Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Shtraight Talk

Posted by Neal on September 6, 2011

When Adam’s Cub Scout den planned a trip to go horseback riding early last summer, I signed up to ride, too. I wondered why only one other parent in the den was going to ride. What were they going to do while the boys all saddled up and went out on the trail?

At the stable, all the kids and parents stood along the wall of a big room with a dirt floor while the horse handlers did a 15-minute lecture on safety around horses. Then they had the boys come up one by one to receive a Post-It with a piece of a horse’s anatomy written on it, which they were then to stick on a cooperative model horse named Jet. That part was interesting; I finally learned what a horse’s withers were, although I forgot later.

Then it was time for the riding. Each boy stepped up onto a platform, where an adult volunteer (me), helped him onto the horse. The handler then led the horse away, walking with it to the far wall, around to the side wall, along the side wall to the near wall, and from there back to the platform, where the one boy got off and another one got on. And that was the horseback ride I had paid for. I went ahead and chased that sunk cost (as Glen would say) by taking the ride when it was my turn.

After the excitement of the ride, the scouts and their parents relaxed with a tour of the stable. In one room, the handler showed us the hay and the straw, and asked if anyone knew the difference between them. I didn’t, so I listened carefully. She began by mentioning a practical difference:

Horses eat hay; they sleep on shtraw.

What? What was that? Did she say “shtraw”? Maybe I hadn’t heard right. The handler went on to explain the essential difference between hay and straw:

Hay is grass; shtraw is the stalks of oats and things like that.

She did it again! Oh, and of course, oats are a kind of grass, too, but I got the idea. But back to the phonetic point: The handler had substituted [ʃ] for [s] twice. She didn’t do it for all /s/s; she pronounced grass, stalks, and oats with [s]. Did she do it for any /s/ before a /t/? No: stalks. How about for any /s/ before /tr/? During the rest of the talk, I listened for more [ʃ]-[s] substitutions, and heard her use the words “stronger” and “street”, pronouncing each with [ʃtr]. No other /str/ Word came up, although the handler did utter an interdental /l/ when she said, “Horses eat a LOT of food.” Otherwise, her /l/’s were alveolar, so she might have been one of the speakers who pronounce their /l/’s interdentally for emphasis in a word that begins with /l/.

But back to the [ʃtr]-for-[str] substitution: I first learned about it in a paper called “Getting [ʃ]tronger Every Day?: More on Urbanization and the Socio-geographic Diffusion of (str) in Columbus, OH,” by David Durian. He notes that in this area, it’s more common among younger speakers, working class speakers, and speakers who grew up in the city of Columbus rather than its suburbs; and this last set of speakers is spreading the change to the suburbs they’ve moved to as adults. He also cites a 1984 study by Bill Labov which documents widespread [ʃtr] in Philadelphia.


Patricia O’Conner wrote about the [ʃtr]-for-[str] substitution in a Grammarphobia post in May 2008. Three months later, the topic came up on the American Dialect Society mailing list in August 2008, when Herb Stahlke reported hearing it in a speech by Michelle Obama. (More on that at the end of this post.) Since becoming aware of this sound change, and since that visit to the stables, I’ve been hearing [ʃ] in place of [s] in /str/ clusters in other places, too…

  • When my wife and sons and I were watching the movie Independence Day (1996), I heard Harry Connick Jr.’s character say to Will Smith’s character, “You’ll never get a chance to fly the space shuttle if you marry a shtripper.” I made everyone wait while I rewound twice to make sure I’d heard right.
  • A month later, we were watching Beverly Hills Cop (1984), and I heard Eddie Murphy’s character utter this other sentence about stripping: “The only reason these officers were in a shtrip club….”
  • A couple of weeks into the school year, I overheard a conversation among a couple of Adam’s fellow fourth graders as they picked up their “Grab n Go” breakfast in the school hallway on the way to their classroom. Apparently the school can’t count on parents actually giving their kids breakfast every morning, so they provide snacks before school for any kids who want them, so they can start off the day with something nutritious and be able to concentrate better in class. This morning, it was Pop Tarts. One girl said to another, “It was funny, because you said brown sugar and I said shtrawberry!” It really must have been funny, because the girl said it again, and again pronounced strawberry as shtrawberry.
  • At about 7:51 into episode 414 of This American Life, the producer of the first story, Ben Calhoun, says, “These weren’t regular uniformed cops. They were the guys in shtreet clothes.”
  • In the past year, I’ve heard one of each of Doug’s and Adam’s friends pronounce /str/ as [ʃtr], usually in the word destroy.
  • During a family trip to New York City last month, a bus tour guide consistently pronounced /str/ as [ʃtr].
  • In a subsequent whale-watching trip that departed from Long Island, a guy from Madison, Wisconsin consistently pronounced /str/ as [ʃtr]. I later learned he’d grown up in Long Island.
  • One of the audiobooks we listened to in the car on our trip was Judy Blume’s Blubber. The reader has [ʃtr] for /str/ about 80% of the time, I’d guess offhand. I’ve heard it in street, strip, stripe, and elsewhere. The occasional [str] pronunciations that come up make me imagine the reader in the studio, with the engineer making her go back and re-read those words, but giving up because the reader’s [ʃtr] is just too consistent to fight.

At this point, I’m starting to forget all the places I’m hearing [ʃtr] for /str/. But my question is why it would occur in the first place. Summarizing previous research, Durian mentions three possibilities. One is that it’s a case of the /s/ assimilating to become more like the /r/; specifically, it’s pronounced with the tongue pulled further back toward where the /r/ is pronounced. That’s a little unusual, because it would be a case of “long-distance” assimilation: The /s/ is taking after not the /t/ right next to it, but the /r/ after that. I’ll add that for some speakers, this could actually be a more typical case of assimilation. Speakers who produce a retroflex [r], by curling their tongue tip backwards, might well retroflect the /t/ before it as well, and if that /t/ is retroflected, the /s/ before it is liable to be retroflected, too. When that happens, it sounds like “sh,” but not quite like the [ʃ] version I’ve been talking about. In the IPA, this retroflex sibilant is written [ʂ]. Under this scenario, the “shtr” pronunciation is [ʂʈr] instead of [ʃtr]. (Most English speakers, including me, cannot hear the difference [ʂ] and [ʃ].)

A second possibility is restricted to a subset of those speakers who, like me, turn /t/ into an affricate before /r/, pronuncing trap as “chrap”. In particular it’s limited to those speakers who (unlike me), even affricate their /t/ when an /s/ comes before it. That is, some speakers (including me), pronounce trap beginning with [ʧr] (“chrap”). Within that group, some (including me) pronounce the trap part of strap with a [tr], while others pronounce it with [ʧr]. Within that smaller group, some speakers pronounce the /s/ as [s], to produce “s-chrap”, while others assimilate the /s/ to the [ʧ] by making it palatal: “sh-chrap”. I imagined a scenario like this near the end of one of my posts about /t/ affrication. But I can’t really tell if I’ve been hearing, say, “shtreet” or “sh-chreet”. In this paper (note 9), Brian Joseph and Rich Janda profess not to have found any reports of [ʃʧr] in the literature.

The third possibility, and the one Durian favors, is proposed by Joseph and Janda. It so happens that when [ʃtr] occurs in the middle of words, the preceding vowel is almost always a high vowel such as [i], as in restructure. Therefore, it may be a case of the tongue not lowering fast enough after the high vowel, resulting in the [s] turning into [ʃ]. Then, once the [ʃtr] cluster became familiar, speakers started using it at the beginnings of words, too. This would account for why in his data, [ʃtr] occurs more in the middle of words than at the beginning.

Let’s hear from some of the /s/-retractors out there. Do you pronounce str as “shtr” sometimes? All the time? Does it depend on the word? On the social context? Give it to us shtraight.

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Posted in Consonants, Variation | 52 Comments »

Not As Much As You!

Posted by Neal on August 30, 2011

On April 30, I tweeted about an episode of The Big Bang Theory I’d watched the night before. I said

This is the kind of situation where grammar sticklers point out that there can be a big difference between more than I and more than me. In a nice summary of both sides of the argument, Grammar Girl writes:

[People who maintain that than is a conjunction rather than a preposition] would argue that the sentences Aardvark likes Squiggly more than I and Aardvark likes Squiggly more than me are both correct but have entirely different meanings. Both use than as a conjunction, but when you use the subject pronoun I, you’re saying Aardvark likes Squiggly more than I [like Squiggly], and when you use the object pronoun me, you’re saying Aardvark likes Squiggly more than [Aardvark likes] me. If than is a preposition, however, you would always use the objective pronoun me and then the same sentence would mean both things–you don’t care for Squiggly as much as Aardvark does AND Aardvark prefers Squiggly to you. It would be unclear which of the two meanings [was] intended. Avoiding ambiguity awards a point to the conjunctionists.

Of course, this distinction only works when there actually is a difference between nominative and accusative forms, which limits us to pronouns, and not even all of those. In particular, you can be either nominative or accusative, so Leonard could be saying either “Not as much as [I hate] you!” or “Not as much as you [hate Greek food]!”

I’d venture to say that in most cases, the ambiguity is only what Arnold Zwicky calls a potential ambiguity; not a realistic one that will confuse people. What’s fun about this example is that neither of the possible readings jumps out as the intended one. Sheldon is such an insufferable character, with so many showstoppers when it comes to food preferences, that you could imagine his roommate Leonard getting so fed up with Sheldon that he decides to punish him with that night’s purchase of take-out food for their group of friends. There are two ways doing this could punish Sheldon. On the one hand, Leonard could reason that although he (Leonard) hates Greek food, he’ll eat it because he knows Sheldon hates it even more. On the other hand, Leonard might reason that he (Leonard) hates Greek food, but he hates Sheldon more, so he’s willing to eat Greek in order to make Sheldon eat it too. I wouldn’t be surprised if the writers of the show even intended this ambiguity.

Karen Davis (aka The Ridger) sent me another example of an ambiguous VP ellipsis that hinges on the pronoun you. It’s exactly parallel to the Big Bang one, except that here, instead of finite clauses like I hate Greek food, we have a nonfinite “small clause”: your ex living with us. In her email, Karen wrote:

Today’s Tiny Seppuku answers a question from someone whose parents like her ex enough to let him live with them. … In one panel, the parents say to the woman: “Let us tell you how much we enjoy having your ex living with us instead of you.”

One reading has …your ex living with us instead of [your ex living with] you; the other has …your ex living with us instead of you [living with us] Both were plausible, because the strip is about someone whose parents like her ex so much that they’re letting him live in their home, in their daughter’s old room. At least in print, you’re left wondering which meaning is intended. However, if you actually heard it spoken, the ambiguity would probably disappear. They would say either “your EX living with us instead of YOU [living with us]” or “your ex living with US instead of [living with] YOU”, and the focal stress would make things clear.

You get this kind of ambiguity with ordinary noun phrases, too. In my dad’s logic textbook from his college days, there’s an example of spurious reasoning that takes advantage of it. A passage goes something like this:

A psychological survey has revealed that whereas the value Mr. Jones places on money is slightly more than the societal average, the value Mrs. Jones places on it is slightly less. We can predict, therefore, that Mr. and Mrs. Jones’s marriage is unlikely to last. How could it, when Mr. Jones loves money more than his wife?

Again, the stress could disambiguate the spoken sentence: “Mr. JONES loves money more than his WIFE” vs. “Mr. Jones loves MONEY more than his WIFE.” But you can also pronounce it with a carefully evened-out stress that leaves the ambiguity open, which is nice because it lets you make the joke and confound your unwary listeners.

Go ahead and distinguish between than I and than me if you want to. There may be times that there are two plausible meanings to distinguish, but if you’re dealing with anything other than I/me, he/him, she/her, we/us, they/them, you’ll have to disambiguate some other way.

Posted in Comics, Ellipsis, Prescriptive grammar, TV | 4 Comments »

The Gadhafi Bounty

Posted by Neal on August 28, 2011

I read the front page of the Columbus Dispatch earlier this week, and saw this headline:

I thought, they’re offering the guy a bounty? That is, I read it as diagrammed on the right. I saw the verb offer, and automatically seized the name that followed as the recipient of the offer (in syntactic terms the indirect object). The noun after that was the item offered (i.e. the direct object). This parse was also easy to fall into because of the line break, putting Gadhafi all by itself next to offer.

Real-world knowledge forced a re-read, and I quickly got the intended reading, as diagrammed on the left. Instead of taking offer as a two-object verb (direct and indirect), this time I took it as a simple transitive verb, and grabbed onto Gadhafi bounty as a single noun phrase for the direct object: “a bounty on Gadhafi”. Much more sensible, although it required a little more thinking to make Gadhafi an attributive noun describing bounty.

Of course, like McDonald’s fries holy grail for potato farmers, this ambiguity exists only because of the telegraphic style of newspaper headlines. In regular English, it would have been

The rebels offered A Gadhafi bounty

and there would have been no question. Or, if you really meant it the crazy way, it would be

The rebels offered Gadhafi A bounty.

Of course, if Gadhafi turns himself in to collect the bounty, I guess both readings could be true.

Posted in Ambiguity, Lexical semantics, Syntax | 11 Comments »

Breaking and Entering Double Passive

Posted by Neal on August 20, 2011

I listened to a podcast of PRI’s The Changing World while I was shopping for groceries last week, an episode called “America’s Own Extremists, Part 2”. A BBC guy named Jonny Dymond was interviewing an educator who had been threatened by some white-supremacist types. She said,

Since then, every residence I’ve lived at has been either attempted to be broken into or actually broken into, in some cases burglarized.

It’s been a while since I’ve written about double passives, but this example was so nice I just had to collect it. Passive is a good choice here because first of all, she doesn’t know exactly who did the break-ins (though of course she has strong suspicions), and second, the important thing is that her home feels unsafe. Every residence I’ve lived at has the prominent subject position, with the stuff that happened to it in the passive voice. Except that one of the things that happened is that someone just tried to break in. How do you express that if you’re already pretty well committed to using passive voice? English, at least standard English, doesn’t have a solution, but one that has evolved outside the rules of the standard is just to passivize both try and break into. So we get has been … attempted and to be broken into in the same verb phrase.

I also got a smile out of hearing Dymond ask a follow-up question, asking how the woman had felt when her home was “burgled”, smoothly changing her burglarize into the equivalent British English backformation of burglar.

Posted in Double passives, Variation | 2 Comments »

One Bright Day in the Middle of the Night

Posted by Neal on August 18, 2011

One of the poems Dad taught me when I was a kid went like this:

One bright day in the middle of the night,
Two dead boys began to fight.
Back to back they faced each other;
Drew their knives and shot each other.
A deaf policeman heard the noise,
And came and killed the two dead boys.
If you don’t believe this lie is true,
Ask the blind man; he saw it, too.

I, of course, have taught it to Doug and Adam, along with other poems I learned from Dad, including “Don’t you laugh when the hearse goes by” and “Roses are red, violets are blue; I can ride a bicycle, can you swim?” The last time I recited it, I added, “Of course, this must have taken place in a polar region during the summer.”

Thinking more, I said, “And clearly it happened before the boys were dead. Kind of like saying, ‘The late so-and-so once said…’ and it’s understood that he said it when he was still alive.”

Doug and Adam started to get into it, too. You can face each other while you’re back to back if you each have a mirror you’re holding up. “And they must have had ballistic knives!” added Doug, who has learned about such things from playing Call of Duty. (This wouldn’t work so well in versions of the poem that have “Drew their guns and stabbed each other.”)

Hey, that was good. With ballistic knives in the picture, we were now on the home stretch. “‘A deaf policeman heard the noise’ — oh, that’s easy. Just like the boys weren’t dead at the time, this policeman wasn’t deaf yet, although he’s deaf now. And he killed the two dead boys? Well, clearly, that’s how they came to be dead.” The same reasoning also cleared the part about the blind man “who saw it, too.”

That just left the part about true lies. But then all of a sudden I realized: It didn’t matter! The clause about true lies was the complement of an opacity-inducing verb! “Hey, we don’t have to explain anything about true lies!” I told Doug and Adam. “You can believe that two plus two equals five, and there’s no contradiction. You can believe that a purple dinosaur lives under your bed, and the sentence is still true, even though you’re wrong.” Believe, unlike know, doesn’t presuppose that what follows is true.

I’m glad I was able to enrich this poem for Doug and Adam, and make it so much more fun and meaningful.

Posted in Lexical semantics, Semantics | 6 Comments »

The Douche Totally Kicks Back

Posted by Neal on August 12, 2011

Last month, the wife and boys and I saw Super 8, the aliens thriller from J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg. Despite its cheesy ending, we liked it enough that we took Mom and Dad to see it when they came to visit a few weeks later. In fact, the movie was entertaining enough that it wasn’t until my second viewing that I noticed what should have been some glaring language anachronisms in a story that’s set in May of 1979. There were other anachronisms, too, which you can find (along with other goofs) on various websites.

The smallest temporal dislocation comes in a scene in which a character named Jen is flirting with a stoner dude named Donny. She tells him that her brother has told her Donny is a cool guy (or something along those lines), and then suggests that the she and he could “kick back”. Kick back meaning “relax” is only an anachronism by five years or so. I recall hearing it in 1984 or 1985, and its first attestation in COHA is from 1986.

In that same conversation, Donny responds to the comment about his being a great guy, “I totally am.” To the suggestion that he and Jen kick back, he says, “We totally could.” Also, in an earlier scene, the characters of Alice and Joe have an intense, emotional conversation. She asks him if he feels the same way she does about something, and he says, “I totally do.”

Totally, of course, can modify verbs, but until recently, only in its literal sense of “completely”. It’s hard to say when its sense of just “truly” or “definitely” developed, because in many cases either meaning works. Nevertheless, when totally began to be used with this sense, it was primarily with adjectives, most notably awesome. I don’t think it began to modify verbs that are incompatible with a “completely” meaning (such as kick back) until the 1990s or so. What’s more striking about all three examples in Super 8 is that they all modify an elliptical verb phrase, i.e. one with just an auxiliary verb. We’ve got a nice variety in these few examples: a modal (could), a form of be (am), and a form of do. All that’s missing is have. In both COHA and COCA, this only starts to happen in the 1990s.

The most jarring of the language anachronisms comes from Donny. Actually, Jen can’t stand him, and the only reason she’s flirting with him is to persuade him to give her brother and his friends a ride back into their evacuated town, where they plan to break into their school to look for top secret stuff. (It’s a government cover-up evacuation, of course, so the scene of Donny and the kids driving against a flow of outgoing traffic into a danger zone is probably deliberately reminiscent of Close Encounters.) Donny objects to the boys’ demand that he stay outside the school while they conduct their search, and says something like,

So what, I just wait here like a douche?

Like a douche? It’s only been in the last couple of years or so that I’ve gradually become aware of the insult douche. Other people noticed this anachronism, too, like the guy in an online movie forum who wrote,

One character says something like ‘I’m supposed to sit here like a douche?’ Douche and douchebag didn’t become ubiquitous insults until pretty recently. (And aren’t you glad they did?)

and the one who wrote,

I wasn’t aware that “douche” was ’79 slang. I thought that was a more recent thing.

This obvious hater was called out by another participant, who wrote,

I am utterly amazed at the depths to which people in the forum are willing to stoop, just to try to find something to criticize about this film. … Oh, and “douche” as a pejorative has been around since at least the 1960s, and probably a lot longer than that.

No, I don’t think so. Douchbag, yes; douche, no. I first came across douchebag in Pat Conroy’s book The Lords of Discipline, which was set, if I recall, in the 1960s. Of course, Conroy could have been using some anachronistic language himself, but a search through COHA turns up this 1951 attestation in From Here to Eternity:

“The trouble with you, Pete,” the voice … said savagely, “is you cant see any further than that douchebag nose of yours.”

It also shows up as a derogatory (I assume) nickname in the 1939 novel Ninety Times Guilty, for a character called Jimmy Douchebag.

But as for douche, the earliest definition submitted for it in Urban Dictionary is in February 2003. Three months earlier was the original airdate of an episode of South Park titled “The Biggest Douche in the Universe“, and that’s the earliest I’ve been able to antedate douche as a term referring to a person. I totally could see South Park popularizing a new piece of obscene slang, and maybe even inventing it, but can’t say for sure yet. If you heard it earlier than November 2002, or find an earlier attestation, leave a comment. (And not just any comment; a comment giving that attestation.) As for Donny’s line, a more era-appropriate insult would have been dork, but since he uses that one at least twice at other times in the movie, maybe J.J. Abrams wanted something else. Something else beginning with D. In that case, since The Dukes of Hazzard began airing in January 1979, my humble suggestion would have been dipstick.

Mar. 2, 2012, UPDATE: Had I checked the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, I would have found out that douche as an insult is attested in at least one population from the 1960s, as I learned from this

Posted in Diachronic, Music, Syntax, Taboo | 7 Comments »

Make Me One with Everything

Posted by Neal on August 7, 2011

Glen drew my attention to a Language Log post a couple of months ago, which commented on the cultural knowledge you needed in order to get the joke

The Dalai Lama walks into a pizza joint and says, “Make me one with everything.”

Actually, the way I heard this joke years ago was, “What did the Zen master say to the hot dog vendor?”, but no matter. Glen wrote:

But oddly, given the source, the post doesn’t mention the linguistic knowledge (perhaps implicit) that you must also have. It seems like the joke requires understanding how direct and indirect objects can occupy the same spot in a sentence.

Indeed it does, and more specifically, it requires knowledge of two different syntactic frames that make can fit into. To the right is a diagram of make me one with everything with its meaning of “make for me a pizza that has every topping on it”. The first branch is the verb make; the second branch is the NP consisting of the pronoun me. The third branch is the NP one with everything, which itself consists of the NP one, modified by the PP with everything.

Now let’s take a look at the diagram for the other meaning. Which one, though? There is the Zen punch line reading: “Unify my essence with that of the universe.” But there’s also another reading where one with everything still refers to a pizza with all the toppings: “Turn me into a pizza that has every topping on it.” That’s the reading Glen and I would play with when our baby sister Ellen (she’s a second-year medical resident now, by the way) would ask us, “Will you make me a peanut butter sandwich?” We’d say, “Sure! Abracadabra — you’re a peanut butter sandwich!” Then she’d say, “No! A real peanut butter sandwich!” And we’d say, “Oh, well why didn’t you say so! You’re a real peanut butter sandwich!”

The “turn me into a pizza with everything” reading would correspond to … well, actually, that would correspond to the same structure I had in that last diagram. In fact, so would the nirvana reading. Some ambiguities just don’t correspond to different syntactic structures. To distinguish the structures associated with these different meanings, we need to label the branches with not only their syntactic categories, but also the grammatical functions that the phrases they’re labeling play. The diagram on the left below belongs to the no-funny-business meaning, with me as indirect object, and one with everything as direct object. The one on the right belongs to the funny “you’re a pizza” reading, with me as direct object, and one with everything as a predicate complement. And … it also belongs to the funny Zen reading. The two funny readings still are identical structurally. Unless…












It seems to me that the special meaning of one to mean “integrated with, coextensive with” is more of an adjectival meaning. But it’s hard to find a reason to justify that claim. You can’t have comparative or superlative forms of this adjective: *oner, *onest. It can’t be used attributively: *a one-with-everything Zen master. Of course, there are other adjectives that aren’t gradable, such as binary and nonexistent, and other adjectives that can’t be attributive, such as asleep, ajar, afraid, etc. But having one of those properties would make for a more decisive labeling. There is one fact, though, that may be what is tilting me toward an adjective diagnosis: You can only use one with X as a predicative when it has this meaning. You can’t use it as a subject, direct or indirect object, or object of a preposition: [*]One with everything just walked through the door, [*]I saw one with everything. (The asterisks mean that the sentence is grammatical, but not with the meaning you’re looking for.) So with that in mind, we could diagram the Zen meaning of make me one with everything like this:

Posted in Ambiguity, Lexical semantics, Syntax | 10 Comments »

It Could Be Months

Posted by Neal on August 5, 2011

I was reading about the temporary funding deal for the FAA this morning, and was confused by this paragraph:

“This issue is still unresolved as far as I’m concerned,” said Dan Stefko, an engineer with the FAA who has been out of work for nearly two weeks. “It could be 1 1/2 months before we could be right back in the exact same spot.”

The first time I read it, I was imagining a job that required an FAA engineer to visit different airports on a schedule. The temporary fix was no good because … he had been unable to do his job in the place he had visited most recently, and by the time his route took him there again, it would be 1 1/2 months later, and by then problems that he could have fixed now would have gotten worse. Was that it?

I read it again, and this time took the exact same spot metaphorically, referring to a sudden lack of funding. I finally began to get Stefko’s point: The temporary fix was no good because in six weeks the problem would have to be addressed again. Well, that’s always an obvious objection to a temporary fix, so why was it so hard for me to get that meaning?

I blame the It could be before syntax. If he had said,

We could be right back in the exact same spot in 1 1/2 months

I would have had no problem. By putting the time period up front, Stefko was putting the focus on it, and the usual reason for that is to emphasize how long something is going to take. That is, unless you do something to cancel that assumption, like

It could be as little as 1 1/2 months before we could be right back in the exact same spot.

I did some Google searching for “It could be * months|years before”, and just skimming through the first few pages of results, didn’t find any that were emphasizing how little time might pass before something happened. What about you? Can you get the “as little as” reading with It could be ___ before constructions?

Posted in Pragmatics, Syntax | 4 Comments »

Un-Nibbled by Cats

Posted by Neal on August 2, 2011

One day last week, Doug got up at 7:00, in an attempt to be able to fall asleep faster that night. He’d been trying to do it for several days, without success. He would just turn off his alarm without even waking up. I suggested the low-tech solution I’d used in college: Put the alarm clock on the opposite side of the room, so he’d have to get up out of bed to turn it off. And it worked. Now, here he was, up and dressed by 7:30, eating toaster waffles and microwave bacon.

Adam, though, was still asleep at 8:00. I put the remaining two slices of bacon back in the microwave to keep them out of our cats’ reach until Adam could get to them. I had also spooned some yogurt into a bowl, and had a piece of proto-toast in the toaster for him. I wanted Adam’s breakfast to be ready for him when he got up, because I would be running an errand by then. I didn’t want him to just come downstairs and skip breakfast in favor of playing video games.

So where to put the yogurt? Back in the fridge? OK, but the bacon had to stay in the safe. Room-temperature bacon is all right, but not refrigerator-cold bacon. And what about the toast? Darn it, by the time Adam came down, it would probably be stale. All right, I decided. Adam would just have to get up and get his butt downstairs for breakfast before he got dressed or anything else, that was all. I placed all three items on his placemat, and then went up to knock on his door.

“Who is it?” I heard a muffled voice ask.

“It’s me. Hey, I’m going to run an errand. Your breakfast is on the table. You might want to come down and eat it while…

…the toast is still warm, the yogurt’s still cool, and the bacon is still un-nibbled by cats.”

Awright! I was just trying to get my breakfast-making duties out of the way, but in doing it, I had spontaneously created a bracketing paradox!

Here’s the deal. Un-, everyone agrees, is a prefix. It can attach to one adjective to create another adjective. In this case, it’s attaching to the adjective (more specifically, past participle) nibbled to create the adjective un-nibbled, i.e. “not nibbled”. Then the prepositional phrase by cats attaches to that to give us the adjective phrase un-nibbled by cats, as shown in the diagram below:

Going by the morphology

But wait. Can PPs do that? Can they just attach to an adjective to give you an adjective phrase? Sure, if you have the right kind of adjective. Fond forms an AdjP when it attaches to an of-PP; so do great and with child. But un-nibbled isn’t an adjective that takes a PP, any more than, say, green or scary are. Green by cats? Scary by cats? What would those phrases even mean?

The meaning we’re after is, “It is not the case that the bacon is nibbled by cats,” so why not parse the phrase so that nibbled by cats forms a chunk, and then let the un- attach to that? Something like this:

Going by the semantics

Great! Now the negation clearly takes scope over the entire part about being nibbled by cats. But now un- isn’t a word prefix anymore. It might as well be the free-standing word not, the way it’s sitting outside the phrase nibbled by cats. Hence, the bracketing paradox.

Now there is one other parse of un-nibbled by cats, one that isn’t a bracketing paradox. It exists because of a peculiarity of the prefix un-. As Ben Zimmer wrote in a 2009 “On Language” column:

Ever since Old English, the un- prefix has come in two basic flavors. It can be used like the word “not” to negate adjectives (unkind, uncertain, unfair) and the occasional noun (unreason, unrest, unemployment). Or it can attach to a verb to indicate the reversal of an action (unbend, unfasten, unmask).

So if we take un- in its guise as a verb prefix, then we can parse un-nibbled by cats this way:

Taking "un-nibble" as a verb

Unfortunately, a completely different meaning comes with this parse. And not only is it not the meaning I want; it’s a meaning that can’t even happen in this world. Living with five cats, I can tell you that they never un-nibble anything!

Posted in Cats, Food-related, Gerunds and participles, Morphology | 6 Comments »

Summer Links

Posted by Neal on July 29, 2011

  • A thorough investigation of the history of different from/than/to from Stan Carey.
  • The hilarious linguistics love song (h/t to Stan Carey)
  • Another blog post from Stan Carey, this one linking to no less (uh, fewer?) than four websites that allow you to easily type and display IPA characters. I’ve put all the stuff I got from Stan first to get it out of the way. Seriously, you should just subscribe to his blog. He’s always writing about, or linking to, interesting stuff.
  • A post on the African American English blog Word, on black sign language.
  • David Crystal on why and how the past tense texed for texted might have arisen.
  • The puzzlers from this year’s International Linguistic Olympiad, being held this week in Pittsburgh. (h/t to Language Log)
  • The Yale Grammatical Diversity Project, a fledgling database that catalogs regional variation in American English, not in pronunciation, not in lexical items (soda vs. pop), but in syntactic constructions (might could, needs done, etc.), with links to research papers.
  • The Idiomizer, another site that was created only recently, but should be a good translation resource as it accumulates more data. The goal: Input an idiom in a source language, find the functionally equivalent one in the target language. I asked it for “a little bird told me” in French, and sure enough, got (in French) “my little finger told me”.
  • A video of Michael Erard’s interview with “hyperpolyglot” Alexander Arguelles, who describes his mind-blowingly intense, driven, sustained, and disciplined daily regimen for learning whichever dozen or so languages he’s currently working on.

Posted in Linkfests | 3 Comments »