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Archive for the 'Syntax' Category

Idioms and Slang

Sunday, August 16th, 2009

We seldom utter a sentence that does not contain an idiom, yet much less than they deserve is written about them. I was reminded by a recent article in the Lewiston, Maine Sun-Journal, “Idioms add color to our language“.

So, what is an idiom? An idiom is a phrase that cannot be analyzed into separate words but makes sense only as a whole. For example, “Jill flew off the handle when she saw lipstick on Jack’s collar.” Jill, of course, must be a woman here and not the family canary, so she cannot fly. However, taken as a whole, “flew off the handle” simply means “got mad”.

Because they are treated as wholes and cannot be semanticallly analyzed into parts, idioms are stored in the right side of the brains of 98% of us, the side of holistic thinking. (Our knowledge of grammar and vocabulary is located on the left side, the side that analyzes sentences into their parts and relationships.)

At the end of dictionary entries, the major idioms in which the word occurs are listed. At the end of the entry for jump, we find the idiom jump the gun listed as meaning “start too soon”. Under shirt we find give the shirt off one’s back, meaning simply “be generous”.

Idioms should not be confused with metaphorical usage. Idioms are phrases of two or more words. We might think that window of opportunity is an idiom. In fact, though, window may be used in this sense with other nouns, such as a window in a tight schedule or a window in the development of an organism. Here, window is simply being used metaphorically to mean “opening” because, well, windows open. The meaning of window in these cases is not totally removed from the literal meaning of the word.

One of the greatest tricks of the comedian is to find situations where an idiom may, in fact, be analyzed, leaving the listener in a quandary—does the comic intend the idiom or the literal meaning? In an episode of the TV series Mash, hearing that a soldier has been dishonrably discharged, Hawk-eye asked, “Why? Was he rotten to the corps?” Now, when you hear this, it sounds identical to the idiom “rotten to the core”, which means simply to be extermely bad. Which did Hawk-eye mean, corps or core?

On our Punny Pages, we have many examples like this: She criticized my apartment, so I knocked her flat. The humor in this rides on the interpretation of knock as well as the ambiguity of flat. Flat may be an adjective meaning, well, “flat” or it can be noun meaning “apartment”. Knock means, literally, “to hit, strike” but it has an idiomatic sense, totally removed from the literal sense, of “to criticize”. To literally knock someone flat is to knock them down, hit them hard enough that they fall to the floor. However, in the idiomatic sense, to knock a flat means “to criticize an apartment”. (Great joke if you just laugh and don’t analyze it.)

The last example is based on the idiomatic meaning of a verb. As you can see, words with idiomatic meanings may also be slang. In fact, many consider idiomatic phrases slang and slang dictionaries usually contain idioms as well as slang. I remain unconvinced that the two are one and the same, however. Knock in the sense of “criticize” may be both slang and idiomatic, but many if not most idiomatic phrases may be used where slang would be avoided. Fly off the handle, go overboard, jump the gun are all OK in situations where we would not want to use gussied up, gum shoe, the pokey. However, there is overlap and the issue is not a settled one.

The important point is simply that a string of words may be a logical sentence or an illogical one which is still meaningful if the string is memorized along with a single meaning as a whole. When we are aware of this distinction and listen carefully to each other, life can be much funnier.

If Right is Right, is Left Wrong?

Monday, June 8th, 2009

Maureen Koplow’s third question in the two sentences she wrote concerning my discussion of benight, was this: Where do we get the “various meanings of right as in ‘that’s right’ vs. ‘you don’t have the right to do that.’”

Well, that is a simple one. The association of right-handedness and the right way to do things has been with us for millennia. The Greeks, the Romans, and the (original) Indians built that into their speech thousands of years ago. The reasoning goes something like this: if 98% of the people in the world are right-handed, the doing things with the right hand is the right way and doing them with the left hand is not right, right?

OK, next step. If right = right, and everyone wants to do right and be done right to, we begin to expect to be treated in the right way. The right way then becomes a right in a third sense. We then have and to protect our rights in this third sense of the word, we need laws to protect our rights from those who do things wrong.

So, if right is right, and right our right, where does that leave left? The Latin word for “left” gives us a hint; it is sinister.

However, left-handers have rights, too, and I’m proud to say that over a decade ago my university, Bucknell, no doubt following the lead of others, began providing desks for left-handers in our classrooms, erasing the connection between left and wrong. Moreover, the rest of us have forgotten the origin of right and sinister and they may well be two sleeping dogs best left to lie right where they are.  (I hope you didn’t get left behind in this blog; that wouldn’t be right.)

Words that Describe and Designate

Thursday, May 21st, 2009

A “news” story that doesn’t seem to want to go away is the search for a new name for the US anti-terrorism activities. The Bush Administration called them “The Global War on Terrorism”, even though it is focused on only two countries, Iraq and Afghanistan. This fact makes the expression poorly descriptive; “Binational War on Terrorism” would more accurately describe what we are actually doing.

The problem is that “Global War on Terrorism” (or G-WOT, as it is called in the Pentagon) has become ingrained in the culture in ways that are difficult to undo. Members of the Obama administration prefer the phrase “Overseas Contingency Operations”. This phrase is broader and could include operations other than those against terrorism but for that reason it is vague and descriptive of something few people have a clear picture of.

The problem here is between two functions of words and phrases. Some words and phrases are descriptive, i.e. their meanings fit perfectly their references. Writer means “someone who writes” and is perfectly descriptive in that anyone who writes is a writer. Write means “write” and -er means “someone who”.

Other words, however, are simply designative, i.e. they designate (name) an object without describing it. London, for example, simply designates a city in England without describing it. Proper nouns are all designative: John, Mary, Algernon only designate certain people without describing them, as do words like genius, dolt, cut-up.

“The Global War on Terrorism” is both descriptive and designative. It is a poor description as mentioned above, so calls for a better term. However, as a designation of our two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it works fine and has worked fine for eight years. Having ensconced itself over that period as the designation of what we are doing in those two countries, it will be very difficult, if at all possible, to replace it.

Some of None is Plural

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

Lindsey Branch made the following observation about the grammar of Tuesday’s (May 19) Good Word, antidisestablishmentarianism: “In your text on these few ‘longest words’ the comment ‘none have been used…’ should read ‘none has been used ….’ The last I heard was that none is still a singular noun.”

In my opinion it has never been a singular (pro)noun; that is another conceit forced upon writers in the US by editors, the same ones who push “an historical” and “aren’t I“. Editors came to this conclusion when one of them discovered that none was originally not one, an irrelevant fact since it clearly is not that now.

Although all grammarians agree that plural is possible, they also all offer the wrong reason if they offer any at all (e.g. the American Heritage Dictionary). None is plural because it is the negative equivalent of some: “Some were arriving; none were leaving.” As always, I prefer consistency in usage where grammar itself is unclear.

NoneNow, you might argue that none is the negative equivalent of one. It isn’t a strong argument, since it leaves us open to the question, “Well, then, what are the negative equivalents of two, three, four, etc.? Numbers don’t have negative equivalents the way pronouns do. Still, if you feel confortable saying “None is,” that is fine; you have all the editors in the US behind you. Just keep in mind that those of us who say, “None are,” are also perfectly correct. (I generally use the plural because no one confuses the issue in my dialect group—the folks down South with whom I grew up.)

In the Floor for Discussion

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

Here is an interesting question that arrived today from Dwaine Byrd of Detroit:

“I consider myself to have a fairly decent mastery of the English language, but living in the Detroit area, though raised in the South, I hear an occasional giggle when I use a term that is typically heard south of the Mason-Dixon. One of the terms I have a very hard time getting past is ‘in the floor’. I am told that it should be ‘on the floor’, which I perfectly understand and don’t argue at all. However, down home, ‘in the floor’ is very common and understood. I suppose it would be akin to getting in the bed at night to go to sleep. One doesn’t get ‘on the bed’, he gets in it. And when I take my clothes off, I put them ‘in the floor’.”

“You know, after proofreading this, it sounds a lot stranger than it actually is, but is ‘in the floor’ as common as I had always supposed it to be? Or is this term just completely taboo?”

Well, I’m from rural North Carolina, which is pretty far south and an area where turns of phrase pretty alien to Yankees are commonplace (see my Glossary of Quaint Southernisms for a sampling). However, I’ve never heard this phrase before either from North Carolinians nor from people I know from elsewhere in the South.

Of course, that fact does not deter a proud former academic like myself from expressing an opinion. I have talked about dialects several times in this blog and I may have even mentioned idiolects, dialects that are constrained to a very small area, even to a single family or person. I think that is what we are dealing with here.

In and on have an interesting relationship which I might even look into some day. While Dwaine doesn’t sleep on the bed, he does, I’ll bet, sit on it. Saying that something is “in the floor” suggests that it is logically located there. In this case, if something was dropped out of place on the floor, I would expect “on the floor”. 

But I’ll bet this is not the case in Dwaine’s idiolect. I would guess that it is simply idiomatic, in a category of oddities like the use by New Yorkers of “standing on line” rather than “in line”. Why do they do that? Probably someone of prominence, an immigré no doubt, used this expression a long time ago and, despite its going against the grain of linguistic intuition, it stuck. If so, then there is no explanation. It is there for the same unreason we call a long, fat pastry a ladyfinger and a fuzzy caterpillar a wooly bear (more on this).

You shouldn’t be embarrassed, Dwaine. This little phrase helps distinguish you from the crowd. That isn’t bad. However, if it is too much for you to handle, you might try hanging your clothes up when you go to bed. That way you won’t have to use the phrase and I’m sure someone in your family will appreciate it.

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Not that Great of an Error?

Friday, December 19th, 2008

On Kieth Olberman’s MSNBC show “Countdown” last Tuesday, Howard Fineman of Newsweek said: “He doesn’t have that great of a story to tell,” instead of, “He doesn’t have that great a story to tell.” Why do people make this mistake?

The problem resides in the nature of quantifiers, which serve as both nouns and adjectives in sentences.  “Quantifier?” you might want to ask. “What is a quantifier?”

A quantifier is pretty much what it sounds like: a category of words that indicates quantities. Much, some, many are all quantifiers. So is little, as in, “Little of the money Madoff made off with can now be found.”

We know little in this case is a quantifier because of the presence of the preposition of following it. In English, of marks the items or substances that are measured by quantifiers. It is used with all the quantifiers mentioned above:

  • much of the money
  • some of the money
  • many of the investors

 

Unsurprisingly, numbers are also quantifiers, as we see in:

  • two of the investors
  • 43 of the investors
  • eleven of the investors

 

The problem is that all of these quantifiers can also function as adjectives: much money, some money, many people, a little dog; even the numbers: two investors, eleven investors. This is one of the characteristics of English quantifiers: they are both adjectives and nouns. This leads some to use pure adjectives as quantifiers, as Fineman did when he said, “that great of a story” where he apparently meant either “that great a story” or “that much of a story.”

In fact, the correct construction itself may be a syntactic curve ball that confuses some speakers.  Noun phrases like, “that great a story”, are unique in allowing the adjective to be placed before the article a(n). This construction may throw some speakers, leading them to think a preposition is missing. Well, it isn’t. That is a normal syntactic construction of English, one that proves the article does not always come first in a noun phrase.

Written Mondegreens?

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

I’m back from my annual visitation to North Carolina, where that beautiful accent is fading fast. I think I mentioned before that all my nieces and nephews, and now, grandneices and grandnephews, speak in the tongue of Midwesterners. Glad I captured the spirit of the old accent in my Glossary of Quaint Southernisms while I had the chance.

I found this note from Bill Pelz on my arrival:

What about a mondegreen that comes from reading rather than from hearing? A favorite in my family has long been:

“The lad had a feebly growing down on his chin.”

The ambiguity that allows ‘feebly’ to be perceived as a noun would be destroyed by the application of a hyphen so is it just a punctuation error rather than a true mondegreen? However, the noun “feebly” could also come from mis-hearing the spoken sentence’s stress pattern and the intervals between words. I imagine a feeblie (my preferred spelling) as a long, thin, pale, and floppy growth—a super-mole or super-wart.

So, is ‘feeblie’ a subspecies of mondegreen, a hybrid, or a separate species?

I think most rhetoricians would think of this as a simple ambiguity: a sentence that allows two parsings—the stuff of puns.

The 20th century’s most famous linguist, Noam Chomsky, argues that ambiguities like “Flying airplanes can be dangerous,” prove that syntax, even though invisible, has a branching structure. The ambiguity in this phrase depends on whether “flying” is the head to which “airplanes” is subordinated or a participle subordinated to “airplanes”. Since Chomsky, many more such examples have been discovered: “Eating lions can be risky,” “Attacking dogs can be scary,” etc.

Groucho Marx was a master at them: “Yesterday I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How an elephant got in my pajamas, I’ll never know.” We can make them up easily: “Gerald ate his salad without dressing,” “Chumley found Gwendolyn with a spyglass,” etc. Groucho’s examples differed from Chomsky’s by relying on a prepositional phrase that could modify either of two nouns, usually a subject and a predicate. The association with the subject made sense while the association with the predicate (direct object) made facetious nonsense.

I don’t know that such examples have a name; maybe we need one since misanalyzing statements can be so funny.

Mondegreens and Ambiguity

Wednesday, October 8th, 2008

I’m back from my annual visitation to North Carolina, where that beautiful accent is fading fast. I think I mentioned before that all my nieces and nephews, and now, grandnieces and grandnephews, speak in the tongue of Midwesterners. Glad I captured the spirit of the old accent in my Glossary of Quaint Southernisms while I had the chance.

I found this note from Bill Pelz on my arrival:

What about a mondegreen that comes from reading rather than from hearing? A favorite in my family has long been:

“The lad had a feebly growing down on his chin.”

The ambiguity that allows ‘feebly’ to be perceived as a noun would be destroyed by the application of a hyphen so is it just a punctuation error rather than a true mondegreen? However, the noun “feebly” could also come from mis-hearing the spoken sentence’s stress pattern and the intervals between words. I imagine a feeblie (my preferred spelling) as a long, thin, pale, and floppy growth—a super-mole or super-wart.

So, is ‘feeblie’ a subspecies of mondegreen, a hybrid, or a separate species?

I think most rhetoricians would think of this as a simple ambiguity: a sentence that allows two parsings, the stuff of puns.  A mondegreen is what linguists call reanalysis, the accidental misanalysis of a word or phrase, as “Gladly, the Cross I’d bear” was supposedly misanalyzed by a child in Sunday School as “Gladly, the cross-eyed bear”. 

The 20th century’s most famous linguist, Noam Chomsky argues that ambiguities like “Flying airplanes can be dangerous,” prove that syntax, even though invisible, is a branching structure. The ambiguity in this phrase depends on whether “flying” is the head to which “airplanes” is subordinated or a participle subordinated to “airplanes”. Since him many more have been stumbled upon: “Eating lions can be risky,” “Attacking dogs can get tiresome,” etc.

Groucho Marx was a master at them: “Yesterday I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How an elephant got in my pajamas, I’ll never know.” We can make them up easily: “Gerald ate his salad without dressing,” “Chumley found Gwendolyn with a spyglass,” etc. Groucho’s examples differed from Chomsky’s by relying on a prepositional phrase that could modify either of two nouns, usually a subject and a predicate. The association with the subject made sense while the association with the predicate (direct object) made facetious nonsense.

The Fate of ‘-ly’ in English

Monday, August 11th, 2008

David Ross wrote the past Thursday:

Alas! The demise of the adverbial form is at hand:

‘NEW! False Friend Riddles. Riddles made up of English sentences that contain a foreign word spelled identical to an English word.’

Methinks “ly” will eventually disappear from English dictionaries, as its dearth is already ubiquitous in the vernacular.

David may be right; denizens of the southern US tier of states often omit this suffix: “Harley, he talks real good” is common enough down there though still considered substandard. In that region, at least, English might be moving the way of German which does not add endings to mark adverbs. Since endings are added to adjectives in that language, omitting an ending is the mark of an adverb.

However, I think something else is at work in the example David cites and I don’t think it is disappearing though, I must admit, it is poorly understood. At the time I was examining it, back in the 80s, no one had even noticed it, let alone researched it. If any work on this aspect of adverbs has been done since, I am unaware of it.

The English adverbial rule seems to be a bit more complicated than “add the suffix -ly to and qualitative adjective”. We know that adverbs are restricted to qualitative adjectives that refer to qualities (can be compared) and not to others. We can not make adverbs out of words like rural, urban, English which can not be compared. But the rule seems to be more complicated than this.

The rule in English seems to be something like this: “Add -ly to any qualitative adjective that does not have a predicate modifier”, i.e. a modifier that must come AFTER the adjective. Here are some examples.

The door shut quickly.
The door shut quick as a flash
NOT: The door shut quickly as a flash.

Bill left subsequently.
Bill left subsequent to Jill’s arrival.
NOT: Bill left subsequently to Jill’s arrival.

The jar opened easily.
The jar opened easy as pie.
NOT: The jar opened easily as pie.

Now, in choosing these examples, I have been careful not to confuse them with simple predicate adjectives like the one in this example:

Bill returned shortly (adverb)
Bill returned short of breath (predicate adjective)

The second sentence here contains an adjective modifying Bill and not the verb returned. It is in a category of predicate adjectives like Bill returned wet, sick, wounded. However, the evidence indicates that in English, if a true adverb has a predicate modifier, a modifier that must come after it, the suffix -ly is regularly, which is to day, grammatically, properly omitted.

Returning now to the example David cited from the alphaDictionary website, I must admit that the same example with the suffix -ly doesn’t sound as bad as the examples I cited above: “…a foreign word spelled identically to an English word.” However, to my ear, the version on the website still offends my grammar organ less. What do you think?

How do Syntax and Semantics Get Along?

Friday, May 2nd, 2008

Jere Mitchum dropped us this note Monday:

“I’ve been concerned about the awkward placement of only in present day writing. This example is from your April 27th discussion of denouement:

‘It has only been in the language since the latter half of the 18th century, so it has changed little.’

It seems to me that only should be next to since because the sentence means it has been in the language only since the latter half of the 18th century.”

“Another recent example may be clearer: ‘We were only able to book six travelers.’

Only here modifies six, not able. Why not place it next to the word it modifies?”

My response to Jere was so long that I haven’t heard from him since. The reason I was swept away in my answer to this question is that it touches on one of the most fascinating aspects of language: how it is processed by the human brain.

In fact, language comprises several layers of mental rules that operate independently but simultaneously. The semantic regions in our brains feed on syntactic and morphological (word form) regions but maintain their own set of rules and acceptable relationships.

This means that the semantic operations of our minds put the semantic components of a sentence together in a way vastly different from the way syntatic rules put words together. The classic example is, “An occasional sailor walked by.” I think most English speakers would accept this sentence even though ”an occasional sailor” here does not refer to someone who occasionally sails.

Even though the adjective occasional is perfectly at home before the noun sailor syntactically, its meaning does not combine sensibly with sailor in this sentence. So, the semantic component in our brains simply looks and finds another word in the sentence whose meaning the adjective makes sense with, and we understand the sentence as quickly as we would have had syntax placed occasionally before walked.

I have published quite a bit of scholarship about noun phrases like criminal lawyer and old friend. A lawyer doesn’t have to be crimnal to practice criminal law (though some wag might suggest it would help). Again here, the semantic rules dig into the syntactic stuff of this phrase and decide that the suffix -(y)er has more likely been added to the phrase criminal law than simply to law. Piece of cake.

While an old friend may be old, the semantic operator in our brains is happy if only the friendship is old. The definition of friend is “member of a friendship” so, at the semantic level, old may modify either main semantic concept: “old member” or “old friendship”. Semantics operates on semantic objects, not syntactic or morphological ones. Makes sense.

The syntactic component of our mind ’reads’ morphological rules, and follows hints laid down by suffixes and the like: occasional goes well with sailor but three does not, since adjectives may modify nouns syntactically but numbers above one require a plural noun. This information helps semantics but doesn’t do its job for it.

The semantic component in our minds operates on logic: which words make sense together? Semantics looks for the most likely combinations whether the syntactic construction helps or not. Semantics considers syntactic rules suggestions, not laws.

I find it fascinating that we can collect examples like these prove that our brain contains a language processor that comprises distinct parts (levels, subcomponents) that talk to each other but have their own rule-governed characters. Linguists today are exploring the interactions between these parts and the discoveries they are making are truly remarkable.