Archive for the ‘Syntax’ 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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Ambiguity for leeches

April 15, 2014

Posted by Neil Copeland on Facebook and passed on by Mar Rojo, this article from the New Zealand Press, by Rachel Young, with the headline:

Is this NZ’s creepiest crawly?

and the subhead:

Rare land leeches have been found on several offshore islands, one of which is now headed to Te Papa [the museum in Wellington]

The ambiguity of the subhead elicited some discussion:  is it a land leech or an offshore island that’s headed to Te Papa? (Details below.)

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The diner and the definite article

March 31, 2014

Today’s Zippy:

(#1)

Yes, the diner is just called The Diner. But it’s easy to find:

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The classic owl joke

March 4, 2014

From several sources, this Sandra Boynton cartoon on whom:

An old joke, offered by people for National Grammar Day, which is today.

Today is also Opal Armstrong Zwicky’s birthday (her tenth, moving her into the edge of tweendom) and, this year, Mardi Gras.

[Note on St. Pancake's Day, from 2012, here.]

More Recency Illusion

February 24, 2014

From Tom Grano, a CBS News report from yesterday, from Bill Flanagan, representing the “grammar police”:

Time now for a public service announcement from our contributor and first-person-singular-pronoun policeman Bill Flanagan of VH1:

I know it sounds snobby to point this out, but in the last 10 or 15 years, millions of intelligent English-speaking people have become flummoxed by when to use “I,” and when to use “me.” You hear it all the time:

Are you coming to the movie with Madonna and I?
Won’t you join Oprah and I for dinner?
The Trumps are throwing a party for Barack and I.

It’s embarrassing!

At least people who mess up the other way — “Goober and me are going to town” — sound folksy, colloquial, down-to-Earth. But people who say “I” when they should say “me” sound like they are trying to be sophisticated and they’re getting it wrong.

There’s a lot to criticize here. But I’ll start with the phenomenon, known in the syntax business as the Nominative Conjoined Object (NomConjObj for short) and the claim that it’s arisen only recently.

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Embedded PP

February 17, 2014

Today’s Bizarro:

PPs within PPs. All are postnominal modifying PPs that are (roughly) equivalent to postnominal relative clauses:

the memo which was about the meeting which was about the conference call which was about the memo which was on how to schedule meetings

So these postnominal PPs have been referred to as “reduced relative clauses”.

Slang change

February 15, 2014

Yesterday Mark Liberman posted on this Doonesbury cartoon:

Rich in material. The main thing I want to note (as Mark did) is a sense development in the slang verb rock, from an older sense, around at least since 1990 (‘impact strongly’), to a newer sense, the one in the cartoon, around since at least 2007 (‘wear or display conspicuously or proudly’); this is a change from a more objective sense to a more subjective one, such as Elizabeth Traugott has repeatedly discussed.

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Odds and ends 2/13/14

February 13, 2014

Two (unrelated) items in my queue, on familiar topics: ambiguity and government by the nearest.

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Comma time

February 8, 2014

Today’s Bizarro has yet another version of the Comma Joke, repeated in many places over the years:

The contrast is between expressions that are tightly connected syntactically to the rest of their syntax (as in Kiss the cook) vs. those that are loose adjuncts of one type or another — vocatives or, as in this case, appositives.

(Note: this was originally posted under the heading Apostrophe Time. My mental gears slipped between apostrophe and comma, as several readers have pointed out. Some days I’m not very sharp.)

xkcd vocabulary

January 28, 2014

A recent xkcd:

I was about to post on this one, but Mark Liberman got to it first, yesterday, under the title “A stick tower by any other name”, where he wrote:

Mouseover title: “Stay warm, little flappers, and find lots of plant eggs!”

An amusing reminder of a serious issue: most compounds and phrasal collocations are used in ways that are consistent with their compositional meaning, but not entirely predictable from it. “Solar cell” doesn’t mean “tanning bed”; “drainage basin” doesn’t mean “mop bucket”; “forest canopy” doesn’t mean “camping tent”; etc.

The frequent failure of perfect compositional semantics in composite expressions (both N + N and Adj + N) is a persistent theme on this blog.


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