Archive for January, 2009

Not awarding the Purple Heart

January 18, 2009

In an earlier posting about an example from the New York Times, I looked at the way a because-clause was to be interpreted in that example. In a comment on my posting, Chris Waigl noted that the main clause in this example itself presented an issue of interpretation. Somewhat simplified, the relevant part of this clause is:

(1) The Pentagon will not award the Purple Heart to war veterans who suffer from PTSD.

As I said in a reply to Chris’s comment,  this can be understood as conveying either ’suffering from PTSD does not qualify someone for the Purple Heart’ (what was intended in the original) or ’suffering from PTSD disqualifies someone for the Purple Heart’ (the way Chris took it). Call these the ‘fail to qualify’ and the ‘disqualify’ understandings, respectively.

Larry Horn has now e-mailed me to shed some light on the matter.


Zombies and bogeymen

January 18, 2009

Following up on my recent “zombie rule” postings (here and here): there are two sorts of phenomena here, though I’ll argue, eventually, that the difference between them isn’t important for practical purposes.

I’ll start with the history of a typical zombie rule:


Zombie rules II: convince

January 16, 2009

On the 14th, Ron Butters posted to ADS-L with a complaint about his AOL spell- and grammar-checker. He typed

I will have to convince the writer to give us a quick revision of her article.

and the grammar-checker spit (or perhaps spat) back that this use of convince had an “inappropriate preposition”, and suggested persuade instead.

Butters said he vaguely remembered

that some old-time prescriptivists condemn the use of “convince” as a verb meaning “persuade,” but this seems bizarrely old-fashioned–and “preposition” has nothing to do with it.

The proscription against convince with an infinitival VP complement is in fact a “zombie rule” (like the ones discussed here), a proscription that has died in practice but continues to lumber about in odd corners of usage advice.


Zombie rules I: blame, love, graduate

January 15, 2009

Jan Freeman’s Boston Globe column on usage advice that hasn’t aged well includes several items that are simply astounding to modern speakers and readers (sleuth can only mean ‘track, footprint’, according to some people), but there are some others that have trudged on, zombie-like, to recent times. (And then there’s have got / ‘ve got vs. have, where there are complex dialectal differences in usage.) Three in particular: blame on, love for like, and graduate from.


Very surprised by a proscription

January 15, 2009

From Jan Freeman’s compendium of usage advice that hasn’t aged well:

Very pleased. “Don’t say ‘I am very pleased to see you.’ Say ‘I am very much pleased to see you, or I am pleased to see you.’ Note. – Very cannot directly modify a verb, and, hence, not its past participle. ‘I am very delighted,’ ‘I am very disappointed,’ etc., are incorrect expressions.” (Josephine Turck Baker, “Correct English, How to Use It,” 1907)

This was a new one for me. But it’s an interesting example of a proscription with a “logical” basis, one that arises by reasoning from “first principles”.


Two thousand eight

January 14, 2009

The sentence went

(1) Two thousand eight was bad for the wallet, but perhaps good for the soul.

This from a posting to, as printed in the NYT “Op-extra” (Week in Review 1/11/09, p. 12). In it, “Two thousand eight” must be understood as referring to the year 2008. Now this is entirely comprehensible, but it might give a reader a few centiseconds of pause, as would

(2) The year two thousand eight was bad for the wallet …

It’s a style sheet thing: most editors would replace (2) by

(2′) The year 2008 was bad for the wallet …

and would absolutely not allow

(1′) 2008 was bad for the wallet …

instead of (1).



January 11, 2009

Nico Muhly reports on especially efficient language use:

So last week, I was in Los Angeles and needed to buy gifts. One of the many reasons I fear LA so much is because you can’t STROLL and buy stuff; you have to make a whole Agenda and drive from place to place and deal with parking and whatever else. I hauled my cookies to Barneys, which was a complete bordello of fabric and screaming; it was two days


after Christmas and everything was on MegaSjúper Sale. I witnessed one of the best pieces of language. There were these two really tall, really outrageous sort of voguey dudes in noisy shoes clicking and clacking up the stairs, and when they got to the top the following thing happened:

[Sees the huge banner saying 70% off]

[Sees the huge swarm of people shopping]

[They make their way through the crowd and discover that all the sizes left on the rack are XL and XXL and/or dumb pink Dolce & Gabbana things.]
Oh, Girl

Language Log looked at similar cases a while back, in particular in postings about dude, including one with an all-dude cartoon exchange. As Mark Liberman said on that occasion:

People seem to be especially fond of these single-word conversations with newly-discovered slang like dude. One reason for this was featured in Scott Kiesling’s American Speech article — such jokes fit the always-popular view that youth culture has degenerated to a linguistic level barely above grunts and squeals. I think there’s another side to it as well, seen from the other side of the fence: incoming slang is a sort of secret language, expressing exquisitely shaded meanings that are shared among the in-group but are baffling to outsiders. But what the outsiders are missing is not so much the lexical items as the shared cultural context, and so it’s not so easy as learning a word definition. The all-dude cartoons are a way of making that point, and I suspect that’s why natives of dudespeak seem to like them even more than the members of pre-dude generations do.

(Hat tip to Ned Deily.)

Comma, please!

January 10, 2009

On p. 1 of  the 7 January 2009 NYT, the first sentence of “Purple Heart Is Ruled Out for Traumatic Stress” by Lizette Alvarez and Erik Eckholm:

The Pentagon has decided that it will not award the Purple Heart, the hallowed medal given to those wounded or killed by enemy action, to war veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder because it is not a physical wound.

I had a moment of reading “because it is not a physical wound” as modifying “who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder”, which was a bizarre thought. Problem with modifier attachment! “Because it is not a physical wound” is supposed to modify the whole “it will not award the Purple Heart … to war veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder”. I read it as having “low attachment”, but the writers intended “high attachment” — an intention that could have been made clearer by a comma setting off “because it is not a physical wound”.


Chinese not a language

January 8, 2009

From the Mountain View Whisman School District [Mountain View, CA] Home Language Survey [in connection with applications for kindergarten]:

*If you have indicated Chinese above, please specify as to Cantonese or Mandarin, as Chinese is not a language.

(Hat tip to Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky.)

You see what they were trying to get at: Chinese is not the name of a single language. But this isn’t a good way to say that.

“X”, Y said, and VP

January 5, 2009

Neal Whitman wrote recently to the American Dialect Society mailing list to inquire about a proscription he found in Bill Walsh’s Lapsing Into a Comma (2000:58-9):

Here’s a principle that even good writers tend to violate, especially in fiction: You cannot splice a second clause onto a “he said” or “she said” type of attribution.

WRONG: “I would never do that,” Smith said, and added: “Not in a million years.”

WRONG: “I’m leaving,” Jones said, and walked out of the room.

Neal hasn’t found this one elsewhere and was asking the sages of ADS-L if we’d come across it. I hadn’t, but I have a glimmer of an idea where Walsh might have gotten the idea that such things were mistakes in grammar.