. First, here’s an image of the original letter, along with LaBeouf’s edited version:

And here’s another message he delivered via skywriting:

In addition to copping out with the bullshit claim that all authorship is plagiarism, LaBeouf’s carryings-on exemplify two argument techniques that really get under my skin. One is the deliberate cutoff, exemplified in the classic dialogue:

A: Why did you do this?
B: Well, I didn’t think I–
A: That’s right! You didn’t think!

The other is the straw-man technique, which I often get from my sons. Take a demand from your opponent, amp it up to its most extreme, idiotic version, then belittle your opponent for being so naive as to make such an extreme, idiotic demand. In this case, “stop creating a particular kind of thing” becomes “stop creating (anything)”.

Thinking about the syntax of the butchered sentence, though, I wonder if LaBeouf has realized that he can carry his half-ass mis-parsing even further, to arrive at a completely grammatical parse that’s even more to his liking. Here’s the structure of the intended parse:

A conjoined verb

The and is joining the smallest constituents it can join: the verbs create and produce. The shared direct object is another short film that misappropriates the word of Daniel Clowes. But LaBeouf wants to break the connection between create and produce, and have create its own verb phrase, meaning “engage in any kind of creation.” Well, in that case, what do we do with the and? Instead of hooking up the two single verbs, it will have to hook up the next larger constituents: the verb phrases stop all efforts to create and produce another short film…. So the parse would be like this:

Coordinated verb phrases

So if he wanted to, LaBeouf could argue that this letter actually requires him to produce another short film that misappropriates the work of Daniel Clowes. Syntactically, it’s impeccable. Semantically, there’s the problem that the verb produce in the movie-making sense entails creating, so he couldn’t satisfy both requirements. Pragmatically, there’s the oddity of requiring that someone do something that involves lawbreaking (i.e. misappropriation). But hey, it’s about as logical as what he’s been doing already, so what the heck?

Posted in Attachment ambiguity, Coordination, Movies, Pragmatics | 5 Comments »

Gerund Movie Titles Revisited

Posted by Neal on January 4, 2014

Tom Hanks will save you!

We had a few friends over near the beginning of Doug and Adam’s winter break. The conversation turned to movies, and my wife said that two movies she really hoped to see over the holidays were American Hustle and Saving Mr. Banks.

“I don’t want to see that,” I said. “It’s already got a couple of strikes against it because of the title. It’s another gerund-plus-proper-noun cliche.”

“What, is that ungrammatical?” asked our guest Brian.

“No, it’s grammatical, just lazy and overdone,” I answered, and listed a few of the examples I’ve written about before.

“But it’s been getting good reviews!” my wife said. “Can you just ignore the title?”

“Here’s the thing,” I said, moving aside to let Adam get to the fridge. “Clearly, the producers’taste is not good enough for them to avoid this lame title. So I have to question their artistic judgment in other aspects of the movie.”

“Is this about Saving Mr. Banks again?” asked Adam.

Well, I couldn’t help it. This title is particularly annoying because the gerund is saving. Along with being and finding, that’s the most overdone gerund in this worn-out title template. Worse, Tom Hanks seemed to be making a habit out of starring in movies titled Saving someone, what with Saving Private Ryan from 1998.

Later on, I checked Tom Hanks’s acting credits on IMDB, and found to my surprise that in the 71 entries, Saving Private Ryan and Saving Mr. Banks were the only movies with GPN titles. So the good news is that Tom Hanks usually isn’t associated with gerundially-titled movies. Even so, he’s still in these two, both of them with saving

In a guest script for Grammar Girl a couple of years ago, I talked about two kinds of gerunds, one that behaved more like a verb, and one that behaved more like a noun. I illustrated with this example:

  • the quick defusing of the bomb
  • quickly defusing the bomb

The first kind is the more nounlike gerund. It can take an article (in this example, the); it is modified by an adjective instead of an adverb (quick), and the complement NP the bomb is introduced by an of. This kind of gerund is sometimes called a nominalization.

The second kind is the more verblike gerund. It does not take an article; *the quickly defusing the bomb is ungrammatical. It is modified by an adverb instead of an adjective (quickly); and its complement NP the bomb comes directly afterward, just as it would if we were dealing with a plain form (defuse the bomb) or a tensed form (defuses the bomb).

I hadn’t really thought about this difference when I was thinking about movie titles, but I notice now that the movie titles that drew my attention all involve the verby kind of gerunds. That is, we have Saving Mr. Banks and not The Saving of Mr. Banks. I did a search on IMDB for “the *ing of”, and found only one result, The Rican-ing of the White Boy (2012). An anonymous plot summary explains what Rican-ing is:

What happens when a paternally adopted forty seven year old schmuck from Queens, New York, sets out for the first time to meet his long lost Puerto Rican family, after being raised by a tribe of white people?

However, I know there are at least two more nominalization-style movie title from recent years: The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009), and The Haunting of Hill House (1999) (though this title came from Shirley Jackson’s 1959 story). I don’t know why it didn’t show up in the search results. If you have some other examples that the search didn’t find, leave a comment.

I wondered what the GPN movie titles would sound like with nominalizations, and started going through the list I’d put in my earlier blog post: The Finding of Nemo, The Chasing of Amy, The Driving of Miss Daisy… Then I realized that some of these titles couldn’t be rephrased as a nominalization:

  • *The Becoming of Colette (1991)
  • *The Becoming of Mozart (1998)
  • *The Being of John Malkovich (1999)
  • *The Being of Julia (2004)
  • *The Being of Flynn (2012) [a new one!]

It seems that linking verbs that take an NP complement don’t work as nominalizations. This is probably something that syntacticians have known about for a long time, but I haven’t found it in CGEL, or in a classic paper by Noam Chomsky, “Remarks on Nominalization“. If anyone knows of research that has been done on this, I’d love to hear about it.

Anyway, since I’ve moved beyond gerund+proper noun titles and into nominalizations, I might as well finish with a nod to nominalizations without an of phrase following them. These are the mark of a horror movie: The Shining, The Haunting, The Howling, The Fruiting, and others.

It’s late now, though, so as I told Doug and Adam earlier tonight, it’s time for the going-to of bed.

Posted in Movies, Syntax | 2 Comments »

Blue Christmas Cannibalism

Posted by Neal on December 19, 2013

Looking through the community newspaper, I saw an announcement of the various Christmas-related services that a local church was having. One of them caught my eye:

A tradition from Canada?

I liked the creative use of the song title “Blue Christmas” to name a service for, I assumed, people grieving for departed loved ones or maybe with serious health problems. Pretty clever name, I thought, for a service that I hadn’t heard of before but which sounded like it filled a need. Then I looked across to the facing page of the newspaper, saw another listing of Christmas services from another church, and among the services, saw listed another Blue Christmas service. So apparently this wasn’t an original naming, but a more widespread thing. On the American Dialect Society email list, Dan Goncharoff found two attestations from 1998, both from Canada, and both describing it as a service “for those grieving and in pain at Christmas.” If you’ve heard of Blue Christmas services earlier than that, let me know in the comments.

However, that’s not what I really wanted to comment on. I was more interested in the description in the newspaper:

for those whom Christmas is a difficult time to celebrate in the traditional fashion

It’s another example of prepositional cannibalism! The larger phrase is basically for certain people. And who are those certain people? They are people such that

Christmas is a difficult time for them to celebrate in the traditional fashion

Turning that into a relative clause, we would expect

those for whom Christmas is a difficult time to celebrate in the traditional fashion

Putting it all together, we should have

for those for whom Christmas is a difficult time to celebrate in the traditional fashion

But the writer, I suspect, second-guessed themself and figured there must be something wrong with the lineup of for those for. In the earlier post that I linked to, I noted that the two prepositions had to be the same, but actually, that might not be true. In the widely mangled proverb

Of those to whom much is given, much is expected.

the of at the beginning is often lopped off. Why the of instead of the to? I don’t know, but I notice that in these two examples, the preposition that survives is the one that points to the beneficiary role: the person who is given much, the person the service is intended for.

They seem to have left off an S here

On an unrelated note, for a few hours after I read the announcement, I had “Blue Christmas” running through my head, and not just any version, but the version from Elvis’s Christmas Album, including the wah-wah-wah-waah ostinato that was drilled into my head through Dad’s numerous playings of the album over the years. What’s the linguistic connection? Also on that album is “Santa Bring My Baby Back,” which I first heard at age 4, when Dad had just bought the album and was playing it for us. “Listen, Neal-o, he wants Santa to bring his baby back,” he told me. At that age, I knew nothing of the lexical ambiguity of baby; I just wondered why jolly old Santa had taken away this man’s child.

Posted in Christmas songs, Christmas-related, Relative clauses | 1 Comment »

Adverbial Nouns in the News

Posted by Neal on November 22, 2013

Listening to the various news stories observing the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, I heard one reporter talking about a commemoration going on in Dallas. She said,

The ceremonies will take place at the very location he was killed.

In my grammar, location doesn’t work this way. I can say either of the following:

  1. the location in/at which he was killed
  2. the location where he was killed

The clause he was killed ___ contain a prepositional-phrase gap (shown with an underscore) where you might ordinarily expect at that place, or in that place, or maybe just there. This gap corresponds to the relative phrase in/at which or the relative adverb where. Somewhat less good are:

  1. the location that he was killed in/at
  2. the location he was killed in/at

In these phrases, the clause he was killed in/at ___ contains a gap where you’d ordinarily expect an object of the preposition in or at, and this gap corresponds to the relativizer that in (3). Or there’s no relative pronoun at all, as in (4). But what definitely doesn’t work in my grammar is modifying location with a relative clause that begins with that or the null relative pronoun, and contains a prepositional-phrase gap. For me, the only word that is allowed to do this is place:

  1. the place that he was killed
  2. the place he was killed

I might also accept spot, but not location (or corner, either). Even though these words are all synonyms, only place has the ability to go with these relative clauses that contain a prepositional-phrase gap. In other words, place is the only adverbial noun among these three. (For an example of place used as both an adverbial noun and an ordinary noun simultaneously, see this post about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.)

It turns out that Dad, too, had a brush with adverbial nouns today, in the news coverage of the assassination semicentennial. He called me to say that he and Mom each had an idea for a blog post for me, and his contribution was from the front page of the Houston Chronicle, which referred to November 22, 1963 as

a day the world changed.

Day, like place, doesn’t need a relative adverb like when, or a relative phrase like in which or at which, when it’s modified by a relative clause with a prepositional-phrase gap. That’s why Don McLean can sing about the day the music died instead of having to phrase it in one of these ways:

  1. the day on which the music died
  2. the day when the music died
  3. the day that the music died on
  4. the day the music died on

But it’s easier to parse this kind of relative clause if you have a verb, such as die, that forces you to imagine a prepositional-phrase gap after it. Because die is an intransitive verb, you’re not expecting it to have a direct object, so you don’t parse the music died as containing a noun-phrase gap. Change, on the other hand, can take a direct object, so the first interpretation that came to Dad’s mind, and to mine, was the one in which the world changed the day of November 22, 1963, even though it was clear that the intended meaning was “a day on which the world changed” or “a day when the world changed”.

And as for Mom’s news-related blog post idea? Well, it’s not about adverbial nouns, and it is about something I’d already been considering writing about in a separate post. So separate post it is!

Posted in Adverbial nouns | 4 Comments »


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