Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘The darndest things’ Category

Cider Sentence Syntax

Posted by Neal on December 1, 2009

Doug and Adam have been learning about the tragedy of the commons this fall. Every year we pick apples at Lynd’s Fruit Farm, and also buy some of their apple cider. I can take it or leave it, myself, but Doug and Adam love the stuff, so much that this year my wife has made several more trips to Lynd’s to get more of their cider, until they closed for the season. We finished the last jug of it a week or so ago. One evening at suppertime, shortly after we’d opened that last jug, Doug was deciding what he wanted to drink. He considered having some of the cider, but then decided he’d have milk instead, so the cider would last longer.

“Go right ahead,” I said, “but Adam’s going to keep on drinking that cider with or without you.” Doug quickly changed his mind back to having cider with his supper. He’d already been sensitized to how quickly the stuff went. A few weeks earlier, we were nearing the last of an earlier haul of cider, and Doug asked incredulously, “How do we run out of cider so fast?”

“You guys keep drinking it, would be my guess,” I told him. It was true. If there was cider in the fridge, that’s what they wanted to drink, for breakfast, lunch, supper, or a snack.

“Hey!” I said. “Did you hear how I used a complete sentence as the subject of a sentence?” This was a little while after I’d done those presentations on parts of speech, phrases, and sentences for Doug’s language arts class, so I knew the topic would be fresh in Doug’s mind.

“Huh?” Doug replied.

“Yeah!” I said. “The predicate is would be my guess, and the subject is You guys keep drinking it, which is a complete sentence itself! Isn’t that cool?”

“Wow, you listen to yourself talk and figure that out?” Doug asked. “That’s amazing!”

There's a subject in that predicate!

I can hear it now: “Oh yeah? Well my dad can diagram sentences in his head!”

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Posted in Food-related, Syntax, The darndest things | 7 Comments »

Mouth Function!

Posted by Neal on June 3, 2009

And I was worried about *my* gum recession!This is Doug and Adam’s last week of school, so they’ve been bringing home folders stuffed with papers they never got around to bringing home before, and things that only come home at the end of the year, like their workbooks and journals. I was flipping through a journal-like booklet that Adam brought home, which turned out to be what he’d used every week for an assignment that consisted of copying several words in cursive three times each, then copying a sentence, and then copying the beginning of another sentence and making up an ending for it. The sentence start for one week in April involved a robot:

I bought a robot that was supposed to clean my room, but it mouth functioned, made a mess in my room, and blew up.

Adam’s teacher had simply put a line through mouth and written mal in red pen, probably the work of two seconds as she made her way through a pile of 25 booklets that day. I, on the other hand, stared at mouth functioned for a good minute, going through what must have happened to result in Adam’s creation of this new compound verb…

First of all, the /l/ in malfunction, coming as it does after a vowel, is pronounced as dark /l/, otherwise known as velarized /l/, written [ɫ]. That is, the back of the tongue is raised toward the soft palate (aka velum) as if it were on its way toward making a velar sound like [k] or [g].

Velarized /l/ is often perceived as another velar consonant in English, namely [w]. (Although the main thing you do to make a [w] is to round your lips, it’s a fact that the back of the tongue also rises toward the velum.) In fact, speakers of some dialects consistently produce [w] where others would have [ɫ]. So do some children who may eventually grow up to pronounce good velar /l/s. I still remember visiting my cousin Greg when we were four years old and him calling me Neo, i.e. [niw]. In the case at hand, [mæɫfʌ̃ŋkʧə̃n] is liable to be perceived as [mæwfʌ̃ŋkʧə̃n], and perhaps even spoken that way by Adam’s peers.

So Adam has in his vocabulary the word [mæwfʌ̃ŋkʧə̃n], and now he has to write it to finish his sentence. How does he spell it? Mowfunctioned? Maufunctioned? Maybe. But he can tell that this word consists of function and some kind of prefix or independent word: [mæw]. What the heck does that mean? It’s certainly not a prefix he’s heard on any other words, or standing on its own (unless he’s caught me singing “Elvira”, going “Giddy Up A-Oom Poppa Oom Poppa Mow Mow”, but I try not to let that happen).

But wait, he reasons, maybe what he’s been hearing as [f] is really two consonants: [θf]. That’s reasonable: it would be easy to hear two voiceless fricatives next to one another as a single phoneme if you weren’t expecting them, or if the speaker wasn’t clearly enunciating. In that case, the word at the beginning is not [mæw], but [mæwθ] — mouth! This is a compound verb: mouth function. Of course, mouth function doesn’t make much more sense than malfunction if you don’t know the prefix mal-. But as with most cases of folk etymology, a little bit of sense is better than no sense; a word with a meaning (mouth) beats what is to him a nonsense syllable (mal).

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Posted in Folk etymology, The darndest things | 6 Comments »

That’s So Disabled!

Posted by Neal on May 28, 2009

The good news: Adam has picked up some more of the language of his peers. The bad news: It’s the adjective retarded. The good news: He’s not using the word to insult people. The bad news: He’s using it to describe things that only someone with mental retardation could appreciate, as in That’s retarded! This usage makes sense only with the support of a presupposition that mentally retarded people like things that other people find stupid, but that kind of argument is going to be hard to explain to a kid. This is the same kind of semantic shift as happened with gay — from describing a person to describing something that only that kind of person would like, with the hearer implicitly asked to agree that gay people like things that other people find stupid. There are kids for whom this connection is so attenuated that they refuse to believe it, saying, “It’s not insulting to say something is gay! You’re not insulting a person, you’re just saying the thing is stupid”, and I’m sure I’ll hear the same kind of defense of retarded as a thing-describing adjective.

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Posted in Diachronic, Quantity and Relevance, Taboo, The darndest things | 19 Comments »

Even More Wide-Scoping Operators

Posted by Neal on May 12, 2009

One of my regular readers is Deborah Lipp, who blogs at Property of a Lady, and has written several books on Wicca and paganism in addition to The Ultimate James Bond Fan Book (“One of these things is not like the others,” as she admits in Sesame Streetwise fashion). She also, as it turns out, is a big fan of AMC’s series Mad Men. I learned this when she wrote to me asking a language-related question about the show and mentioning her and her sister’s MM fan blog, A Basket of Kisses. That reminded me that I’ve had a Mad Men-related post sitting in my pile of drafts, so it seemed like a good time to pull it out and consolidate it with a number of other draft posts on the same topic.

The topic is “Wide-scoping operators”, and here’s the example, from the October 18, 2008 episode of Mad Men:

Jane Siegel (Peyton List)

Jane Siegel (Peyton List)

How do I know I’m not just going to eat another mushroom and this room will disappear and I’ll be back on the train to Trenton?

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Posted in Kids' entertainment, Semantics, The darndest things, Wide-scoping operators | 4 Comments »

Doug’s Parasitic Gap

Posted by Neal on February 10, 2009

underwear“Doug,” I said one morning, “You still have to put away this laundry.” He said okay and started with the socks and underwear, since you don’t have to worry about them getting unfolded when you stuff them into a drawer. He kept out one pair of socks, saying:

These, I just won’t put away because I’m gonna wear.

socksA sensible choice. Of course, I have to watch out for that slippery slope. Next he might leave out a pair of pajamas because he’s going to wear them tonight. And then a pair of jeans because he’s going to wear them tomorrow. Before you know it, the piles of folded laundry will become a clothes smorgasbord that lasts the whole week, like the one on the couch in Mom and Dad’s house when I was growing up. Anyway, while Doug put away the rest of his laundry, I had to write down what he said in my memo book: a topicalization with a parasitic gap in a finite clause.

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Posted in Parasitic gaps, The darndest things | 3 Comments »

Heard the Word? The Word Is …

Posted by Neal on January 18, 2009

Doug has been taken aback to find that some of his latest spelling words require actual study. When he was making the same mistake on the same words on three tests in a row, I spoke with him about studying his graded tests, and we’ve seen improvement. Doug will still sometimes misspell a word on three tests in a row, but now he’ll misspell it in more than one way.

It brings me back to Doug’s first grade year, when his class was learning to spell the days of the week. Saturday was giving him trouble. Satterday? Sadderday? I wrote Saturday on a paper for him, and observed that it contained the word turd right in the middle. He never misspelled Saturday again, and for a few weeks afterward, he would always pronounce Saturday as “Saa-turd-ay”, or in IPA, [sæː ‘tʰrd eI]. Since it was helping him with his spelling, I didn’t explain to him that the word Saturday really didn’t contain the word turd phonetically. Phonetically, Saturday is [‘sæDrDeI], with the turd part corresponding to [DrD] — a flap, a syllabic /r/, and another flap. (In fact, the flap is written [ɾ] in the IPA, but I find this symbol too small and too much like [r] to use in this format, so [D] it is. I’m also not bothering with the dot under the [r] to indicate it’s a syllabic [r].) This sequence can’t even stand alone in English, much less be confused with [tʰrd] — an aspirated /t/, a syllabic /r/, and a [d].

A word that’s a little more suitable for scatological reinterpretation came up on last fall’s October 16 episode of The Office. The character Jan had had a baby girl, whom she brought to the office and introduced as Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Phonetics and phonology, Potty on, dudes!, The darndest things | 7 Comments »

Topicalization with Subject and Object Gap

Posted by Neal on January 6, 2009

Here’s something Doug said back in July. I put it in my drafts here, intending to write about it someday:

One of them I saw but got away. (Doug Whitman, July 9, 2008 )

Now I can’t even remember what it was he was talking about. Let’s see … we were standing at the top of the driveway, at the bush to the left of the garage door. Was he talking about some kind of bug? Or maybe something in a videogame?

Oh, well, so I can’t remember the content of what my son was telling me about. At least I can remember the important thing: He coordinated a subject-gapped clause with an object-gapped one! If you’re a regular reader here, you may remember a few posts where I talk about stuff like:

The trick was to give away information that [ ___ would tantalize hard-core fans], but [casual viewers wouldn’t need ___ ].

This example, like the examples in the earlier posts, contains a relative clause headed by a single relativizer, in this case that (though the zero relativizer occurs as well). The relative clause itself consists of a pair of coordinated clauses. One of them has a missing subject for the relativizer to correspond to; in this example, it’s [ ___ would tantalize hard-core fans]. The other has a missing object for the same relativizer to correspond to; in this example, it’s [casual viewers wouldn’t need ___]. Such coordinations aren’t always grammatical. You can’t just make one with any two subject-gap and object-gap clauses. Try this one on for size:

?This is the guy that [ ___ stole the cookies] and [Kim punished ___ ].

I suspect (without having done the research) that such coordinations are even harder to get away with in languages that have clear and distinct subjective and objective case markings on their relative pronouns. As for English, I’ve collected a few more since the last time I wrote about them:

  1. … the absolute best way to pitch his show — something [very few publicity-seekers do ___ ] but [ ___ dramatically increases
    your chances of getting booked]. (email from a publicity specialist)
  2. He’s the doctor [you always hope to see ___ ] but [ ___ only exists in the movies]. (Peggy Olsen, in the Oct. 19, 2008 episode of Mad Men)
  3. …stuff that [ __ gives you protection] but [you don’t really mind losing __ ]. (Doug to Adam, fall 2008, on player-vs-player worlds on Runescape)
  4. things that [ ___ might be quirky], but [you can deal with ___ , live with ___ , or get rid of ___ ] (Meredith VIeira, talking about house buying on Today, Nov. 21, 2008 )
  5. … books that [ ___ sounded good] but [I couldn’t get ___ off Net Library] (my mom, Nov. 22, 2008 )
  6. books [I looked up ___ ] and [ ___ were not available on Net Library] (my mom again, Nov. 22, 2008 )

But Doug’s utterance from the summer is unique among all my subject-gap/object-gap coordinations, because it doesn’t involve a relative clause. Instead, it’s a topicalization: Something is lifted out of a clause and put at the front of the sentence. What Doug apparently wanted to do was coordinate two clauses:

  1. I saw one of them.
  2. It got away.

But he also topicalized one of them, which was the subject of the first clause, and the object of the second. How about that?

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Posted in Fillers and gaps, Subject and object gaps, The darndest things | 3 Comments »

Cat Sniffers

Posted by Neal on November 14, 2008

inhalantssinatraDoug’s friend Grant likes petting our cats, and is especially pleased when one of the shy ones lets him pet him. I remember his excitement when he was finally able to pet our cat Barney. Barney, you may recall, we put to sleep last year, but now we have a new addition, a white, blue-eyed, polydactyl cat named Sinatra, whose owner was no longer able to take care of him. He spent the first couple of days hiding in our closet, but is now completely at home, tussling with the other cats and chasing them through the kitchen and into the basement. But he’s not quite comfortable enough to let just any kids pet him. Grant tried without success when he came over last week.

“Hey, Doug,” Grant asked, “Did Sinatra let you pet him when you first got him?”

“No,” Doug said, “but he did let me sniff him.”

“Oh! He let me sniff him, too, just now!” Grant said.

Nonplussed, I asked, “You guys sniff cats?”

Doug tried to put together a correction. “He let us… He let… We held out our hands and he sniffed them.”

Ah, now that was a much more typical cat-human scenario. But why had the sniffer become the sniffed in the earlier statements Doug and Grant had made?

Maybe it was just that Grant had asked the question Did Sinatra let you pet him?, and primed with this template, Doug replied by taking out the pet and putting in something that Sinatra did let him do, and forgot to adjust the semantic roles of who did what. The trouble with that hypothesis is that we’d also predict the same kind of mistake might happen if Grant had instead asked, “Did you pet Sinatra?” If he’d said that, I doubt Doug would have slipped up and said, “No, but I sniffed him.” Doug didn’t think so either. Well, he might say such a thing, he admitted, but only if he really meant that he had put his nose up to Sinatra and sniffed him.

I think the mistake had a lot to do with the fact that Grant and Doug were each talking about two events: an event of Sinatra permitting some action to occur, and an event of Grant or Doug performing that action. In many (maybe even most) cases, the direct object of let has two roles to fill. [1] First, there’s the role of the affected participant in the letting event. In all the sentences listed below, the direct object of let refers to the person who receives the permission, the person for whose benefit some obstacle was removed, the person who undergoes a change of state from inability to do something to ability to do it, or at least from uncertainty to certainty about being able to do it:

Sinatra let me approach him.
Sinatra let me touch him.
Sinatra let me pet him.
Sinatra let me pick him up.

Second, there’s the role of the agent of the other event. In all the sentences listed above, the direct object of let also refers to the approacher, the toucher, the petter, or the picker-upper.

So now when it comes to extending your hand for a cat to sniff it and rub his cheek on it if you’re worthy, what goes in the direct object slot of let? Well, in the subject slot it definitely has to be Sinatra, since he’s the one deciding what Doug will be able to do. There are two remaining participants in the event: Doug, the sniffed party; and Sinatra again, this time in the role of the sniffer. Doug fits into the direct object slot by virtue of being the one affected by the letting. Sinatra fits into the direct object slot by virtue of being the performer of the permitted action. Which one wins?

We know the outcome: Doug won. And how could the sentence have been accurately rephrased while retaining the let? Something like this:

Sinatra let himself sniff my hand.

That comes closer to the truth than Sinatra let me sniff him, but it still sounds weird, as if it’s Sinatra receiving permission and not Doug. Doug could also have said,

Sinatra let me get near enough for him to sniff my hand

and then left it up to the hearer to use R-inference to conclude that Sinatra then actually did sniff the hand.

Or he could have used other wordy options, all of which would have required more thinking than it took to take Sinatra let you pet him as a template and swap out pet for sniff. These considerations make Doug and Grant’s mistake understandable, though still a mistake, of course.

One more factor that may have let the mistake go undetected long enough to escape Doug’s and Grant’s lips is the fact that in a sniffing event, the thing that gets sniffed is physically affected a lot less than the affected item for other actions. I don’t think Doug would have said

Sinatra let me lick him!

unless, of course, he had actually been talking about getting a tongueful of all that white fur.

1. For hardcore syntacticians: Yes, sentences like He let the room get trashed (alongside He let the partiers trash the room) and You mustn’t let there be a riot on your watch point to let as an object-raising verb, with a non-thematic direct object. I think let also works as a control verb, though, with a thematic direct object.

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Posted in Cats, Lexical semantics, Raising and control, The darndest things | 4 Comments »

Soccer Cleats and the Dual Number

Posted by Neal on September 10, 2008

After I got a D in tennis during my freshman year in high school, I decided I’d take the opportunity to switch to the track team for the second semester. About the only thing I was good at in tennis was running the warm-up lap at the beginning of the class. I’d usually come in first or second, so I figured maybe track would be a better fit. Unfortunately, I found myself several levels above my level of incompetence after making the switch. Thank goodness for Billy Neimeier — if it hadn’t been for him, I’d have always been last.

One thing I learned during my time on the track team was what a cleat was, when I’d see the sprinters screwing them onto the bottoms of their special shoes. Somewhere along the way I learned that various other kinds of athletic shoes could also have cleats, and that, in a good example of metonymy (more specifically, synecdoche), these shoes are typically referred to simply as cleats. This synecdoche is the first step in a dangerous direction, and by dangerous, I mean “personally annoying”.

First, you’ll agree that cleats denotes some number of cleats other than one. Second, note that when an athlete puts on their cleats, they’re putting on two objects. Finally, let us reaffirm that two is a number other than one. Can you see where this is going?

Doug has been playing soccer for more than four years now during the spring and fall, and I have to listen to him say things like…

I can’t find one of my soccer cleats!
When I dove for the ball, he accidentally kicked me with his cleat.
Dad, could you help me untie this cleat?

He’s not the only one. I hear his soccer-playing friends saying the same kind of thing, and every time, I want to blurt out, “A cleat is not a shoe! A cleat is one of those pointy things on the bottom of the shoe!” I don’t, though. By now I know that when I hear developments like this, they’ve probably been going on for years already, and it’s too late to do anything. And sure enough, although I don’t see this particular meaning for cleat in the OED, it’s evidently common enough to have made it into my Random House Webster’s unabridged dictionary (published in 2001), as the fifth definition. It’s also pretty much standard in most of the online catalog descriptions I see. Still, it’s hard to accept that for some people, the earlier meaning of cleat is so far from their experience that they’ll write slap-yourself-on-the-forehead ignorant stuff like this:

A cleat is a type of shoe designed especially for sports played on grass or dirt, such as soccer. …[T]he shoes generally have large studs on the bottom to assist in gripping the surface, preventing sliding and assisting in rapid changes of direction. The stud itself is often called a cleat. (link)

“The stud itself is often called a cleat”? Yes, that’s because cleat is the name for those stud thingies!

You know, all of this confusion could have been avoided, if only English had a dual number. We have the singular cleat, and we have the plural cleats for numbers other than one, but some languages have a form just for pairs of things. For example, Sanskrit had a dual number. Let me just flip to the back of my copy of Teach Yourself Sanskrit … OK, here we go. The singular form suhrdam (accusative case) means “friend”. The plural form suhrdas means “friends”, provided you’re talking about more than two of them. The dual form suhrdau means “(two) friends”. If we had a dual number in English, then speakers would know that the plural form cleats was referring to more than two of something, and therefore could not be referring to the two shoes themselves.

Unless we’re talking about a player with three legs or something, but that’s rare enough that I don’t think people would be confused.

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Posted in Diachronic, Lexical semantics, Morphology, The darndest things | 12 Comments »

Even More Contamination

Posted by Neal on March 26, 2008

I told Doug the joke that ends with the punchline, “There’s gotta be a pony in here somewhere!” He loved it, and told it to his mom that night. He started out:

Some psychiatrists did an experiment on two kids. One was an optimist, and the other was a pestimist….

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Posted in Contamination, Folk etymology, Morphology, The darndest things | 9 Comments »