Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Popularizing Linguistics Through Online Media

Posted by Neal on January 17, 2015

Sometime last spring, I got an email from Doug Bigham, a linguist at San Diego State University who I’d met at LSA 2011. He wanted to put together a special session for the LSA 2015 conference that took place last weekend in Portland, Oregon. The theme would be “Popularizing Linguistics Through Online Media,” and he figured that I could talk about blogging; Gretchen McCulloch, about her All Things Linguistic Tumblr page; Arika Okrent, about her listicle pieces on Mental Floss and TheWeek; Michael Maune [maUni], about his #lingchat hashtag on Twitter; Ben Zimmer, about writing for the in-print but also online Wall Street Journal and other news outlets; and Michael Erard, about the new Schwa Fire online linguistics magazine. Doug himself would talk about his linguistics YouTube channel, and tying it all together would be the discussant, Anne Curzan of the University of Michigan, who did this million-view TED talk on what makes a word real. Furthermore, he wanted to do it in a format that I’d never heard of: something called pecha kucha. Or to be more accurate, I had heard of it once or twice, but never been interested enough to find out what it was. But this sounded interesting, especially when some of the other invitees started signing on.

So I went to find out exactly what this pecha kucha thing was, and the first thing I found out was that it was pronounced not as [ˈpɛtʃə ˈkutʃə] (“PETCH-uh KOOTCH-uh”), as I would have thought, but as [pəˈtʃɑ kəˈtʃɑ] (“peh-CHAH kuh-CHAH,” or “peh-CHOCK-chah”). Good thing I learned that. I didn’t want to sound like an ignoramus when I talked about it. The second thing I learned was that it was an exactly six-minute-and-forty-second talk, consisting of 20 slides displayed for 20 seconds each. Finally, I learned that because of the severely limited time format, the slides had to be mostly or entirely pictures. Standard PowerPoint outlines and bulleted lists, not a good format in the first place, were especially ill-advised in pecha kucha. With all that in mind, I emailed back and said I was in, but that I thought a better topic for me would be about writing guest scripts for the Grammar Girl podcast, since Gretchen seemed to have the blog component covered well, and I haven’t had as much time to blog as I used to.

The session was accepted, so last Friday we got together in an unused conference room in the Portland Hilton for some of us to meet each other for the first time, and try to get everyone’s slides integrated into one big slide show. “Have you ever done a [ˈpɛtʃə ˈkutʃə]?” Ben asked, as he and Doug bent over Doug’s laptop computer, trying to make the slides advance. Doug admitted he’d been having nightmares about doing this session.

Later that night, I rehearsed my talk again, and it was still coming in at 6:45 instead of 6:40. My roommate for the conference, Jason Zentz, even volunteered to be my audience for a run-through after he’d finished preparing the handouts for his talk (winner of the best student abstract). I told him about the [ˈpɛtʃə ˈkutʃə] pronunciation. Heck, I said, I’d like to pronounce it [ˈpɛtʃə ˈkutʃə], too; it sounded much better than the ear-grating [pəˈtʃɑ kəˈtʃɑ]. But just because I liked that pronunciation better didn’t mean I was just going to start using it when I know the more faithful pronunciation was something else. Jason said some stuff about Anglicizing borrowed words to match English phonotactics. Yeah, whatever.

The next morning at 8:15, we met in the ballroom for last-minute details. One that we hadn’t thought about was where to have everyone sit. There were seven of us, not including Anne Curzan, and only three seats on either side of the lectern. We decided that when one speaker finished, they would take the seat of the next speaker–an elegant solution, except for having to remember that when you sat back down, the glass of water in front of you was not the one you’d poured for yourself.

I was fourth up, after Doug, Michael M., and Gretchen. I had finally managed to get the time down to 6:40 more or less consistently, so imagine my surprise when I found that I had finished talking about one slide with 5 seconds left before it advanced. “Wow,” I said, “I seem to be running ahead. That doesn’t usually happen.” Then the slide advanced, and I realized that I was more like 5 seconds behind. “Wait, I’m behind!” I think I simply forgot to say what I had intended to say on the slide where I mentioned Grammar Girl episodes written by Stan Carey and Gretchen. (The slides are here.)

When Arika, Ben, and Michael E. finished their talks, it was time for Anne to come up and give her comments, which meant that all the seats and the lectern were occupied, so Doug took a seat out in the audience. Then came the questions from the audience, which took the entire half hour allotted to doing that, plus a few minutes after. The last person asked if this was the first time a presentation like this had been done at LSA, and Doug said he believed it was. “Yes!” he exclaimed. We did a [ˈpɛtʃə ˈkutʃə]!”

Posted in LSA, Self-promotion | 3 Comments »

Getting on the Bae Train

Posted by Neal on January 5, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Music, Uncategorized, Variation | 5 Comments »

Multiple-Level Coordination with And and But

Posted by Neal on December 31, 2014

I’ve continually been hearing this one ad on a podcast I listen to, promoting some kind of investing service. The speaker introduces the subject like this:

Want to save more, invest for the future, but don’t have time to be a full-on investor?

The fact that this sentence is an interrogative gets in the way of what I actually want to talk about, so I’ll just rephrase it as a declarative:

I want to save more, invest for the future, but don’t have time to be a full-on investor.

If you take this sentence to contain a syntactically parallel coordination, then it is saying that these three things are true about me:

  1. I want to save more.
  2. I invest for the future.
  3. I don’t have time to be a full-on investor.

That’s not the intended meaning, though. The intended meaning is that:

  1. I want to save more.
  2. I want to invest for the future.
  3. I don’t have time to be a full-on investor.

In short, this sentence is another example of a multiple-level coordination. Depending on how you parse the coordination, the first conjunct is either the present-tense verb phrase want to save more or the plain-form verb phrase save more; the second is the plain-form verb phrase invest for the future; and the final conjunct is the present-tense verb phrase don’t have time to be a full-on investor. Whichever way you go, the conjuncts are not of the same syntactic category.

In previous posts, I’ve summarized the analysis of Beavers & Sag (2004) for this kind of coordination, and written too-hastily about what seemed like a problem for their analysis. This sentence, though, really is a problem for B&S … that is, if it’s truly grammatical, and not simply a mistake.

As a recap, here is how B&S analyze the MLCs It’s sick, twisted, and smells like old socks and women who are nursing, pregnant, or may become pregnant. For the first one, the and is conjoining these three clauses:

  1. is sick
  2. is twisted
  3. smells like old socks

Because the second conjunct begins with some material that’s identical to the beginning of the first conjunct (namely is), that can be ellipsed (i.e., left unspoken). For the second MLC, or is conjoining these other three clauses:

  1. are pregnant
  2. are nursing
  3. may become pregnant

Applying B&S’s analysis to our investment example, we get something like the diagram below. (Actually, they have it so that it’s binary-branching all the way down, with want to save more coordinated with the entire chunk want to invest for the future but don’t have time…. But my diagram will do for our purposes.)

The second "want to" is not pronounced

B&S argue against interpreting MLCs as having a structure like the following, which the and or or is coordinating two items rather than three, and there is an understood extra conjunction in there, coordinating two smaller items within the first conjunct:

  1. is sick and twisted
  2. smells like old socks
  1. are pregnant or nursing
  2. may become pregnant

Applied to our investment example, the kind of analysis that B&S advise against would give us a structure like the one below. In this diagram, I put an explicit conjunction between the first two conjuncts, to show where the understood conjunction would go. Notice that the main coordination has only two conjuncts, one being want to save more and want to invest for the future, and the other being but don’t have ….

See the extra conjunction I put in there?

One of B&S’s reasons for not favoring such an interpretation is that you can’t just go calling commas or pauses conjunctions. Where would it end? Going that way would license sentences like I saw a dog a cat as grammatical. There other reason is that there is nothing to force that understood conjunction to be the same as the explicit one. In other words, why couldn’t we take these examples to mean “It’s sick or twisted, and smells like old socks” and “woman who are pregnant and nursing, or who may become pregnant”?

With that in mind, notice that the extra conjunction I supplied was not another but, but rather an and, so that the meaning of the whole coordinate structure is “A and B but C.” This makes sense, because the two things I want are similar, and should be joined by and. The but serves to draw a contrast between them on the one hand and the thing I don’t have time for on the other.

So if that second diagram is incorrect, let’s look again at B&S’s analysis, shown in the first one. There’s a problem with this one, too. As I wrote in this Grammar Girl episode, but isn’t like and and or, able to coordinate any number of items. It’s only able to coordinate two:

That’s because and shows addition, and or shows alternatives, and it’s easy to imagine lots of additions to a set, and lots of alternatives. But, on the other hand, shows contrast, and it’s hard to conceive of a contrast between more than two things. We can say slow but steady, but we can’t say slow, careful, but steady.

According to the B&S analysis, our example sentence could be expanded out to have the form “A but B but C,” in violation of the two-conjuncts limit for but.

So what now? We could appeal to semantics. Although but conventionally implicates that there is a contrast between two propositions, there is no truth-conditional difference between and and but. So we could say that’s why the but gets away with this sort of behavior here.

Or there’s the cop-out solution of saying that the sentence is a grammar mistake, something that the writer would correct by themself if they thought about if more carefully. In favor of the cop-out solution is the fact that MLCs depending on and and or are too numerous for me even to bother blogging about anymore, whereas this is the only MLC with but that I’ve ever come across. So if you come across more MLCs with but, definitely leave a comment and tell me about them!

Posted in Multiple-level coordination | 4 Comments »

He Conquers Who Endures

Posted by Neal on November 29, 2014

I saw this on the back of a T-shirt when I was at the grocery store:

He conquers who endures.

Too bad for those people who endure. Even after all their endurance, they get conquered in the end. He, whoever “he” is, is a patient conquerer.

However, I suspect the wearer of the T-shirt probably didn’t realize that this was the meaning it was conveying. He probably thought it meant something like “The person who endures conquers,” or “He who endures conquers.” (Or to put it more gender-neutrally, “They who endure conquer.”) But that would mean that two unusual things were going on in this sentence. Neither of them is unprecedented, but both of them happening in one short sentence is noteworthy.

First, the clause who endures would have to be a relative clause modifying he. This doesn’t happen so much in present-day English. The best-known example in recent years is probably the epithet He Who Must Not Be Named for Voldemort in the Harry Potter novels. And even here, speakers didn’t realize they could change the He to Him when the name was a direct object, as observed by Q. Pheevr here.

Second, this relative clause who endures is separated from he. Now sometimes relative clauses do get separated from their head nouns: a book was published that would be read for centuries by countless generations; a woman appeared who was also carrying her head in her hands; What type of workers were there who participated in building the Pyramids. However, this usually happens when the subject of a clause would be ridiculously long if you refused to break it up. He who endures is just three words.

With my interpretation, though, there’s only one unusual thing going on: who endures isn’t modifying a noun at all, but is acting like a noun phrase all by itself. This is somewhat unusual, but not terribly so. It’s unusual because this kind of clause (known as a fused relative), more typically refers to things than to people. In other words, although sentences like That’s what I want and What you did was inexcusable are common enough, fused relatives like this one and the one in Who told me was my dad are somewhat rare. Exceptions include Can I help who’s next? and To whom it may concern.

Overall, then, my parse is the better choice syntactically. After a bit of internet-searching, though, I found that this is a translation of a Latin quotation from an ancient Roman satirist named Persius, although the opinion seems to be that he wasn’t being satirical when he wrote this:

Vincit qui patitur.

People who explain this quotation talk about the need for persistence in order to achieve victory, which definitely sounds more like the “They who endure conquer” interpretation. OK, so maybe it’s possible that I chose the incorrect interpretation for that guy’s T-shirt. But now I can write about how Latin is more precise than English, and you pick up this ambiguity in translation! Except that the same ambiguity exists in the Latin phrasing. Here’s how…

Vincit means “conquers”. Like its English translation, it can be transitive (as in Omnia vincit amor, “Love conquers all”) or intransitive (as in In hoc signo vinces, “By this sign you will conquer”), so you have to use the context to tell whether a nearby noun phrase is a subject or direct object. Usually in Latin, case endings do this, as illustrated below:

Vincit rex. “The king conquers.”
Vincit regem. “He/she conquers the king.”

Qui patitur means “who suffers (or endures)”, and it’s acting as a fused relative, just like its translation in English. Even in Latin, though, we can’t tell if that fused relative is a subject or an object. It’s the same problem that confuses English speakers about whoever and whomever. So actually, what we have here is a translation that is faithful even in preserving the ambiguity of the original!

Posted in Ambiguity, Fused relatives, Pronouns, Relative clauses | 8 Comments »

Tense Travel

Posted by Neal on October 14, 2014

My wife called me in to her office last night to make me watch this segment of The Big Bang Theory, in which Sheldon, Leonard, Raj, and Howard are watching Back to the Future, Part ii. Harrison Tran has helpfully bootlegged it onto YouTube, complete with a transcript:

Howard: Wait, hold on. Pause.
[music stops]
Howard: Something doesn’t make sense. Look. In 2015 Biff steals the Sports Almanac and takes the time machine back to 1955 to give it to his younger self. But as soon as he does that he changes the future, so the 2015 he returns to would be a different 2015. Not the 2015 that Marty and Doc were in.
Leonard: This is Hot Tub Time Machine all over again. Look. If future Biff goes back to 2015 right after he gives young Biff the Almanac, he could get back to the 2015 with Marty and Doc in it. Because it wasn’t until his 21st birthday that 1955 Biff placed his first bet.
Sheldon: But whoa, whoa. Is placed right?
Leonard: What do you mean?
Sheldon: Is placed the right the right tense for something that would’ve happened in the future of a past that was affected by something from the future?
Leonard: [thinks] Had will have placed?
Sheldon: That’s my boy.
Leonard: Okay. So, it wasn’t until his 21st birthday that Biff had will have placed his first bet and made his millions. That’s when he alters the timeline.
Sheldon: But he had will haven’t placed it.
Howard: What?
Sheldon: Unlike Hot Tub Time Machine, this couldn’t be more simple. [laugh track] When Biff gets the Almanac in 1955, the alternate future he creates isn’t the one in which Marty and Doc Brown ever used the time machine to travel to 2015. Therefore, in the new timeline, Marty and Doc never brought the time machine.
Leonard: Wait, wait, wait. Is brought right?
Sheldon: [thinks] Marty and Doc never had have had brought?
Leonard: I don’t know, you did it to me.
Sheldon: I’m going with it. Marty and Doc never had have had brought the time machine to 2015. That means 2015 Biff could also not had have had brought the Almanac to 1955 Biff. Therefore, the timeline in which 1955 Biff gets the Almanac is also the timeline in which 1955 Biff never gets the Almanac and not just never gets: never have, never hasn’t, never had have hasn’t.
Raj: He’s right.

I love that Harrison included the laugh track in his transcript.

So of course all this is just a good excuse to combine two kinds of geekery: sci-fi and grammar. The main way Sheldon and Leonard twist the verb-tense syntax is to allow auxiliary have to take complements that it doesn’t take in monolinear-time Standard English. First, they put it with the modal will, when modal auxilaries are always the first in a series of auxiliary verbs, even in outlandish strings such as will have been being eaten. Second, they put it with itself, in had have had brought and had have hasn’t.

Another kind of auxiliary combination we don’t get in monolinear-time Standard English is the past tense (or past participle) auxiliary had after a modal, in could not had have had brought. In our English, modals always take a base form, not a past-tense form.

Finally, there’s the combination of the negative contraction haven’t with will in will haven’t placed. In our English, the contraction has to come in the first auxiliary verb: won’t have placed.

But never mind the seeming syntactic violations. In a world with time travel, the language will have to evolve. My question was whether Sheldon and Leonard’s new syntactic rules for these tenses were semantically consistent with each other. In short, they’re not.

The main situation Sheldon and Leonard are discussing is an event time (young Biff placing a bet) that occurs later than a reference time (when young Biff receives the Almanac), but before the time of utterance (2014, in Sheldon and Leonard’s apartment). Ordinarily, this kind of situation would call for the so-called “future in the past“: Biff would place his bet sometime later. The complication is that the event time and the utterance time are now in separate timelines. Even for this situation, though, ordinary English has an appropriate choice: the perfective version of this future in the past: would have placed. But there’s one more complication: We’re talking about an event that not only did not happen in our own timeline, but also did happen in an alternative timeline. So how do Sheldon and Leonard propose to designate such an event? They use the past-tense form had, followed by a normal future perfect tense (will have had), to get had will have had. Let’s call this the alternate future in the past tense. This tense also puts its negative contractions in a different place, as noted earlier: had will haven’t placed.

However, Sheldon and Leonard don’t follow these rules the very next time they discuss an event that occurs later than a reference time but before the time of utterance, in an alternative timeline: Doc and Marty’s trip in the time machine. By the rules created so far, it would be never had will have brought (or if they wanted to use a negative contraction, had will haven’t brought), but instead, they go for the stacking of forms of have instead, leading to Sheldon’s culminating string never have, never hasn’t, never had have hasn’t. These are elliptical forms, which I surmise would all finish with gotten if they were fully spoken.

Still amusing, but it would have been funnier if these tenses had turned out to be consistent with each other, even after my poking at them.

Don't panic.

The grammar problem posed by time travel was also explored in 1980, in Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. I was inspired to look up what he wrote, and was hoping to compare his tenses with Sheldon and Leonard’s. After reading the first paragraph below, I was excited to notice that Adams’ subscribed to the view of time travel in which you cannot alter timelines, unlike the Back to the Future scenario in which you can. Would this differing assumptions be reflected in the hypothetical grammars?

Sadly, no. Although Adams imagines more kinds of twisted temporal situations than Sheldon and Leonard discuss, he never bothers creating new verb tenses. Instead, he chooses to leave them to the readers’ imaginations, while using funny grammar jargon to name them. Here’s the relevant part, from the beginning of Chapter 15:

One of the major problems encountered in time travel is not that of accidentally becoming your own father or mother. There is no problem involved in becoming your own father or mother than a broad-minded and well-adjusted family can’t cope with. There is no problem about changing the course of history–the course of history does not change because it all fits together like a jigsaw. All the important changes have happened before the things they were supposed to change and it all sorts itself out in the end.

The major problem is quite simply one of grammar, and the main work to consult in this matter is Dr. Dan Streetmentioner’s Time Traveler’s Handbook of 1001 Tense Formations. It will tell you, for instance, how to describe something that was about to happen to you in the past before you avoided it by time-jumping forward two days in order to avoid it. The event will be described differently according to whether you are talking about it from the standpoint of your own natural time, from a time further in the future, or a time in the further past and is further complicated by the possibility of conducting conversations while you are actually traveling from one time to another with the intention of becoming your own mother or father.

Most readers get as far as the Future Semiconditionally Modified Subinverted Plagal Past Subjunctive Intentional before giving up; and in fact in later editions of the book all the pages beyond this point have been left blank to save on printing costs.

These two examples are the only pieces of pop culture I know of that specifically deal with new verb tenses to handle time travel, although collisions between time travel and ordinary English verb tenses have their own page on TV Tropes and Idioms.

Posted in Books, TV, Verb tense | 8 Comments »

He’ll Be None the Wiser

Posted by Neal on October 9, 2014

Since I began this blog in 2004, I’ve been vague about where in central Ohio I live, but tonight I’m proud to say that I live in Reynoldsburg, where phenomenal community support for our public school teachers has seen them through a summer of appalling disrespect from the local board of education (except for one notable member) and superintendent, who did everything they could to cause a teacher strike. That strike began on September 19, and might finally be ending today, if a tentative agreement is approved by the teachers.

In other news, Doug and Adam, who have been sick this entire time, might finally be showing signs of recovery. In the mornings, I’ve still been packing a lunch for Adam before I head to work. It’s not that he can’t get himself lunch, but if I don’t make him one, he’ll end up just eating Cheerios for every meal. So a couple of days ago, I opened the bag of bread and pulled out the three slices that were left: two heels and a whatever-you-call-a-slice-that’s-not-a-heel. Dang it, it had happened again!

I remembered a conversation from a month ago, when I had been encouraging Adam to make his own sandwich for a change, and he said he couldn’t, because he’d have to use a heel.

“That’s not a problem,” I told him. “Just do what I do. I put the pieces of bread together, like this, and turn the heel crust-side-in, like this. Then I grab these kitchen shears and cut off the edges of both pieces of bread, like I always do.” (Yes, I cut off the crusts. I don’t have to anymore, because Adam has recently started to eat his sandwiches with the crusts left on.) “Then I spread the peanut butter on the crusty side of the heel, finish making the sandwich, and you’re none the wiser.”

“Oh, I most certainly am the wiser!” Adam said. “Every time you do that, my sandwich tastes funny.”

Almost as interesting as the fact that Adam was, and had been, hip to my trick, was his phrasing I am the wiser. At first I thought he had used a negative polarity item in a positive polarity context, you know, like he did when he was four years old, during another sandwich-related occurrence. But as I thought about it more, I realized that the plus any comparative did happen outside negations and questions, in phrases like all the better and even somewhat the wiser. In any case, you can use NPIs in positive contexts if you’re really emphasizing them, as in Yes, I do give a damn!, and Adam was definitely emphatic. Well, maybe it was because Adam used the wiser without a specifier saying how much the wiser he was: No somewhat, no all, not even very much. But a specifier isn’t necessary, either: I could just as easily have said: You’re never the wiser. So maybe it was the combination of his using the wiser with positive polarity and without a specifier. I don’t know, so that’s one reason I never wrote it up here. Besides, delivering “We Support Reynoldsburg Teachers” yard signs, going to rallies, passing around petitions, writing letters, and picketing the residences of members of the board of education on top of my actual job made it tough to find the time.

Anyway, here I was again, making a sandwich out of a heel. So I put the pieces of bread together, turned the heel crust-side-in, grabbed the kitchen shears and cut off the edges of both pieces of bread, like I used to do. I spread the peanut butter on the crusty side of the heel, sliced the banana on top of it, and laid on the top slice of bread. I put the whole thing in a sandwich container, and stuck a note to the top. The note read, “He’ll be none the wiser.”

When I arrived home that afternoon, Adam had eaten the lunch I’d made. On the table, he’d left my note, with an edit:

Oh, heel naw!

Ha! The linguistic hook of my potential post about the syntax and semantics of none the wiser had just become a post about the homophony of he’ll and heel … or rather, the homophony of he’ll and hill outside of careful speech, and not in a dialect that lowers [i] to [I] before [l] as a matter of course. My guess is that it’s a frequency effect, because he’ll is such a common word. Similarly for we’ll/will and she’ll/shill, but not for Neal/nil.

Posted in Adam, Food-related, Negative polarity items, Ohioana, Syntax | 6 Comments »

Backshifted Conditionals

Posted by Neal on October 6, 2014

A few posts back I wrote about some unusual conditional sentences that didn’t fit neatly into a neat 2×2 grid of open-vs-remote, nonpast-vs-past conditional sentences. Now, after teaching my ESL composition students about English conditionals and having them search for real examples in published academic papers, I’ve come across another kind of off-the-grid conditional. Two students each found an example of it. Here’s one of them:

The letter sent home to parents indicated that if the second-grade children did not have African American attire, they could come dressed as zebras, tigers, lions, and so on. (link)

(It came from a paper on education, but I didn’t have the students provide source information, and a quick Google search hasn’t turned it up. If I find out the source later, I will link it.) On the surface, it looks like a present-time remote conditional, like the example If he were sorry, he would apologize in that 2×2 grid in the earlier post. Oh, what the heck, I’ll just paste it in again here:

Open and Remote Conditionals

Open and Remote Conditionals

But it doesn’t seem to have the meaning of a remote conditional. Whereas If he were sorry implies that he’s not sorry, if the second-grade children did not have African American attire doesn’t imply that they actually do have it. It seems to be an open conditional: if they have it, they wear it; if not, they dress as safari animals. So where does it fit in?

I realized that a past-tense function that I hadn’t included in the grid was coming into play. You’ll notice that the light green squares at top right and bottom left each use past tense. In the bottom left, the past tense is performing its usual function of showing past time. In the top right, it’s performing its secondary function of showing modal remoteness (aka unlikelihood or impossibility). But there’s a third function of the past tense, known as backshifting. That’s the reason for the was in a sentence like He said his name was Biff, even if his name still is Biff. The is of My name is Biff gets pulled into the past tense when this sentence becomes reported speech and the main verb in the past tense. The same thing is happening here; compare the original quotation with its non-backshifted counterpart:

The letter sent home to parents …
a. … indicates that if the second-grade children do not have African American attire, they can come dressed as zebras, tigers, lions, and so on. (present-time open conditional, not backshifted)
b. … indicated that if the second-grade children did not have African American attire, they could come dressed as zebras, tigers, lions, and so on. (present-time open conditional, backshifted)

Here’s the example the other student found:

Knowing that they might lose their work permits if they left Germany for more than three months, many immigrants decided to stay. (link)

Again, it looks like a present-time remote conditional, but we know that it’s talking about a historical time period, so it’s not present-time. Again, backshifting provides the explanation. Here’s the comparison:

Knowing that …
a. … they may lose their work permits if they leave Germany for more than three months, many immigrants decide to stay. (present-time open conditional, not backshifted)
b. … they might lose their work permits if they left Germany for more than three months, many immigrants decided to stay. (present-time open conditional, backshifted)

This example is a little more complicated, because it’s not immediately apparent what the verbs in the conditional sentence are backshifting to match. But if we expand the reduced participial clause Knowing that… to a finite clause, we can see that the conditionals are backshifting in response to the understood time frame of Knowing:

a. Because they know they may lose their work permits if they leave Germany for more than three months, many immigrants decide to stay. (present-time open conditional, not backshifted)
b. Because they knew they might lose their work permits if they left Germany for more than three months, many immigrants decided to stay. (present-time open conditional, backshifted)

Where do these off-the-grid, backshifted conditionals fit into the picture? We need to bring backshifting into the diagram, moving it into the third dimension to make a 2x2x2 cube of conditionals: open-vs-remote cutting one way; nonpast-time-vs-past-time another; backshifted or not cutting a third way. As it turns out, though, not all of those eight cells are filled. I’ll have more on this in a future post, when I hope to have an updated conditionals diagram that incorporates backshifting. In the meantime, though, I’ll finish by taking the two open conditionals in the diagram and backshifting them for you:

She says that if he knows the answer, he will tell us. (present time, not backshifted)
She said that if he knew the answer, he would tell us. (past time, backshifted)
She says that if he knew the answer, he never told us. (present time, not backshifted)
She said that if he had known the answer, he never had told us. (past time, backshifted)

Posted in Conditionals | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

Willing and Able

Posted by Neal on August 19, 2014

Nine years ago, I was inspired to write a post after hearing a flight attendant give the pre-flight safety presentation, and say, “Please move from the exit rows if you are unwilling or unable to perform the necessary actions without injury.” On my most recent flight, instead of listening to the attendant, I tried to pick up some Spanish vocabulary by reading the safety-information card from the seatback in front of me. And what do you know, inspiration struck again, when I read this Spanish sentence on the very same topic of sitting in the exit rows:

Toda persona que esté sentada en un asiento de salida debe estar dispuesta y ser capaz de realizar las siguientes funciones.
Every person who is seated in an exit seat must be willing and be able to execute the following functions.


Once again, the interesting part comes from trying to coordinate the adjectives for “willing” and “able”. If you’ve taken even first-year Spanish, you’ve had to learn about the two Spanish verbs that both mean “be”: ser, and estar. The former usually goes with what semanticists call individual-level predicates: properties that are generally true of someone, and less subject to change, such as hair color or nationality. These predicates stand in contrast to stage-level predicates, which are true of someone only for a limited time, such as emotional state or physical location. Now if I had thought of it when I was learning about ser and estar in junior high school, I would have tried to stump the teacher by asking something like, “What if you want to say that someone is Chinese and happy? Do you use ser or estar?”

It looks like the answer is that you don’t choose one or the other; you use both, each laying claim to one of the adjectives: estar dispuesta “be willing”; ser capaz “be able”. What a burn! English speakers don’t have to say be twice, but Spanish speakers do! A similar thing happens in French. If you like your salad with oil, it’s à l’huile (literally “at the oil”). If you like it with with vinegar, it’s au vinaigre (“at the vinegar,” with “at the” collapsed into the single word au). But if you’re like me, and like your salad with oil and vinegar, do you choose à or au? Neither! You have to use them both: à l’huile et au vinaigre.

On the subject of prepositions, though, I realized I needed to take a closer look at the adjectives dispuesto and capaz. The single preposition de goes with both of them in this sentence, but is de actually the preposition that typically goes with dispuesto in Spanish? A bit of Googling indicates that it’s not; the typical collocation seems to be dispuesto a. So why didn’t the translation have to use both a and de, along with both ser and estar, like this?

estar dispuesta a y ser capaz de realizar las siguientes funciones

One possibility is that for adjectives that take complements with mismatching prepositions, you just choose the one that goes with the closest adjective, in the same way in English we say Neither you nor I am the winner, because the closer subject is I. (This kind of solution is known as a resolution rule.) Another possibility is that both prepositions should have been used, and the translator simply made a mistake by using only one.

If we’re considering that possibility, though, maybe Spanish uses a rule of resolution to choose between ser and estar, too, and the translator should have just used the one appropriate for the nearest adjective, dispuesto.

So now I’m curious. I ask my Spanish-speaking readers, which of the following sounds best?

Posted in Other weird coordinations | 3 Comments »

Seldom Is Heard a Discouraging Word

Posted by Neal on August 2, 2014

The wife has spent numerous hours planning the itinerary for a trip we’re going to take out west later this summer. She has tricks up her sleeve that I never would have thought of for finding the best prices for airfare, car rentals, and hotels, so I bow to her travel-savvy. But all our discussions about the American West did get me to do some intense thinking of my own.

So you know the song “Home on the Range”? When I first heard it sung, on Captain Kangaroo when I was probably four or five years old, there were two lines in it that nagged at me. One was Where the skies are not cloudy all day, with its strange scope interaction between the negation of not and the universal of all. (Only cloudy some of the day? Uncloudy all day?) The other was the line that came right before it:

Where seldom is heard a discouraging word

Seldom was not in my vocabulary yet, but whatever it meant, it apparently must be a real bummer of a word to hear. Why might that be? And why would you be so likely to hear it? Were people out west in the habit of just walking up to one another and saying this particular discouraging word? “Hey, guess what!” “What?” “Seldom! Ahahaha!”

Some years later I learned what seldom meant, and eventually plugged the meaning into the “Home on the Range” lyrics. Then I was able to parse the line as a kind of negation inversion along the lines of Never have I ever…, Only rarely is he in his office, or Not a word did she speak. Mystery solved!

Or was it?

Let’s start off by taking out the seldom, an dputting this line into non-inverted, ordinary English word order of subject verb complement:

(no inversion) A discouraging word is heard.

If the line in the song were the same kind of negation inversion as in my examples, I’d expect the negative-like word first, then the auxiliary verb (which in this case is also the main verb, is), and then the subject and any complements, like this:

(Negative inversion) Seldom is a discouraging word heard.

…instead of what we actually have:

Seldom is heard a discouraging word.

Compared to the typical negative inversion, the subject and the complement have swapped places. This seems more like copular inversion, where a subject and a complement connected by a finite form of be switch places. This is the kind of inversion we get in utterances like Of greater concern is the fact that you lied, or Absorbent and yellow and porous is he. But this doesn’t get us our desired output, either. If we take a discouraging word as the subject (as we’ve been doing), and take the phrase seldom heard to be the complement (instead of just heard, as we’ve been doing), we get this:

(Copular inversion) Seldom heard is a discouraging word.

To sum up: two kinds of inversion, and neither of them produces the relevant line in our classic American folk song. At least, not individually…

Together, copular inversion and negative inversion can get us what we want, if we just assume that seldom doesn’t get into the picture until step 3:

  1. (no inversion) A discouraging word is heard.
  2. (copular inversion) Heard is a discouraging word.
  3. (negative inversion) Seldom is heard a discouraging word.

I find it interesting that this negative inversion can do its work on whatever appears in the typical subject position, whether or not it’s a subject. Does this really happen in other examples? Let’s try another one:

  1. (no inversion) The man who finds wisdom is happy.
  2. (copular inversion) Happy is the man who finds wisdom.
  3. (negative inversion) ??Seldom is happy the man who finds wisdom.

That one doesn’t work so well, so now I’m not sure I’ve identified what’s going on in “Home on the Range.” Maybe there’s some locative inversion with the where going on as well, like what Robert Burns has in his poem “Tam O’Shanter”. The poem is about how this guy and his friends like to have fun drinking together, and don’t worry about how late they’re going to arrive home,

Where sits our sulky sullen dame.
Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.

I’ve tried locative inversion, though, and haven’t found a satisfactory combination of moves to get the desired output yet. Now isn’t that a discouraging word?

Posted in Inversion, Music | 8 Comments »

Open Conditionals with the Past Perfect

Posted by Neal on July 8, 2014

Flashman and the Redskins

When Glen and I were kids, for a couple of years our family would read aloud from novels after supper. I remember we did a few that you’ve probably never heard of, plus a Hardy Boys mystery and Johnny Tremain. But by the time we hit junior high school, the habit had kind of fizzled out, which was too bad. As regular readers know, we do a lot of reading aloud here, from Dr. Seuss and books about barnyard animals when they were in preschool, to Henry Huggins, Harry Potter, and other YA stuff when they were older. Now that Doug and Adam are teenagers, I can at least say that I’ve maintained the tradition for longer than it lasted from my childhood. And now I can read them R-rated stuff that I could never have read them a few years ago–for example, our current selection: Flashman and the Redskins.

This is one of my favorites in the Flashman series, so I’m having fun re-reading it now, complete with a British accent that I wouldn’t dare do within earshot of any actual British people. As I was reading from it a few days ago, my eye was caught by this sentence, which had seemed unremarkable in 1993, when I first read the book:

If the Apaches had posted sentries, I suppose they had been dealt with. . . .

What was the big deal? Well, a few years ago I wrote this post about conditional sentences. Following the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, I divided them into open conditionals (describing situations that might actually happen in the future, or may have happened in the past), and remote conditionals (describing situations that are unlikely to happen, or probably did not happen). Also following CGEL, the past tense can show actual past time (see the bottom left corner), or remoteness in the present or future time (see the top right corner). What it can’t do (at least in Standard English) is show both past time and remoteness simultaneously. For that, you need the past perfect tense. This is what you get in the dark green, bottom left corner: If he had been sorry, he would have apologized. In my diagram, that’s the only place the past perfect tense appears.

Open and Remote Conditionals

Open and Remote Conditionals

But I got to thinking later on… You could have open conditionals where both sentences were in the present tense, like If he’s sorry, why isn’t he apologizing? You could have open conditionals in the past tense, as in If he was sorry, he never apologized. And there were even possibilities that I hadn’t put on the diagram; for example, why couldn’t I have an open conditional with present perfect tense? Something like … If Doug has finished his homework, then he has definitely left the house by now. If I could do an open conditional with the present perfect, why couldn’t I do one with the past perfect? Why couldn’t I have an ordinary, open conditional, in which the past perfect wasn’t showing a combination of past time and remoteness, but was just performing its usual function of showing a past time prior to another past time? I imagined sentences and contexts like these:

Back in those days, Doug liked to go out and ride his bike at every opportunity. I was coming home from work and wondered if he would be home. I knew that if he had finished his homework, then he had certainly already left the house.

Back in those days, when we went to Adam’s weekly violin lesson, I could always tell if Adam had practiced earlier in the week. If he had practiced, then he wasn’t nervous. [Actually, this one is a mixed past-time/even-further-past-time conditional.]

So now you can see why the Flashman example caught my eye. It was a real example of an open conditional with past perfect tenses. In fact, it isn’t the only one I’ve found. I’ve collected a couple of others, but this most recent example gave me three, which made enough to post about. One was from an article in New Scientist entitled “How did we lose a 1400-tonne ocean liner?” They wrote about a plane searching locations where radar had registered an object:

But the plane dispatched to the position of another smaller blip found nothing. If there had been a lifeboat, it had sunk.

The other one came from a book Glen gave me a few years ago, The Experts’ Guide to 100 Things Everyone Should Know How to Do, edited by Samantha Ettus. One of the essays is “Make Conversation,” by Morris L. Reid. One of his rules was to keep up with current events in order to be able to have topics of conversation. He gave this analogy:

What happened in school if you hadn’t read the previous night’s assignment? You most likely had nothing to say.

And now to finish with a more typical conditional with a past perfect tense: If I hadn’t been thinking about open conditionals, I wouldn’t have noticed anything interesting about these three examples!

Posted in Books, Conditionals | 8 Comments »


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