Archive for the ‘Modifiers’ Category

A zombie lurches in the NYT

May 20, 2018

From the New York Times, “Is a Dumber Phone a Better Phone?” by John Herrman, on-line on May 16th, in print today under the title “A new crop of smartphones has arrived, aiming to improve on the iPhone — not by being better but by being substantially worse” (crucial bit boldfaced):

[Nokia’s model] 3310 is at its genuine best when it falls like a smooth stone into your pocket, where, rather than constantly buzzing at the periphery of your consciousness, it sits inert, ready mostly to be ignored.

The alternatives, which turn on what’s in the scope of the modifying Adv mostly ‘usually, generally’ (NOAD):

(a) mostly ready to be ignoredmostly modifies the predicative AdjP ready to be ignored

(b) ready mostly to be ignored (above) – mostly is either a postmodifer of ready or modifies the infinitival VP to be ignored

(c) ready to mostly be ignored (“split infinitive”) – mostly modifies the predicative BSE-form VP be ignored

(d) ready to be mostly ignored (“split verb”) – mostly modifies the predicative PSP-form VP ignored

The intended meaning is that what is usual or general is for the user to ignore the smartphone.

Alternative (a) has the wrong meaning; alternative (d) has things just right; alternative (c) is very close to equivalent in meaning to (d); and alternative (b) is ambiguous, with one meaning not the intended one and one close to equivalent in meaning to (d), but with modifying mostly quite distant from the crucial verb-form ignored, which makes (b) really clunky (as well as potentially misleading. I’d go for something like (b) only if it was the only available alternative, and it jumped out at me unpleasantly when I read Herrman’s piece.

A great many writers and editors would avoid (c) because it’s a (so-called) “split infinitive” (SI), a construction with material intervening between the infinitive marker to and its VP complement. Irrational aversion of SIs has a long sad history, but even peevish and sticklerish usage advice has been shifting in their favor in many circumstances: the Economist and the AP Stylebook, among others, have now gotten on board.

(The 2017 print edition; 2018 is available on-line to subscribers.)

Alternative (d) — which, I remind you, ought to be the clearly favored one — falls foul of an irrational aversion that has an even sadder, and weirder, history than the proscription against SIs: a proscription against “split verbs” (an SV has material intervening between an auxiliary and its head verb), as in I will soon leave as an alternative to I soon will leave (and Soon I will leave and I will leave soon). Part of the weirdness of the no-SV “rule” is that it’s a journalist thing, essentially unknown outside of style/usage advice for journalists, but held to with great ferocity there.

There’s considerable discussion on Language Log on the SV ban, especially by Mark Liberman (search under “split verb”), and some on this blog, but the most pointed treatments of the SV ban have come from John McIntyre in his copyediting column in the Baltimore Sun. John periodically rages against this usage superstition (as Bryan Garner terms such “rules”), this zombie rule (my terminology), heaping piles of steaming abuse on it as “the dumbest rule in the AP Stylebook” and the like. On this blog, me writing about John in a 6/19/09 posting “McIntyre, simmering”.

Maybe the AP Stylebook folks finally listened to John (he talks this way at copyeditors’ conferences, after all), or maybe the revelation came down to them in a flaming pie, but it seems they’re no longer insisting that writers and editors undo SVs in favor of something else, anything else (except an SI, of course).

But old habits die hard, and we see in the passage from John Herrman’s piece (above) an experienced journalist’s adherence to the SV ban, at the cost of producing a little bit of strikingly unlovely prose. All the more noticeable because it immediately follows some lively, nicely crafted writing.

Fun with EDM

January 23, 2016

Over the past three months, contributors to ADS-L have been looking at a series of English examples involving of in English modifier constructions, in what I’ve called EDM (Exceptional Degree Modification) and closely related constructions. (ODM — Ordinary Degree Modification — in a very big dog, EDM in [-of]  how big a dog and [+ofhow big of a dog.) Most of the examples are ones I’ve discussed in ADS-L or Language Log postings over the years and then posted about on this blog, but this history seems to have vanished from the group’s memory, so we get fresh reports of old phenomena, sigh. I have now assembled a Page on this blog with an inventory of some postings on EDM and related phenomena, along with quotes from and comments on the postings. Unfortunately, people can’t consult this resource if they don’t know about it. I don’t know any way to fix that, but I’m not going to repeat discussions of EDM from my publications and postings over the past 20 years. Instead, I’ll make brief references to this material, reminders that this stuff is out there (and easily accessible).

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Rhett to Scarlett

September 3, 2015

Heard in passing on KFJC’s Norman Bates show Saturday morning, Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) to Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) in the 1939 movie of Gone With the Wind, what I heard as:

No, I don’t think I will kiss you, although you need kissing, badly. That’s what’s wrong with you. You should be kissed and often, and by someone who knows how.

I’m interested in the third sentence, boldfaced above. Transcribed as here:

 (Kiss1)

Two modifiers of kissed in the VP: often and by someone who knows how. These modifiers can be tightly adjoined (in speech, not set off prosodically; in writing, not set off by punctuation) or loosely adjoined (in speech, set off prosodically; in writing, set off by a comma); and the modifiers can be syntactically unmarked, or marked as coordinate (with and). The version in #1 has both modifiers marked with and, with the first tightly adjoined, but the second loosely adjoined.

My question about these matters is to what extent they involve linguistic structure, and to what extent they are (more or less literally) choices in performance, options indicated in writing in the fashion of stage directions, or options taken by actors.

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Briefly: HA in the commercials

August 27, 2015

From a long-running ad campaign:

Eliminate odors you’ve gone noseblind to for over 30 days with Febreze.

The intended parsing is High Attachment (HA) — eliminate for 30 days (with Febreze) odors you’ve gone noseblind to — though Low Attachment (LA) — odors you’ve gone noseblind to for 30 days, eliminate them with Febreze — is the default parsing. In a sense, LA is always available and often tempting, but in this case plausibility wins out over the default: why would you seek a remedy only for odors you’ve been noseblind to for over 30 days?

(On noseblindness, see this posting.)

High Attachment in the NYT

April 7, 2015

In an NYT opinion column on Sunday (the 5th), a Jenny Wilkinson piece about her sexual assault at U.Va., including this:

The weak punishment meted out to the student whom the university found responsible for assaulting me doesn’t seem to have been unusual; as far as I know, no one has been expelled after being found responsible for sexual assault by the university.

The crucial part is bolfaced: in the intended reading, the VP being found responsible for sexual assault is modified by by the university (alternatively: being found responsible by the university for sexual assault). But in fact the boldfaced material has another potential reading, in which by the university modifies sexual assault. This would have the modifier by the university parsed with preceding material by Low Attachment (LA), and LA is, ceteris paribus, the default parsing, but in this case that reading is preposterous, so High Attachment (HA) applies, and presumably readers don’t even notice the possibility of LA.

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Subjectless purpose adjunct

January 10, 2015

From a public service announcement on television about the closing of the Golden Gate Bridge this weekend:

(1) The bridge is closing to install a moveable median barrier

I wasn’t entirely comfortable with this wording, which sounded danglerish to me (though its intent is clear). The version on the bridge’s site uses a subjectless nominalization (which is impeccable) rather than a subjectless purpose adjunct:

(2) Jan. 10-11, Golden Gate Bridge CLOSED for Installation of Moveable Median Barrier

My speculation is that subjectless purpose adjuncts (at least the sentence-final ones) are less obtrusive when they are more telegraphic in form, especially when they are framed as headlines; the idea is that readers are accustomed to supplying omitted material in headlines.

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High Attachment in the political news

December 12, 2014

Down in an NYT story yesterday, “Political Divide About C.I.A. Torture Remains After Senate Report’s Release” by Scott Shane, with the crucial bit boldfaced:

one notable exception to the Democrat-Republican split, for many years and again on Tuesday, was Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, who repeatedly called for the Senate report to be made public. His experience being tortured as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam has made him perhaps the most outspoken foe of torture in Congress.

Very few readers will have noticed that the boldfaced NP is in fact ambiguous, according to how the modifying PP in Congress is parsed with the remainder, either as modifying the whole preceding NP (High Attachment) or as modifying only the noun torture (Low Attachment):

HA (High Attachment): [ the most outspoken  foe of torture ] [ in Congress ]

LA (Low Attachment): [ the most outspoken foe of [ torture in Congress ] ]

Of course, McCain would oppose Congressional torture, but in fact he opposes torture in general

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