Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Gluten, Lactose, and Nonconstituent Coordination

Posted by Neal on September 28, 2011

Longtime reader and occasional blogger Blar sent me an unusual coordination, complete with a picture:

The meaning of this phrase is clear enough: The kefir (whatever that is) is gluten-free and for the most part lactose free. (Actually, does 99% lactose free mean that 1% of the kefir consists of lactose, or that 99% of whatever lactose was there has been removed? Either way, I’ll just leave it as “for the most part lactose free”.) But the syntax is so, so bad! It just goes to show that you can’t always factor out the common part of two coordinated phrases and end up with something assume that the resulting coordination will be grammatical. Just because you can replace John sang and Marsha sang with John and Marsha sang doesn’t mean you can replace gluten free and 99% lactose free with gluten and 99% lactose free. But why not?

Let’s take a look at gluten-free and 99% lactose free separately. Gluten is a noun; free is an adjective; and together they form the compound adjective gluten free. The compound adjective lactose free is composed in the same way. In addition, the noun 99% modifies the compound adjective lactose free to create the bigger adjective 99% lactose free. In the diagram, this structure is shown by having lactose and free under one roof, or in syntactic jargon, forming a constituent. 99% lactose free is a larger constituent, all contained under the bigger roof.


99% lactose, however, is not a constituent. So maybe gluten and 99% lactose don’t coordinate well because 99% lactose isn’t a constituent.

Unfortunately, that alone won’t explain the ungrammaticality, because nonconstituent coordination (NCC) happens a lot, in phrases like I sent the package by UPS and the tax return via the postal service. The package by UPS is not a constituent, and neither is the tax return via the postal service. NCC tends to flow more smoothly when the coordinated pieces have similar structures (i.e. when they’re “parallel”), as in this example, with both coordinates consisting of a noun phrase naming a thing sent and a prepositional phrase naming the deliverer. Gluten and 99% lactose, in contrast, are not parallel in this way.

So what happens if we make them parallel? How about:

100% gluten and 99% lactose free

Nope, still no good for me. How is it for you?

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Posted in Food-related, Zeugmatic | 16 Comments »

How Do You Say Hubert?

Posted by Neal on September 27, 2011

In a post at Lingua Franca, Geoff Pullum writes about reading a novel and being pleasantly surprised when the protagonist referred to the “th” sound in that as a voiced dental fricative, which, in fact, it is. (Interdental, more specifically, but still.) But his admiration turned to disgust when he read another novel in the same series, and the protagonist tells the Secret Service that from their recording of a bad guy saying, “You won’t get that lucky again” and “Hey, I want to talk to you,” they have all the phonetic information they need to identify the guy: “All the vowel sounds, most of the consonants. You got the sibilant characteristics, and some of the fricatives.”

A panphonic set of unscripted utterances consisting of only 13 words? Pullum sets the record straight in his usual style. I already knew firsthand how difficult it would be to round up all the English phonemes in one utterance, having tried doing it in the Mission: Impossible poem, which Ben Zimmer kindly linked to in a comment. For panphonic passages written by other people, check the other posts in the Panphonic Phun category.

As it happens, I was thinking about my panphonic poem just the yesterday. I had just read a post at Grammarphobia about the pronunciation of h before [ju], as in Hubert or Houston (the city in Texas, that is, not the street in Manhattan). Here’s Patricia O’Conner’s description of it when it is pronounced (instead of dropped, as some speakers do):

Phonetically, the letter “h” in these words is a voiceless palatal fricative (a consonant produced by narrowing the air passages, arching the tongue toward the hard palate, and not vibrating the vocal cords).

I was surprised for a moment, since I’m used to thinking of [h] as a voiceless glottal fricative, made simply by opening your vocal folds wide and letting air from the lungs pass through the opening between them (i.e. the glottis). But then I realized that I do pronounce Hubert and Houston with a palatal fricative at the beginning. I started to say Hubert, but quickly switched to home after saying the /h/, and the pronunciation sounded off.

This phonetic realization makes sense, since [j] (that is, the “y” sound) is a palatal consonant, and turning the glottal fricative [h] into the palatal fricative [ç] before [j] is a typical assimilation. Alternatively, instead of producing a fully palatal fricative, a speaker might get the back of the tongue only as far forward as the velum (aka soft palate) before making the /h/ sound, in which case it would come out as the voiceless velar fricative [x]. If you speak German, you’ll recognize [ç] as the sound at the end of Ich, and if you listen to Bill Cosby comedy routines, you may recognize [x] as the way he often pronounces /k/, but that’s about as but English doesn’t have /ç/ or /x/ as phonemes in their own right, so using them for /h/ here and there doesn’t cause confusion.

The significance for my poem, in which I had attempted to use not only every phoneme but also every allophone (way of pronouncing) every phoneme, was that I had learned about one more allophone that I hadn’t managed to squeeze in. I had /h/ in the words he, him, and horrible, and in all those words I think it’s realized as simply [h] and not [ç] or [x]. Some speakers might have it as [ç] in he, but not as reliably as they would in Hubert.

What about you? Do you use a glottal, velar, or palatal /h/ before the “you” sound?

Posted in Books, Consonants, Panphonic Phun | 2 Comments »

Questionable Intentions

Posted by Neal on September 26, 2011

I was listening to (I believe it was) this episode of The Tobolowsky Files (the podcast I wrote about in this post). At one point in the episode, Tobolowsky said:

It was intended for me to find.

Interesting, I thought. That’s almost like one of those double passives I’ve been collecting. I wrote it down and forgot about it for a while.

Some time later, I was reading an entry on drapetomania on Romeo Vitelli’s blog Providentia (“a biased look at psychology in the world”). Drapetomania was the name of the psychological disorder, peculiar to black slaves, of wanting to escape. The term was coined by a Dr. Samuel Cartwright in 1851, who said:

If any one or more of them, at any time, are inclined to raise their heads to a level with their master or overseer, humanity and their own good requires that they should be punished until they fall into that submissive state which was intended for them to occupy.

There it was again! A weird passive clause involving the verb intend and an infinitival verb (to find, to occupy), and … well, let me explain.

So in an ordinary passive clause, the subject is what would be a direct object if the clause were active. Take the passive clause Luigi was called (by Mario). The subject Luigi would show up as the direct object of the main (and only) verb in the corresponding active clause Mario called Luigi. This is true even for transitive verbs that also take an infinitive. For example, take the passive clause Luigi was told (by Mario) to throw the banana peels. The subject Luigi once again shows up as a direct object of the main verb in the active clause Mario told Luigi to throw the banana peels.

But the intend examples are different. Looking at Tobo’s sentence It was intended for me to find, let’s take the subject it and try to make it the direct object of intend in an active clause:

Someone intended it for me to find.

Now that might not actually be bad grammar for everyone. For me it’s pretty shaky, and I’m certain that the equivalent active clause for It was intended for me to find is actually this one, with it as the direct object not of the main verb intended, but of the infinitival verb find:

Someone intended for me to find it.

Somehow the direct object of the embedded verb got promoted all the way up to subject of the main verb. The same with the Cartwright example, whose active-voice equivalent would be something like, this with the subscripted gap as the direct object of occupy, not intended:

…that submissive statei which someone intended for them to occupy __i

In this respect, these intend passives are like double passives such as Others were attempted to be killed. The active version of that sentence would not be *Someone attempted others to be killed, but a clause with others as the direct object of the infinitival verb kill, like this:

Someone attempted to kill others.

The main difference between the double passives and the intend passives is that in the double passive, the main verb and the embedded verb show up as passives (was intended … to find), while in the intend passive, only the main verb does (were attempted to be killed). The reason you don’t get double passivization with intend for X to Y seems pretty clear: You’ve got a second subject intervening between the main verb and the infinitival one. Look what happens if you try to make both verbs passive:

It was intended for me to be found.

Now, all of a sudden, we’re talking about someone finding not “it”, but “me”.

There are other versions of intend for which you can find its infinitival complement passivized. There’s intransitive intend, which can form double passives just like attempt can: Others are intended to be killed. For some speakers, there’s even transitive intend, as in He intends others to be killed. That version of intend isn’t in my active grammar, but if it were, then Others are intended to do be killed would be an unremarkable passive.

Having come across this unusual passive with intend twice, in sources separated by more than 150 years, I wondered how common it was, so I went to the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) and found a handful more:

  • The love that was intended for us to feel comes up at these times.
  • In this lesson, which was intended for teachers to learn first and then show their students, a group sits in a large circle.
  • This packet was intended for students to use in studying with their parents the content they learned in the music classroom.
  • Because the design is intended for anyone to be able to build, the materials are economical and the shape of the house basic.
  • Signals may be intended for us to detect or they may be deliberately obfuscated to thwart accidental detection.
  • we have revealed a Pandora’s box of events that were never intended for us to see in the first place.

I also found a couple in the British National Corpus:

  • the Spirit had first of all to inspire Peter with his vision of the unclean animals in the sheet which were intended for him to eat
  • since the picture was intended for Handel to keep

And in the Corpus of Historical American English:

  • Ulf Jarl saw the cook’s scullion pour something into a broth that was intended for me to eat.
  • “I knew that was what they were after!” said Mrs. Tetchy to her husband, in a voice that was intended for us to hear.

Not all the results I found when I searched for “[be] intended for * to” were relevant. Some were impersonal passives with a dummy it for a subject, and the direct object of the infinitival verb right where it should be, like this one from COCA:

  • I think it was intended for us to keep our hands and bodies close to the earth.

Other examples have a referential subject that doesn’t really fit syntactically into the infinitival phrase. For these, I have to mentally replace “for X to” with “so that X can”:

  • Iridium always was intended for people to communicate in places where people couldn’t communicate.
  • This is intended for readers to have a general view of Taiwan’s aid programs.
  • Town hall meetings are intended for soldiers to have dialogue with the secretary of defense.

I haven’t checked the Google Books corpus or other corpora, but other examples are welcome, from the corpora or your own experience.

In your own personal English grammar, what do you say? What do you do when you want to say that someone (you don’t know or don’t want to say who) intended you to do find X, and you want to put X as the focus of the sentence? Do you say, “X, I was intended to find”? Do you say “X was intended for me to find”? Or are you just plain out of luck, with recourse only to a complete rephrasing?

Posted in Passive voice | 4 Comments »

From Seattle to Shanghai

Posted by Neal on September 22, 2011

Bill Walsh, who can be pretty literal-minded himself, wrote this about a journalistic cliche known as the false range:

A Scripps Howard story on actor John Leguizamo mentions that he “has starred in films and TV projects ranging from ‘Moulin Rouge’ to ‘Arabian Nights.’ ” Let’s see, how does that continuum go again? Oh, yes, there’s “Moulin Rouge,” then
“The Incredible Mr. Limpet,” “Davey and Goliath,” “Gonorrhea
and You: A Cautionary Tale,” and then finally “Arabian Nights.

And when my paper, The Washington Post, says “everything from fantasy to animation to suspense dramas” was popular at the movies in 2001, that necessarily includes straight-to-video Frank Stallone crap, NC-17 films involving barnyard animals and propaganda documentaries denying the Holocaust. Remember: It says “everything”! (link)

Grammar Monkeys, one of the Wichita Eagle‘s blogs, got pretty creative in filling in the missing parts of false ranges, too:

This movie has everything from fistfights to car chases to shootouts.
Really? Everything? Talking animals? Tender romance? Discussions about the nature of existence? Aliens?

The upscale women’s boutique has merchandise ranging from handbags to jewelry.
Just what all is in between handbags and jewelry? Clothes? Nope. Shoes? A few. Sunglasses? Bingo! Fancy pens? Yep — who knew?

The kitchen serves up everything from squid to paella to buffalo.
Again, everything? Even rainbow Jell-O? (link)

Ranges per se aren’t meaningless, as long as there’s a continuum that you’re giving the endpoints of. It can be a measurable continuum, as in from two ounces to two tons or from New York to Los Angeles, or a fuzzier continuum of a subjective property, like life-threateningness in from colds to cancer. But if there’s no apparent continuum, Walsh and others argue, then anything goes. Everything from X to Y becomes in essence, everything. As they’ve been discussing on Language Log, everything without a suitable restriction on its domain is trouble.

The solution, of course, is to interpret everything from X to Y but idiomatically, as the writer intended it: “many and somewhat diverse things, including X and Y.” It’s still a cliche, but at least not a meaningless one.

Anyway, so last night I was talking with my mom about NASA’s Upper Atmospheric Research Satellite, put into orbit in 1991 and falling back to Earth as I’m writing this. Mom said she’d heard someone on a newscast somewhere say that the pieces of the satellite might land “anywhere from Shanghai to Seattle.” A real, geographic range to work with. Let’s see…

Shanghai: 31°N, 121°E
Seattle: 47°N, 122°W

So the UARS might land anywhere along the (shorter) great-circle distance between 31°N, 121°E and 47°N, 122°W, including Tokyo and a long stretch of the North Pacific.

That’s probably too restrictive. After all, from New York to LA is usually taken to mean the entire US, at least the contiguous ones. Shanghai and Seattle don’t suggest such a salient area, but maybe the newscaster meant anywhere in the area bounded by the 31st and 47th parallels on the south and north, and by the 121st east and the 122nd west meridians. That would bring in the rest of Japan, Korea, Manchuria, some of Siberia, a little bit more of Washington’s Pacific Coast, and a lot more of the North Pacific.

No, that’s probably too restrictive, too. Maybe they meant anywhere between the 31st and 47th parallels. Now we’re talking. That’s all the area I mentioned before, plus Mongolia, the land of Stans, about half of Europe, and most of the contiguous United States.

Or, maybe they meant between 121°E and 122°W, a span of 117 degrees of longitude. That would be the area I mentioned two paragraphs ago, plus a lot of Indonesia, most of Australia, and just about all of Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia, as well as Alaska and more of Siberia. So what exactly is the range here?

From what I’ve found out since that conversation, pieces of the UARS could land anywhere between 57°N and 57°S — a much bigger area than any of the possibilities I just laid out, and pretty much my mom’s understanding of “anywhere except the polar regions.” It seems that from Shanghai to Seattle was intended as a false range, with Shanghai and Seattle chosen just for their near-alliterative quality and intended to be taken as “many and diverse places, including Shanghai and Seattle”.

This rhetorical range has just the opposite problem from the usual. Most false ranges, when interpreted literally, generate a set that’s way too big. This one gives you a geographic area that’s too small, no matter how you calculate it. The lesson: If you’re going to use the false range cliche, make it truly false. Don’t choose endpoints that really do have measurable quantities between them.

Posted in Semantics, You're so literal! | 3 Comments »

September Links, and a Contest

Posted by Neal on September 20, 2011

Some new linguistics blogs have appeared on the scene, which I’ve liked well enough to put right onto the blogroll. The Chronicle of Higher Education website introduced a blog in August, called Lingua Franca. It’s a group blog, with five listed contributors. The three I recognize are Geoff Pullum, Allan Metcalf, and Ben Yagoda.

Next, there’s The Diacritics, a blog begun by John Stokes and Sandeep Prasanna, two guys who each earned a linguistics degree last year (from Harvard and Duke respectively), and are each now a first-year law student (at Yale and UCLA respectively).

Lastly, Language Hippie came on the scene in June. It’s written by Joe Kessler, a linguistics grad student at the University of Buffalo.

In addition to the new blogs, here‘s one of Grammar Girl’s more linguistically bent podcasts. This one’s on the needs done construction (which I’ve blogged about), and for it Mignon Fogarty did some field research, gathering data from her Facebook and Google+ followers to find out where people used this construction. She created a nice map of the results, a good supplement to the one in the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project that I mentioned last month.

As for the contest, the people at Grammar.net are holding a contest to choose, by votes alone, the Best Grammar Blog of 2011. Today is the halfway point in the 10-day nomination period. You’re thinking I’m going to ask you to nominate me? Wrong! I can nominate myself. But actually, I don’t even need to do that, because they tell me that I’m one of the 50 blogs they’ve personally selected to make it to the actual voting, which takes place from September 26 through October 17. So, thanks, Grammar.net! I’m honored to be in a list that includes blogs such as John Wells’s Phonetic Blog, Gabe Doyle’s Motivated Grammar, and Lynne Murphy’s Separated by a Common Language. Come September 26, I’ll casually mention this contest again, but in the meantime, go and make sure your (other) favorite linguistics blogs are on the list of nominations.

Posted in Linkfests, Self-promotion | Leave a Comment »

Srimp and Jritos at the Groshery Store

Posted by Neal on September 15, 2011

In my second post on the pronunciation of “tr” as [ʧr] (i.e. as “chr”), my question was this: If the /ʧ/ and /ʤ/ (that is, the “ch” and “j” sounds) are phonemes in English, then why don’t English speakers think of words like trick and drape as chrick and jrape? (At least, why don’t the English speakers who pronounce them that way think of them as chrick and jrape? Some speakers do pronounce /tr/ and /dr/ as [tʰr] and [dr].) To put it in phonological terms, why would someone who didn’t know the alphabet perceive [ʧrIk] as /trIk/ and not /ʧrIk/? Or [ʤreip] as /dreip/ and not /ʤreip/? In fact, children who are just learning to spell sometimes do spell [ʧr] as , and [ʤr] as . However, English speakers eventually come around to perceiving [ʧr] and [ʤr] as /tr/ and /dr/. One reason is that as they learn the spelling system, they see that that’s how [ʧr] and [ʤr] are spelled. Another reason is that if English allowed the affricates /ʧ/ and /ʤ/ to form consonant clusters with /r/, we’d have a strange phonological system on our hands. In it, all the plosive consonants other than /t/ and /d/ could form clusters with /r/, while /t/ and /d/ for mysterious reasons could not. Meanwhile, we have /ʧ/ and /ʤ/, which do not normally form consonant clusters, able for some reason to form them with just the consonant /r/.

With that in mind, consider the consonant cluster [ʃr], in words like shrimp, shriek, shred, shroud, shrew, and shrike. I hadn’t given it much thought before, but comments from Herb Stahlke in some of the posts linked to this one have got me to thinking about it. Like the affricate /ʧ/, the sibilant /ʃ/ forms clusters only with one consonant: /r/. You do get [ʃt] if it’s followed by an /r/, as I discussed in a recent post, but speakers generally perceive that as /str/. And you don’t get words like shkop, shtame, or shpoonkle (oh, wait…). German or Yiddish borrowings like schlep, Schwinn, Schmidt, and schnitzel are acceptable, but you don’t find many new words created that begin with /ʃl/, /ʃw/, /ʃm/, or /ʃn/. On the other hand, the sibilant /s/ can form a cluster with several other consonants. It can form them with voiceless plosives: spit, stick, sky. It can form them with nasals: smack, snoot. It can form them with glides: swoop, and in some dialects, words like suit. (See this post on Dialect Blog for more on American English “yod-dropping”.) It can form them with liquids: slide and … Oops. It can form clusters with lateral liquids, i.e. /l/. It can’t form them with retroflex liquids, i.e. /r/. How many of you pronounce the Sri in Sri Lanka as [sri], and not [ʃri]? I try to, but it feels weird.

So by the same phonological reasoning that leads us to perceive [ʧr] and [ʤr] as /tr/ and /dr/, why don’t we perceive [ʃr] as /sr/? In other words, why don’t we have a system in which /s/ can form clusters with both kinds of lateral liquids, and note that before /r/, /s/ is realized as [ʃ], instead of having a mysterious gap where /sr/ should be? Well, in this case, the spelling points toward hearing it the way it actually sounds: Words like shrimp, shriek, shred, shroud, shrew, and shrike are actually spelled with . But if it weren’t for the spelling, how would speakers perceive it? (Stahlke observes that some Southern American English speakers actually do say “srimp”, but what about other words beginning with “shr”?)

There is at least one word where speakers may perceive something pronounced as [ʃ] as an /s/. Listen to this classic Sesame Street video:


Did you hear it? “Ten tiny turtles on the telephone, talking to the groshery men”? That’s how I heard it as a kid, but gradually wrote it off to my imagination, as I grew up in a family that pronounced it gro[s]ery. Years later, though, I learned that many speakers unquestionably do pronounce grocery with [ʃ]. On her blog, Jan Freeman wrote:

But ever since I started reading similar criticisms of my native Ohio speech oddities, I’ve been wary of ascribing motives to people’s pronunciations. I grew up with “mirror” pronounced MERE and grocery as GROSHERY. But my parents didn’t use those pronunciations because they were uneducated; they used them because everyone did.

As I wrote this post, I realized that I had an explanation for this pronunciation: If you elide the unstressed schwa in the middle syllable, you’re left with an /s/ right next to an /r/. (Linguists call such a deletion syncope.) Looking at it that way, I see that gro[ʃ]ry is no more unusual than C’lumbus, Ohio, or Web’los. But if you keep the unstressed syllable, then both gro[ʃ]ry and C’lumbus may strike you as a bit odd.

Now Freeman may or may not have recognized that her pronunciation of grocery contained a [ʃ] (feel free to chime in, Jan), but here’s a speaker for whom [ʃ] is just how you pronounce /s/ before an /r/. A commenter going by the handle embolini9 responded to a query on seriouseats.com, “How do you pronounce ‘grocery’?” , writing, “I’m from New England, and I’ve never heard the ‘sh’ sound. I’ve always said ‘gross-ree.'” But a few comments later, embolini9 returned to write, “Oh wait! I just said it out loud, and I guess sometimes I do say ‘groh-shree.’ Maybe more often than not… yup, I definitely say ‘sh.’ Now I’m the crazy girl sitting at her desk saying ‘grocery’ to herself.” (The rest of the comments are fun,too, ranging over a lot of regional pronunciations, an dsurprisingly little peeving.)

This case of syncope feeding a phonetic alteration brings me back to the posts on “shtr” and “chr/jr” that got me onto this subject. I was listening to the Sept. 7, 2011 “Radium Girls” episode of the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast, and one of the hosts pretty consistently pronounced str as [ʃtr]. There were one or two occasions when she didn’t, but one of the words that got a [ʃtr] was history. She pronounced the word historic with an [s], but history with a [ʃ]. Why? In historic, the middle syllable is stressed, so the /st/ is separated from the /r/ by a vowel. But in history, the host syncopated the unstressed medial vowel, leaving the /st/ right next to the /r/, eligible for the [ʃtr] pronunciation. As for “chr” and “jr”, I remembered way back to when Doug was three or four years old, and his favorite lunch was a turkey sandwich with Doritos. He tended to syncopate that initial unstressed syllable, leaving the /d/ next to the /r/, eligible for the [ʤr] affrication. As a result, he would ask for a turkey sandwich and “Jritos”.

Posted in Consonants, Food-related, The darndest things, Variation | 14 Comments »

The Recency Illusion and the War on Terror

Posted by Neal on September 9, 2011

As you perhaps have heard, the tenth anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001, is tomorrow. I was considering writing something language-related about 9/11, but others have done a better job than I would have done, so I’ll link to them. First of all, there’s Geoff Nunberg’s piece on Fresh Air this week, noting that there actually haven’t been that many notable additions or changes, a thesis also argued by Dennis Baron on The Web of Language. Both Baron and Nunberg note that the name 9/11 itself is the most significant linguistic legacy of the events of 9/11. For more on that, read this other Fresh Air pieces by Nunberg, this one from 2003, in which he notes that Americans are unusual compared to other nationalities in not referring to historical events by their month and day. September 11, has become the one exception, and even more unusual is the reference to the events as simply 9/11.

Another change that may have run its course is the use of the term ground zero to refer to the site of the World Trade Center. It became essentially a proper noun and was often capitalized as such. But when my family visited New York City last month, we took the Port Authority subway from Jersey City to the World Trade Center stop, and that was how we heard New Yorkers refer to it. Furthermore, on a tour bus, the 29-year-old native New Yorker narrating the tour said it was insulting to call it Ground Zero. One World Trade Center was not Ground Zero; it was at ground 55 and counting. NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg said essentially the same thing earlier this week. In this Sunday’s Boston Globe Word column, Ben Zimmer talks about these developments as well as the history of the term ground zero from the beginning of the atomic age.

A change I noticed in the months and years following 9/11 was what I thought of as “hero inflation”. The concept of hero went from people performing amazing and noble acts of strength or bravery above the call of duty, to people doing those things within the call of duty (i.e. some firefighters and military servicemembers), to people whose job merely entailed the possibility of heroism (all firefighters and military), and finally to people who just do useful jobs. That was, I think, the high-water mark of hero inflation, embodied in the kids’ show Higglytown Heroes, in which the heroes are people who do useful jobs. I wasn’t the only one to notice, apparently. I did a search for “hero inflation” and found that the phrase had been independently invented by others with the same complaint I had. It’s particularly well argued in this article from 2002 from what appears to be a think tank called the New America Foundation.

What I thought was the most noticeable piece of language to emerge in the aftermath of 9/11 was the phrase war on terrorism, or its clipped form, war on terror. I know I’ve heard plenty of one-liners from people like Jon Stewart, wondering how one could declare war on a feeling. My sentiments exactly. I attributed it to a clumsy phrasing from the mouth of President George W. Bush, one that inexplicably caught on. Was I surprised when I did some Internet searches. First of all, here’s a Google Ngram comparing war on terrorism to war on terror, and it seems that it was only in 2005 or so that war on terror took the lead. But look: You can also find it in the 1970s and 1980s.

And when I did a Google News Archive search, I found attestations (albeit sparse) of war on terror regarding other events in almost every decade since the 1930s:

  • SOVIET ARRESTS 71 IN WAR ON ‘TERROR'(The New York Times, Dec. 04, 1934)
  • Jewry rejects request to aid in war on terror (Meriden Record Feb. 11, 1947)
  • BRITAIN DEPORTS CYPRUS PRELATE IN WAR ON TERROR (New York Times, Mar. 10, 1956)
  • International War On Terror (Windsor Star, Sept. 25, 1972)
  • Haig vows war on terror (Chicago Tribune, Jan. 29, 1981)

Anyway, enough about the trivial effects of September 11, 2001. On Sunday, let’s reflect on the much more serious effects, and take a moment to remember the actual, non-inflated heroism of 9/11 — of the passengers and crew of United Flight 93, and of the first responders in New York City and Washington, D.C.

Posted in Lexical semantics, Morphology | 13 Comments »

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.

Posted in Consonants, Variation | 56 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 »