Archive for the ‘Syntax’ Category

On foot patrol, part 1

August 31, 2016

(Foot patrol, also food patrol.)

Yesterday morning, two expeditions involving my feet: first getting a second pair of shoes (I was edgy having only one; a backup seemed like a good idea) and a replacement pair of slippers (the previous excellent UGGs having disintegrated), and then getting a pedicure (foot care being something I can’t manage on my own).

Part 1 took me to the Palo Alto Footwear etc. store, more or less across the street from two relatively recently opened places to eat, both with remarkable names: Sushirrito (at 448 University Ave.) and Umami Burger (at 452, next door)

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Annals of ellipsis

August 31, 2016

From the Murdoch Mysteries special episode “A Very Murdoch Christmas”:

Det. Murdoch: (1) Mrs. Rankin, someone wanted your husband dead.

Mrs. Rankin: (2) And succeeded.

We see here ellipsis of the complement of a main verb — in this case, the verb succeed. But what material do we supply for the complement of suceeded in (2)? Certainly, there’s no obvious overt antecedent in the context in (1), but still the script writers got away with (2), which we understand as something like:

(2′) And succeeded in killing my husband / him.

This is a remarkably far from the textbook paradigm in which an ellipsis matches with an antecedent constituent in the preceding context. Instead, we paste together an interpretation for the elliptical material from the content of the material in the context, plus commonsense reasoning, and perhaps background factual knowledge as well.

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Iatrogenic grammar sickness

August 28, 2016

From 8/26 on Lithub, “How a Self-Published Writer of Gay Erotica Beat Sci-Fi’s Sad Puppies at their Own Game”, by M. Sophia Newman:

When I was a little kid, my mother would come into the bedroom I shared with two of my sisters each night and read us a book before we slept. Inevitably, a minor fight would erupt over whose bed beside which Mom would sit

Another WTF moment, to go along with the moment of failed anaphoric reference in my posting of the 26th. In this case, it’s hard to believe that the boldfaced relative clause comes from a native speaker of English, but it was, by a professional writer, in fact — and that’s surely the source of the problem. (In contrast, the source of the problem in the anaphoric reference example is almost surely that its writer was unpracticed at the task.)

In brief, Newman would never have committed the bizarre strangulated relative clause above — let’s call it Hern — if she hadn’t been subjected to rotten advice about how to write and taken it to heart: she was told that stranded P (“ending with a preposition”) is a grammatical disorder, which can, fortunately, be treated by a simple procedure, fronting the P. That is, the putatively malformed relative clauses

which/that/∅ Mom would sit beside

(in the Strand family) should be remedied by relocating the P beside (to the front of the relative clause) and using the (prosthetic) relative pronoun which to support it. The result of this procedure  is the appalling Hern, actually a bit of sick grammar caused by ill-advised therapy: iatrogenic grammar sickness.

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Extraction and insertion

July 30, 2016

(The main content is fairly technical stuff about syntax. But there’s a side discussion of gay pornstars, their bodies, and their roles in man-man sex, so probably not suitable for kids.)

From the Boys in the Sand website (an appreciation of men’s bodies, mostly in gay porn), this arresting sentence from a  posting on pornstars Micah Brandt and Rocco Steele:

(1) Which porn star does Micah Brandt think its’ a shame hasn’t fucked him? (Yet)

(apostrophe as in the original; but punctuation is not my topic here).

(1) strikes many speakers of English as plainly ungrammatical, though with some work you can figure out what question it’s asking (and the answer is: Rocco Steele). The problem with (1) is that it violates a constraint on “extraction” of material (in, among other constructions, Information, or WH, questions — as in (1) — and relative clauses) from within cerrtain sorts of embedded clauses, one of them being extraposed clauses, as in:

(2) Micah Brandt thinks it’s a shame [OR: it’s surprising] Rocco Steele hasn’t fucked him.

The extraposed clause is underlined, and the constituent questioned in (1), the subject in the extraposed clause,  is boldfaced. It turns out that two structural features are crucial to the phenomenon: that the questioned constituent is in a particular sort of subordinate clause (an extraposed clause in this example); and that the questioned constituent is the suject of that clause.

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deontic+, deontic-

July 28, 2016

(On the semantics and pragmatics of deontic should.)

I have a real-life example in mind here, from the NYT Magazine on the 17th, but I’m going to inch up to it, starting with these simpler examples:

(1) I should talk to my father.

(2) I should have talked to my father.

Both examples have the modal verb should, in its deontic sense, indicating obligation, duty, or correctness, incumbent upon some person, persons, or human institution; this is to be contrasted with its epistemic sense, indicating grounds for a judgment of truth — compare (1) and (2) with

(3) A sample this size should weigh about 10 kilograms.

(There are various ways to represent this difference, but that’s not my concern here.)

Then it turns out that deontic should can be used in (at least) two ways.

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Pronoun case in the Thames Valley CID

July 27, 2016

From S4 E4 (“Masonic Mysteries”) of the ITV detective procedural tv show Inspector Morse, an exchange between Morse and his sergeant, Lewis:

(1) Morse: It’s me he wants, it’s me he’s going to get, or rather, it’s me that’s going to get him…

(2) Lewis: Shouldn’t that be: “It’s I who am going to get him”?

It’s all about pronoun case (Acc me vs. Nom I) in it-clefts: roughly, identifying clauses with

subject it, a main verb BE, a predicative NP, and a relative clause missing an NP (the relative clause can have relativizer ∅, that, or a WH-pronoun like who)

— in these instances, clauses supplying the answer to the questions “Who does he want? Who is he going to get? Who’s going to get him?”

And, this being Britain, it’s also all about social class.

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A medal for pronoun case

July 15, 2016

In today’s Stanford News, a report by Dayo Mitchell, “The projects conducted by the winners of the 2016 Firestone and Golden medals and the Kennedy Prize represent the breadth of the undergraduate experience at Stanford. They included research on germ cell, federal farm animal policy, the tailoring industry in Naples, ethics and autonomous vehicles, and the writings of author Zadie Smith.”

Thirty-five graduating seniors were recognized recently for their outstanding thesis projects. They are recipients of the 2016 Firestone Medal for Excellence in Undergraduate Research, the Robert M. Golden Medal for Excellence in Humanities and Creative Arts; and the David M. Kennedy Honors Thesis Prize.

The prizewinners represent 24 academic departments and all three schools with undergraduate programs

Among the eight Goldens was

Tyler Lemon, “An Examination of the Distribution and Variation of Non-Coordinated Pronoun Case Forms in English,” linguistics, advised by Tom Wasow (linguistics).

(I helped out).

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Gang of five

June 28, 2016

Comics and cartoons pile up. Here are four recent ones from my regular feeds, plus a Perry Bible Fellowship (“The Offenders”) sent to me by Jason Parker-Burlingham. Before that, a Bizarro with the slow-snail cartoon meme; a One Big Happy with an attachment ambiguity; a Rhymes With Orange on reduplicated names (like mahi-mahi); and a massively alliterative Zippy.

(#1)

(If you’re puzzled by the odd symbol in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there’s just one in this strip — see this Page.)

The usual meme is about snails (with shells), but it works equally well for slugs (without shells).

(#2)

Simplifying the example, it’s I sketched a model in the nude. There are two scopes for the modifier in the nude — as a sentential (or VP) adverbial (the scoping for clauses with intransitive verbs, like I sunbathed in the nude), attributing nudity to the referent of the subject; or as a modifier within the direct object NP (note the passive A model in the nude was painstakingly sketched by the life drawing class). The first speaker intends the second, narrower scope, but Ruthie understands the first, wider scope, in which the artist is nude.

(#3)

English has a considerable number of names that are reduplicative in form, like the place name Bora Bora. Some of these are food names, like mahi-mahi and couscous. The diner is taking the reduplicative form to denote multiplicity (or extent), giving rise to a kind of back-formed noun, mahi or cous.

(#4)

Bill Griffith loves to play with the sounds of words. Having started with Fairchild Semiconductor (the company name) used as a personal name, the first panel explodes with F alliteration, which continues in the other two panels — pared with T alliteration in the second panel, S alliteration in the third.

And then to cartoon sound words in Perry Bible Fellowship, which range from conventional to inventive:

(#5)

Added later: More important, as commenter RF notes:

Note that Slur’s “problematic” fighting style results in sound effects that are racial slurs directed at his opponents.

This was clearly telegraphed by the name of the strip (“The Offenders”) and by the name of the central character (Slur). Somehow I missed this on a first reading. Many thanks to RF.

 

The literalist on Fathers Day

June 9, 2016

Fathers Day comes on the 19th. For the occasion, a Tom Toro cartoon that didn’t get into my earlier posting about him:

Well, there can be literally only one greatest dad in the world, but then not all language is literal — as in this case, where the sentiment on the mug is a piece of hyperbole, exaggeration for effect.

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Tom Toro

June 9, 2016

Caught in the May 9th New Yorker, this Tom Toro cartoon:

(#1)

A little slideshow on time adverbials and the times they refer to, understood figuratively.

Toro hasn’t appeared on this blog before, but he’s a prolific cartoonist with an ear for language and an inclination to play with classic cartoon memes (like the desert island or, as below, penguins and their discriminability).

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