Archive for the ‘Syntax’ Category

Annals of zeugma

November 15, 2015

From Ann Burlingham, this zeugmatic dialogue from the tv series Leverage (“The Long Way Down Job”, season 4, episode 1, first aired 6/26/11), at 17:27:

(1) Drexel gets paid and away scot-free

(Drexel is the character John Drexel.)

The verb gets here represents two different lexical items, with very different meanings, one in construction with the PSP verb paid, the other in construction with the particle away and the adverb scot-free: the first is the main verb in a passive construction (the so-called “get-passive”, an alternative to the be-passive), and the second is the main verb in a (metaphorical) motion construction.

So we have zeugma — plus a massively non-parallel coordination paid and away scot-free. Overall, (1) is a major WTF sentence, of a sort that is often concocted as a joke, but that doesn’t seem to the case here.


On the who/whom front, and AZ terminology

November 4, 2015

Caught in  the NYT Book Review feature “By the Book” on Sunday (November 1st), in an interview with Gloria Steinem, three questions from the interviewer, questions with Acc whom beginning a WH, or constituent, question:

(1) Whom do you consider to be the best contemporary feminist writers?

(2) Whom do you consider the most underrated or unappreciated writers, past and present?

(3) Whom would you want to write your life story?

The WH element in all three questions is “extracted” from a position that requires an Acc —

(1′) You consider  him / *he  to be the best contemporary feminist writers.

(2′) You consider  him / *he  the most underrated or unappreciated writers, past and present.

(3′) You want  him / *he  to write your life story.

and so Acc whom is prescriptively correct. My own usage has who in all three of these examples; I found the interviewer’s whoms to be stiff, over-formal (even prissy), and old-fashioned — but that’s a matter of taste.


Yoda on active and passive clauses

October 13, 2015

A meme-slogan card passed on by Bert Vaux on Facebook:


The person who composed this (more on the composition process below) was seriously confused about what active and passive clauses are: the text on the card is an active clause, and all the Yoda sentences I’ve seen are in fact active (though a fair number had no passive counterpart, because the verbs in them were intransitive, like the verb in #1).

I’m guessing that the creator of #1 thought that

(A) Talk in active voice I do not.

was a passive sentence because it had non-default syntax (from the point of view of standard English). But the syntax is non-default because of the fronting in it, not because of the status of the clause as active or passive.


Non-parallel gaps in Jackson Hole

October 5, 2015

(Mostly geekily technical, but I hope you’ll persevere.)

From John Lawler a while back, a link to an Industry Tap story of 2/27/15, “Wyoming Vertical Farm Produces 37,000 Pounds of Greens on the Side of a Parking Garage!” by Marshall Smith. As John said, along with the intrinsic interest of the story (a bit more below), there’s this opening sentence:

(1) Jackson Hole, Wyoming, may not be a place many people pick out on a map to travel to, let alone even know exists.

(with a continuation about it still garnering significant tourist numbers). People will tend to judge (1) as a WTF sentence, awkward and hard to understand at best, simply ungrammatical at worst. The ingredients of the problem are the let alone construction and the gaps of relativization in two contrasted constituents. Both ingredients have been studied in some detail, but not, so far as I know, in combination as in (1).


Ten language-y comics

September 13, 2015

On the Comics Kingdom blog on Tuesday the 8th: “Tuesdays Top Ten Comics on Grammar and Wordplay” (with grammar, as usual, understood broadly). CK distributes strips from King Features; it’s one of my regular sources of cartoons for this blog. The strips here are all from 2014-15.



September 13, 2015

On the 11th, Mark Liberman returned to the expression could care less on Language Log, thanks to an xkcd cartoon that day, which I reproduce here:

He uses the expression as an implicitly negative idiom, conveying something like couldn’t care less, but a bit more compactly. She peeves at him, he analyzes what she might be doing with her peeve, and eventually he uses the idiom to her.


A sad editing moment at the New York Times

September 12, 2015

In last Sunday’s NYT Magazine, I was saddened, and not a little outraged, to read, in Dan Kois’s piece “The Misanthropic Genius of Joy Williams”, the following bit of garbled English:

In the end the essay is a call to arms for a new kind of literature, one Williams sounds doubtful that anyone, including she, can write.

(After nearly a week, the sentence is still on the paper’s site. Apparently nobody thought there was anything wrong with it.)

Now, I’m familiar with examples like this, and have posted about them, but not from professional writers or editors who are presumably native speakers of English; instead, they come from amateurs who are so unwilling to trust their instincts about how their language works that they cast about for guidance from (poorly remembered) advice on how to write their language that they’ve been taught. They have some excuse. But Kois and whatever editors worked on this piece do not.


Giving two hoots

September 1, 2015

A follow-up to my “What a hoot!” posting, which was about a set of senses of hooter that turn out almost surely to be related. One of these is mammary hooters (as in the restaurant’s name), and there’s some question about its history (though it’s clear that it predates the restaurant); there are sources that attribute the item to Steve Martin on Saturday Night Live, but for reasons I’ll expand on here, I was very wary of the idea.

That’s the first hoot.

Then, as so often happens when I post about specific uses of particular lexical items, people wrote me about other uses, which are really beside the point of my posting, or about other items that are merely similar to the target item (usually phonologically). Now it can be entertaining to follow up such associations, but that’s at the risk of losing the point. Occasionally I’ve followed these associations, though I try to mark associative chaining off from the main line of the posting, as when I branched from a posting on Ficus plants to a collection of loosely fig-related other things: the fig leaf of modesty, Fig Newtons, figgy pudding, giving a fig for, the fig sign,

So: soon to loosely hoot-related things. That’s the second hoot.


On the Basque detail

August 8, 2015

In the NYT on the 5th,”A Taste of Basque Paella Amid Idaho’s Potatoes” (the on-line head) by Kirk Johnson, beginning:

Boise, Idaho — When the president of the Basques arrived here in Idaho’s capital from Europe late last month, the mayor stepped in to interpret for him into English from Basque, one of the world’s most ancient and difficult languages.

“Boise is part of Basque Country,” said the mayor, David H. Bieter, in an interview, explaining his role. [Basque Country is the customary name for the Basque regions of Spain and France, viewed as an entity.]

Mr. Bieter’s brother, John, a professor of history at Boise State University who was at the time running an academic conference across town about all things Basque — coordinated with the weeklong festival that had drawn the president, Iñigo Urkullu — said he could not agree more.

“If you’re into Basque studies,” he said, “this is Christmas.”


A giant puppet, a Basque tradition, at the Jaialdi festival in Boise, Idaho

Two things here: the claim that the Basque language is one of the world’s most ancient and difficult languages; and something of the story of the Basques in the U.S.


Dingburg names

July 31, 2015

Today’s Zippy, with two sets of names to savor:


First, there are the preposterous Dingburger names: Flexo Sodafiber, Glassine Bookpaper, Flemish Spindleplunger. Then there are the products, their mascots, and their names. Commerce and pop culture.



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