Archive for January, 2009

On the Beverly Cleary trail

January 30, 2009

In an earlier posting I passed on a little puzzle from Neal Whitman, about coordinate sentences with quotations in the first conjunct. Neal had asked about a proscription in Bill Walsh’s Lapsing Into a Comma (2000) against things like

(1) “I’m finished”, Kim said, and left the room.

Neal hadn’t found an earlier explicit statement of such a proscription, but he was pretty sure it had been in the air, since he’d uncovered some indirect evidence of it — in the children’s books written by Beverly Cleary; latest posting from Neal here. (These are charming books, so doing research on them is scarcely onerous.)

The point is that for man’y years Cleary almost always failed to repeat the subject in the second conjunct of examples like (1) — writing


rather than


(so blithely violating Walsh’s proscription) — but that in her 1990 book Muggie Maggie (well before Walsh’s book was published) she switched to 100% subject repetition.

Then Neal got a chance to look at the 1991 Cleary book Strider and discovered that it went back to nonrepetition. So in 1990 someone (an editor, a stand-in for Cleary, or, least likely, Cleary herself) cleaved to no-subject-repetition. Investigations continue.

I’m going to put that issue aside here, and look at the way the parts of these speech reports are put together. The reports have three parts:

A: a subject, referring to the person speaking (SUBJECT);

B: a verb (most commonly, say) of report (SAY); and

C: a representation of what was said (QUOTE).

A and B always stay together, in either order, so there are four ordering possibilities, along two dimensions:

Quotation Fronting (QF): whether C appears in its default place, following B in a predicate that combines with A (-QF), or whether C appears in clause-initial position (+QF).

Quotative Inversion (QI): whether B appears in its default place, following A (-QI), or whether the subject and main verb are inverted (+QI).

[Neal uses “quotative inversion” as a label for QF, though this isn’t the standard usage in the literature on types of inversions of subject and main verb.]

The alternatives are then:

1 (-QF -QI): A + B + C (SUBJECT-SAY-QUOTE)  Kim said, “I will go”

2 (+QF -QI): C + A + B (QUOTE-SUBJECT-SAY)  “I will go”, Kim said

3 (-QF + QI): C + B + A (QUOTE-SAY-SUBJECT)  “I will go”, said Kim

4 (+QF +QI): B + A + C  (SAY-SUBJECT-QUOTE)  Said Kim, “I will go”

As far as I can tell, these are truth-functionally equivalent. But they’re not equivalent with respect to the way information is organized in them or with respect to style. And they are somewhat different syntactically (beyond the ordering of their parts).

1 and 2 are neutral stylistically, but differ in what gets highlighted, A or C.

3 sounds journalistic, a version that’s unlikely to occur in speech, except in circumstances where A (the SUBJECT) is long or complex and is better postponed until the end of the clause. [There’s a considerable literature on Complex NP Shift, under various names (in things like “I saw yesterday a dog that was larger than any I’d ever seen before”, in contrast to the very dubious “I saw yesterday a big dog”). But what’s interesting here is that a construction that normally has stylistic associations can be recruited for other ends — in this case, to put off material that’s difficult to process or produce.]

Finally, 4 is very mannered, very “literary” in character (Quoth the raven, “Nevermore”.)

Now, the syntax. QI fractures a verb (B) from its subject (A) and, apparently, in so doing makes B inhospitable to premodification:

1 Kim rapidly said, “I will go”

2 “I will go”, Kim rapidly said

3 ?? “I will go”, rapidly said Kim

4 ?? Rapidly said Kim, “I will go”

Postmodification is ok in the 3 and 4 cases (as in the other two):

3 “I will go”, said Kim rapidly

4 Said Kim rapidly, “I will go”

This means that (integrated) adverbials that pretty much must be premodifiers are out in 3 and 4:

3 * “I will go”, always/never said Kim.

4 * Always/Never said Kim, “I will go”

In addition, QI is a “main-clause phenomenon”; contrast

2 “I will go”, we believe Kim said.


3 * “I will go”, we believe said Kim

4 * We believe said Kim, “I will go”

No doubt there are more syntactic differences here between +QI and -QI.

In any case, treating -QF and +QF as separate (and incompatible) constructions, and similarly for -QI and +QI, while allowing the compatible constructions to combine freely, gets the syntactic forms right and gets their association with truth-functional semantics right (I think), but it provides no place to “hook” stylistic differences to — and types 3 and 4, in particular, are quite different in this respect.

What I suggested in a paper some time ago is that sometimes combinations of constructions can have lives of their own: they are composites, with discourse-structural, stylistic, or sociolinguistic values of their own, sometimes with semantics not entirely predictable from that associated with the combining constructions, and often with syntactic peculiarities of their own. (Similar moves are made in other flavors of “construction  grammar”.) So, on this view, type 3 is a composite of -QF (the default ordering of A, B, and C — a special case of the default ordering of subject, verb, and direct object) and +QI, the combination being associated with one set of values, and type 4 is a composite of +QF and +QI, with the combination associated with a different set of values.

Such a view allows us to say that “the same” construction can have a variety uses. For instance, Subject-Auxiliary Inversion (exhibiting the order of auxiliary verb, subject, and complement of the auxiliary) is “used” in a large number of other constructions; the semantics is that of Subject-Predicate Clause, plus whatever semantics is contributed by each of the constructions that use SAI: several types of main-clause questions, several types of frontings (obligatorily with fronted negatives, so/such-phrases, and some others, optionally with certain fronted comparatives, etc.). There are extensive inventories of these SAI uses, along with accounts of the specific semantics associated with the uses and of the way they signal information structure and values of various sorts.

Annals of taboo avoidance

January 30, 2009

Two recent entries in the annals of taboo avoidance: another way to avoid fuck; and beep” as an avoidance mechanism (for, among other things, gay).


An effing great photo

January 29, 2009

Passed on to me by Ben Zimmer, from MSNBC:

SPRINGFIELD, IL – JANUARY 29: A quote taken from a taped converstaion of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich is displayed during closing arguments in the impeachment trial being held in the senate chamber at the Illinois capital building January 29, 2009 in Springfield, Illinois. Blagojevich has been accused by federal authorities of corruption including offering to sell the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by President-elect Barack Obama. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
11:38 a.m. ET, 1/29/09


January 29, 2009

I’d use either drat! or rats! myself (and both are in the OED), but here we get them in a portmanteau, in the Baldo comic strip:

It might not be in the OED, but it’s made it to the Urban Dictionary. And there are plenty of relevant Google hits.

(Hat tip to Sim Aberson.)

The facial narrative

January 25, 2009

Zuma uses a sound track to convey facial expressions:

Yes, I know, she’s being portrayed as vain and shallow. But then Zits generally builds on gender steotypes, rather than challenging them.

Wide asleep

January 23, 2009

Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky has reported that her daughter Opal (then aged 4;10) says that when she is deeply asleep she is “wide asleep”. This makes some sense, though it’s not idiomatic.

It turns out that there’s a big pile of Google hits for “wide asleep” (illustrations to come), in a wide variety of senses. My favorite is for a baby sleeping with its eyes wide open.

“Wide asleep” is the sort of thing you’d expect from someone acquiring English as a first language or learning it as a second. After all, the language (like all languages) is packed with idioms, and piecing out these not entirely systematic pairings of sound with meaning is a huge task for someone coming on these things from the outside. “Wide awake” vs. “sound/fast asleep” is part of a set of idiomatic modifiers meaning (roughly) ‘completely’, each associated with a few specific adjectives: among them, “wide awake/open”; “sound asleep”; “fast asleep” (earlier: “fast ashore/aground”), “dead drunk”, “stone sober/deaf”.

So “wide asleep” is either some sort of mistake or it’s a play on words, based on “wide awake” (compare the title of Stanley Kubrick’s movie Eyes Wide Shut, playing on “eyes wide open”; thanks to Larry Horn for reminding me of Kubrick). But if it’s a mistake, WHAT SORT of mistake is it?


More on txtng

January 23, 2009

Texting, messaging, whatever (from Hilary Price’s Rhymes With Orange):

Dialect dangerous to cats

January 23, 2009

How did this happen?

According to this site, it was a dialect problem:


They were mayor

January 21, 2009

From the NYT Magazine of the 18th, in a “Who’s Who” section on “Obama’s People”, a brief identification of Nancy Pelosi (p. 110):

(1) NANCY PELOSI, 68, grew up in Baltimore, where her father and brother were mayor.

This struck me as a bit off, because of the plural subject (her father and brother) and plural verb (were), but singular predicative (mayor). Normally, these three constituents agree in number (though there are constructions where non-agreement is possible, as in “The problem is rats”):

Her father and brother were politicians/*(a) politician.

Shifting the predicative to plural in (1) is possible, but (to my ear) still not entirely satisfactory:

(2) NANCY PELOSI, 68, grew up in Baltimore, where her father and brother were mayors.

What’s going on here is that mayor in (1) is a singular count noun, used (exceptionally) without a determiner, to denote a “unique role” (which is why the shift to the plural in (2) alters the sense of the example). Nevertheless, (1) takes a little work to understand, since the reader has to work it out that these two people filled this unique role at different times.

Buraku Obama

January 20, 2009

On the 16th, the New York Times carried a poignant front-page story on one of Japan’s minority groups (Norimitsu Onishi, “Japan’s Outcasts Still Wait for Society’s Embrace” in the paper edition, “Japan’s Outcasts Still Wait for Acceptance” on-line), featuring Hiromu Nanaka, a member of this hereditary minority who, having risen to the #2 position in the Japanese government, decided in 2001 not to seek the prime ministership (because of the harsh light such a move would have shed on his family; he is in a mixed marriage). Nanaka, now 83, has since retired (though not quietly).

What makes the story noteworthy is that the group was officially “liberated” only a few years after the American Emancipation Proclamation (but still experiences discrimination, and is virtually never mentioned in public by outsiders), and that today a black man became president of the United States. Also that the name Onishi uses for the group is buraku — no connection to Barack at all, but still an irresistible hook for journalists, and for me.

Asked whether a Japanese Obama was now possible, Nonaka replied, in his cautious Japanese politician’s way, “Well, I don’t know”. One younger interviewee was frankly negative, but another was even hopeful.