Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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Getting on the Bae Train

Posted by Neal on January 5, 2015

Last March, while prowling through my son’s and his friends’ social media timelines (this is called “creeping,” by the way), I noticed the word bae starting to appear. “How long have people been saying that?” I wondered, and whenever I wonder that, it means I might have a good topic to write about for Visual Thesaurus. So I pitched the idea to Ben Zimmer; he gave the go-ahead, and over the next week or so, also provided helpful leads to follow up involving bae in several internet memes. When Ben published my column, he gave it the title I wish I’d thought of, “Bae Watch“. And having satisfied my curiosity, I moved on to other topics.

As it turns out, though, other writers on language were just beginning to get interested in bae, and Ben watched the developments with interest. In July, he sent me an email:

It’s funny … your column still gets widely shared (I think because it appears near the top of Google search results for various “bae” searches)…

He included a link to a column in Time magazine by Katy Steinmetz, who went over in much less detail both the almost certainly bogus origin of bae (it stands for “before anyone else”), and the more boring and more likely origin (it was just shortened from babe), inspired by the release of Miley Cyrus and Pharrell Williams’s song “Come Get It, Bae.” Although we covered some of the same ground, it was Steinmetz, and not me, who was targeted for criticisms like this one:

It wasn’t enough to determine the gist from the context of the sentence. Nah, she had to take it three steps further, starting with an etymology and ending with an example and her ability to use it in a sentence. With extra credit. … TIME needn’t covet, claim, or break “bae” down for us, though. We already use it, so let us have it. We got this.

Similar sentiments were expressed in this post by Yesha Callahan in The Grapevine, which went on to say

Next up, Time will attempt to explain the term “turnt up” by explaining that it’s not actually something you do to your thermostat in the winter.

A later piece in The Root took this thought and expanded it into a whole list of slang terms that Time should take on next. It was clearly a sarcastic list, but to tell the truth, I’d be interested in learning more about the origin and spread of several of these. In fact, turnt was the subject of my April Visual Thesaurus column, and I may yet write a piece on or nah?

Two days later, Ben emailed me again to tell me, “Everybody’s getting on the ‘bae’ train…” (another play on words, which I’ve stolen for this post), this time with a link to an article by Natasha Zarinsky on the Esquire website. This article was annoying. It spent a lot of time speculating about the origin of bae and concluding that no one really knows, when, it seemed to me, she could have just read my column and had her answer. So I left a somewhat ungracious comment, to which Zarinsky and some others responded:

I'm not particularly proud of this comment, but there it is.

In addition to the comment by Jacob Difiore, an earlier comment that seems to have been deleted asked me, “Sarcastic much?” before observing that I didn’t have a copyright on an idea. True enough, but I still say that after Zarinsky found and read my column, it would have been better to change the tone of her piece from “We just don’t know” to something else. (As an aside, it’s interesting that Difiore called me “that big of an asshole” instead of just “that big an asshole”. This was one of the first topics I blogged about.)

Things died down for a few months, until Steinmetz revisited bae in November to include it in a list of nominees for words to be banned, which was called racist and sexist. (The winner was feminist.)

Last month, Ben emailed me again, saying, “Your piece is still generating heated discussion!”, linking to some tweets that took me to an article in by Rhodri Marsden in The Independent, complaining about the word bae. After his article was published, Marsden got into a pissing match with a guy named Larry Fisherman (handle @eynahK) on Twitter. Fisherman seems to have removed his tweets on the matter, but from what I remember, he took issue with Marsden’s failure to do even the minimal research that would have told him that bae was an acronym for “before anyone else.” Looking for support, Marsden tweeted Fisherman a link to my column, to which Fisherman responded that that was just one source, compared to the many people who say otherwise. Then Marsden came back with two more tweets, which basically said “Oh, yeah?” and “So there!”

Next came the Dec. 27 entry for bae in the new online resource The Right Rhymes, “a historical dictionary of hip-hop slang based on a corpus of rap lyric transcriptions.” This is a great source for hip-hop slang, even better than Genius (formerly RapGenius), because it has better date citations. Their earliest is from 2007, in Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights”:

Hey, bae, lately, you been all on my brain

Most recently (to my knowledge) are two pieces from last week, both on Dec. 30. First, there’s James Hamblin’s article in The Atlantic, which declares bae to have become so popular, and its meaning to have become so diluted, that it is effectively dead. Hamblin cites both Steinmetz’s and my articles, and links to an August YouTube video by William Haynes that’s still promulgating the “before anyone else” story. It’s hard to say if Haynes is serious about the origin, since the rest of the video is tongue-in-cheek.

Finally, there’s Katy Waldman’s post on Slate’s Lexicon Valley blog, talking about the Twitter feed @BrandsSayingBae, which collects all the tweets from corporations that are trying to be hip on social media by using slang such as bae.

So that’s the year in bae. Have I missed some sources? Leave a comment!

Posted in Music, Uncategorized, Variation | 5 Comments »

Dative Altercation

Posted by Neal on November 22, 2011

My brother Glen left a comment on my last post about syntactic tree diagrams, which I had illustrated with the sentences Brynn will say who stole the cookies and Who will Brynn say stole the cookies? Glen altered the sentence to make a point, writing:

Now take the sentence Brynn will say whom she gave the cookies. In a Reed-Kellogg diagram, it would be very clear why the sentence requires whom instead of who: because whom is the object of the verb gave. And that would be equally obvious for Whom will Brynn say she gave the cookies?, precisely because the diagram would be the same.

The answer to his objection, by the way, is that in tree diagrams you have a means of showing a gap in the place where the wh element would be if it didn’t have to be at the front of the sentence. Another commenter, The Ridger, pointed this out. But even as that discussion was taking place, Glen and another commenter, Ellen K., were veering off into a discussion of whether Glen’s examples were even grammatical at all. Ellen wrote:

That’s grammatical for you? It isn’t for me. It needs a to: Brynn will say whom she gave the cookies to. (or Brynn will say to whom she gave the cookies, which is awkward, but still better, for me, than without the to).

I agreed with Ellen’s grammaticality judgments, but was too busy to comment personally. Glen responded:

It’s grammatical because whom is an indirect object. She gave him the cookies does not require a to before him, which is the indirect object. Him and whom occupy the same grammatical position.

Glen is right in that whom is an indirect object, as is him in She gave him the cookies, but just because logically something should be grammatical, that doesn’t mean it is. Ellen got at this point in her next response:

[W]hen who or whom is fronted, to is required. For me. That is, for some of us. So I’m surprised to see it’s different for some people.

As it happens, at about the same time Arnold Zwicky was publishing a post on the so-called Dative Alternation (sometimes called the Dative Shift) — the availability of both give someone something and give something to someone for give and other verbs involving the transfer of something to someone. He observes:

The availability of the N[oun]P[hrase] Dative [i.e. give someone something] is apparently constrained by a huge number of factors, having to do with the semantics of the V[erb], the discourse prominence of the referents involved, the phonology of the V, the grammatical person of the NPs involved, the pronominal status of the NPs involved, and the particular V involved (with donate fine in the PP Dative but dubious in the NP Dative, for example).

Zwicky doesn’t mention whether the kind of pronoun (i.e. personal or interrogative) has an effect, but with all the other factors that do, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this did, too. I searched COCA for strings of who or whom followed by an auxiliary verb (whether a modal, or form of do, have, or be), followed by a personal pronoun, followed by the verb give. All told there were only a couple of dozen hits at most, and every one of the relevant ones included a to, either before the whom (as in to whom did you give it?) or at the end of the VP (as in who did you give this to). I wonder if CGEL has anything to say about this…

Ah, they do! They say (pp. 248-249) that in constructions that contain an indirect object and a direct object, if you put an object before the subject (like for a question or a relative clause), it sounds much better for the direct object to be there than the indirect one. Their examples:

  • The key, he gave Sue. / ?Sue he gave the key.
  • The key which he lent me didn’t fit the lock. / ?The one whom I lent the key didn’t return it.

The starred or question-marked items are those that would sound better with a to. Huddleston and Pullum acknowledge that speakers vary in how bad they find the */? examples above, but “[n]evertheless, there is very widespread agreement that the [*/?] examples are significantly less acceptable than” the other examples. In other words, it’s better to use the construction that has a direct object and a to prepositional phrase if you want to front the recipient instead of the thing that’s transferred. Hence, the oddness of ?Brynn will say who(m) she gave the cookies, compared to the grammaticality of Brynn will say what she gave Fenster and Brynn will say who(m) she gave the cookies to.

In a comment on his post, Zwicky provides links to a couple of recent papers on the dative alternation — a nice introduction to a syntactic phenomenon that, as he points out, has generated a huge amount of literature.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments »

If I Just Lay Here

Posted by Neal on October 13, 2011

First of all, I think I have a pretty good handle on the currently standard system for English conditionals. I wrote about them most recently in July in this post. In my grammar, a sentence like If I sit here, my pants will get wet suggests that me sitting here is a possibility that I’m considering (though I may be leaning toward rejecting it). The past-tense form sat in If I sat here, my pants would get wet suggests that I’m not seriously considering the possibility.

Second, I got straight many years ago on the workings of lay and lie–though I’ve also learned that lay and lie have flip-flopped and varied in their usage over the centuries, and that it’s more or less accident that the system currently considered standard was settled upon. This Grammar Girl piece lays it out (get it?) pretty clearly, with a nice diagram. This Language Log post goes into more detail. For what it’s worth, I say lie in the present tense, lay in the past tense, and lain in the perfect tenses to talk about being recumbent. (Or lied if I’m talking about telling untruths.) I say lay (something) in the present tense, laid (something) in the past tense, and lain (something) in the perfect tenses to talk about putting something down carefully. At least, I think I do.

Now with those two points made, consider the refrain from the song “Chasing Cars”, by Snow Patrol:

If I lay here,
If I just lay here,
Would you lie with me and just forget the world?

Even though I am accustomed to hearing past-tense verbs in if-clauses to introduce remote conditions, and even though I accept lay as the past tense of lie, I still, still, just can’t parse these lyrics as the hypothesis and conclusion of a remote conditional. Instead, I find myself just figuring that the singer uses both lay and lie to mean lying down, sometimes saying one (“If I just lay here”) and sometimes the other (“Would you lie with me?”). Why is that?

Other grammar-watchers have had the same difficulty I have. Benjamin Barrett brought up the lay/lie verse on the American Dialect Society email list (in a thread beginning here), and wondered if the alternation was just for euphonic purposes. The possibility of taking it as a remote conditional seems not to have occurred to him. In a response, Larry Horn raised the possibility, and made his point by replacing lay/lie with the less-confusing sit/sat,:

If I sat here,
If I just sat here,
Would you sit with me and just forget the world?

With sit/sat, I have no problem getting a remote-conditional reading.

The Master of Grammar got tripped up on these lyrics too, and publicized his misunderstanding in this blog post. Three commenters set him straight, but I take the difficulty of getting this parse, even among the grammar-savvy, as a sign that the lay/lie distinction is on its last legs.

So it looks like “Chasing Cars” may be one of those songs that “get it right”. Against all expectation, it uses the standard option when faced with a grammar shibboleth, like Beyonce Knowles singing “If I were a boy” when you’d expect just about any pop singer to go with “If I was a boy”. But wait a minute…

I’ve just watched the video, and every time the singer gets to the refrain, he’s lying on something: twice on a bed, once on some asphalt, and once at the top of a subway escalator. He’s not standing up and thinking about lying in some location; he’s actually doing it. He even lies on a slab of rock during one of the verses of the song, so clearly, lying down in even the most unusual locations is not such a remote possibility for this man. What do you think? Is If I lay here being used in a standard or nonstandard way in “Chasing Cars”?

Posted in Music, Prescriptive grammar, Uncategorized | 23 Comments »

RNW Example from 1813

Posted by Neal on December 1, 2010

Karl Hagen of Polysyllabic sent me the following message…

All the examples I’ve seen for FLoP coordination on your site or Language Log have been fairly recent. I don’t know if the historical dimension of the construction is of interest to you, but I just ran across this example, probably from 1813 (from Eaton Stannard Barrett’s The Heroine), and thought you might be interested:

At midnight you will hear a tapping at your door. Open it, and two men in masks will appear outside. They will blindfold, and conduct you to her.

I say “probably” 1813 because I found it in a 1909 edition [p. 152], which claims to be taken from the first edition, but the 1814 edition that is in Google Books has a modified version this passage that doesn’t have the RNW construction, so I can’t be absolutely certain that it wasn’t added later, although that doesn’t seem too likely.

Thanks, Karl! This is a good one. RNWs (right-node wrappings) you’ll recall, have the form A conj B C D, where C belongs to both A and B, while D goes only with B. In this example, A = blindfold, B = conduct, and C = you. When we arrive at you, the shared direct object for both blindfold and conduct, it looks like the coordination is closed off and finished. But wait, there’s more! Along comes to her, which like you, should also belong to both blindfold and conduct–if we’re looking at a standard, parallel coordination. It would mean “they will blindfold you to her and conduct you to her.” Since you can’t blindfold one person to another, we have to conclude that to her is only intended to go with conduct. We have ourselves an RNW.

Posted in Right-node wrapping ("Friends in Low Places" coordinations), Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

Welcome, Grammar Enthusiasts!

Posted by Neal on March 1, 2010

If you got here via the National Grammar Day website (hosted by Grammar Girl this year), welcome! Of course, that’s not to say you’re unwelcome if you arrived here some other way. I just meant … all I was saying is … oh, well, you know what I mean. If you didn’t just come from the NGD site, then I recommend clicking over there and looking at the other language- and grammar-related sites on their list.

As the subtitle says, this blog contains linguistic commentary, which includes everything from how words are pronounced all the way to the meaning of things that are left unsaid. OK, not everything: The in-between area covers word formation (i.e. morphology), phrase formation (syntax), word and phrase meaning (semantics), plus a little bit of other linguistic topics here and there. Morphology, syntax, and semantics are typically what people think of when they think grammar, so if grammar’s what you came here for, you might want to look around in the tabs for those categories. Of special interest may be one of the tabs under Semantics:Ambiguity, namely Ambiguous Song Lyrics. If you like grammar mixed in with funny stories about kids, I have a category for my sons’ linguistic adventures, too. (My wife’s favorite: Silent Pee.)

And if you don’t feel like wading through the archives, stop by a few more times this week. I’ll be observing NGD by challenging myself to get out of my once-a-week blogging groove, and put up a new post in each of the three most “grammary” topic areas before Friday!

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

J. Philip Whitman Joins the Blogosphere

Posted by Neal on February 23, 2010

If you’ve read this blog from the beginning, you’ve heard about a guy who has…

If you read my brother’s blog Agoraphilia, you’ve even seen a picture of him celebrating Christmas with firearms.

That’s right, it’s my dad, J. Philip Whitman. Who is this man? you may have asked yourself. How can I find out more about him? Well, I am pleased to announce that following his retirement, he has started his own blog, called For Example. For example, it seems, has become almost his trademark in his line of work during the past couple of decades. After getting his master’s degree in chemical engineering, he spent most of his career in the oil and gas industry, starting out in refineries (see above), but ending as a consultant specializing in “cause and origin” investigations for accidents. In that capacity, he has spent numerous hours giving expert witness testimony, attempting (with a lot of success) to make chemistry and physics understandable to juries — an endeavor in which the phrase for example was one of his most useful tools. For his retirement, his colleagues even got him a nameplate with For Example written on it in beautiful Gothic blackletter script.

As you may have gathered from his appearances in posts here, Dad is also not shy about expressing his opinions, and he has a lot of them. The language-related ones are the ones that have shown up here, but he also has plenty regarding energy policy (of course), social issues, government, and probably much more. Judging from his first post, we can expect to read them on his blog.

What you don’t know about Dad from reading about him here is that he’s a spellbinding storyteller. For years, I’ve been recording him on occasion, telling some of my favorite stories from his childhood and onward, including “How’s Your Tallywacker?”, “I Don’t Go Looking for a Fight”, “Funny Tricks My Older Brothers Played On Me”, and “The Time Your Mom Kicked Me Out of the Car on the Way to San Antonio and I Had to Hitchhike the Rest of the Way There”. (Actually, she didn’t kick him out: She gave him the ultimatum of stopping his complaining or getting out of the car, and he chose the latter.) And then there’s his other story of hitchhiking: “Hitchhiking to Albany, Georgia”. It looks like Dad might be planning to write up some of these family classics in his blog: “Hitchhiking to Albany” appears in his second post (with the title “Headin’ Home”).

So Dad, welcome to the blogosphere! Literal-Minded readers, you’ll find For Example in the “Other Blogs” section of the blogroll.

Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments »

December Links

Posted by Neal on December 20, 2008

Gabe Doyle at Motivated Grammar takes on the issue of who(m) vs. that to introduce relative clauses describing a human (or at least animate) being. He has gathered data, and found that both are used, and that there’s a clear preference on when to use which word. (Hat tip: Craig Lancaster’s Watch Yer Language.)

Back in November, James Kilpatrick published another poorly thought-out proclamation: that which “rarely accomplishes anything not already well-served by that.” So now it’s not enough to use which only in nonrestrictive relative clauses describing nonhuman things; we’re supposed to avoid it altogether? Well, not altogether: Kilpatrick hedges with the word rarely. Mike Geis (the Language Guy) points out four cases where which cannot be replaced by that, and that’s without even mentioning which as the object of a preposition, as in the destination to which we were headed. Actually, the which in this one could be replaced by that, but not without changing the syntax a bit as well: the destination that we were headed to. I wonder which version Kilpatrick prefers?

Tom Hinkle at Language Hack has two interesting posts about teaching Spanish pronouns to English speakers, and why current textbooks are doing it wrong.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Poisonous Syntax

Posted by Neal on November 29, 2008

Doug has recently been reading every book in Brian Jacques’s Redwall series that he can get his hands on. Earlier this week, he was telling me about scenes in several of the books in which one character is trying to poison another. In one, the poisoner pours the drink out of the same bottle for himself and the character to be poisoned, having wiped poison on the rim of the other’s glass. I told him of a similar scene in this book, where two characters each eat half of a single, freshly cut peach, and one dies of poisoning because the knife that sliced the peach was poisoned on one side of the blade. Doug told me of another scene, in which the ultimately poisoned character reaches not for the glass in front of him, but the one in front of his poisoner — a move that his poisoner anticipated. That, of course, reminded me of this now-classic scene (in a movie I’ve written about before), in which this kind of second-guessing was taken to its logically absurd conclusion.

So I popped the DVD in the DVD and pulled up the scene for Doug, and as I watched it, I suddenly picked up on … (answer after the jump) Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Movies, Uncategorized | 6 Comments »

Ken Jennings and the Like a Racehorse Ambiguity

Posted by Neal on August 20, 2008

I learned today that Jeopardy! winner Ken Jennings has a blog. I learned this when I saw a spike in my hits, from people that Jennings sent here to read Like a Racehorse. Thanks, Ken! And for the Jennings fans who clicked on the banner and found themselves here, you might also be interested in a Jeopardy!-related post I wrote in 2004, when Jennings was still working on his million-dollar-plus winning streak.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

Two Stories on Language Ownership

Posted by Neal on March 22, 2008

Back in 2006, maybe you read the news stories about the Mapuche tribe in Chile suing Microsoft for translating Windows into their native language, Mapudungun, and the issue of language as intellectual property. You might also have come across the story on the linguistics blogs, but if not, here are a few good articles or blog posts on it:

  • A news article on Engadget gives the basic story.
  • Jangari of matjjin-nehen takes a crack at defining the circumstances in which speakers of a language can claim ownership of it in this post.
  • In this blog post, Jane Simpson of the University of Sydney links to some Language Log posts and relates the issue to language ownership in Australian Aboriginal languages.

So what reminded me of this old news? Some even older news about language ownership that I only just learned. Longtime readers may remember that Doug and Adam like playing with Bionicles. Now and again I’d ask Doug and Adam why something like Ronaka (I just made that up) would be a plausible name for a Bionicle character, while Floogie or Shumpt would not.

Now, Doug’s friend Holt has clued me in to the fact that Bionicle names, especially in the early series, were taken from Polynesian languages, with Maori being a particular favorite. After I read his blog post, I did a bit of searching and found out that a few years before Doug and Adam got interested in Bionicle, the company that makes them (i.e. Lego) even got into some PR trouble for misappropriating Maori names. Some other sources on this controversy:

  • A Wikipedia article that gives some examples of Polynesian names used for Bionicle characters, and briefly summarizes the legal action
  • A paper by Rosemary Coombe and Andrew Herman on intellectual property, which devotes one section to a narrative of the Bionicle case.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments »