Archive for the ‘Processing’ Category

A fresh approach to English dangling modifiers

December 29, 2020

Recently defended:

Control in Free Adjuncts: The “Dangling Modifier” in English by James Donaldson. Ph.D. dissertation, Univ. of Edinburgh, 2020 (supervisors: Geoffrey K. Pullum and Nikolas Gisborn).

Donaldson presents a fresh approach to the topic, uniting a huge body of commentary on observed examples by reference to sentence processing in real time.

Below, the dissertation abstract and a “lay summary”. These are not (yet) for quotation: this is not yet the final form of the dissertation — as is common in academia, there will be some editorial revisions before final submission, though it’s to be expected that there will be no substantive changes. I provide the abstract and lay summary here because I think the leading ideas deserve to be heard and appreciated.


Annals of error: how dig he deeps it

September 20, 2019

From an MSNBC reporter this morning, with reference to a metaphorical hole:

… wait to see how dig he deeps it … how deep he digs it

The sort of inadvertent error that illustrates just how much advance planning goes on in speech production: constructions are blocked out, with inflectional trappings in place; prospective lexical items — of appropriate syntactic category and semantics, with at least some phonological properties — are entertained to fill the slots in these constructions. But, still, a lot can go wrong.

(Also note that the speaker caught the (glaring) error and corrected it himself. As is customary with big errors like this one.)


“as cleverer than people as people are than plants”

August 4, 2019

From The Economist of July 27th. Yes, it’s grammatical, but it’s fiercely hard to parse — you might feel the need to get out pencil and paper to graph the thing — and it’s also a big show-stopper flourish: stop reading the news to admire how clever we are!

In this case, the magazine has committed a nested clausal comparative (NCC), somewhat reminiscent of nested relative clauses (also known in the syntactic literature as self-embedded relative clauses) like those in the NP with head the rat modified by the relative clause that the cat that the dog worried ate:

[ the rat ]-i

… [ that [ the cat ]-j [ that [ the dog ] worried ___-j ] ate ___-i ]

(where an underline indicates a missing (“extracted”) constituent, and the indices mark coreferential constituents). Both nested relatives and NCCs require the hearer to interrupt the processing of one clause to process another clause of similar form.


Cum, sweat, and broccoli

March 18, 2019

(Yes, this will get into bodily fluids in ways that many people will find really icky, especially in connection with food. There will be some complicated plant stuff and some analysis of fragrances, but you’ll have to be prepared for spurts of semen and the smell of sex sweat. Use your judgment.)

I blame it all on Ryan Tamares, who posted on Facebook a few hours back on some yummy broccoli he’d had for dinner. With a photo — not a great cellphone image, but you could get a feel for the dish — and appropriate hashtags, starting with:


Oh dear, “cum in roasted broccoli”, probably not such a crowd-pleaser as the dish in the photo (though it would have a small, devoted audience). Spaces can be your friends.


Annals of misreadings: the Cthulhu caper

February 26, 2019

From linguist Avery Andrews on Facebook:

(#1) Avery: “My first reading of this was ‘Cthulhu Towers’, indicating that whatever the top-down constraints on my linguistic processing may be, real world plausibility has at best a delayed effect”

To judge from my own misreadings — some of them reported on in the Page on this blog with misreading postings — real-world plausibility has virtually no role in initial misreadings; we tend to notice these misreadings, in fact, because they are so bizarre.

On the other hand, they sometimes clearly reflect material currently or persistently on the hearer’s mind — if you’ve been thinking about cooking some pasta for dinner, Italian pasta names are likely to insert themselves into your peceptions; if you’re a gardener, plant names will come readily to mind, even if they’re preposterous; and of course it’s common to see sexual vocabulary where none was intended —  but often they look like the welling-up of material from some deep chthonic place in memory, inexplicably in the context.


Playful anaphoric islanding

January 18, 2019

Adrienne Shapiro on Facebook on the 14th, reporting on a day trip from Seattle with Kit Transue:

Cape Disappointment did not [understood: disappoint].

An instance of the anaphoric construction VPE (Verb Phrase Ellipsis) in which the antecedent for the ellipted material is not an actual expression in the preceding text, but instead is merely evoked by a word-part in this text, the disappoint inside the nominalization disappointment. The configuration requires some processing work on the part of a reader (or hearer) — it presents a kind of puzzle for you to solve — so it’s jokey, likely to elicit a smile from you, in admiration of Adrienne’s condensed cleverness.


Return to Dangle City

November 30, 2018

It’s been a long time since my last “dangling modifier” — non-default SPAR — posting (on 3/15 in “giving a speech on drugs”, according to my records). Now, from Josh Bischof on the 23rd, this excerpt (now item Z4.86 in my files) from Paul Tremblay, The Cabin at the End of the World (2018):

He passes Wen’s grasshopper jar; sunlight flares off the glass and aluminum lid (screwed on tightly) as though saying see me, see me. Lying on its side and sunk into the taller grass, the earth is already absorbing it, consuming the evidence of its existence. (p. 175)

The subjectless adjunct in the boldfaced material has both a PRP VP (lying on its side) and a PSP VP (sunk into the taller grass) in it, and picks up (the referent of) its missing subject, not from the subject of the main clause (by the Subject Rule, as in a default SPAR), but, apparently, from the direct object in that clause. Nevertheless, unless you cleave unswervingly to the Subject Rule, you shouldn’t find the boldfaced sentence problematic, and there’s a reason for that.


What room am I in?

October 20, 2018

This photoon passed on to me by Karen Chung on Facebook (I have no idea of its ultimate source):


Context, context, context.


Can you say “cat”? Can you spell “cat”?

November 4, 2017

Two recent One Big Happy strips:

(#1) Can you say … “cat”… um, “sheepshank”?

The Mister Rogers trope Can you say X? ‘Say X’ (in a pedagogical tone); idiomatic go/get (all) X on Y

(#2) Can you spell “cat”?

Spanish ‘yes’ vs. English /si/ C (the letter of the alphabet); linguistic and natural mean; and more.


Mentally flexible little kids

December 2, 2016

In the journal Psychological Science (11/9) last month: “Preschoolers Flexibly Adapt to Linguistic Input in a Noisy Channel” by Daniel Yurovsky (Univ. of Chicago) & Sarah Case & Michael C. Frank (Stanford Univ.):

Abstract: Because linguistic communication is inherently noisy and uncertain, adult language comprehenders integrate bottom-up cues from speech perception with top-down expectations about what speakers are likely to say. Further, in line with the predictions of ideal-observer models, past results have shown that adult comprehenders flexibly adapt how much they rely on these two kinds of cues in proportion to their changing reliability. Do children also show evidence of flexible, expectation-based language comprehension? We presented preschoolers with ambiguous utterances that could be interpreted in two different ways, depending on whether the children privileged perceptual input or top-down expectations. Across three experiments, we manipulated the reliability of both their perceptual input and their expectations about the speaker’s intended meaning. As predicted by noisy-channel models of speech processing, results showed that 4- and 5-year-old — but perhaps not younger — children flexibly adjusted their interpretations as cues changed in reliability.

Of course, there has to be some point at which kids develop those top-down expectations, which require socio-cultural experience. Everybody notices little kids’ deficiencies in socio-cultural knowledge, but it continues to amaze me how much stuff they manage to pick up.