Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

The Witch Mary

Posted by Neal on November 25, 2011

Grammar Girl is running a guest script I wrote today (that is, she’s running it today; I wrote it some time ago), on difficult syntax in Christmas carols in general, and in particular in “What Child Is This?” The script was inspired by a real-life misunderstanding that Doug had seven years ago, and which I blogged about at the time. I’ve also been thinking about that song because Adam has been practicing playing it on the piano, and he sounds really good!

As I wrote in that blog post and in today’s Grammar Girl podcast, part of the difficulty is due to the perennial confusion between lie and lay (which I also wrote about in this post about the song “If I Just Lay Here”). For a while, I considered concluding the podcast with a sentence or two about how other traditional Christmas carols can serve as good models of for using lie and lay in the way that is currently considered the standard:

  • Where the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even
  • the little lord Jesus laid down his sweet head
  • the stars in the sky looked down where he lay
  • how still we see thee lie
  • …certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay

I decided against it, because I didn’t want to give the impression that the whole episode was just about lie vs. lay. But as my wife and I were thinking about other Christmas songs, she started running through “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” (which I wrote about last year). The second verse goes like this:

In Bethlehem in Israel this blessed babe was born,
And laid within a manger upon this blessed morn;
The which his mother Mary did nothing take in scorn.

This one isn’t so good for helping you remember the difference between lie and lay. Sure, you could parse it as was [born and laid], the standard way, but if you don’t already know that’s how it’s supposed to be, you could easily just parse it as [was born] and [laid], with laid used nonstandardly as an intransitive verb.

However, that wasn’t the part that grabbed my attention. Before my wife could move to the third verse, I was interrupting with, “Mary, a witch?!” Then: “Oh, which!”

Two changes in English created this misunderstanding. First is the simplification of the consonant cluster [hw] to [w] for many speakers, as highlighted in this Family Guy clip that I learned about from Language Log a few years ago.

Having the last name I do, I think I still have the [hw] cluster in my language. Sometimes when I give my name over the phone, the person on the other end will hear it as “Quitman”, because they don’t have [hw] in their speech and figure that I must have been saying [kʰw] instead of [hw]. On the other hand, other times they’ll simply not hear the [h] at all, and think my name is “Wittman”, which makes me wonder if I actually pronounce [hw] as consistently as I think I do.

The second change is the loss of the which as a relative pronoun. I never knew about it until I listened to this verse. The which is in the Oxford English Dictionary, though. It’s sure enough archaic now, but was showing up in the 1300s, as in this OED citation:

How god bigan þe law hym gyfe Þe quilk the Iuus in suld life.

Their last citation is from 1884, from Tennyson:

He holp the King to break down our castles, for the which I hate him.

There have to be kids who got all confused when they learned Jesus’s mother was a witch. Any of you know of any?


Posted in Christmas songs, Diachronic, Morphology, Phonetics and phonology, Prescriptive grammar | 9 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 »

Diagramming Interrogatives

Posted by Neal on November 15, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brynn will say who stole the cookies.

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

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

Who will Brynn say stole the cookies?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s Hear Some New Grammar Songs!

Posted by Neal on November 8, 2011

“You know there’s a helping verb song, right?” Doug asked. “One of Mrs. M’s students wrote it years ago. Mrs. M. taught it to us in fifth grade, and now we all remember all the helping verbs.”

“Really?” I asked. I’m teaching a college ESL class this fall, and had noticed that choosing the right helping verb was a problem in many of the students’ written sentences. Doug had asked how the class was going, so I’d told him. Doug then obliged me by singing the song, to the tune of the chorus of “Jingle Bells”, into my phone’s microphone:

Helping verbs, helping verbs, there are 23!
Am, is, are, was and were, being, been, and be,
Have, has, had, do, does, did, will, would, shall and should.
There are five more helping verbs: may, might, must, can, could!

I figured I could play it for the class, but later, I got a better idea and looked for the song on YouTube. I found at least half a dozen versions, so I’m not sure I believe Mrs. M’s student really did write it. But it’s possible that someone right here in our town was the source of the meme, so I’ll withhold judgment. This video is the one I played for the class:

They loved it, and had me play it several times. I hope it helps them, and I’m not going to say anything to these students about how this song (and various other grammar resources) always leave out the verb having, as in Not having finished his homework, Doug wasn’t allowed to go play with his friends. It doesn’t help to form any of the verb tenses, active or passive voice, so why inflict this complication on English learners at this level? (I did tell Doug and Adam about it, though.)

My students told me I should use more music in the class, so I tried to figure out some way of putting into a song the rules about which main verb forms go with which helping verbs. I eventually settled on “Red River Valley” (or as I was introduced to it in summer camp, “When It’s Hog-Killing Time in Nebraska”). Here’s what I came up with:

Helping verbs need to go with a main verb.
But which form of the main verb is right?
Use the plain form with all of your modals:
Can, could, shall, should, will, would, must, may, and might.

Use the plain form with do, does, and did, too.
Use the past participle with have, has, had.
Use the –ing form with all of your be verbs.
When you know your verb forms you’ll be glad.

Those two verses, including that rather lame last line, were all I wanted to give my class. (If someone has a better last line, I’ll take it!) But I felt compelled to write a final verse, lest someone take the first two verses too much to heart, and be afraid to use past participles with be when they’re more advanced. So here’s verse 3:

This last verse tells about a complication.
Sometimes past participles can go with forms of be.
When they do, it’s a big change in meaning.
Who’s performing the action is key.

Creative Commons License
Helping Verbs and Main Verbs by Neal Whitman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at

It occurred to me that teachers could probably use some other grammar points put into popular song formats, and that’s what brings me to the latest Grammar Girl book giveaway contest that I promised in my last post. The rules:

  1. Between now and 11:59PM November 14, take an existing melody and write some new lyrics for it, explaining some area of English grammar.
  2. Post the lyrics in a comment, giving the title of the original song and your new title.
  3. If you wish, you can make a video of the song and link to it.
  4. Grammar topics can cover the same areas as existing songs about English grammar, or present topics that haven’t been put into song yet.
  5. Be linguistically responsible. Prescriptive rules are OK (they’re what this contest is about), but make sure they’re in line with what good writers actually do when writing in standard English. For example, saying that the third-person singular present tense is formed with an -s or -es suffix is OK, but saying that whose is only for animate or human referents is not.
  6. Don’t plagiarize!
  7. Don’t give me something you already published, on the Internet or elsewhere. I want this contest to generate some new and hopefully useful teaching resources.
  8. I’ll wait until it’s November 15 all over the world to make the cutoff, and the writers of the two best songs (in my judgment) will each receive a copy of Grammar Girl’s 101 Words to Sound Smart (thanks to Mignon Fogarty for providing them!).
  9. As far as I’m concerned, you retain all rights to your song, but in the spirit of making new teaching resources available, I hope you’ll put them under a Creative Commons license, as I did with mine.
  10. All other things equal, I will give preference to:
    • Songs whose melodies that are in the public domain.
    • Songs linked to a video.

So let’s hear your grammar songs! If you need some inspiration, allow me to suggest “The Forgotten Helping Verb”.

Posted in Language learning, Morphology, Prescriptive grammar | 6 Comments »

Words to Sound Smart by Using

Posted by Neal on November 7, 2011

Grammar Girl has yet another book coming out this week, in what looks like it’s becoming a franchise: the 101 Words series. Back in August, I gave away a copy of 101 Words Every High School Graduate Needs to Know and 101 Misused Words You’ll Never Confuse Again, and in the next few days I’ll be running a contest to win a free copy of the latest one, 101 Words to Sound Smart. More on that in a subsequent post. Today, I’m interested in the syntax of that title.

Some infinitival phrases that modify nouns are like relative clauses, because they have to have a “gap” that the noun is understood to fill. Indeed, they’re sometimes called infinitival relative clauses. For example, there’s this title of a book full of blank pages and prompts for artistic inspiration: 642 Things to Draw. The transitive verb draw is missing a direct object, and things fills this gap. For an infinitival relative clause with a subject gap, how about Tales to Give You Goosebumps? The verb phrase give you goosebumps doesn’t have a subject, but it’s understood that the tales will handle the task of giving you goosebumps. The gap could even be the object of a preposition, as in Stories to Curl Up With (a title I made up), in which the stories are the things with which someone could curl up.

But in 101 Words to Sound Smart, there is no gap. There’s no gap in the verb phrase sound smart. There’s no subject gap, either, unless the meaning is that the words themselves sound smart. I suppose that could be one way to parse the title, using smart in its extended sense of things that smart people use (the same way stupid can refer to things that only stupid people would like, and similar cases). But I think that if that’s what Grammar Girl meant, she would have called it 101 Words That Sound Smart, making it more of a certainty. The infinitival relative conveys more of a sense of potentiality: things that you could draw, tales that could give you goosebumps.

The meaning that I’m pretty sure the title is intended to convey is that these are words that you can use in order to sound smart. In other words, to sound smart is a purpose infinitival. These are much more common as modifiers of verbs than as modifiers of nouns. In fact, when I first heard this book title, I would have said that purpose infinitivals couldn’t modify nouns. I would have said that words to sound smart was ungrammatical, and that the only ways to get at that meaning of purpose would be to use an infinitival relative clause. One way would be with an object gap, as in 101 Words to Sound Smart by Using. That sounds really awkward, though; maybe even ungrammatical in its own right (because of so-called relative clause islands). So a better option would be with a subject gap: 101 Words to Make You Sound Smart.

However, a few days after I encountered words to sound smart, I was looking at the cover of Family Tree magazine (my Aunt Jane is really into genealogy and got me a subscription), and saw the teaser for one of the articles: websites to find your ancestors. You could take this to mean websites that will find your ancestors for you, but it’s actually talking about websites that will help you find your ancestors. In other words, it’s another purpose infinitival modifying a noun.

As I was looking over this post, I noticed the phrase contest to win a free copy, with a purpose infinitival following the noun contest, and it sounds completely normal to me. My gut feeling is that the infinitival is a complement to the noun, and not a modifier, but I haven’t thought about it enough to be certain.

Anyway, nouns modified by purpose infinitivals, are hard to search for in corpora, because you can’t conveniently look for entire infinitival phrases that contain no gaps. For that reason, I don’t know how common this kind of construction is; all I know is that it’s unusual to my ear, but that it must not be too strange for others. How do they sound to you? Reactions and additional examples are welcome in the comments.

Posted in Books, Relative clauses | 24 Comments »

Trick or Treat!

Posted by Neal on October 31, 2011

In the course of writing a Visual Thesaurus column on aspects of the word Halloween, I looked into the history of trick or treat. Some of the questions I had about it were:

  • When did it become a verb, as in trick-or-treating?
  • If its origin is indeed a threat, why is the threat said first and the demand second? That is, why isn’t it Treat or trick, following the same demand-punishment template as Your money or your life or Truth or consequences?
  • What’s with the kids in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown saying “Tricks or treats”? Is that a 1950s/60s thing, or a regional thing?

In the book Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween, by David J. Skal, I learned that trick-or-treating in the United States began only in the 1920s, or possibly slightly earlier, on a regional basis. Skal adds that it “became widely known and adopted as a distinct property-protection strategy during the late Depression” (54). The sugar rationing of World War II put a damper on it, but trick-or-treating really took off in the post-war years.

The earliest attestation of trick or treat in the OED is from right after the war, in a 1947 article in American Home:

The household larder needs to be well stocked on October 31, because, from dusk on, the doorbell rings, bright eyes peer through crazy-looking masks, and childish voices in ghostlike tones squeal, croak, or whisper, “Trick or Treat!”

However, Skal has the phrase eight years earlier, in a 1939 article in the same magazine. It’s not talking about trick-or-treating as we know it, but as sort of a password for a Halloween party, put on for the same purpose of allaying Halloween vandalism. Skal writes that this attestation is “apparently the first time ‘trick or treat’ is used in a mass-circulation periodical in the United States” (p. 53):

…they found our front door open and a jolly Jack o’lantern grinning from a window at them. Seeing me, they summoned nerve to speak the age-old salutation of “Trick-or-Treat!”

Skal notes that even though the article refers to Trick or treat as an “age-old” greeting, it gives no support for this claim.

Returning to the post-war years, Skal writes that the Donald Duck cartoon “Trick or Treat” in the early 1950s helped popularize trick-or-treating on a national scale.

All this agrees with the picture you get from the Google Ngram viewer:

So how soon did trick or treat become a verb? The earliest example in the OED is from 1950:

So let the kids go out tonight and have a grand time with their masquerading and trick-or-treating.

As for the order trick or treat instead of treat or trick, as far as I can tell, the trick part has always come first. I wondered if it was some kind of phonetic thing going on, like roly poly or knick knack, but it doesn’t seem to fit the patterns. Unlike ping-pong or see-saw, the phrase trick or treat doesn’t have a front vowel followed by a back vowel: [I] adn [i] are both front vowels. And the initial consonants are the same, so whatever explanation you have for hanky panky instead of *panky hanky won’t apply. I tried to think if other common words or phrases had the [I]-[i] sequence, and didn’t come up with much: snickersnee (a kind of sword) striptease, and Mister T, but that’s about it.

Tricks or treats actually antedates trick or treat, as far as I’ve been able to determine. In Google Books, I found it in a 1938 issue of The Alpha Phi Quarterly:

Yes, it is Hallowe’en — the time for “tricks or treats.” But as far as Alpha Phi life is concerned, we know it holds only treats.

In an archive of Peanuts comics, I found that Charles Schulz had his characters saying “Tricks or Treats” all through the 1950s (sometimes with the addendum “Money or eats!”), though once he introduces storylines involving Linus and the Great Pumpkin in the 1960s, you don’t see it so much. Jumping forward to 1993, though, there’s a Sunday strip with Linus and Sally in the pumpkin patch, with Snoopy making an appearance at the end. In Snoopy’s thought balloon is “Trick or Treat!”, so somewhere along the way Schulz fell into line with the rest of the country. You can see in the Ngram View above that tricks or treats peaked in the mid-1950s.

One last item for those who read this far: Trick or treat! Smell my feet! Give me something good to eat! is noted as early as 1966 in the Keystone Folklore Quarterly. As for the further extension involving the pulling down of underwear, I can only date that back to my childhood in the 1970s.

Posted in Diachronic, Halloween, Phonetics and phonology, Variation | 11 Comments »

Minding the Gaps (Again)

Posted by Neal on October 29, 2011

I was reading an article in the Life & Arts section of the Columbus Dispatch this morning, about what effect the iPod has had in the ten years since its introduction. A sidebar had quotations from people in the entertainment industry giving their thoughts on the iPod. One Martin Atkins had this to say:

It’s made some music less special — more of a background incidental thing than something to sit in the middle of the stereo field and listen to uninterrupted.

It was a nice specimen to add to my pile of coordinated verb phrases (VPs) in which one VP (or more) contains a gap, but not all of them do. I’ve written about these in various other posts, so I’m tempted to just document this example and leave it. But I’ve learned that I do pick up a new reader now and then, so I’ll say again why coordinations like this one are interesting.

It is commonly said that items joined by a conjunction have to be “parallel”, but what exactly is meant by parallel varies from person to person. Examples like this one are non-parallel in a way I’ll describe shortly, but are usually not even noticed by native speakers.

The non-parallelism in this example has to do with whether the coordinated VPs contain gaps, i.e., a place where something like a subject or object (or even an adverb) is missing. The VP listen to __ uninterrupted is missing an object of a preposition (specifically, the preposition to). That gap corresponds to the pronoun something. You could move something into the gap and end up with listen to something uninterrupted. In contrast, the VP sit in the middle of the stereo field does not contain any gap to correspond to something. Try putting something into that VP, and you end up with something ungrammatical, like *sit in the middle of the stereo field something. Now I suppose you could insert something as a direct object of sit, if your dialect allows sit as a transitive verb, and get sit something in the middle of the stereo field. That might be grammatical, but it’s not what Atkins meant. He wasn’t talking about placing a music-playing device in the middle of its own stereo field and listening to it; he had in mind sitting down in the middle of the stereo field of a music-playing device and listening to it.

Non-parallel coordinations like these are said to violate the “Across-the-Board” (ATB) constraint, to the effect that if one of the coordinated elements has a gap, all of them do. Clearly, this constraint is invalid, but the name is well-enough known that examples that violate it are sometimes known as “non-ATB coordinations”. Non-ATB coordinations that refer to related activities that occur together in some larger, typical situation, usually have a gap in the last item in the coordination, and this example is true to form, with the gap occurring in the second element, listen to uninterrupted.

The iPod article on the front page, and continued on page 2, where I found that non-ATB coordination. When I finished reading about iPods, I turned to the funny pages. There I read Sally Forth, a comic that I don’t even know why I read anymore. I don’t like the stories much, and I hate how they’re drawn. So I won’t bother linking to today’s strip in any online comics archive or anything; I’ll just go straight to the utterance I read in one of the word balloons:

I found it, Sal! The perfect course for me to enroll in and meet new people!

Another non-ATB coordination! In this one, the VP enroll in __ has a gap for the object of in, corresponding to course. The VP meet new people, on the other hand, has no gap. Its direct object is right there in plain view: new people. This coordination of VPs is referring to a sequence of events in a cause-effect relationship: enrolling in the course will result in meeting new people. This kind of non-ATB coordination usually does not have a gap in the final coordinated element, and this example bears that out. It’s the first VP, enroll in __ that has the gap, not the second.

As I said, I’ve written about these before, but it was fun to find an example of two varieties of non-ATB coordinations within five minutes of one another in a single section of the newspaper.

Posted in Comics, Non-ATB coordinations | 12 Comments »

Don’t Beat Yourself Up

Posted by Neal on October 23, 2011

Last Friday I found myself talking with Sarah Wayland, a linguist at the University of Maryland’s Center for Advanced Study of Language, not so much about linguistics, but about another point of commonality between us: being a parent of a son (in her case, two sons) with an autism spectrum disorder. But of course, that topic soon turned back to matters of language. One of her sons, Sarah told me, had a tendency to criticize himself harshly, and she and others would tell him, “Don’t beat yourself up.”

Knowing, as you do, about the literal-minded tendencies that people with ASDs often have, you’re probably imagining this kid objecting that he wasn’t hitting himself. But he didn’t. He got the intended message just fine. That’s because he had had the good fortune never to have been beaten up, hadn’t seen people getting beaten up, simply hadn’t had the right kind of experiences tagged with the verb beat up to have that as its literal meaning. As far as he was concerned, “criticize harshly” was the literal meaning.

No one was the wiser until he came home from school a couple of times with stories of how “my teacher beat me up today.” Luckily, they got that resolved before police or social workers got called in.

I had never thought about how the phrasal verb beat (someone) up has only a literal meaning with most direct objects, but only a figurative meaning when it takes a reflexive direct object. Or does it? Let me just fact-check my ass…

The Corpus of Contemporary American English returns 170 examples of beat up with a reflexive pronoun for a direct object. Most of them are examples of the figurative “criticize” meaning, as I expected, but seven of them had a still-figurative but closer-to-literal meaning of “subject oneself to physical hardship or damage”. Four were from sports magazines; two were from musicians talking about the exertion of giving a concert (Billy Joel, Jon Bon Jovi); the last one was from Martin Scorsese talking about a drug abuse problem:

  1. The tendency is to beat yourself up with a 125-or 150-mile ride, then take the next day off.
  2. You have to be in great shape,’ he says. You beat yourself up every week. We use a lot of ibuprofen and Gatorade.
  3. Before, I’d do hill repeats and beat myself up until I was ragged and then recover in a few days….
  4. From the top, skiers look across into the glaciers of 11,000-foot Marmolada, the tallest peak in the Dolomites, and back down into challenging runs toward Arabba. After beating ourselves up on these steeps, we barely had time to zip through our fourth valley of the day, Canazei, and get back to Val Gardena at sunset.
  5. “This is not an easy job,” Joel said. “This is how you beat yourself up. You run around on the stage, you smash into things. I wake up with black and blue marks, scrapes and cuts. You’re so adrenalized you don’t realize it happened.”
  6. I have to think every night like I’m a prizefighter going out on that stage, that it’s going to be the last fight. You’d think, why would I beat myself up like that after 25 years?
  7. After it was released, he began abusing drugs, eventually winding up in the hospital from a near-fatal mixture of asthma medication and cocaine. Mr-SCORSESE: I beat myself up so much that the doctors said,’ You just have to stay here until we can — listen — look, you may get a brain hemorrhage at any moment.’

In addition to those somewhat-literal examples, I was surprised to find two fully literal ones. The first one is from a Geraldo Rivera TV show about people with multiple personalities, and the other from a police-beat section of a newspaper:

  1. Woman 3: Thank you. How can you beat yourself up with concrete and not realize you’re hurting yourself? Even though it’s a different personality, it’s the same body.
  2. A man beat himself up and got arrested for it about 10:30 Sunday evening. He is 21 and was very intoxicated and unruly, a witness said, when he began hitting himself in the face with his fists.

So reflexive beat up can have a literal meaning after all; in this corpus, it happened 5.3% of the time. Now, what about beat up with non-reflexive pronouns? Does it ever occur with a figurative meaning?

I found 30 examples of beat up with indefinite pronoun (somebody, someone, anyone, everyone, no one, etc.), all of them literal; that is, 0% figurative. For beat up with personal pronouns, there were 710 examples, less two for beat it with the idiomatic meaning of “depart quickly”. That’s too many for me to check for a blog post, so I just checked the first example of each set of strings returned. For example, beat him up had 160 examples, of which I examined only the first. If I wasn’t sure about the first example, I moved to the second one. I found the following examples with the meaning of “criticize”:

  1. HANNITY: I thought the speech was extraordinary well delivered. I thought it was eloquent at times. I thought he hit the right pitch and the right tone. That surprises you? WILLIAMS: I’m speechless. I’m not allowed to be speechless. But basically, you know, I mean you beat him up a lot, so yes.
  2. Ms-IVEY: Well, I think Taryn really is just backpedaling now because she knows Dani and I were going to beat her up in the elevator. MARTIN: No violence. (Soundbite-of-laugh) MARTIN: This is a civil zone.
  3. In politics, when you fail, it’s like the end of the world because the press keeps piling on you and beating you up and all of those kind of things.

That’s three out of 25 examples, for 12% figurative. Just today, I also heard a broadcaster talking about politicians “getting beaten up” in the news, which is a reminder that transitive beat up can be passivized, too, so you also have to check for figurative meanings there. COCA returns 494 examples of beaten up, and I’m not going to check all those out, either. And never mind all the examples of beat up with non-pronoun direct objects, which I’m also not going to check. But from the searches I did do, it looks like beat up with non-reflexive direct objects really is used for the most part in a literal way, though it ventures into figurative territory more often than reflexive beat up goes literal.

I don’t recall having come across other verbs that tended to have literal vs. figurative meanings corresponding (more or less) to reflexive vs. non-reflexive uses. Other examples are welcome in the comments.

Posted in Lexical semantics | 5 Comments »

Thank You Much

Posted by Neal on October 18, 2011

Jessica Hagy’s webcomic Indexed makes frequent use of Venn diagrams. This one from July has the sets Nouns and Verbs intersecting in a set labeled Heinous Business Speak. So, according to this diagram, every noun that can be used as a verb or verb that can be used as a noun is an example of heinous business speak. This would mean that (as one commenter hinted) speak is heinous business speak, as are run, walk, and swim. Moreover, this diagram states that every example of heinous business speak is something that is both a noun and a verb. This would mean that going forward, at the end of the day, think outside the box, and pick the low-hanging fruit are not heinous business speak. They may be heinous, or they may be business speak, but not both.

I know, I know, it’s just a frickin’ joke; why don’t I have a sense of humor? Part of the humor of using technical language, concepts, or methods for silly things is doing it accurately. When Tom Lehrer put the names of all the known elements to the tune of “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General,” it was funny because he didn’t make up stupid element names; he used real ones, and all of them that existed as of 1959. When the Roman guard corrects Brian’s Latin grammar, it’s funny not only because we don’t expect that as a reaction to an act of graffiti, but also because Romanes eunt domus really should be Romani, ite domum (at least in Classical Latin). As the saying goes, “It’s funny because it’s true.” Furthermore, Jessica Hagy is contributing to a sloppy understanding of various math concepts by people who laugh at her comics but aren’t entirely clear on how Venn diagrams work. xkcd pulls this kind of thing off better.

But that’s not what I wanted to talk about. In the peeve-fest that followed in the comments, one commenter wrote:

What gets me is that now people are using the phrase “Thank You much” instead of “Thank You very much” or just “Thank You.” It just sounds so wrong and annoys me every time I hear it.

Another commenter responded:

It just sounds lazy – they’re obviously so appreciative that they can’t put the effort into a complete sentence.

The idea that Thank you much is bad grammar or not a complete sentence can be found elsewhere on the web:

its makes them sound stupid because its not a sentence they forgot the very part. (link)

The sentiment isn’t limited to people with poor punctuation skills, either. From a thread on

“Thank you much.” is not correct English.

You can say “thank you very much” or even “thank you so much”.

I responded to the Indexed commenter:

“Thank you much” IS a complete sentence, at least if you accept “Thank you” as a complete (albeit noncanonical) sentence in the first place. If you object to “much” instead of “very much”, note that it appears alone in questions and negative sentences, e.g. “he doesn’t talk much”, “Does he talk much?” If you’re objecting to the use of plain “much” outside these “negative polarity contexts”, that’s a different matter, because that does sound odd in present-day English.

Suppose the commenter really was objecting to this use of unadorned much as a positive polarity item (PPI). In fact, there are times when PPI much sounds just fine without a very. It can modify comparative adjectives or adverbs: much better, more more quickly, etc. It also works if it has a too before it: I ate too much.

OK, so let’s suppose the commenter was more specifically objecting to use of PPI much without a too or very, and not as a modifier of a comparative adjective or adverb. Even looking at just this narrow set of circumstances for much, you can find other attestations in COCA:

  • North Korea’s ability to launch another conventional ground invasion is much degraded from even a decade ago.
  • There is much commotion and merrymaking these days in our community
  • Shooting a handgun is much like shooting a bow in this respect,

And of course, there’s this song from Janet Jackson, though you could argue that she chose the title in part to make her listeners pause for a moment.

So maybe the commenter is not trying to make any wider claim about the usage of much; it’s just that when it appears after thank you, for whatever reason, there has to be a too or a very. Well, what do you think? Is it actually ungrammatical, or just somewhat old-fashioned sounding to say Thank you much? If you believe it’s ungrammatical, let us know why in the comments.

Posted in Music, Negative polarity items, Prescriptive grammar, You're so literal! | 26 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 »