Archive for the ‘Discourse’ Category

Notes from school

April 15, 2012

Last week’s notes from my grand-daughter’s school included this report from a student in the middle school:

In L.A [Language Arts — what used to be called English] we had a lesson on how to organize a story with a follow-up question: Do people make decisions with his head or her heart.

Now, people is plural, used for generic reference, so the standard pronoun anaphoric to it is they (their in the possessive): with their head or (with) their heart. Why go with singular his or her instead?

Two possible factors. One, people doesn’t look plural; it doesn’t have a plural suffix. And two, peevish objections to “singular they“, even with generic antecedents — Everybody thinks either with their head or (with) their heart — have led people to be suspicious of anaphoric they with generic antecedents, even when these are in fact plural. The proscription against singular they has contaminated ordinary anaphoric usage. (For other cases of proscriptions contaminating perfectly innocent constructions, see here.)


Unfree variation again

February 18, 2012

Announcement of a talk at Stanford this coming Tuesday, with abstract:

Investigating a Syntactic Analysis:  Revisiting Raising-to-Subject
Scott Grimm, Stanford University

Verbs such as “seem’” or “appear’” allow an alternation between infinitival and finite sentential complements.  An example typical of those considered in the literature is given in (1) (Davies and Dubinsky 2004).

(1a) Barnett seemed to understand the formula.
(1b) It seemed that Barnett understood the formula.

The standard treatment in generative syntax of this alternation is the raising-to-subject analysis [Subject-to-Subject Raising, or SSR], which is introduced to account for the observation that the surface subject of (1a) is taken to be the subject of the embedded verb (‘understand’), a relation that is established in different ways in different syntactic theories.   In the instantiation which gives this phenomenon its name, the subject of the embedded verb “raises” to become the subject of the matrix verb.

This analysis assumes that (1a) and (1b) are meaning-equivalent and claims that the choice of infinitival or finite sentential complementation is a syntactic matter.  Much recent work in syntax has shown that comparable alternations are influenced by a variety of semantic, pragmatic, and/or usage factors.  For instance, the dative alternation has been shown to be affected by syntactic weight and animacy (Bresnan et al. 2007), as well as information structure constraints (Snyder 2003).

Based on an examination of corpus data, I show that the two constructions in (1a) and (1b) can also be distinguished once a broader array of examples are systematically evaluated. The two constructions manifest significant distributional asymmetries in terms of (i) their information structure preferences and (ii) whether they align with statements based on direct, i.e. experiential, evidence, or indirect evidence, e.g. inferences…


Drifting as far as

November 21, 2011

This comment from musician Les Claypool caught my ear on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday:

(1) It’s a wonderful place to be, as far as a creative person.

This is an instance of verbless topic-restricting as far as (AsFarAs for short, labeled “prepositional as far as” in MWDEU), but one drifting some from its earlier uses and now serving as a more general restrictor — in (1), with as far as a creative person roughly paraphrasable as for a creative person, restricting the applicability of the assertion in it’s a wonderful place to be.

Disregarding context

July 24, 2011

From an earlier posting on danglerology, a promissory note:

[this example] illustrates that the acceptability of such sentences depends not merely on their internal syntactic structure, but also on their place in a larger discourse. (For a later posting: why so many people have thought otherwise.)


(1) After writing a book, it seems that Harry is at loose ends.

(1) has no overt subject for the predicate writing a book, and such sentence adjuncts require that the referent of this subject be supplied (they are SPARs, in my terminology); a general principle, the Subject Rule, says that this referent is supplied by the subject of the main clause (the clause the adjunct modifies). But what’s the status of the Subject Rule?


Data points: anaphora 4/25/11

April 25, 2011

An account to friends of my sighting a famous Palo Alto resident who happens to be (like me) a Princeton graduate.

Dinner at Mandarin Goumet, couple to my left, the man very familiar-looking, older, ramrod-straight, expensive but understated suit, imperious in tone. Then the guy to his right and my left mentioned Princeton, and he and I both swiveled to look at him for a moment.

The issue is the referent of the he and the referent of the him in the final clause. Two men have been mentioned, and in principle either pronoun could refer to either of them. But my little tale was about the first man mentioned, and he is clearly the referent of the he, so that the second man must be the referent of the him. I could have used the first man and the second man (or some other NPs), but 3sg personal pronouns do the trick just fine, despite the in-principle ambiguity of my version.

as well

March 25, 2011

Over on ADS-L a few days ago, Charlie Doyle reported on a usage that struck him as odd:

I have just read a student essay in which about 10% of the sentences begin with “As well [comma]” — instead of “Moreover” or “Furthermore” or “What is more” or “Also.” Our students (evidently) have been taught to stick in lots of “transitions,” but sentence-initial “As well” strikes me as abnormal. As well, the essay didn’t have much content.


Annals of danglerology

March 23, 2011

Volume 59, No. 1 (March 2011) of the journal Names (the journal of the American Name Society) arrived on Monday, and I immediately noticed Frank Nuessel’s article “A note on the names of mathematical problems and puzzles” — noticed it because I was trained as a mathematician many years ago and published in and taught mathematical linguistics for some time (and sort-of-married into a nest of mathematicians: my husband-equivalent Jacques’s father and older brother were both mathematics professors).

Interesting piece, though it’s just a scratch into the immense range of material available.

What then caught my eye was the very first sentence:

While writing a paper entitled “The Representation of Mathematics in the Media” for a weeklong symposium …, it became evident that many mathematical problems, puzzles, conjectures, and equations had specific names attached to them.

Most people wouldn’t have noticed this, but since I’m a scholar of SPARs (here and here), I caught the subjectless predicational adverbial requiring a referent for the subject.


Two danglers

March 5, 2011

Two examples of non-canonical SPARs (commonly called “dangling modifiers”), both of which point to the importance of discourse context in understanding these expressions: one from 2007 that doesn’t work at all well, one from this week that works much better.


Trash talking

December 20, 2009

On the front page of the NYT sports section today: a piece (“The Last Word in Trash Talking”, by Greg Bishop) about Jets linebacker Bart Scott, who

talks trash freely and incessantly, all day, on any topic, on matters from petty to profound.

… Scott views trash talking as an art, or science. He has developed and refined his method. He has studied loquacious athletes [and pro wrestlers] from years past. And he has practiced, from the first day he tugged on a uniform all the way to Sunday, when he will unleash another torrent of mostly unprintable barbs on the Atlanta Falcons.

For Scott, trash talking is a weapon of intimidation, designed to throw opponents off balance. He starts with research on things he can use to distract them:

He scours ESPN, Google and scouting reports, which include pictures. He wants to understand the opponents he will talk to, understand what angers them, what makes them tick. He looks for police incidents, problems with wives or girlfriends, expanding stomachs, funny faces.

He then goes on to

mixing fact with fiction. Scott wants his barbs to be believable, but he often uses exaggerations, or lies disguised as truth, for maximum effect.

Scott is always prepared:

“I keep ammo on everybody, even if they never joked on me,” he said. “Because I will never be caught off-guard. No one will ever out-talk me. Ever.”

For obvious reasons, there aren’t many direct quotes in the story.

I don’t know if trash talking has been studied systematically, by sociolinguists, scholars of discourse, and the like. There’s a huge amount of material about verbal harassment, verbal abuse, and threats, but mostly from practical and legal standpoints.


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.)