Archive for the ‘Discourse’ Category

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).

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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.

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Repetitions

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).

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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.

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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.

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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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Two remarks on reversals

April 28, 2012

Following up on my “Reversed CLEAR verbs” posting (with a section on reversed substitute): a remark on motivations for reversal in CLEAR verbs, plus a remark on the spread of reversed substitute in American English: not just sport(s), but also food.

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Viewpoint reflexive?

April 19, 2012

Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky points me to an interview with Bradford W. Parkinson, the chief architect of GPS, which contains the remarkable sentence

It was hurting themselves.

with an instance of themselves that flagrantly fails to satisfy the Clause-Mate Condition on reflexives in English, requiring that

Reflexive pronouns and their antecedents must belong to the same clause. (link; the sense of belong to here is explained in this posting)

But “untriggered reflexives” also occur in English, and there’s considerable variation from speaker to speaker as to which of these are acceptable. Even with context, Parkinson’s sentence is unacceptable to many speakers, but it does fit into a class of cases that some speakers accept: viewpoint, or perspectival, reflexives.

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Notes from school

April 15, 2012

Last week’s notes from my grand-daughter’s school included this report from a student in the middle school:

In L.A [Language Arts -- what used to be called English] we had a lesson on how to organize a story with a follow-up question: Do people make decisions with his head or her heart.

Now, people is plural, used for generic reference, so the standard pronoun anaphoric to it is they (their in the possessive): with their head or (with) their heart. Why go with singular his or her instead?

Two possible factors. One, people doesn’t look plural; it doesn’t have a plural suffix. And two, peevish objections to “singular they“, even with generic antecedents — Everybody thinks either with their head or (with) their heart — have led people to be suspicious of anaphoric they with generic antecedents, even when these are in fact plural. The proscription against singular they has contaminated ordinary anaphoric usage. (For other cases of proscriptions contaminating perfectly innocent constructions, see here.)

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