Archive for the ‘Pragmatics’ Category

The compounds of commerce and the comics

June 3, 2022

A little study in N + N compounds in English, their great utility and versatility (they pack a lot of content into two-word expressions), and their consequent massive potential ambiguity (so that divining the intended meaning can require vast amounts of background knowledge and appreciating details of the context in which the compound is used). You can have (great) brevity, or you can have (great) clarity, but you can’t have both at once.

From the world of commerce, the compound dog spot (which many of us will not have encountered before, or will take to be a reference to the coat pattern of Dalmatian dogs). From the comic strips, two compounds that have conventional interpretations but can also be understood in fresh and unconventional ways: from One Big Happy, dancing school; from Bizarro, cowboy.


Orienting your speech (balloon)

May 18, 2022

Today’s Wayno / Piraro Bizarro strip, with a detective in a pickle:

(#1) Since the readers of the strip are taking the point of view of the detective, we are in the same pickle (If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 3 in this strip — see this Page.)

How did this happen? Well, first, in this strip, speech balloons are treated as physical objects (containing a representation of speech) that people carry around with them and display to others. So when RH (the hood on the right) is talking to LH (the hood on the left), facing him, with his back to D (the detective), his speech balloon is also facing LH, with its back side to D, so that it can’t be read (by D, or by us).

But wait. This assumes that we are viewing things as if we were in a theater, fixed in our seats while the story unfolds in front of us on stage; what we can see (and hear) depends on how the actors orient themselves. Suppose instead that we’re watching (and listening to) a film; then the cameras (and microphones) go wherever the director wants them to, providing a constantly shifting visual (and auditory) focus on the unfolding narrative.

If the cartoon view is filmic rather than theatrical, then the speech balloons could show us whatever the cartoonist wants us to see — and that can be done even if speech balloons are treated as physical objects (rather than as meta-information). Yes, there are examples.

I know, nobody expects the filmic exposition. (And no, I won’t stop working this Pythonic gag.)


Romper buddies

May 14, 2022

Taking off from a delightful ad for Romperjacks on Facebook back in November and December:

Here I give you the ad photo, and inventory some of the things it inspires me to write about in future postings (several being themes from earlier postings on this blog).


Vote for me!

May 13, 2022

From yesterday’s posting “Three responsibilities”:

I voted today in Palo Alto — in the primary election whose official date is 6/7; official results are to be reported by 7/15, and then the top two candidates in each contest will stand opposed in the general election whose official date is 11/8.

… As it happens, my grandchild Opal is about to vote for the first time, and they have been astounded by the candidates’ statements in our [Santa Clara County] voter information guide

Now, about the statements (and the way candidates have had themselves listed on the ballot), focusing on the language used in the statements and the way the candidates present themselves there as gendered.

I’ll do this page by page, picking out highlights and adding my own comments as I go.



April 23, 2022

If you wanna be one of the guys, you gotta talk like one of the guys. The lesson of this masculinity cartoon by Hartley Lin in the New Yorker of 4/25 & 5/2:

Being one of the boys here is fitting into (what I’ve called) a male band, a group of mutually supportive, like-minded, and like-acting bros. (See the section on “The social organization of men in modern America” in my 1/6/21 posting “Another 1996 Superbowl moment”.) Like-acting because the band monitors its members’ behavior and enforces the band norms, which the band members see as matters of masculinity display.

Two kinds of masculinity display. A core type that I’ll call negative masculinity display, characterized by avoidance of anything that smacks of women or girls. And a more purely conventional type — positive masculinity display — characterized by adhering to local norms of behavior that are simply “how guys do it” — stuff that males pick up from other males. (The terminology is loosely based on negative and positive politeness; see the Wikipedia section on the politeness types, following Brown & Levinson.)

Green Hand (who’s a green ‘inexperienced’ ranch hand) has come up short on a linguistic bit of positive masculinity in this band of ranch hands: as the older hand explains to him in an avuncular way, the appropriate bro-xclamation there for expressing exuberance is yee-haw, not yahoo. Now, if Green Hand had used yoo-hoo, he would have been off on two linguistic counts: in negative masculinity (yoo-hoo is fairly strongly gendered, for use primarily by women); and in actual semantic content, yoo-hoo being a call, not an expression of emotion.


The logic of syntax

March 27, 2022

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.


Follow-up: a regular genius

February 21, 2022

It starts with my 2/19/22 posting “A regular genius”, on quintessential regular (NOAD example: this place is a regular fisherman’s paradise), vs. run-of-the-mill regular (NOAD example: it’s richer than regular pasta).

Which elicited this Facebook comment from Joel Levin:

I get a sarcastic note from he’s a regular genius, in that one might so describe a person who had done something particularly doltish. I thought I might see a mention of that sense in the column.

And then AZ > JL:

In some contexts I get that note too, but I think that’s just an example of the generalization that any compliment can be used sarcastically, not a fact specifically about regular.

And then a comment from Ben Yagoda, making the Jewish connection: it’s probably relevant that JL’s Jewish and I’m, so to speak, Jewish-adjacent; we’re more inclined than a random person to detect a sarcastic or ironic tone in he’s a regular genius. The tone is available for anyone to pick up, but some of us are predisposed to detect it (and to convey it in our own speech).


From the annals of resistible offers

November 13, 2021

In yesterday’s mailbox, this indirect attempt to get me to post (about) something on this blog (untouched except for suppressing its header and the link):

With all do the respect,

I am hitting your inbox without any introduction, sorry for that.

BUT…. we did put around 230+ hours into this article about the most popular dog breeds in the world. (scanned 96 countries)

So check it:


What you think?

Paws UP or Down?


Where is your bathroom?

June 20, 2021

A comic gem from the very first episode (“Give Me a Ring Sometime”) of the American tv show Cheers (S1 E1 9/30/82).  An exchange (call it the D&C exchange) between the character Diane — at this point, merely a patron sitting in the bar Cheers — and Coach, the bartender on duty:

Diane to Coach: Excuse me. Where is your bathroom?

Coach in response : Uh, next to my bedroom.

The character Coach  turns out to be empathetic and warm-hearted, but regrettably slow and defective at calculating people’s intentions in speaking as they do. In this brief exchange with Diane, Coach is faced with several linked tasks in understanding deictic elements: the locative deixis in where, the person deixis in your.


Pictographs for dogs

April 28, 2021

A Mark Stivers cartoon from 4/20/19 (first encountered in the Funny Times for May 2021):


Dogs also can’t interpret pictographs, certainly not such abstract ones as the slash of prohibition, the NO symbol (seen here in a non-standard orientation and missing part of its conventional accompaniments). It’s doubtful, in fact, that they can recognize dog pictographs, highly stylized representations of a dog — and incredibly doubtful that they can recognize a pictograph of a dog taking a poop, and understand that a prohibition against dogs pooping applies to them. In fact, it’s beyond doubtful that even if they recognize the sign above as a prohibition against dogs pooping, they understand that the sign is locationally deictic, applying not just to the spot where the sign is planted, but to some contextually (and socioculturally) determined area around the sign — in this case, applying to the whole strip of lawn on this side of the fence (but not to any larger area).