Archive for the ‘Agreement’ Category

What was We thinking?

September 30, 2019

The header is the beginning of a piece in the NYT Opinion section on-line on 9/25/19 (in print 9/26), “Open Offices Are a Capitalist Dead End: One story from WeWork’s inevitable blow-up: Our offices offer few spaces for deep work” by Farhad Manjoo. The first two paragraphs:

What was We thinking? That’s the only question worth asking now about the clowncar start-up known as The We Company, the money-burning, co-working behemoth whose best-known brand is WeWork.

What’s a WeWork? What WeWork works on is work. The We Company takes out long-term leases on in-demand office buildings in more than 100 cities across the globe (lately, it’s even been buying its own buildings). Then We redesigns, furnishes and variously modularizes the digs, aiming to profitably sublease small and large chunks of office space to start-ups and even big companies. Well, profitable in theory: The We Company lost $1.7 billion last year.

The business story is remarkable — you don’t see expressions like clowncar start-up in the pages of the NYT very often — but my point here is a narrow linguistic one and (at first glance) an extremely simple one, which is that

Names Is Names (NIN): A proper name is a name.

Which is to say:

A proper name is a (meaningful) expression, and not merely a form. So that, in general, a proper name has the morphosyntax appropriate to any expression with the referent of that name.

/wi/ (conventionally spelled We) is the name of a company and consequently has the morphosyntax of such a name: 3sg verb agreement (We is ambitious), possessive /wiz/ (We’s business model), etc.  — like /ǽpǝl/ (conventionally spelled Apple): Apple is ambitious, Apple’s business model. The fact that English also has a 1pl pronoun /wi/ (conventionally spelled we) — (we are ambitious, our business model) — is entertaining, but essentially irrelevant, even though the name of the company was chosen with the pronoun in mind. The name was a little joke, a pun on the slant, and now Farhad Manjoo for the NYT has wielded it for a bigger joke, salting his article with instances of conspicuously 3sg (rather than 1pl) We.

Well, I will say a bit about the business story, because it’s funny-awful all on its own, and I’ll say a little more about NIN, both when it’s sturdy and straightforward (as here) and when it’s entangled in complexities.


English teachers

October 14, 2013

A Carla Ventresca cartoon that came to me via Mar Rojo on Facebook:


It turns out that Mark Liberman posted this one on Language Log back on 3/18/07, with a nice discussion of the teacher’s incorrection (of fast to quickly) in the last panel. There’s another incorrection in the first panel, of shrimps to shrimp; as Mark noted, both forms are standard plurals for shrimp. (The remaining three corrections concern spelling and punctuation and are appropriate.)

Searching for this posting of Mark’s led me to more cartoons with English teachers in them.


Playing with French morphology

September 15, 2013

From Benita Bendon Campbell, this reminiscence of a moment during her time in Paris with Ann Daingerfield Zwicky, many years ago:

Ann and I and aother friend were having afternoon tea at our local café on the Boulevard Saint Germain. The patron and patronne had just acquired a German shepherd puppy named Rita. In French, a German shephejrd is “un berger allemand.” Our friend remarked that Rita must be “une bergère allemande” — or a Gereman shepherdess. That is funny in French as well as in English. (The correct form is “une femelle berger allemand.” The name of the breed is invariable.)

Bonnie’s sketch of une bergère allemande:


Fun with domain names

March 16, 2013

From Doug Harris in e-mail recently:

I had occasion, yesterday, to seek the owner of the internet’s top-level domain name .ck. When I googled it, I was pointed to, among other info sources, that of Wikipedia. We — you, I and a lot of others — never cease to be amazed how many people have way too much time on their hands, and find all sorts of silly ways to use it
It’s the domain name for the Cook Islands, and it’s lent itself to some playfulness.


August 19, 2012

Posted mostly because Tim Evanson posted a photo of wild gaillardias on Google+ a moment ago, and they’re just such gorgeous summer-blooming plants. A great and dependable garden plant, and also available in bunches from florists (as well as growing wild in fields):

Gaillardia …, the [(Indian)] blanket flowers, is a genus of drought-tolerant annual and perennial plants from the sunflower family (Asteraceae), native to North and South America. It was named after M. Gaillard de Charentonneau, an 18th-century French magistrate who was a patron of botany. The common name refers to the inflorescence’s resemblance to brightly patterned blankets made by native Americans. (link)

[Note the problem the Wikipedia writers have in dealing with subject-verb agreement when the subject is a (singular)  mass noun (gaillardia) with a plural count noun (blanket flowers) in apposition to it. There are several ways out of the conflict: use a count counterpart to gaillardia, which can be pluralized (“Gaillardias, the blanket flowers, are a genus of…” — with gaillardias ‘species of gaillardia’ or gaillardias ‘gaillardia plants’); use the mass type-name counterpart to blanket flower, which will be singular (“Gaillardia, the blanket flower, is a genus of…”); or punt in one one or another (“Gaillardia is a genus of…; the plants are also known as blanket flowers”, for instance).]

look at who them was

June 15, 2012

Out of context, that sounds remarkably bad, but here it is in context (from Scott Kehoe, head of marketing at Audi, in an interview in a “Can Lincoln Be Cool Again?” segment on NPR’s Morning Edition this morning):

There was us and there was them, at that time, and if you look at who them was, there was Lexus, there was BMW, and Mercedes.

Now it’s better.


Honey Badger don’t care

June 10, 2012

(More viral silliness.)

It started with Jen Dewalt posting the label for Honey Badger frozen yogurt on Facebook:

The label points us back to a viral video, “The Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger” (“Honey badger don’t care. Honey badger don’t give a shit.”), and to a website on “6 Animals That Just Don’t Give A F#@k” (where the honey badger is #1). Linguistic interest: the smart-ass tone of the video and the website; 3sg don’t; and the gay voice of Randall, the video’s narrator.


Redundancy vs. simplicity

April 4, 2012

From David Parkinson on Facebook, an expression of his frustration in his German class:

If your language (like English) doesn’t have much inflectional morphology, then learning a language with a respectable amount of it (like German) can be a chore: you have to learn to mark all sorts of distinctions in grammatical categories that don’t come naturally to you.

Many of these inflectional marks are, at least in part, redundant (in a technical sense); they reinforce category distinctions that are marked in other ways. Marks of agreement are like this. So, in German, the definite article agrees in case, gender, and number with its head noun.

Speaking very crudely, these redundant marks are helpful to the hearer, by giving extra cues to relationships among the parts of phrases and clauses. They aid comprehension.

On the other hand, these redundant marks require effort on the part of the speaker, in planning language production and and accessing the appropriate inflectional forms. They work against simplicity.

There are trade-offs here. Redundancy is good. But simplicity is good too.


Accusative subject

January 24, 2012

Wilson Gray on ADS-L 1/21/12, quoting from “an anti-SOPA rant”:

(1) The US government is deciding that THEY can decide what me (as a Canadian not subject to American law) can do.

Wilson found this me as subject bizarre, but I noted that subject me is moderately common, under certain circumstances.


Respecting beliefs

November 29, 2011

Today’s Scenes from a Multiverse:

The strip is about “respecting beliefs”, but here I’m picking on the amoral cockgoblin slur.