Archive for May, 2009

Up by X to Y

May 30, 2009

A box on the front page of the New York Times on 30 May:

To Our Readers

On June 1, the Monday-Saturday newsstand price of The Times will increase from $1.50 to $2.00. The Sunday newsstand price will increase from $5.00 to $6.00. Home delivery prices will go up by $.70 to $1.54 per week, depending upon the days of delivery.

(my emphasis). When I got to the boldfaced bit, I was at first startled to read that apparently a current home delivery price of $.84 per week (certainly not what I’m paying) will increase to $1.54 per week (still a bargain), but then “depending upon the days of delivery” made it clear that the reading I’d gotten for the boldfaced bit was not the one the Times intended — though both readings are possible for the boldfaced bit out of context.

What set me up for the misreading was the prior context, where the price changes were of the form increase from OLD to NEW, so I read the third price change as similarly focused on the new price, that is, as go up by CHANGE-AMOUNT to NEW, but in fact the intended reading of by … to was not this one, but one expressing a range of change amounts, that is as go up by CHANGE-AMOUNT-1 to CHANGE-AMOUNT-2.

The intended reading could be brought out by marking CHANGE-AMOUNT-1 with from:

go up by from $.70 to $1.54 per week.

I suppose there are people who find the sequence by from ugly and wordy, but googling on {“increase by from”} nets a fair number of relevant (and unambiguous) examples, for instance:

The global population is projected to increase by from two to three billion to around nine billion. (link)

(I’ve switched from go up from to increase to reduce the number of irrelevant hits.) In case it’s the other reading you want, a comma will make things clear:

go up by $.70, to $1.54 per week.

But otherwise, you have to rely on background information and real-world plausibility to choose the appropriate reading — which is just what I did.

Non-dual citizens, indigenous nudity, and contagious countries

May 30, 2009

In my posting on contagious countries as a classical malapropism (for contiguous countries), I noted that there was another, quite different, use of this expression, with the sense ‘countries where some contagious disease  has spread’. Some examples:

[with reference to SARS] Major transportation routes were limited, and the movement of people from contagious countries to others was restricted. (link)

[with reference to hoof-and-mouth disease] If Britain continues to import food and farm animals from contagious countries, the virus could slip back in. (link)

and, with reference to swine flu, a tag here.

There are also hits for references to financial contagion, for instance:

Traditionally, dependence methods are adopted to verify the existence of financial contagion, which can only reflect partial characteristics of the relation between contagious countries and fail to offer a satisfactory determination of the contagious degree. (link)

Now, contagious countries here doesn’t mean ‘countries that are contagious’, as it would if the Adj contagious were understood as a predicating modifier. Instead, it’s a “non-predicating” Adj + N combination in which the Adj serves as a covert reference to a related N (contagion, in this case),  so it works pretty much like a N + N compound (and in a Language Log posting, I’ve suggested that the category of such combinations is N, as it is for N + N compounds like country house, and not Nom, as it is for predicating combinations like large country). In fact, financial contagion and contagious degree are also non-predicating combinations.

Some previous Language Log postings on other non-predicating combinations: on non-dual citizen here and indigenous nudity here. Both of these postings have lists of other examples, of various subtypes, and the second notes that some non-predicating combinations follow productive patterns, but others are novel, requiring the use of context, prior experience with the combination, or background knowledge for their interpretation. Contagious countries, in either the disease or the finance sense, is of course a novel non-predicating combination.

Mrs. Malaprop lives!

May 30, 2009

On 24 May, Bill Palmer reported (on ADS-L) a nice classical malapropism, contiguous > contagious, in a letter to the editor of the Chapel Hill News:

…Walgreen’s also purchased four contagious parcels at the intersection of…

I then googled up a few more examples of “contagious parcels” and some of “48 contagious states” and “contagious countries”. And discovered, in that last search, that Mrs. Malaprop herself had been to this territory. From Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals, Act I, Scene II:

MRS. MALAPROP: I would have her instructed in geometry, that she might know something of the contagious countries.

(That’s geometry ‘geography’.)


X can’t mean Y

May 27, 2009

Back on 23 May on ADS-L, I noted an occurrence (in speech) of “The military can do so much”, clearly intended to mean, in the context, ‘the military can do only so much’ (i.e., not everything, or not a lot, while “the military can do so much” otherwise conveys ‘the military can do a lot’). Not long after, a poster wrote:

If “can do so much” can actually mean “can do only so much”, then perhaps Churchill really meant “Never have only so few owed only so much to only so many”? I don’t think so. The sentence really needs “only” in there to make sense.

This is one version of the “X can’t mean Y” (sometimes “X doesn’t mean Y”) reaction to reports that some people sometimes use X to mean Y: flat rejection of the pairing of form X with meaning Y, usually on the basis that the objector wouldn’t use X that way (grammatical egocentrism). Note that the objection is framed as statement of fact (about the language in general, not just about the objector’s variety of the language), though actually it serves as a normative judgment (that X shouldn’t be used to mean Y).


Muhly on diacritics and blog comments

May 26, 2009

Back on 17 May, Nico Muhly posted a complaint on his blog about diacritics in the New York Times:

Sometimes I don’t really understand what the Times is up to. They have some weird style sheet that allows this article to get away with pretentiously rendering Astérix and Obélix in that fashion, and then this article to get away with spelling names like Björk and Ólöf without any diacritix at all (Olof?). This is particularly annoying because é in French is, literally, the same thing as e just with an acute accent on him. Ó, and Ö, in Icelandic, are totally different letters, with Ö being at the far end of their Alphabet…

Anyway. It’s just weird to me. Talking about “Astérix” in the newspaper seems a Bit Much if you can’t spell Ice-ish people’s names with the letters to which they Я accustomed.

Muhly then got a comment, on his blog, from a disaffected reader, saying simply:

Oh God please write about something meaningful.

Muhly chose not to disregard this annoying comment, but wrote to the reader and also posted about the affair, citing his passion for diacritics and other interesting spellings.



May 24, 2009

Two days ago on ADS-L, David A. Daniel responded to part of my saddlebacking posting (on this blog)

I am surprised that in your article you would categorize the association of heterosexual anal sex with “Christianity, premarital sex, and maintaining ‘virginity'” as recent or recently fashionable. Perhaps it is recent or recently fashionable (a) to discuss it in mainstream media and/or (b) as a virginity preserving practice in protestant America. But, point is, it has long been used by generations of Greeks, Italians, Arabs and a whole assortment of other folk, not just as a virginity preserver but as birth control as well. There is, in this grand, modern and enlightened year of 2009, a whole world out there of people who get anything from ostracized to sold into prostitution to stoned to beheaded if their pre-marital hymens are not intact. But they’re all just as horny as the more liberated folks, so… they go knockin’ on the back door.

Oh dear. Blogging has many pitfalls. One that afflicts me again and again arises from the optimistically naive idea that I have a topic I can blog about in half an hour or so (as against the hours, some times many hours, I spend on most postings); when you have hundreds of postings in the pipeline, already started, you pray for an easy one.

So I often fail to give the provisos, restrictions, background information, footnotes, explanatory parentheses, and the like that would make what I write clearer. As I did in this case.



May 22, 2009

From the May-June Gay & Lesbian Review / Worldwide, p. 8, on the “BTW” page by Richard Schneider Jr.:

Saddlebacking The choice of Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church to deliver the invocation at President Obama’s Inauguration upset many people, who objected to the pastor’s extreme positions on abortion and gay rights. Some wrote letters, others protested at the swearing-in. Columnist Dan Savage ran a contest to see who could come up with the best definition for the gerund “saddlebacking.” (Readers may remember Savage’s 2006 contest to define the word “santorum.” [The winning entry for “santorum”: “the frothy mix of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes a byproduct of anal sex”; the American Dialect Society chose it as the Most Outrageous Word of the Year for 2004]) The winning entry went as follows: “Saddlebacking: the phenomenon of Christian teens engaging in unprotected anal sex in order to preserve their virginities.” The sly definition refers to a curious development among teenage girls and young women who want to preserve their virginity until marriage. Many have reportedly turned to anal sex as a substitute for vaginal sex on the belief that this will spare their maidenhead while allowing them to have intercourse. In effect, they end up “barebacking,” a well-known practice among gay men, while allowing their boyfriends to be “in the saddle,” so to speak, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof.

(Well, if the saddlebacker uses a condom, it’s not barebacking. But you can appreciate the instinct to treat saddlebacking as a portmanteau.)

The usage has entertained many people on the web; there are already 17,500 raw webhits. And back in January, the contest made the Economist, although the magazine was too decorous to quote any of the candidates. Of course it has Urban Dictionary entries.

The word saddleback is now a verb with a full set of forms — base form (as in to saddleback), present and past tenses, present participle in verbal (as in the progressive) and nominal uses (as a “gerund”), past participle (in passive and perfect uses) — plus the related agentive noun saddlebacker. It seems to have both intransitive (“they saddlebacked all night”) and transitive (“she let him saddleback her”) uses.

(The practice of anal sex between straight people is not at all new, of course, though the association of it with Christianity, premarital sex, and maintaining “virginity” might be recent, in the sense that it is recently fashionable.)

Taboo avoidance (twice removed)

May 22, 2009

Maureen Dowd wrote on 13 May (op-ed page, “Rogue Diva of Doom”, about Dick Cheney):

W. [George W. Bush] admired Cheney’s brass (he used another word) but grew increasingly skeptical of him, the more he learned about foreign affairs himself …

This is not an amended direct quote from GWB. It’s not even an amended indirect quote from GWB. Instead, it’s a kind of distant reference to GWB’s opinions and, possibly, to things he might have said in the past (something like “admire Cheney’s balls”, I’d guess; note the /b/ thing). This has the effect of keeping up snarky allusions to GWB’s earthy language even in the absence of specific text to cite.

For Memorial Day: the cookout

May 22, 2009

This is Memorial Day weekend in the U.S. — an occasion for picnics and cookouts and the like. Here’s a Barsotti cartoon (from the New Yorker archives) for the holiday:

There isn’t a lot of linguistic content here, but there is some. Understanding language involves not just comprehending literal meanings, but an enormous amount of other work, having to do with cultural setting, knowledge of the world, assessment of other’s people’s intentions, figuring out consequences of the literal meaning, and so on. In this cartoon, the wiener has failed to put together all the relevant pieces and so seems not to appreciate that the function of a wiener at a cookout is to be grilled and consumed as food.

Dubious passive

May 21, 2009

I am on record as not being against the passive voice. I don’t recommend using passive constructions wherever possible — that would be very silly — but I do remind people that passives have their uses and places, and I note that insisting on recasting all passives as actives can lead to text that is at best awkward.

Still, there are times when I’m genuinely puzzled by a passive clause — like this one, in a NYT piece of 20 May (“Shopping Spree for [Sarah] Palin by G.O.P. Passes Legal Test”, by Kate Philips):

The expenditures caused a small uproar, but Republican officials asserted that they had always intended to donate the clothing to charity later. And Governor Palin said many of the outfits had not been worn by her.

(the passive clause is marked out in bold face). This clause is not only passive, it’s an “agentive passive”, with the “logical subject” expressed in a PP with by; agentive passives are much rarer than non-agentive ones. And in fact the “logical subject” is expressed by a personal pronoun (her), and that’s even rarer. (Textbooks and usage manuals often cite made-up examples like “The bird was seen by me”, with a type of clause that is vanishingly rare, even in formal writing.)

The question is why the situation should have been described by “many of the outfits had not been worn by her”, instead of “she had not worn many of the outfits”. The odd pronominal agentive passive highlights Palin, by putting her in a position often used for new and especially important information, and suggests, bizarrely (to my mind) that other women might have worn some of the outfits, but Palin didn’t wear them.

Well, maybe those are the facts, and the “devious reading” is correct; maybe Palin said something along the lines of “Many of the outfits were not worn by me”, cutting the factual corner — or, more plausibly, some spokesperson said something along the lines of “Many of her outfits were not worn by her”, again cutting the factual corner (by allowing for the possibility that other women wore some of the outfits). Philips’s sentence has an indirect quotation, so we don’t know how to parcel out the responsibility for the wording: how much comes from the source, and how much from the source as interpreted by the reporter?

I’ve entertained the possibility that Philips had originally written “She had not worn many of the outfits” and then she, or an editor, fell into a fugue on the negative-quantifier scoping issue (this would probably not have been a conscious matter, of course). But this strikes me as almost impossibly subtle; it’s the difference between ‘She failed to wear many of the outfits’ (the number of outfits she wore was inconsequential) and ‘She wore few of the outfits’ (the number of outfits she wore was small), which is a far cry from the classic neg-quant cases like “All of the bullfrogs didn’t croak” (‘None of the bullfrogs croaked’ vs. ‘Not all of the bullfrongs croaked’).

In any case, a small mystery.