The logic of syntax

I had two postings in preparation about moments of great joy from yesterday: one from the music that greeted me on awakening in the morning; the other from the plants in Palo Alto’s Gamble Gardens, visited yesterday morning on my first trip out in the world for many weeks.

Then fresh posting topics rolled in alarmingly, and a search for background material led me by accident to a great surprise, a link to a tape of a public lecture (a bit over an hour long) at Iowa State University on 4/11/90, 32 years ago. Title above. The subtitle: Thinking about language theoretically.

I listened transfixed as the lecturer, speaking to a general university audience, took his listeners into the wilds of modern theoretical syntax, along the way deftly advancing some ways of thinking that guided his own research. An admirable bit of teaching, I thought. With some pride, because that lecturer was, of course, an earlier incarnation of me.

I remember the visit to Ames — I have actually managed to give invited lectures at both the University of Iowa (in Iowa City) and Iowa State — and the very nice audience, but I thought that all the physical evidences of the talk (my notes, the handout, any computer files) had long ago vanished in moving across the country and compressing the contents of four large offices into a desk in the bedroom of my little Palo Alto condo. But here was an artifact from that time — you can listen to it yourself, I’m not at all ashamed of it — and one that is rather poignantly of significance to me in my present intellectual life, because one of the leading ideas in that lecture figures centrally in a blog posting I assembled materials for half a year ago: the distinction between grammar and the user’s manual (in less metaphorical but still quite technical phrasing, between (tacit) knowledge of regularities in language and knowledge of regularities in language use).

That idea became the subject of my 1999 Forum Lecture (as the Edward Sapir Professor) at the Linguistic Society of America’s summer Linguistic Institute at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign: “The grammar and the user’s manual” (the handout — formatting flaws, typos, and all — is available for reading here).

(The other leading ideas in my Iowa State Talk — the centrality of syntactic constructions; constructional interaction via defaults, invocations, and overrides — became the main subject of my 1992 presidential address to the Linguistic Society of America (given on 1/9/93), “Mapping the ordinary into the rare: Basic/derived reasoning in theory construction”. The handout for that paper is available in my 2/7/20 posting on this blog “The BDSR file”.)

But the current relevance of all this cropped up, unexpectedly, in this Wayno/Piraro Bizarro cartoon from 9/24/21:

(If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 4 in this strip — see this Page.)

What’s the issue?

Point 1. It might conceivably be true that the Potato Heads don’t live in a world where they’d want to raise (tater) tots, but that’s not what Mrs. Potato Head intends to convey: she’s saying that they live in a world — a world of mass frying of potatoes allowed by law — where they (and other Potato Heads) would not want to raise tots. A dangerous world for potato kids.

Point 2. She utters something with the apparent meaning:

NEG + [Cl we  [VP live in a world where [Cl  I [VP would want to raise tots]]]

intending, however, to convey:

[Cl we  [VP live in a world where NEG + [Cl  I [VP would want to raise tots]]]

That is, the sentence has the negation associated with the higher clause (negating the V of that clause: don’t live), while the conveyed meaning has the negation associated with the lower clause (negating the V of that clause: wouldn’t want). Actual syntax, higher negation; conveyed semantics, lower negation.

Point 3. This is a familiar configuration in English, standardly seen, however, in examples much simpler that Mrs. Potato Head’s sentence. A classic example:

I don’t believe you understand me conveying ‘I believe you don’t understand me’

actual syntax: negation associated with the higher clause, negating the V of that clause: don’t believe

conveyed semantics: negation associated with the lower clause, negating the verb of that clause: don’t understand)

The standard name for this configuration — Neg-Raising — uses a processual metaphor, the image being that the negation figuratively originates in the lower clause (where it belongs semantically) and is then moved up into the higher clause (where it actually occurs syntactically). But, as I argued in my work on constructional syntax — see the Iowa State lecture and my presidential address — Neg-Raising can be seen more profitably as just a name for a construction in which negation on a higher verb is associated with the semantics of lower-clause negation.

And this is in fact the position taken by the modern authority on the semantics, pragmatics, and syntax of negation, Laurence (hereafter, Larry) Horn, notably in his monumental A Natural History of Negation (expanded edition 2001), which has a section specifically devoted to Neg-Raising. (Larry’s thinking on the construction goes back more than 50 years.)

Point 4. All is not, however, quiet on the Neg-Raising front in examples like Mrs. Potato Head’s. Larry’s Neg-Raising section of NatHistNeg provides a classification of the higher-clause predicates that conventionally sponsor Neg-Raising. His summary table:

There’s some variation as to which particular predicates in a class can sponsor Neg-Raising, but the classes themselves seem to be essentially fixed

Well, there’s your problem. The predicate in Mrs. Potato Head’s example is the verb live, whose semantics is hugely remote from  the predicate classes in the table (all of which code semantic modality or (mostly) “mental action”).

As it turns out, Mrs. Potato Head’s usage might be unexpected, but it’s not unparalleled (Larry has a small collection of similar usages). It can be seen as her creative exploitation of the conventional resources of the language, as in fact — wait for it! (but you probably suspected this was coming) — a phenomenon of language use rather than the language itself, something from the user’s manual (in a volume about how you can creatively but systematically extend the material provided by the grammar for various purposes).

Yes, the other leading idea in my Iowa State lecture, and the subject of my 1999 Sapir Lecture for the LSA.

There’s obviously a lot more to be said about this approach to

We don’t live in a world where I’d want to raise tots.

(as Mrs. Potato Head uses it), and Larry Horn and I have talked together about how to say it. But that’s a topic for another posting.

A note about teaching as a calling. I was still a kid when I realized that I was meant to be a teacher (eventually, I thought, of mathematics or chemistry; meanwhile, I flirted seriously and not unrealistically with the ideas of being a journalist — well, some kind of writer — or a professional musician); it was a calling, a vocation in the etymological sense, and then a profession (also in something like the etymological sense), an affirmation of identity. I was a college freshman when I realized that I was also meant to be a linguist, a scientist devoted to studying language, in the very same way.

But I understood about the teaching from early on. I thoughtfully examined how teachers of all kinds did their thing. I practiced teaching, by helping my classmates learn, consciously attending to improving my skills, learning from my mistakes, and so on. And I made it into a career. The wonderful thing about having a calling and a true profession is that, though you end up being driven to long hours (trying to get it right) and being riven by agonies of self-doubt, the activity can be enormously satisfying — on a good day, downright exhilarating.

I could have gone on to a career of tutoring — I’m good at working one-on-one with people, it uses my notable empathy — and teaching small classes as if they were conversations, while doing the more public teaching in print, but of course actual teaching careers (with salaries and stuff) pretty much require that you engage in performing for audiences, and this didn’t come easily to me at all. The anxiety of actors and other performers dogged me all of my academic career, right up through my valedictory public lecture, early in 2019 (after some years away from the lectern), at the 20th Stanford SemFest, which I somehow managed without embarrassing myself.

But I did the lecturing creditably. In fact (as I saw, listening to myself from 32 years ago) I developed an effective stage persona and style of presentation (amiable, informal, regular-guy — in the real world I am truly not a regular guy — and pleasantly self-mocking), while crafting complex ideas into carefully organized long-form discourses. Mostly, it seems, I aced it. Well, some days you just can’t get things to work right, and some audiences are inert or hostile, but I think I became genuinely good at these performances, and I got to talk about things that genuinely excited me.

Of course, I continued teaching on the page (where I can take as much time as I’m willing to invest, for revising, recasting, reorganizing, redoing, rethinking). Which is what I do in all of my blog postings, but especially the longer ones. Like this one, which uses the hook of memoir to engage shamelessly — though openly — in teaching about a few of the ideas that have engaged my passions.


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