Archive for the ‘Syntax’ Category

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.


Going for High Attachment

July 30, 2015

Passed on by Steven Levine on Facebook on 7/23, this headline for a story that day by Quinn Foley:

Children’s Choir Surprised Their Teacher With Cancer

The intended reading was that their teacher with cancer should be parsed as a constituent, a NP understood as ‘their teacher who has cancer’ — that’s Low Attachment (LA) for the modifier with cancer, and LA is the default parsing for such modifiers (see other postings in the “Attachment” Page on this blog). Despite that, it’s very hard not to understand the modifier as having High Attachment (HA), modifying surprised their teacher, a reading that’s both ludicrous and distressing.

For the moment, I’m just puzzled by this fact.


What’s wrong with this verb?

July 29, 2015

From July 18th, Jon Lighter in ADS-L:

[1] A television journalist with an English accent reports from Jordan that after the Tennessee gunman “came back [to the U.S.], he drunk drove.” This reveals the deadly seductiveness of the New Syntax: “drive drunk” takes no longer to say and is arguably more euphonious.

Lighter has a long history of scornfully criticizing innovative back-formed verbs like this one (to drunk drive / drunk-drive). His plaint is that in general there’s no justification for innovating new verbs when we already have a way to express the meaning, though the innovation might be defended if it provided a briefer alternative to the existing expression, which is not the case here; moreover, he assumes that the reason people innovate such verbs is merely to sound fashionable, a motive he deprecates.

There’s a lot to be said in response. I’ll start with some background about syntax and morphology and then move to the functions of innovative morphology and some sage observations by Larry Horn.


Data postings

July 29, 2015

A new feature in the set of “Linguistics notes” Pages on this blog: data postings, two so far. Each of them has three parts: an inventory of postings on the topic (from Language Log and this blog); “raw data” (a collection of numbered notes on examples (jottings on examples, observed on the fly or taken from e-mail, mailing lists, or blog postings); and an index to the examples, keyed to the numbered notes. All three types of material will be regularly updated.



July 8, 2015

From the Mental Floss site yesterday, “Why Have People Started Asking Questions by Adding ‘Y/Y’?” by Gretchen McCulloch:

This is the best new way of asking questions, y/y? Some examples from around the internet show how this method of appending a y/y to the end of statements is starting to be used.

So I should wear my matching shirt at some point, y/y?
So, Ramsay is the new Joffrey but 1000x worse, y/y?
#knitting friends. We should all make these for next winter, y/y?
I have a million of these flower dresses and I need another one y/y?
the weirdest hat he’s ever worn, y/y?

This is strictly an orthographic feature; y/y? isn’t an abbreviation for spoken yes or yes?, as McCulloch points out. Instead, it’s a very compact way of converting a (written) statement to a question seeking agreement with that statement.



July 3, 2015

In the NYRB of 7/10/15, p. 46, in “Climate: Will We Lose the Endgame?’ by Bill McKibben (relevant bit boldfaced):

(1) the geology of the region is bowl-shaped: beneath the glaciers the ground slopes downward, meaning that water can and is flooding underneath them.

Modals like can govern the BSE form of their complements (water can flood underneath them); the auxiliary verb be governs the PRP form of its complement (water is flooding underneath them); so when can and is are coordinated, there is no verb form for the complement VP that satisfies both requirements. Quite commonly, speakers and writers (even in formal written contexts like NYRB) opt to satisfy only one of the requirements, the one imposed by the nearer V: this is government by the nearest (GbN).

I’ve grown accustomed to many occurrences of GbN, but some strike me as particularly jarring, I’m not sure why, and this is one of those cases.


caused traffic to snarl, as well as some injuries and accidents

June 20, 2015

The whole sentence, as it appeared in the Daily Post (central S.F. Peninsula) on 6/11/15, p. 38, in “Juror complains protestor trial is a waste of time” by Angela Ruggiero:

(1) The sudden blockade caused traffic to snarl, as well as some injuries and accidents.

This has the V caused in construction with some sort of DO + VP complement traffic to snarl (a kind of “accusative + infinitive”, to use traditional terminology) and simultaneously in construction with a direct object, a coordinate NP some injuries and accidents. We start with the observation that this is a kind of coordination of unlike syntactic categories: whatever the syntactic category of DO + VP is, it’s not NP.

Now, despite what some usage handbooks would have you believe, coordinations of unlikes are far from generally barred — but some types are markedly odd, at least for many speakers (and in this case, I am one of them; for me, (1) is one type of what the Language Loggers came to call “WTF coordinations”, for the characteristic reaction some people have to them). (more…)

The hunted 95 per cent?

June 4, 2015

Let’s start with:

(1) Hunted for its horns, 95 percent of the population disappeared

This looks like a classic “dangling modifier”. We have a SPAR hunted for its horns (a Subjectless Predicative Adjunct Requiring a referent for the missing subject), but the adjunct doesn’t obey the Subject Rule (doesn’t pick up its referent from the subject of the main clause: (1) doesn’t in fact tell us that 95 percent of the population was hunted for its horns). (On the concepts and terminology, see the material in the Page on “Dangler postings”, especially the “as a SPAR” posting.)

But even without context, (1) is easily understood: 95 percent of the population is a metonymic stand-in for a population of X, and it’s X that was hunted for its horns. But that takes some interpretive work. However, when more discourse context is provided, this work is no longer needed, and I’d expect that readers wouldn’t even notice that (1) is technically a dangling modifier.



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