Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Classroom Debate

Posted by Neal on October 15, 2016

Me: So what did you guys do in history class today?

Adam: We had a debate on which was more effective, Progressives or Populists. I argued for Populists.

Doug: Why did you say Populists were more effective?

Adam: Because I was sitting on the left side of the room, and Mr. Ridgway said that people on the left would be–

Doug: Wait, what I meant was—

Me: Ha! An attachment ambiguity involving an extracted adjunct! Nice!

Doug: –what reasons did you give for why Populists were more effective?

Adam: Oh! Because they drew from a lot of parties: Socialists, Marxists, and others. Also, they paved the way for the Progressives like Woodrow Wilson…

While Doug and Adam continued their conversation, I thought about the question Doug had intended to ask Adam:


The WH adverb Why at the beginning of the sentence has a subscript 1, indicating that it corresponds to the GAP category on the other side of the diagram. This GAP category appears where it does because that’s where you’d expect an explanatory phrase or clause to appear, such as because they drew from a lot of parties: Socialists, Marxists, and others. A clause like that basically takes the entire sentence Populists were more effective and turns it into a bigger sentence, which is shown by the lower S node spanning Populists were more effective, and the upper S node spanning both that and the GAP category.

The connectivity between the WH words and the gap is informally called extraction. I’m deliberately avoiding calling the gap an adverb or adverb clause, though, because I’m reserving the term adverb to refer to words such as confidently, never, and fortunately. To refer more generally to adverbs, adverb phrases, prepositional phrases and subordinate clauses that modify verb phrases or sentences, syntacticians typically use the term adjunct. Hence my appreciative remark about an extracted adjunct.

Anyway, here’s the question Adam took Doug to be asking:


The words are the same, but this time the GAP category takes the inverted sentence did you say Populists were more effective and make a larger Sinv out of it, as you can see by the stacked Sinv tents. It’s looking for an answer to the question of why Adam said what he said; in this case, the answer was that the teacher just divided the class down the middle and had one side take one position and the other take the other.

Although in English, extracted adjuncts can give rise to ambiguities like this one, some languages mark the difference overtly. For example, if we had conducted our conversation in the Mayan language Kaqchikel, instead of containing an inaudible gap, the question would have had the particle wi to show where the adjunct took scope, kind of like this:

  1. (Doug’s intended question) Why did you say Populists were-wi more effective?
  2. (Adam’s interpretation) Why did you say-wi Populists were more effective?

Alas, we weren’t speaking in Kaqchikel, so we just had to rely on context, which in this case gave insufficient clues.

Update, Oct. 16, 2016: Added some clarifying details.


Posted in Adam, Attachment ambiguity, Doug, Fillers and gaps, Inversion | 1 Comment »

Bibi and Koka

Posted by Neal on September 10, 2016



Every now and then, I’ll come across a mention of the bouba/kiki effect, a classic study of sound symbolism that has been revisited several times over the years. The procedure involves showing presenting experiment participants two shapes and two nonsense words, and asking them which word goes with which shape. One of the shapes is always spiky, the other bulbous, such as those shown here. One of the nonsense words consists of voiceless velar or coronal consonants and unround vowels, such as /kiki/. Variants have included the original /takete/, as well as /keiki, kʌte, kʌtiti,/ and /tite/. The other word consists of round vowels and voiced bilabial (usually) consonants, such as /buba, bamu, mabuma, maluma/, and the original /baluma/. As you have probably correctly guessed by now, most speakers tend to put the kiki-type word with the spiky shape, and the bouba-type words with the bulbous shape. “Right, because of the sounds of the word,” you may be saying. But how, exactly, because of the sounds of the word? Maybe it seems obvious to you, as it does to most people, that kiki just sounds like it belongs with something sharp and angular, and bouba with something balloony, but why, exactly?

I wondered: Are people taking their cue from the voiced or voiceless consonants? From the round or unround vowels? From the combination of unround vowels and voiceless velars, or round vowels with voiced bilabials? What would happen if I took kiki and bouba and just swapped the vowels in the two words, to get bibi and koka? What would people do then?

For the past few weeks, I’ve been finding out, running this experiment on my wife and sons, co-workers, fellow parents of members of the high-school marching band, and anyone else as opportunity arose. I’ve presented them with the shapes, drawn on a scrap of paper, and told them to imagine a previously undiscovered tribe of people, with no prior contact with any other civilization, and a language that seems to be unrelated to any known language. They have these two objects or shapes in their culture, and call one of them a bibi, and one a koka. Which is which? If you suspect that the consonants are the deciding factor, then the spiky shape should be the preferred koka, just as it is for kiki, and the globby shape should be the preferred bibi, just as it is for bouba. On the other hand, if you think it’s all about the vowels, then the spiky shape should be favored for bibi, and the rounded one for koka.

I’ve varied the order in which I presented the words, and the orientation of the paper when I show the shapes, to avoid bias based on order of presentation. Unfortunately, there are other sources of bias. After running my first three subjects (my wife, Doug, and Adam) by presenting the words on slips of paper, I realized that the angles of the letter k and the curves of the letter b might be a source of bias. Even now, this could still be a source of bias for literate participants, since they may imagine these words written down, but I couldn’t do much about that. (For a study involving pre-literate participants, see Maurer, Pathman and Mondloch (2006). I found it in the references for the Wikipedia article I cited above). In addition, by taking the most-popular words for this experiment, kiki and bouba, and making the minimal change of swapping their vowels, I’ve ended up with two words that actually do mean something in English. /koka/ can be a leaf, a carbonated drink, or of course, the Corpus of Contemporary American English. /bibi/ is a famous blues singer, an Israeli prime minister, a lovable droid, or the ammo for an official Red Ryder, carbine action, 200-shot, range model air rifle, with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time. Any of these could provide associations that lead a subject to choose one shape or the other, but hopefully with a large enough sample size, they won’t matter.

So what happened? So far, my sample size is 27. Of them, 15 participants (55%) mapped bibi to the rounded shape, and koka to the angular one. The other 12 (44%) mapped bibi to the angular shape, and koka to the rounded one. So it looks like the consonants have a slight edge, but not much of one. In fact, if I throw out the data from my wife and sons, who were looking at written representations, only 12 participants mapped bibi to the rounded shape, and it’s now a 50-50 split. So maybe it’s the combination of vowels and consonants that produce the well-defined bouba/kiki effect, since it mostly disappeared when I flip-flopped the vowels.

There are other possibilities, too. Maurer et al., who hypothesized that the roundness or unroundness of the vowels was the important factor, mentioned that it could be that English or other languages have a detectable pattern whereby real words with rounded vowels (or spelled with round letters) denote round things, and real words with unround vowels refer to pointy things. For support, they point out that there has been one study where the kiki/bouba effect did not show up, involving the Songe people of Papua New Guinea. Maybe, they note, this language doesn’t have the same kind of previously existing sound/shape correspondences. This was why Maurer et al. wanted to do their experiment on very young children, who hadn’t had as much exposure to their native languages.

More intriguingly, Maurer et al. suggest that “the effect is stronger for some consonant/vowel pairings than others” (p. 320). They suggest this because in just one out of their four pairs of nonsense words, one word contained voiced velars and round vowels–in other words, the same combination I had in koka that I didn’t think other researchers had looked at. Their word was /goga/, and for the pair /goga, tite/, they did not get the clean mapping that they got with the other words. (They also suggested that it could have been a problem in the story that they told their toddler subjects for this particular pair of words.)

So that’s my bibi/koka experiment. If you try it on your friends or family, let me know how it goes.

Posted in Phonaesthemes, Phonetics and phonology | 6 Comments »

Relative Clauses, Complex Passives, and Rainbow Farts

Posted by Neal on August 9, 2016

I was reading an article in one of the issues of New Scientist magazine that that tend to accumulate around here, and came across this sentence:

The benefits of unsaturated fats, traditionally seen as good for the heart, may vary due to their omega-3 content, which is thought could have anti-inflammatory effects.

It seemed to me there was a word missing. In my ESL composition classes, we sometimes talk about “complex passives” as a means of reporting some claim or discovery when it’s not important who made the claim or discovery. For example, suppose we’re starting with the following claim:

  1. Unicorns fart rainbows.
Unicorn-Flying-Rainbow-Fart-Cloud, courtesy of Eye Candy by Referral Candy (Creative Commons)

Unicorn-Flying-Rainbow-Fart-Cloud, courtesy of Eye Candy by Referral Candy (Creative Commons)

Now let’s suppose we’re not prepared to support this claim, so we want to say it’s someone else who believes it:

  1. Some people think that unicorns fart rainbows.

Next, let’s say you still want to put more focus on the claim than on the unnamed people who believe it. Two rather unusual versions of the passive voice, known as complex passives, will let you do this. One of them makes use of a dummy it, and leaves the entire clause unicorns poop rainbows unchanged:

  1. It is thought that unicorns fart rainbows.

The other kind of complex passive allows you to put the focus more specifically on unicorns, by turning the subject of the embedded clause (unicorns) into the subject of the passive reporting verb (are thought–note the change from is to are to agree with unicorns), and turning the remainder of that embedded clause into an infinitive phrase (to poop rainbows), like so:

  1. Unicorns are thought to fart rainbows.

Now let’s suppose that we want to combine that last sentence with this next one, by means of a relative clause:

  1. Silicon Valley startups that are valued at a billion dollars are called unicorns.

One way of doing it is to take item #4 and use it as the basis for your relative clause. I’ve shown this by color-coding the word unicorns and the place where this word has been removed from the embedded clause, which I’ve labeled “GAP”:

  1. Silicon Valley startups that are valued at a billion dollars are called unicorns, which GAP are thought to fart rainbows.

A somewhat more awkward way of doing it is to use item #3, with the dummy it, and use that as your basis:

  1. Silicon Valley startups that are valued at a billion dollars are called unicorns, which it is thought GAP fart rainbows.

So depending on which kind of complex passive you go with, your relative clause will have either (1) an infinitive after your reporting verb, or (2) a dummy it, and then a finite verb phrase after your reporting verb. The sentence from New Scientist stuck out because it has a finite verb phrase (could have anti-inflammatory effects), but no dummy it!

Thanks to New Scientist, I’ve become aware of several idioms and unusual syntax in British English, such as down to to mean “attributable to,” the usage of so to conjoin verb phrases (as opposed to entire clauses), and it’s early days for X to mean “X is a field or endeavor in its infancy.” So maybe this was thought could phrasing was a British English thing. However, after searching the NS website for strings such as “are thought could” and “is thought might”, the only example I found was one that used both a dummy it and a finite verb:

…immediately after being given hormone treatment to harvest their eggs – which it is thought could impair the process of implantation.

It occurred to me that it might be no accident that the finite verb in this unusual sentence was a modal verb. After all, if the claim they’re talking about is something like this–

  1. Unsaturated fats’ omega-3 content could have anti-inflammatory effects.

–and you go for the complex passive that allows you to put unsaturated fats’ omega-3 content at the front of the sentence, then you need to make could into an infinitive, but English modal verbs don’t have infinitives. So what do you do? Maybe you just leave the verb as it is, and end up with:

  1. Unsaturated fats’ omega-3 content could have anti-inflammatory effects.

Then, when you turn that into a relative clause, you get out item #1. With that hypothesis, I predicted I would not find similar examples with ordinary (aka “lexical”) verbs if I went searching through some corpora. And mostly, I didn’t. Here’s what I found from the BYU British National Corpus:

  • …if he is to join the powerful Irish representation which is anticipated will cross the Atlantic to take on the Americans…
  • Thus a rise in monetary growth which is anticipated will have no effect on the level of unemployment.
  • Duty (charged at one per cent) on properties costing less that 250,000, which is hoped will kick-start the housing market.

Here’s what I found in BYU’s Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA):

  • And with a slightly increased budget of $50 million–much of which is assumed will go to leads asking for heftier paydays, location shoots in Italy, and ramped-up F/X–Summit will have to scrimp somewhere.

And here’s what I found in their NOW corpus:

  • Reportedly, both drinks can often be high in polyphenol, a nutrient which is believed could give chocolate its beneficial effects on health.
  • …leading to the development of a dilation zone which is believed could hold significant mineral potential.
  • Beijing claims almost the whole of the South China Sea, which is believed could sit atop vast oil and gas deposits.
  • His sin is his godson relationship with Obasanjo which is believed could be used against the incumbent president in 2015 if Andy becomes governor.
  • …including the on-going electronic voters registration which is believed could deny millions…

So yay, my hypothesis stood up … until I found this example in BYU’s Corpus of Historical American English (COHA):

  • The following is nearly all we could glean, which was thought had reference to the subject under consideration (1841)

Fluke? Did someone just forget to put in that short, meaningless it? Or is it possible that this construction got started with modal verbs as a workaround, and then got extended to lexical verbs (and it’s just by chance that the earliest example I found involves a lexical verb)?

I don’t know. How do these examples sound to you? Have you heard or read others? Let’s have them!

Posted in Passive voice, Relative clauses, Syntax | 4 Comments »

Build Your Own Nacho

Posted by Neal on July 5, 2016

As I walked into the family-friendly, casual restaurant, this sign was on display:

“Build your own nacho”? As I wondered in a tweet a little later, what if you want more than one nacho? Do you have to go through the line again? Or are these really big nachos? Looking at the sign closer, I see that the restaurant gives you the chips, plural, so we can cautiously assume that you can acquire several nachos in one pass. Also, I see that the sign has been carefully punctuated. When I first saw it, I parsed it like in this diagram. Here, the entire phrase build your own nacho has been pressed into service as a compound adjective. It’s a bar, of the build-your-own-nacho variety, similar to build-your-own-baked-potato bars or build-your-own-sundae bars.


Now, though, when I look at the sign, I see the judicious use of hyphens suggests a structure more like this next diagram. Here, just the partial phrase make your own has been frozen into a compound adjective, which modifies the nominal phrase nacho bar. It’s a nacho bar, of the build-your-own variety.


So what would a nacho bar of the build-your-own variety be? Context would have to say. It could be a nacho bar that you build yourself, like a build-it-yourself kit car. But given the context, it’s a bar where you build something for yourself, and that something is nachos.

Even so, the structurally ambiguous phrase build your own nacho bar highlights a syntactic tug-of-war that usually hides in the background. You have two competing templates. First, there’s the compound adjective X-your-own-Y template, where X is a verb such as build, make, or choose, and Y is a noun such as sundae, salad, or adventure. Second, there’s the nominal phrase Y bar template, where Y is a noun specifying something that you can find at the bar in question (other than the default of liquor): salad, sundaes, sushi, cigars, oxygen, or in this case, nachos. So when you come across a phrase of the form “X your own Y bar,” where does the Y belong? With “X your own”, or with “bar”?

The X-your-own-Y template is phrasal, and doesn’t put any restrictions on whether Y is singular or plural. It just depends on the meaning you want: Build your own house if you’re only building one; make your own nachos because you typically don’t eat just one, unless they’re of poor quality. The Y bar template is either for a phrase or a compound word (depending on who’s doing the analysis), but either way, attributive nouns are usually singular, so you have gumball machines instead of gumballs machines; car manufacturer instead of cars manufacturer; nacho bar instead of nachos bar. So when make your own nachos and nacho bar collide in a single expression, which one prevails?

The corpora I have access to don’t have enough attestations of make your own nacho(s) bar to make a determination (zero, to be precise), but just doing a naive Google search, I get about 60 hits for each variant.

In any case, remember that nacho bars are not show bars!

Posted in Compound words, Food-related | 2 Comments »

Bongo Is Wrongo!

Posted by Neal on June 19, 2016

At lunch today, Doug and Adam were looking at a Twitter poll that one of their friends had put up. He had a new guinea pig, and was trying to decide what to name it.


Enter a caption

Doug and Adam both liked Lúcio, the name of a character in a videogame they’ve been playing recently. I was partial to Phillip, even though it was spelled with too many L’s. “I like Bongo,” Doug said.

Now since they’d only read this poll, and hadn’t talked to their friend about it yet, I could see at once that there was a problem, a little orthographic ambiguity that would have to be cleared up before Doug could make a valid judgment on this name. “But is it [bɑŋgo] or [bɑŋo]?”  I asked.

“[bɑŋgo] or … what?”


Doug tried again: “[bɑŋgo] … no, that’s not it…”

“[bɑŋo],” Adam said.

I tried to break it down. “OK, just say ‘Bong!’ and then say, ‘Oh!'”

Doug focused. “[bɑŋ…o]–oh, that sounds so bad! [bɑŋgo]–ugh, I can’t even say it, it sounds so bad! How do you do it again?” He was laughing because the name was so ridiculous.

“[bɑŋo],” Adam and I said. “It has to do with how strong you say the G,” Adam added.

“Almost. It’s like this,” I said, and drew a table. “See that little letter next to the G? That’s the ng sound. And sometimes you’ll actually pronounce a G after it, and sometimes you won’t. It’s why finger and dinger don’t actually rhyme. Or fungus and among us.”

  1. finger /fɪŋgɹ̩/  dinger /dɪŋɹ̩/
  2. fungus /fʌŋgəs/  among us /əmʌŋ əs/
  3. Bongo /bɑŋgo/  Bong-o? /bɑŋo/

“I’m gonna have to say this to him the next time we talk. ‘So hey, did you name your guinea pig [bɑ̃ŋo]?'” Doug could hardly finish the sentence because he was laughing so much. “It just sounds so wrong!”

“You mean [ɹɑŋo]?” That was me, getting the last word.

That conversation was so much fun that I’m going to suggest Doug tweet his friend with this response:

None of above. Instead, “Butch,” not w the vowel in “foot,” but the one in “but”. Like starting to say “buttcheek” & stopping<

Posted in Adam, Doug, Phonetics and phonology | 2 Comments »

Don’t Believe Me Just Watch

Posted by Neal on March 12, 2016

I’ve been thinking about “Uptown Funk,” the song b Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars that spent fully one quarter of the year 2015 at the top of the US Billboard chart. You’ve heard it, of course. There was no escaping it two years ago. But if you need a memory refresher, it went like this:

The hook consists of Mars singing (in this order) the five words don’t, believe, me, just, and watch. But which of the following three structures is the one that Mars has in mind?

  1. [If you] don’t believe me, just watch.
  2. {You] don’t believe me? Just watch.
  3. Don’t believe me; just watch.

We could answer the question easily with a look at the official sheet music, couldn’t we? Of course we could, but do you want the easy answer or the fun answer? That’s what I thought.

[If you] don’t believe me, just watch.

When I first heard the song, I interpreted the hook this way, without questioning it. I took it as a heavily elliptical conditional sentence, which has suppressed not only the if, but also the subject you. Kind of like how if you snooze, you lose became you snooze, you lose, and ultimately the telegraphic snooze you lose. Or maybe a better example would be Mess with the bull, get the horns, where the main clause get the horns has also lost its subject.

The more I thought about it, though, the less certain I was about this interpretation, because just watch is pretty clearly a command, but in all my comparable examples, the main clause was a declaration. You lose is a declaration. Even in Mess with the bull, get the horns, where there’s no explicit subject for get the horns, it’s clearly a statement. It doesn’t mean that if you mess with the bulls, you’re obligated to get the horns; it means you will get the horns.

Don’t believe me? Just watch.

That’s when it occurred to me that what I might be hearing was an elliptical yes/no question. These abbreviated questions can omit the auxiliary verb if it’s clear from the context (as in 1-4 below), or the auxiliary verb along with the subject, if the subject is you (see 5 and 6). Negative elliptical questions like this are interesting because in them, you omit the subject you while keeping the negated auxiliary verb, which has to be contracted (see 7-9).

  1. [Does] anybody want to play cards?
  2. [Has] everyone used the bathroom?
  3. [Is] Kim sitting here?
  4. *[Can] anyone give me a hand?
  5. [Do you] like it?
  6. *[Does anybody] want to play cards?
  7. [You] don’t believe me?
  8. *[You] do not believe me?
  9. *[You do] not believe me?

This question-plus-command structure is essentially an imperative conditional, functionally equivalent to If you don’t believe me, just watch. To comply with the command, you have a choice. You can believe Mars, thus negating the if clause, or you can watch him. You could even take the “trust but verify” option of doing both: believing him and watching him.

Don’t believe me; just watch.

Unless, of course, Mars had our third option in mind, and is saying, “Don’t take my word for it–see the evidence for yourself!” In this interpretation, Don’t believe me is neither an elliptical conditional missing an If you, nor an elliptical question missing just a you. Instead, it’s just an ordinary imperative, like the second clause. To comply with these two commands, you no longer have the option of simply believing Mars and being done with it. He’s ordering you not to do that, and to watch him as well.

So which is it?

During the four-and-a-half minutes of the song, Mars sings the DBMJW refrain a total of 18 times. Ruling out the first interpretation for the reasons I stated above, that leaves the question/command combination and the double command. Based on science, I conclude that the first through fourth utterances, the eleventh and twelfth, and the fifteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth are question/command combinations, and the remaining instances are pairs of commands.

Don’t believe me … ?

Posted in Ambiguous song lyrics, Music | 2 Comments »

Wrapped Carrots

Posted by Neal on February 29, 2016

The wife and I recently had occasion to spend a weekend at a resort in Cancun on someone else’s expense account, which was nice. I learned some Spanish vocabulary, including gorra “baseball cap”, estiro “sea urchin”, and ama de llaves “housekeeping” (literally “lover of keys keymaster”). But it being a resort that catered to a mostly American clientele, the menus were mostly in English, including the one we got a few weeks in advance so that we could choose what we wanted to eat at the dinner that our hosts were paying for. One of the dessert items was “wrapped carrot,” which piqued my curiosity. What would they wrap the carrot in? I’ve seen carrot sticks wrapped in bacon, but that didn’t really sound dessert-like to me, so I didn’t order it. Instead, I went with “textures of chocolate”.

At the dinner, I was pleased to see that my inferences was correct: My dessert was not merely the texture of chocolate, but some actual chocolate, in the form of some kind of mousse. Looking across the table, I saw the wrapped carrot that someone else had ordered. It looked like this:

A wrapped carrot

What?! How could they possibly call that a wrapped carrot? It wasn’t a carrot! It was some kind of cake (carrot cake?), with a thin, lengthwise slice of carrot wrapped around–

Whoa … it was a wrapped carrot! If you wrap a carrot around something, then there exists a thing around which that carrot has been wrapped. In other words, it’s a wrapped carrot. Isn’t it?

Wrap, like many other verbs, participates in a so-called diathesis alternation, more specifically a “locative alternation,” and more specifically still, the so-called spray/load alternation. Verbs that participate in this alternation have a couple of semantic roles associated with them. One is LOCATION, the role for the thing that stays more or less in place while other stuff is moved into or onto it. LOCATUM is the role for the stuff that gets moved to the LOCATION. It’s unfortunate that the names are so similar, but there you are. Anyway, verbs that participate in this alternation can be used in two kinds of syntactic frame. In one, the LOCATION is the direct object, and the LOCATUM as the object of with:

  1. We sprayed the wall with paint.
  2. We loaded the cart with apples.
  3. We wrapped the carrots with bacon.

The other frame has the LOCATUM as the direct object, and the LOCATION as the object of some other preposition:

  1. We sprayed paint onto the wall.
  2. We loaded apples onto the cart.
  3. We wrapped bacon around the carrots.

In addition to the frames that have a direct object and a prepositional-phrase complement, many spray/load verbs also have a simple transitive frame. The question is, which role shows up as the direct object in that frame? LOCATION or LOCATUM? For some verbs, either is OK:

We loaded the cart. / We loaded the apples.

For others, both roles are OK, but one is still better than the other. With spray, I tend to prefer a LOCATUM role:

?We sprayed the wall. / We sprayed the paint.

This intuition is supported by COCA: Doing a quick search, I found many more examples of simple transitives with water than with face. In contrast, the only role that works for wrap as a simple transitive verb in my grammar is LOCATION:

We wrapped the carrots. / [*]We wrapped the bacon.

The [*] indicates that the sentence is grammatical, but not with the meaning we’re looking for. In other words, it’s fine if you mean that you wrapped something else around the bacon, but not that you wrapped the bacon around something else.

So now I wonder: Is this a peculiarity of my own grammar? From my quick COCA searches, I don’t think so. I have yet to find an example of transitive wrap with a LOCATUM argument. So is this a case of negative transfer on the part of Spanish speakers writing an English menu? In other words, can the Spanish equivalent of wrap be used as a simple transitive with a LOCATUM argument? I don’t have anywhere near enough Spanish to know that yet. If you do, I’d love to hear the answer!

Posted in Food-related, Lexical semantics, Spanish, Verbal diathesis alternations | 17 Comments »

Those Sophisticated of Missiles

Posted by Neal on January 29, 2016

Picture adapted from original by Daniel Foster, Creative Commons

Picture adapted from original by Daniel Foster, Creative Commons

In guest post on The Volokh Conspiracy in 2004, I wrote about what I’ve since learned is sometimes called “intrusive of,” in phrases like too big of a deal, instead of the more-standard too big a deal. That post focused on the adverb too, but there’s actually a handful of adverbs that participate in this unusual kind of noun phrase, in which:

  1. an adverb, such as too,
  2. modifies an adjective, such as big,
  3. which in turn modifies a noun, such as deal.

The strange thing–well, one of the strange things–about this kind of noun phrase is that the indefinite article a(n) goes not before the whole adverb-adjective-noun string, as in *a too big deal, but between the adjective and the noun: too big a deal. Arnold Zwicky has coined the term exceptional degree marking (EDM) for these structures. The other adverbs that work in EDM constructions are so, as, and how:

  • I didn’t know it was so big a deal.
  • It wasn’t as big a deal as I’d thought it would be.
  • How big a deal did they make of it?

In addition to those adverbs, the determiners this and that can also do the job of specifying the degree of an adjective in an EDM construction:

  • Was it really that big a deal?
  • If it’s this big a deal, let’s do it!

I’ll follow the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language and use degree modifiers to cover the degree-modifying adverbs and the degree-modifying determiners this and that. EDM constructions are easiest to form with singular, count nouns, such as deal–in other words, nouns that are compatible with the singular determiner a(n). When you try to make an EDM construction with a mass noun or a plural noun, it’s not so easy:

  • ?/*It’s not too good coffee.
  • ?/*I didn’t know it was so good coffee.
  • ?/*It wasn’t as good coffee as I’d thought it would be.
  • ?/*How good coffee did they serve?
  • ?/*Was it really that good coffee?
  • ?/*If it’s this good coffee, we can sell it.
  • ?/*They’re not too good coffeemakers.
  • ?/*I didn’t know they were so good coffeemakers.
  • ?/*They weren’t as good coffeemakers as I’d thought they would be.
  • ?/*How good coffeemakers do they make?
  • ?/*Were they really that good coffeemakers?
  • ?/*If they’re this good coffeemakers, we can sell them.

This is where the intrusive of proves its worth. All the sentences involving the big deal could be phrased with big of a deal, too, and be considered completely standard by many speakers, and at worst as a somewhat nonstandard variant by others (and as the favored cliche “nails on a chalkboard” by a shrinking number of speakers). But the sentences with mass nouns and plural nouns don’t work at all without something like an intrusive of in them. Here are the examples I found and posted in 2004:

  • a2ps using too big of paper on dj500, and magicfilter eats text
  • Too Deep of Water
  • Too small of rooms for the price!!
  • Checkout/processing with too long of titles
  • Too high of volumes for CORSIM

When I was thinking about EDMs recently, as we all do on occasion, it occurred to me that an extra complication was possible with the degree-modifying determiners this/that that wasn’t possible with too/so/as/how. As determiners, this and that have plural forms! So what happened, I wondered, when speakers set out to create an EDM construction, with a plural noun, with a degree-modifying determiner? Would they still use singular this or that without regard to the plurality of the noun? In other words, would they treat this or that as if it wasn’t even a determiner at all? As it turns out, yes, as these hits from COCA show. I searched for “this|that”+ADJ+”of”+PLURAL_NOUN, as well as “this|that”+ADJ+”a”+PLURAL_NOUN, and got these few hits:

  • Maybe the standard one doesn’t have that big of pecs.
  • You know, the news of the settlement didn’t really make that big of headlines in the state, but it showed two things.
  • Whenever Dignan came to visit me he would act like he and Swifty weren’t that good of friends, but that was just to make me feel better.
  • And we really before her didn’t have that good of doctors.
  • Well, we had problems. But they weren’t that big a problems.

But COCA also shows that a few speakers are starting to swap out the singular this/that for a plural these/those to degree-modifying purposes in EDMs involving plural nouns. For this search, I looked for “these|those”+ADJ+”of”+PLURAL_NOUN and “these|those”+ADJ+”a”+PLURAL_NOUN:

  • These deep of lines in my cheeks ain’t all due to hard wind and burnin’ sun.
  • Well, I mean, they didn’t say in those harsh a terms
  • And then we would go right over Afghanistan after that and the Taliban and stuff didn’t — wasn’t known to have these — those sophisticated of missiles.

I love the little stutter in the last one, as the speaker struggles with how to handle the syntax. Would you have stuttered, too? What do you think of these odd of noun phrases?

Posted in Exceptional degree marking, Morphology | 5 Comments »

She’ll Tell Them All!

Posted by Neal on January 20, 2016

It’s 2016, and summer will be here in a few short months. Time to start planning your vacations! At least, it was time to start for one Reynoldsburg resident, who went to the school district website to find out when school started for the 2017 school year. She was taken by surprise when she found that the first day of school would be August 10. Had she read right? Was it really August 20? No! August 10 it was. Who decided that?

She put the question on Facebook, and the comments came streaming in. I followed them, not only because the start date affects my family’s summer plans, too, but also because I was elected to the school board last November, just took office a couple of weeks ago, and have been appointed to the board’s calendar committee. I’ll be one of the people making decisions about starting and ending dates for future school years. At one point, someone suggested that the school board’s calendar committee would be the appropriate people to complain to, and then the comment thread took a turn for the funny:


Louis and Lisa’s repartee hinged on a nice syntactic ambiguity made possible by the oddity of the English word all. All is funny. What part of speech is it? The easiest classification to make is to call it a determiner (D), when it appears before plural or non-count nouns to make a noun phrase, as in all cows eat grass. But the kind you’re more likely to encounter is in sentences like They all laughed at me when I said I wanted to be a comedian! or Gimme all your lovin’. It’s still a determiner, but it’s not functioning in the same way. It’s appearing in places where you can’t use other determiners: Notice the badness of *They none laughed at me and *Gimme some your lovin’.

Louis’s original comment has all modifying the pronoun them: Don’t just email some members of the committee your complaints; email all of them! (I’ve changed email for the more common verb tell, but the analysis is the same.)
The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language analyzes them all (or us all or you all) in sentences like this as a compound pronoun.

Slight detour: I was surprised to learn that CGEL did not go with a similar analysis for a sentence like They all laughed at me. In a sentence like that, they classify all as a quantificational adjunct–in other words, it’s acting like an adverb. Here are some differences they point out between they all with a quantificational adjunct and compound pronoun them all:

  1. Quantificational adjunct all can go with pronouns or nouns. All as part of a compound pronoun does not allow non-pronouns.
    • Quantificational adjunct: They all laughed. / The guys all laughed.
    • Compound pronoun: She saw them all. / *She saw the guys all.
  2. You can insert an adverb between a pronoun and quantificational-adjunct all. However, you can’t break up a compound pronoun with an adverb.
    • Quantificational adjunct: They all definitely laughed. / They definitely all laughed.
    • Compound pronoun: She definitely saw them all. / *She saw them definitely all.

Returning to Louis and Lisa’s exchange, Lisa chose an alternative parse for Louis’s comment. She took all to modify my opinions.
CGEL‘s name for something that comes right before a noun phrase that’s already complete (such as my opinions) is predeterminer.

This ambiguity between whether all associates to the left with them all, or to the right with all my opinions reminds me of squinting ambiguities such as Quitting smoking now greatly reduces risks to your health. It also reminds me of the time a cashier asked me, “Is that all for you?” and I was like, “That’s none of your business!”

Anyway, I’m sure that we members of the calendar committee will all hear all of Lisa’s opinions on the school calendar–and other people’s opinions, too. I’m looking forward to it!

Posted in Attachment ambiguity, Ohioana, Pronouns | 1 Comment »

Further Developments of Quotative Like

Posted by Neal on December 30, 2015

More than ten years ago, back when my blogging still consisted of guest posts on my brother’s blog, I wrote about my then-five-year-old son’s interesting use of quotative like. I provided this example, which was Doug saying what had just happened when he had done something or other that confused our cat:

He was like, “Why’d you do that?” That’s what he was like, Daddy.

The innovation was in the second sentence, where he used be like to form a wh-question. I wrote at the time, “I predict we will all hear a lot more of sentences like [that one] as members of Doug’s cohort grow up.” It’s been a while since I gave a lot of thought to the development of quotative like. Doug seems to have outgrown it, and I’ve never heard it from my younger son Adam. But I was thrilled to read a recent blog post from Stan Carey which embedded a Twitter conversation between like-expert Alexandra D’Arcy and linguistic anthropologist Sarah Shulist. Shulist began by tweeting D’Arcy to say,

friend’s 4yo just asked “what’s Ernie like?” After some offers of attributes etc we realized she meant “what’s he saying”

You can read the rest of the conversation by clicking on the last link, but I liked one detail that Shulist offered:

her frustration when we couldn’t understand – “No, what’s Ernie like ON THIS PAGE?” suggests adults don’t get it

I decided it was time for a new look at the syntactic regularization of be like into wh-questions, with better search tools and a wealth of social-media text that didn’t exist in 2005. I began by searching Twitter for the string “what * was like when you”, and got a lot of irrelevant stuff

A search on Google for “what was * like when” and “what * was like when” at large got me a few good examples. One was item #22 in a quiz called “Does he REALLY like you?”:

What was he like when you embarrassed yourself?

  1. Pretended not to notice
  2. Laughed his head off and made fun of u
  3. Made a funny comment to get you laughing about it

Another was in a comment on a picture of someone sleeping with his arms wrapped around a new video game system as if it were a stuffed animal. The commenter wrote:

That’s what I was like when I got that same ps4 because Xbox can’t run 1080p correctly

Still, there was a lot of irrelevant stuff to get past, like “what was she like when you knew her?”–in other words, the ordinary, non-quotative use of be like. (Side note: Even that usage is a bit unusual cross-linguistically. What is he like? calls for a description as an answer, not a noun naming a thing that he resembles. For more on this, check out this episode of Lexicon Valley, which discusses this paper by Anne Seaton.)

Eventually, it occurred to me that one productive source of quotative like comes from an internet meme that uses quotative like in conjunction with African American English habitual beas a preface to describe various cliché behaviors and catchphrases associated with a specific group of people.” The habitual be indicates that we’re not talking about permanent qualities of someone; we’re talking about temporary (although habitual) states. This is useful, because it means that when you search for “what * be like” instead of “what * was/is like,” you’re more likely to hit pay dirt.

Unfortunately, “cliché behaviors and catchphrases associated with a specific group of people” means stereotypes, and in this case we’re talking misogynistic and racist stereotypes. The canonical form of the meme begins with “Bitches be like,” which is the name that the website Know Your Meme (quoted above) has given this family of memes. Ickiness aside, this meant that I could get more results more efficiently by asking for specific racist and misogynistic nouns: “what {bitches, hoes, niggas} be like”. So I did. Here’s a sampling of what I got:

On the other hand, searching for “be like” without the A search for “what black/white * be like” turned up these:

I also did a few searches for stereotypical “be like” examples without the overtly racist or misogynistic language, asking for “what * people/guys/girls/women/men be like,” and am happy to report that some of the examples I turned up, rather than being racist/misogynistic, comment on the racism/misogyny of these memes:

I also did a few searches for stereotypical “be like” examples without the overtly racist or misogynistic language, asking for “what * people/guys/girls/women/men be like,” and That search also got this beauty, where the what is extracted from an embedded clause. In other words, it’s not just “what people be like”, it’s “what they think people be like”–further documentation of the journey of be like into syntactic regularity:

there are plenty of videos of white people acting out what they think “black people be like…” and men acting out what they think “girls be like…” in gross stereotypes.

This search also pulled in the best example of quotative like in wh-questions that I’ve found yet, so I’ll end with it. “Them Girls Be Like” is a song released last year by a group called Fifth Harmony.

It has plenty of clear examples of quotative like in declarative sentences, but in the chorus, we also get “That’s what we be like” as a response:

Them girls be like
Them girls be like
Them girls be like
Them girls be like
Oh hey
That’s what we be like
(That’s what we be like yeah, lovin’ this life cus we really don’t care)
Oh hey
That’s what we be like
(That’s what we be like yeah, lovin’ this life cus we really don’t care)
(Lyrics taken from

So it looks like my prediction came true. What does that make you like?

UPDATE, Jan. 3, 2015: Based on the reasonable comment made by the “White Girls Be Like” blogger, I have made a couple of revisions seen above. The additions are shown in green.

Posted in Diachronic, Doug, Fillers and gaps | 10 Comments »