Archive for the ‘Syntax’ Category

Playing guitar

September 21, 2023

(This is sick day 2 for me, and I’m barely functioning, but here’s proof that I’m Not Dead Yet.)

On Facebook today, Probal Dasgupta, provoked by this Rich Tennant cartoon, asks about the various argument structure grids for play, with example sentences that mention guitars:

(#1) Transitive play ‘compete against’ (the highly context-bound sense illustrated in the cartoon) vs. ‘perform on (a musical instrument)’ (a very frequent, everyday sense)


going down there

September 12, 2023

(some explorations in sexual slang, with some street language, so not suitable for kids or the sexually modest)

A follow-up to yesterday’s posting “down there”, on male-genital down there, with a section on locational down there in Christopher Isherwood’s title Down There on a Visit (which comes with a strongly sexual tinge) — effectively ‘being down there’. An e-mail comment from Victor Steinbok:

oddly enough, going down there  doesn’t have the [AZ: oral sexual] meaning of going down

To which I replied:

Well, it can, with enough context — I can certainly construct the examples, which have going down as a constituent (with an oblique object marked with on), rather than down there as a constituent — but without such context, yes.

Of course, I’ve now gone on to supply an example, with some context supplied. And some comments on ambiguity.


Fresh Baby Meat Ravioli

August 15, 2023

In the everlasting battle between brevity and clarity, this grievous loss for the clarity side, in an Australian grocery skirmish, fought in the aisles of the Preston Market in Melbourne VIC some years back.

From Michael Palmer on Facebook yesterday, this photo of miniature ravioli, made with fresh fillo / filo / phyllo pastry (from Antoniou Fillo Pastry in Moorebank NSW — “specialists in Australia since 1960”), and filled with meat:

[MP, snarkily:] Locally sourced isn’t a problem, but free-range babies are difficult to come by these days

It’s hard not to read the four-word label as advertising ravioli made with fresh baby meat — when the intention was to advertise the ravioli as fresh and baby(-sized) and meat(-filled), or (in my words above) as miniature ravioli, made with fresh fillo pastry, and filled with meat.

Brevity stripped the label down to only four (non-compound) words, and then there was no hope for clarity. You can get it down to four words, but you’ll need more space:

Fresh Baby-Size [or Miniature, or Mini] Meat-Filled Ravioli

The noun baby as a modifier has to go, and there’s not much you can do about the order of the modifiers (since these follow an ordering on the basis of their semantics). But Fresh Mini Meat-Filled Ravioli isn’t much longer.

(MP found other images of this display, from other angles, with a dated version back in 2016 that refers to Preston Market.)

You look pretty dirty

August 14, 2023

What her mother says to Ruthie in a vintage One Big Happy comic strip that came up in my comics feed some time ago:

How to understand the sentence (X) You look pretty dirty? Ruthie’s mother intends X to be understood as something like ‘You look rather dirty’, while Ruthie understands X as “You look pretty when you’re dirty’ — no doubt a willful misunderstanding, finding a compliment in her mother’s words — and responds accordingly


troop ‘servicemember’

August 3, 2023

(From a while back, but this exchange, on a very small bit of usage, between SRA (Stephen R. Anderson, the Dorothy R. Diebold Professor of Linguistics Emeritus at Yale University, now living in North Carolina) and AMZ (me), came during various medical crises on my part, so never got posted. But now …)

The usage issue set out in 7/18 e-mail from SRA to AMZ:

I guess lots of people send you weird things they saw online for commentary. Let me join that crowd.

In a story today on NPR about the soldier (apparently on his way to discipline on an assault charge) who ran across the demilitarized zone in Panmunjom into the arms of the North Koreans, we read that

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said he expected to have more information on the man in the coming hours and days.

“I’m absolutely foremost concerned about the welfare of our troop,” he told reporters during a Tuesday briefing, offering little other information than what has already been confirmed.

He obviously is referring to this individual guy as the troop he’s concerned about. I can’t find any instances of troop as a singular referring to an individual and not a group, but I’m not all that good at Google-searching for that kind of thing. The singular exists, of course, but it’s not the singular of [our] troops. Is this somehow a usage in the military?


Comes in /perz/

July 5, 2023

A very much not-dead-yet posting to hold this space while I cope with an avalanche of posting material, plus my suddenly much improved medical condition (which is totally exhilarating). In any case, an old One Big Happy cartoon (originally from 9/4/14) in which Ruthie asks her defiantly working-class neighbor James to name something that comes in pairs, but James hears the homophone pears (both nouns pronounced /perz/ in my variety of English) and just can’t get shift his perspective:

Note James’s multiply non-standard negative existential construction in his ain’t no shoes


Backup life

July 4, 2023

If you’re a normal person and you run out of something in your household — toilet paper, granola, cleaning products, cheese, plastic trash bags, whatever — you just go out to a relevant store and pick it up. If you’re (essentially) housebound, as I am, in this situation, you have to plan ahead and get backup supplies delivered, so that replacements are to hand when you need them. (Even normal people might providently plan for the future and also save time and money on buying in bulk by laying in backup supplies.)

In any case, I’m obliged to live the backup life and have stocks of stuff hanging around — many of them piled up on what was once a sofabed in the study of my condo (which otherwise has very little usable storage space). At the moment, it has boxes or piles of Kleenex, toilet paper, paper towels, and wet wipes. There are similar stashes elsewhere in the condo. I spend a good bit of time ordering in this stuff, mostly through Amazon.


An American ship reaches port

June 30, 2023

(Rather than posting about my medical woes, which are considerable and interacting, but nevertheless allow me to continue recovering at home, I’ll continue to work through postings in preparation on June 16th, when the first cascade of crises put me in SUMC.)

From Joe Scarborough on authoritarian rulers (on MSNBC’s Morning Joe show on 6/16):

They substitute competence for blind loyalty

This is “reversed SUBSTITUTE”, conveying what would be traditionally expressed by

They substitute blind loyalty for competence (OR They replace competence with / by blind loyalty)

What’s notable about the example is that JS is American and 60 years old and that the topic is neither sporting events nor food preparation, but much more abstract in nature.

Hang on. I will explain why all of this is notable.


The Impostor Syndrome cartoon

June 14, 2023

Whiling away yesterday morning at the CA DMV in Redwood City — being shepherded by caregiver Erick Barros through the process of renewing my senior ID from the state of California, which involved an interview and then a new photo — I entertained Erick with a retelling of the Jules Feiffer Impostor Syndrome (IS) cartoon as I recalled it, because our conversation had wandered onto the IS and because the joke that’s the hinge of the cartoon plays with ambiguity in a surprising, and especially satisfying, way.

Today I’ll just re-play the account in my 10/30/14 posting “Impostor Syndrome” and (exploiting the resources of OED3) unpack that joke into the lexical items that make it tick.

(It turns out that the cartoon has been described elsewhere (in cartoonist Dave Sim’s account of his conversation with Feiffer about an Irwin Corpulent cartoon of Feiffer’s), as having a very different resolution for the IS story. Four solid hours of searching through the materials available to me — including every damn cartoon in Feiffer’s thick volume Explainers: The Complete VILLAGE VOICE strips (1956-66) — did not, alas, produce an actual IS cartoon, neither the one I recollected nor the one Sim recollected. That search goes on.)


wanting to sell out like Mick Jagger

June 1, 2023

(In contrast to some of my postings on notable found expressions, this one builds hardly at all on my previous work, and I feel uneasily out of my depths here. But I have pressed on, into several areas I’d never before contemplated, trying to make sense of things as best I can.

From Ana Cabrera Reports on MSNBC, on 5/23, about Tina Turner (on the occasion of her death):

She wanted to sell out like Mick Jagger. (call this example TT)
Tina Turner’s contention was not (as you might have thought without further context) that MJ had betrayed himself (or his fans, or his principles) for gain, but that MJ had sold out an arena — that, is, had gotten every single ticket for a concert at a (gigantic) arena sold. Tina Turner expressed a desire to pull off a similar feat.