Archive for May, 2009

Another headline posting

May 12, 2009

This is a subtle one. The headline (New Scientist, 2 May, p. 11):

Gene discovery
may be common
cause of autism

My first reading of the compound noun gene discovery is that discovery is an abstract noun, referring to an event (in which some gene, or possibly genes, is discovered, though in other cases N + discovery could refer to an event of discovered by N(s), as in a University of Chicago discovery; there are both “object” and “subject” readings of compounds with abstract nominal heads).

But it’s ridiculous to asset that an even of discovery is the cause of any condition. Something like “The discovery of genes at the University of Chicago may be a common cause of autism” is, at least at first, puzzling. (Ok, here’s a science-fiction scenario to write about.) Instead, N + discovery is intended to refer to the thing discovered about (in this case), or by (in other cases) N. This reading is available in the New Scientist headline, but it takes a little work to get to it.

You see the headline writer’s dilemma. The writer was given a very small space to produce a head, and the obvious “Recently/Newly discovered gene may be common cause of autism” won’t fit. “Newly found gene” might have fit, but give the headline writer a break.

Showed up

May 10, 2009

Adrian Bailey wrote me this morning about a headline in the Times (of London) from 16 April:

Paula and Noorul showed up on The Apprentice

(Paula and Noorul are competitors on the television show The Apprentice.) Bailey, blogging under the name Dadge, balked at the headline, taking it to be an error:

Nice of them to show up

… Oh dear. Could The Times be running their headlines through some naff commercially available grammar checker? (link)

In fact, the Times headline is ambiguous. The two relevant interpretations have showed as a past participle in transitive show up (the interpretation the headline writer intended) and as a past tense in intransitive show up (the interpretation Bailey got). I’m supposing that Bailey dislikes showed as a past participle (preferring shown instead), so that the second interpretation is the one most easily available to him. The usage facts about the past participle turn out to have some interesting twists, though.

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A momentary compound problem

May 9, 2009

The editorial “Toward Fair Lending” in today’s New York Times begins:

The predatory lending bill that passed the House on Thursday is less than what is needed …

I had a moment of right-branching parsing of predatory lending bill, as

predatory + [ lending + bill ]

(saying that some bill about lending is predatory), though I quickly realized that this interpretation was absurd and that the intended parsing was left-branching:

[ predatory + lending ] + bill

(referring to some bill about predatory lending, that is to say, about lending in a predatory fashion).

I’m not faulting the editorial writer for producing a potentially ambiguous expression (though “the bill about predatory lending” would have been clearer, at the expense of an extra word); potential ambiguities are everywhere, after all. Probably most readers moved right over “predatory lending bill” without a twinge.

Right-branching vs. left-branching has been in the literature for about 50 year, at first in connection with the idea that right-branching structures were easier to process than left-branching ones, at least for English speakers, though the topic was quickly complicated by the observation that some languages are rich in right-branching constructions (and were consequently labeled “right-branching languages”), while others are rich in left-branching constructions (and were consequently labeled “left-branching languages”).

In English, some NP examples can go either way out of context: small children’s school ‘school for small children’ (left-branching) or ‘children’s school that is small’ (right-branching). But even out of context, many examples massively favor one or the other parsing (because of real-world plausibility): young children’s school ‘school for young children’ (left-branching), new children’s school ‘children’s school that is new’ (right-branching).

The perils of ONW

May 9, 2009

Rolf Heimann’s 2005 book The Royal Flea has a droll story — “Miss Featherstone and the Fire” — in it that illustrates the perils of Omit Needless Words.

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Another imparseable dream

May 8, 2009

The headlines roll on. Here’s another, from John Baker on ADS-L, 5/7/09, who found it in a mutual fund industry trade publication:  

Asset Drops Fuel Expense Ratio Rise

Baker explained:

Its meaning?  Decreases in the assets under management in mutual funds (mainly because of declining prices in the stock market) have caused the funds’ expense ratios to increase.

noting that the headline is so hard to parse because four of its six words (everything except asset and ratio) can function as either nouns or verbs.

Tangerine dreams

May 8, 2009

Pure silliness. I just enjoyed the sound of “the intangible tangerine”.

Making sentences interesting

May 7, 2009

Over on Language Log, I’ve posted about a grade-school workbook exercise on writing “interesting” sentences. The instructions were minimal:

A good sentence should be interesting.

“I have a dog” is not a good sentence with which to begin a story.  If you are writing a story about your dog that was lost, it would be better to begin the story, “Last week my dog Shep ran away from home.”

Can you change the following sentences into interesting sentences?

On the basis of that, the kids were unleashed on six other sentences, like “I have a bicycle”.

Now, this is a workbook about how to write, so the suggestion is that the problem with the sentences is their form. I looked at two ways in which an English teacher might view such sentences as defective: they “lack vitality” because of their syntax; and they are information-poor (ultimately, a criticism about discourse organization). But of course the sentences (considered with no other context — this is important) are uninteresting because of their content, which is not only minimal but also scarcely gripping. If a stranger came up to me on the street and announced “I have a bicycle”, I’d be worried. (If the stranger was a young child, I wouldn’t be worried at all; kids often confide information that’s important to them. Context, context, context.)

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Distinguished alum

May 5, 2009

A few days ago I came across the following on Paul Dickson’s website:

Dickson, born in Yonkers, NY, graduated from Wesleyan University in 1961 and was honored as a Distinguished Alumnae of that institution in 2001. (link)

This caught my eye because Dickson is an author and free-lancer who writes about language, among other things. On his website, he says that he “now concentrates on writing about the American language, baseball, and 20th century history”. But he uses alumnae as a singular referring to a man, namely himself.

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Non-clarifications of usage proscriptions

May 4, 2009

Back into the impact-as-verb morass. Commenter Amy on Mark Liberman’s latest “word rage” posting on Language Log:

Whenever I complain about people using impact as a verb, I clarify the misuse thusly: The only thing you can impact is a retina. Otherwise, you have an impact ON it.

This is no clarification, and no explanation. It’s just a restatement of the proscription in other words. It’s a non-argument, of the form:

You can’t [= mustn’t, may not] say X to convey meaning M because you have to say Y instead.

What makes it a non-argument is that in the real world there are plenty of (roughly) alternative ways of “saying the same thing”, so there’s no logical reason why X and Y couldn’t both be available for conveying M. So saying that you have to say Y to convey M is just another way of asserting (baldly) that X is not available for this purpose — that is, asserting that you mustn’t say X.

This sort of circular non-clarification of usage proscriptions is, I think, not at all uncommon, though most proscriptions aren’t framed as explanations (with because or other causal wording), but as straightforward directives: 

Don’t say X to convey meaning M; say Y instead.

It might be an interesting (though dismaying) exercise, for, say, an otherwise empty weekend, to collect spuriously causal formulations of proscriptions.

There’s more to say about this brief passage from Amy’s comment.

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Ordinary, technical

May 4, 2009

In my posting on extreme word rage, as directed against impacted in “impacted wisdom tooth”, I gave a quote from Language Log comment that began:

I haven’t got “wisdom teeth” that create problems …

It’s the quotation marks around wisdom teeth that interests me here. They call attention to the choice of expression, communicating some judgment on it, beyond the literal meaning of the expression; they are “metamarks”. For instance, quotation marks can convey the judgment that the expression is new, or at least relatively recent. Very often they are “sneer quotes”, conveying the judgment that there is something inappropriate about the expression.

That’s what I suspect is going on with “wisdom teeth” above: the quotation marks distance the writer from the word choice, probably conveying that the writer believes this word choice is not correct. That is, I suspect that the writer believes that the correct word choice would be third molars or last molars and that wisdom teeth is slang or something close it.

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