Archive for the ‘Discourse’ Category

Answering a question with a question

October 2, 2014

Today’s Dilbert, with Dilbert and the pointy-headed boss:

Well, responding to a yes-no question with a question could just be a request for information — that would be taking the boss’s question “at face value” — but quite often the second question (conversationally) implicates that the answer to the first question is “yes” (why, the reasoning begins, would the second question have been asked in the first place?)

Action Item, Professional Superhero

October 2, 2014

From Martin Kaminer to ADS-L on the 28th, a link to this wonderful 2000 comic strip by Neil McAllister (apparently the only extant episode of Adventures of Action Item):


Mostly about jargon, but it also raises questions about discourse organization, in this case about how business meetings are organized.


Rules of conversation

June 26, 2014

Yesterday’s Zits, with Jeremy’s parents getting instruction on how to speak to his friends when they visit:

Grice’s Maxim of Quantity, in two parts:

Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange).

Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

(Discussion on this blog here.)

The crucial point, of course, is what Jeremy thinks is required in such exchanges.

Why is this so hard to process?

April 21, 2014

From Chris Waigl, passed on by Chris Hansen:


The problem begins with the subject, a longboat full of Vikings. The (syntactic) head of this phrase is certainly longboat (and that’s what determines agreement on the verb), but it’s functioning here semantically / pragmatically as as an expression of measure, much like a collective noun. So the question is whether the subject is “about” a longboat or “about” Vikings. (Animate beings, especially humans, are especially favored as topics, ceteris paribus, so we should probably look to the Vikings.)

At the same time, the first sentence introduces the British Museum and the Palace of Westminster, implicitly (but quite subtly) introducing the Members of Parliament as entities in the discourse, though probably not as the topic.

Then we get the second sentence, which is clearly about Vikings (uncivilized, destructive, and rapacious), not boats (or the Members of Partliament, for that matter).


Sports interviews

January 18, 2014

A cartoon (whose ultimate source I don’t know) on the banality of sports interviews:

New Yorker cartoons

January 14, 2014

From John McIntyre on Facebook, this link to the TED blog of 7/26/13, “Bob Mankoff picks his 11 favorite New Yorker cartoons ever” by Helen Waters. (Mankoff is the cartoon editor of the New Yorker.) Hard to choose, but here are four I especially like.



November 8, 2012

On Monday Nancy Friedman offered this awkward example to me:

“One of the things that you always want to be for, whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, is that you want everyone who’s eligible to vote to vote.” – Steve Schmidt, McCain strategist in 2008 (link)

There’s nothing syntactically wrong with this sentence, but the repetition of to vote might give you a moment’s pause. Nevertheless, the first to vote is an ordinary infinitival complement of be eligible (They are eligible to vote), in a relative clause modifying everyone (Everyone who’s eligible to vote is coming), and the second to vote is an ordinary infinitival complement of want in combination with a direct object of that verb (We want everyone to vote), and to vote to vote is merely part of what you get when you put these pieces together in ordinary ways.

Repetitions like this one — repetitions I’ll call Toto examples (Totos for short), after to vote to vote and in recognition of the passing feeling of oddness that they can produce (“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”) — are quite common, though a careful stylist might want to avoid some of them as distracting. But then there are syntactic constructions that specifically call for repetitions of constituents. And still other configurations that you’d expect to be acceptable — more Toto examples — that are nevertheless just ungrammatical (for some speakers).


Annals of cataphora

October 15, 2012

From the Economist of 12/3/11, p. 43, in “Marijuana in California and Colorado: Highs and laws” [the magazine is fond of jokey titles], after a long first paragraph about medical marijuana boom in Colorado:

While it is allowed in some form in 16 states and Washington, DC, Colorado is the leader in trying to make medicinal pot a legitimate business.

Now, (medical) marijuana is highly topical when this sentence comes along in the discourse. so that’s almost surely the referent of the subject pronoun it in the initial subordinate clause. Nevertheless, I expected this pronoun to be cataphoric, preferably with its referent picked up by the subject of the main clause — but that’s Colorado (where Colorado is paired with 16 states and the District of Columbia), and not a NP referring to marijuana. So I had a brief moment of unfulfilled expectation that wasn’t ironed out until medicinal pot came along, embedded within the main clause.

My reaction to this explicit pronoun subject it is much like many people’s reaction to zero subjects in initial sentence adverbials, in initial SPARs (subjectless predcative adjuncts requiring a referent for the missing subject). Sometimes the referent is given right there in the preceding context, but still we expect the zero to be cataphoric, preferably to the subject of the main clause.


Take my wife

September 8, 2012

I recently came across a reference to the Henny Youngman “take my wife” joke, which turns on the ambiguity of that phrase, with two very different uses of take, one of them very restricted in its syntax and discourse function, the other free in both respects.


Old recipes IV: George Leonard Herter

May 5, 2012

Now for some really old recipes (see here, here, and here) — like the Virgin Mary’s recipe for spinach. As relayed by George Leonard Herter is his magnificent Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices.

To come: a couple of recipes from Herter; background on the man and his work; and some remarks on cohesion vs. coherence in texts, Herter’s writing being fine on the cohesion front but often laughably deficient on the coherence front.



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