Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Verbal diathesis alternations’ Category

Photogenic People Take the Best Pictures

Posted by Neal on September 26, 2018

Now that it’s Adam’s senior year in the marching band, a vinyl poster with a picture of him in uniform is hanging at the football stadium, along with posters of all the other senior band members, cheerleaders, and football players. My wife and I saw it at the first home game, and he looked really good in it. We’d been a little nervous, since Doug had been dissatisfied with how he looked in his senior band picture two years ago. At lunch the next day, my wife said,

Adam, you took a great picture!

“No, he didn’t,” I said. “The photographer took a great picture.”

I was amazed to hear that sentence, because only hours earlier, I had heard a similar sentence from an instructor at the gym. At the end of a class, the instructor was making some small talk with the participants, and she got to telling about how it didn’t matter what she was wearing or how she did her hair,

I take crappy pictures.

It instantly set off my syntactic tripwire: The teacher wasn’t taking the pictures. People with cameras took pictures of her. Yet here she was, making herself the subject of the verb phrase take crappy pictures. I was especially alert for sentences like this because at the time, I’d just finished writing a script for the Grammar Girl podcast (which I’ll link to when Mignon runs it). [UPDATE: Here it is.] One of her listeners had asked about sentences like

This screw screws in easily.

and she’d passed it on to me to see if I could do something with it. I figured it would be a pretty quick piece to write. This kind of sentence is sometimes said to use the middle voice, since it has characteristics of both active voice and passive voice. On the one hand, the verb phrase looks to be in the active voice, with that active verb screws instead of the passive is screwed. On the other hand, the subject is not the do-er of the action (i.e. the agent); it’s the undergoer of the action (i.e. the patient), the hallmark of passive voice. (At least, it’s the hallmark when both an agent and a patient are involved. For verbs like die, which require only a patient, active-voice verb forms are expected.)

In addition to these characteristics, there are a couple of other things that linguists have noticed about these middle-voice sentences. One is that they often don’t refer to a specific event. Of course, sometimes they do, like the sentence talking about that time when the band photographer took a picture of Adam. But a more typical middle-voice sentence would be ones like these:

I don’t embarrass easily.

These cookies freeze well.

Our kit sells for $10.99.

Speakers of these sentences aren’t talking about particular embarrassments, or a specific time when they froze some cookies (even if they’ve done it many times), or all the times that someone paid $11 for their product. These speakers are more focused on saying something about themselves, or the cookies, or the item for sale.

This brings us to the next characteristic of middle-voice sentences: the subject gets the credit or the blame. In a prototypical active-voice sentence, such as

Kim took a picture,

the subject is not only the one taking the action (i.e. the agent), but is also the one exercising their volition. The subject is responsible for this action happening. On the other hand, in the middle-voice sentences, even though the subject isn’t the agent anymore, it is still at least partially responsible for pictures turning out great or crappy, or someone getting embarrassed, or the successful freezing of the cookies.

The third characteristic of middle-voice sentences is that they often have an adverbial element to them. In the example sentences we have easily and well. As with the event-reference tendency, there are exceptions that don’t contain adverbs. I tend to notice them in computer contexts:

Your receipt is printing.

The program is downloading.

And of course, our photography sentences don’t have adverbs. But look closer: Even these sentences manage to convey some idea of how the photographing goes, by modifying picture(s) with the adjectives great and crappy.

I wrote about all these kinds of sentences in the Grammar Girl script except for one: Sentences like You took a great picture and I take crappy pictures. These sentences have something that the others don’t: a direct object! In all the other sentences, this middle-voice construction takes a verb that’s ordinarily transitive and makes it intransitive, but in the two sentences I heard on that Saturday a few weeks ago, the transitive verb take is still transitive, taking the same direct object, picture(s) that it usually does. And instead of pictures becoming the subject, in a sentence like

*These pictures took well,

we have a noun taken from somewhere inside what would have been the direct object in an active sentence. Here, I’ll illustrate:

The photographer took a great picture of Adam.

Adam took a great picture.

The noun Adam is inside the of prepositional phrase, inside the direct object a great picture of Adam. In all the reading I’ve done on middle voice in previous years, and in the more recent reading I did in order to write the Grammar Girl episode, I haven’t come across this kind middle-yet-still-transitive sentence. I’ve tried to think of others, and so far I have only one candidate. It’s make, as in this pair of sentences:

My wife made a fantastic pie from these apples.

These apples would make a great pie.

Other examples, real or imagined, are welcome in the comments.

Posted in Ambiguity, Passive voice, The wife, Verbal diathesis alternations | 5 Comments »

Wrapped Carrots

Posted by Neal on February 29, 2016

The wife and I recently had occasion to spend a weekend at a resort in Cancun on someone else’s expense account, which was nice. I learned some Spanish vocabulary, including gorra “baseball cap”, estiro “sea urchin”, and ama de llaves “housekeeping” (literally “lover of keys keymaster”). But it being a resort that catered to a mostly American clientele, the menus were mostly in English, including the one we got a few weeks in advance so that we could choose what we wanted to eat at the dinner that our hosts were paying for. One of the dessert items was “wrapped carrot,” which piqued my curiosity. What would they wrap the carrot in? I’ve seen carrot sticks wrapped in bacon, but that didn’t really sound dessert-like to me, so I didn’t order it. Instead, I went with “textures of chocolate”.

At the dinner, I was pleased to see that my inferences was correct: My dessert was not merely the texture of chocolate, but some actual chocolate, in the form of some kind of mousse. Looking across the table, I saw the wrapped carrot that someone else had ordered. It looked like this:

A wrapped carrot

What?! How could they possibly call that a wrapped carrot? It wasn’t a carrot! It was some kind of cake (carrot cake?), with a thin, lengthwise slice of carrot wrapped around–

Whoa … it was a wrapped carrot! If you wrap a carrot around something, then there exists a thing around which that carrot has been wrapped. In other words, it’s a wrapped carrot. Isn’t it?

Wrap, like many other verbs, participates in a so-called diathesis alternation, more specifically a “locative alternation,” and more specifically still, the so-called spray/load alternation. Verbs that participate in this alternation have a couple of semantic roles associated with them. One is LOCATION, the role for the thing that stays more or less in place while other stuff is moved into or onto it. LOCATUM is the role for the stuff that gets moved to the LOCATION. It’s unfortunate that the names are so similar, but there you are. Anyway, verbs that participate in this alternation can be used in two kinds of syntactic frame. In one, the LOCATION is the direct object, and the LOCATUM as the object of with:

  1. We sprayed the wall with paint.
  2. We loaded the cart with apples.
  3. We wrapped the carrots with bacon.

The other frame has the LOCATUM as the direct object, and the LOCATION as the object of some other preposition:

  1. We sprayed paint onto the wall.
  2. We loaded apples onto the cart.
  3. We wrapped bacon around the carrots.

In addition to the frames that have a direct object and a prepositional-phrase complement, many spray/load verbs also have a simple transitive frame. The question is, which role shows up as the direct object in that frame? LOCATION or LOCATUM? For some verbs, either is OK:

We loaded the cart. / We loaded the apples.

For others, both roles are OK, but one is still better than the other. With spray, I tend to prefer a LOCATUM role:

?We sprayed the wall. / We sprayed the paint.

This intuition is supported by COCA: Doing a quick search, I found many more examples of simple transitives with water than with face. In contrast, the only role that works for wrap as a simple transitive verb in my grammar is LOCATION:

We wrapped the carrots. / [*]We wrapped the bacon.

The [*] indicates that the sentence is grammatical, but not with the meaning we’re looking for. In other words, it’s fine if you mean that you wrapped something else around the bacon, but not that you wrapped the bacon around something else.

So now I wonder: Is this a peculiarity of my own grammar? From my quick COCA searches, I don’t think so. I have yet to find an example of transitive wrap with a LOCATUM argument. So is this a case of negative transfer on the part of Spanish speakers writing an English menu? In other words, can the Spanish equivalent of wrap be used as a simple transitive with a LOCATUM argument? I don’t have anywhere near enough Spanish to know that yet. If you do, I’d love to hear the answer!

Posted in Food-related, Lexical semantics, Spanish, Verbal diathesis alternations | 17 Comments »

When We Get Married

Posted by Neal on July 9, 2011

It’s been light blogging during the past week, since my parents were visiting. Pretty much all I did was check in on the Grammar Girl giveaway a few times and put links to relevant GG podcasts or blog posts (here or elsewhere) for topics people asked about that I probably won’t choose because they’ve already been covered. The puzzling entries are the ones that say something like, “I’d love to win one of these books!” and nothing else. I don’t think they read the post as closely as they should have.

Anyway, one night while Mom and Dad were here, we went out to eat to celebrate their 45th anniversary (from a few days earlier) and my wife’s and my 15th anniversary (that day). Dad made a comment about our anniversaries being 30 years apart but so close to the same day. Adam spoke up.

“Maybe someday when Doug and I get married, we’ll get married in July, too!”

“Oh, you couldn’t do that!” I said. “He’s your brother! And you’re both boys!” (OK, so that last part might not be a problem in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Washington, D.C., or who knows where else in a dozen years.)

“Adam, these guys are really literal!” my wife said.

Yes, to interpret Doug and Adam get married to mean that they’re marrying each other is a literal interpretation. But it’s also a literal interpretation to interpret it the way Adam meant it: that Doug is getting married to some woman (or man, I suppose), and Adam is getting married to some other woman (or man, yes, OK). The ambiguity isn’t a matter of literal vs. figurative; it’s just that marry (or more commonly, get married) participates in the understood reciprocal object alternation. So do the verbs kiss and fight, but not hit or kick,. (I realize I’ve written enough posts about these kinds of verbal diathesis alternations to give them their own category, which I have now done.)

As I wrote in 2007 about Amelia Bedelia, it’s not about going for the unintended literal meaning of something; it’s about choosing, in the face of ambiguity, the maximally funny reading, be it literal or not. I remember a time about sixteen years ago when the “married to someone else” interpretation was the funnier one. It was around the time of my wife’s and my negative-first anniversary. I was introducing her to Mom and Dad, and telling them that we were going to get married. Then I added, “To each other!”

Posted in Adam, Lexical semantics, The darndest things, Verbal diathesis alternations | 7 Comments »

If You Can Say “Graduated College,” Can You Say “Graduated Harvard”?

Posted by Neal on May 31, 2011

Over at Visual Thesaurus, my latest column is on the annual (or at least, annually relevant) arguments over whether it’s grammatical to say that someone “graduated college” or “graduated high school” (or even “graduated elementary school”), instead of “graduated from college/high school,” etc. I talk about the different versions of graduate that take different combinations of direct objects and prepositional phrases, and put them in a larger context of verbal diathesis alternations. My columns are usually behind a paywall there, so if you don’t have a membership, you have several options. One, of course, is to get a membership for something like $20, which you might find worth it just for the articles alone, by Ben Zimmer, Nancy Friedman, Mark Peters, Stan Carey, and others. Another, of course, is not to bother reading the column. But now there’s a third option: Wait three months and then go to the magazine. There you can find the formerly premium content that is more than three months old.

Anyway, here’s a detail that didn’t make it into the VT column. For me, although graduate from college/high school is the normal phrasing, graduate college/high school is not too bad. However, once you put in the name of a particular school, you can’t drop the preposition. So to my ears, graduated college is a little sloppy but OK, whereas graduated the University of Texas is out. I asked my followers on Twitter what they thought, and got a couple of responses that agreed with me, but as I thought more about it, I began to wonder if speakers would say graduate plus a school name after all. Here’s what I found in a small search in COCA:

  • graduate from Harvard vs. graduate Harvard: 115 to 1
    The one example of graduate Harvard was I guess my middle-schoolers would be graduating Harvard this year if the bumblers at their school had know [sic] about this smaller class size.
  • graduate from (the) Ohio State University vs. graduate (the) Ohio State University: 5 to 0
  • graduate from Stanford vs. graduate Stanford: 40 to 2
    The two: I graduated Stanford, and I’m also a member of the Horror Writers Association, and Lives in Palo Alto, Calif, and graduated Stanford in’ 98 with a political science degree.

Feel free to try this with other school names, and report in the comments!

One of the Twitter respondents was L. Michelle Baker, who goes by the handle of corpwritingpro. After her first tweet (which stated that from was customary before the school name), she surprised me with this one:

Wow! A professional writer was not simply dismissing graduate high school, nor even grudgingly accepting it in informal contexts, but actually granting it fully standard status, complete with a semantic distinction between graduate high school and graduate from high school. Furthermore, the part about describing an accomplishment is precisely what I found in Beth Levin’s English Verb Classes and Alternations as the difference between, for example, walked on the grounds and walked the grounds, or escaped from New York and escaped New York. I’m confused by how graduating from high school denotes less of an accomplishment than graduating high school, but maybe the fact that speakers look upon graduation as an accomplishment is what’s driving the loss of the preposition. Have any other readers noticed, or developed in your own usage, a semantic distinction between graduate from X and graduate X? And does it matter whether X is a common noun like college or high school, or a proper noun naming the institution?

Posted in Diachronic, Lexical semantics, Prescriptive grammar, Verbal diathesis alternations | 7 Comments »

More, and More Often

Posted by Neal on August 4, 2007

A couple of years ago I wrote about a sentence where a verb had to be parsed two ways because of different demands placed on it by two wh-words. An example would be this sentence from a 1985 paper by Alexander Grosu:

What and when does John (normally) eat?

For the what, eat has to be a transitive verb; for the when, eat is an intransitive. Either way, you parse it, you’re talking about an action of eating and a person doing the eating, but for the transitive case, you’re also talking about what got eaten; for the intransitive case, that part is left unsaid.

Coordinations of nominal wh-words (who, when, etc.) and adverbial wh-words (where, when, why, how) are good at bringing out this kind of simultaneous transitive/intransitive use of verbs that are capable of it. A few weeks ago, David Dowty found another way of doing so. A student of his was interested in a kind of comparative construction, and David found himself doing a search for the string more and more often. He was looking for more as an adverb, so he put in the often to avoid getting examples of plain old more as a noun phrase (as in, I want more) or determiner (as in, I want more chocolate). He was surprised, however, to find he’d caught a few cases of more as a noun phrase anyway. Here’s one of them:

With TESSCO, the more—and more often—you purchase, the lower your total cost. (link)

In this sentence, purchase has the same transitive/intransitive alternation that eat has. For the first more, the noun phrase version, purchase is transitive. For the adverb more often, purchase is an intransitive verb.

Here’s another example:

As with any promotional message the more — and more often — you tell people, the more effectively it will be remembered. (link)

The first more is a noun phrase again, and tell is a ditransitive; that is, it’s a verb that takes two objects: tell (someone) (something). The more fills in the (something) slot. The more often is an adverb, and for it, the tell is just a transitive — tell people — with the something that gets told understood from context.

These more and more often coordinations are an interesting find, since it’s been widely observed that verbs like eat can’t be both transitive and intransitive when you coordinate an ordinary noun and adverb:

*I eat slowly and peanut butter sandwiches.

(Actually, they can in the right circumstances, but that’s another story.) The more and more often coordinations do not involve wh-words, but they and the what and when-type coordinations seem to be grammatical to a comparable degree.

Posted in Other weird coordinations, Verbal diathesis alternations | 3 Comments »


Posted by Neal on October 5, 2006

A thread on the Eggcorn Forum talks about a puzzling phrase some of the participants have seen: the war wages on. One poster speculates that the war-related verb wage is an eggcorn for rage; others think it’s an idiom blend of wage war and the war rages. Either of those is a possible explanation, but neither of them is the first one that occurred to me. The war rages on reminded me of a time about five years ago, when — oh, wait a minute… [harp music, wavy screen]

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Backformation, Verbal diathesis alternations | 8 Comments »

Feel Me Bad

Posted by Neal on June 24, 2005

For the past few years, every now and then I’ve heard Doug or Adam say something like one of these:

  • She taked me a bath. (i.e. gave him a bath, made him take a bath)

  • You taked me the band-aid off. (i.e helped him take it off.)
  • It feeled me bad. (i.e. made him feel bad)

They’re extending the pattern found in verbs such as melt or walk, which can be either intransitive like this:

The butter melted.

The dog walked quickly.

or transitive with a meaning of “cause to [intransitive meaning],” like this:

I melted the butter.

I walked the dog.

With take, Doug and Adam are extending it to work with a verb that is already transitive and turn it into a verb that takes two objects instead of one. As for feel, it’s neither intransitive nor transitive; it takes an adjectival complement (in our example, bad) instead of a direct object. Doug and Adam use it as a verb that can take a direct object in addition to the adjectival complement. In short, they seem to be able to make causative verbs out of any verb, so that it can take a direct object in addition to whatever other stuff has to follow it (nothing in the case of melt, walk; one direct object in the case of take; an adjectival complement in the case of feel.

My question is: Why can’t I do that? There’s almost certainly been something written about why certain kinds of verbs can participate in this kind of causative alternation, and others can’t.

Posted in Lexical semantics, The darndest things, Verbal diathesis alternations | 2 Comments »

The Tortilla Man’s Mission Statement

Posted by Neal on January 20, 2005

I tell you, the only reason I go to Don Pablo’s anymore is their tortillas. When I moved here in 1992, you couldn’t get good Tex-Mex food, but that gap was filled the following year when Don Pablo’s came to town. I went there on a regular basis for almost ten years. But then the corporation started fooling around with the recipes. One by one, my favorite items were banished to the list of things I couldn’t eat if I was going to kiss my wife in the next 24 hours. Or they disappeared from the menu. So now I’m back to where I was 12 years ago: Waiting until I visit my family in Texas, where I can get my annual Taco Cabana fix.

Yep, if not for their tortillas, I’d have given up on Don Pablo’s two years ago. They haven’t changed the recipe for those (as far as I can tell), and still make them on the premises: warm, chewy, and just a little bit salty–not with that disappointing sweet aftertaste that comes with every store-bought tortilla I’ve eaten. And guess what? The person who makes the tortillas now has a mission statement!

Yes, it’s true. See, we went to Don Pablo’s last week. I was hoping the fajitas might have recovered, but even if they hadn’t, I figured I could at least could eat some tortillas and drink some iced tea. When we got there, Doug and Adam went up to watch the tortilla maker, as usual. They watched the guy putting the balls of dough on the giant griddle, squishing them flat with the lid, and laying the resulting tortillas on the warming slab. They waited to see which of the tortillas would stay flat, and which would blow up like whoopie cushions, and while they were doing that, I noticed a paper on the wall behind the tortilla-making apparatus. It said:

Tortilla maker: My objective is to return each guest by providing hot, fresh tortillas as quickly as possible.

Now that was strange. This tortilla guy aimed to return me? Return me to where? Return me like an unwanted Christmas gift? Then I realized I needed to use return in its “come back” sense rather than its “go back” sense. Applying the caused-motion lexical rule to that sense gets us the “cause to come back” meaning intended here, instead of the more common “cause to go back” sense appropriate for Christmas gifts, hostages, and illegal aliens.

But can return actually mean “cause to come back”? It sure can’t in my dialect, and it’s not in my dictionary, either. (Next time I’m near an OED I’ll check it, too.) My suspicion is that return each guest is, like the rest of the whole klunky, pompous message, the end result of hours of corporate wordsmithing, and not representative of how people actually talk. But even if I’m right, I wonder why the caused-motion alternation doesn’t hold for the “come” sense of return.

Posted in Food-related, Lexical semantics, Verbal diathesis alternations | 3 Comments »