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Archive for the 'Syntax' Category

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.

Using ‘As’ as it Should be

Monday, February 25th, 2008

Barbara Zimmerman brought up a recurring question in connection with our recent Good Word mortify:

“Is it not more properly said: ‘Maud Lynn Dresser was positively mortified when she saw Portia Carr wearing the same dress as she at the spring cotillion?’ I say that because the full version of the partially unspoken clause is ‘as she was wearing’? You wouldn’t say ‘Maud Lynn Dresser was positively mortified when she saw Portia Carr wearing the same dress as her was wearing at the spring cotillion.’ Or at least I think you would not.”

Barbara is right, of course, I wouldn’t. But I also didn’t write “as she was wearing” but only “as her”.

The problem is that as, like most English function words, serves more than one function: it is both a preposition, which requires the objective case, and a conjunction, which requires no case at all since it introduces a full sentence. (It can also function as an adverb, by the way.) Using as as a preposition, it is perfectly fine to say things like: “as big as me”, “as round as the moon”, “as important as him”. Using it as a conjunction, we can say, “as big as I am,” “as round as the moon is,” or “as important as he is.”

So, to begin with, we can say “Portia Carr was wearing the same dress as her (Maud)” or “Portia was wearing the same dress as she (Maud) was wearing.” Both are perfectly grammatical and normal. However, it is also true that repeated phrases are consistently omitted in spoken and written English. So “Portia was wearing the same dress as she (Maud) was wearing,” may be shortened to “Portia was wearing the same dress as she was” or just “as she.” Again, either is perfectly grammatical and normal.

The issue here is not which is right or wrong but which is preferable in any given context. In most US dialects, the preposition as offers the same comparative sense as the conjunctive as, so both as she and as her are correct and acceptable.

Not all dialects outside the US allow the comparative meaning of the preposition (it has two or three others, too). This means that as her would not be acceptable or correct in those dialects. As is so often the case, the preference here boils down to which dialect we prefer—or your own personal preference.

Can ‘They’ replace ‘He’ and ‘She’?

Monday, August 20th, 2007

Kathleen of Norway asked the following poignant question via e-mail today:

“EveryONE paying THEIR own check???”

The question arose in connection with an example in yesterday’s Good Word, stickler: “Morris Bedda is a stickler about everyone paying their own check when dining out.”

Since this question has been raised before, I decided to write something definitive on the subject.  I just added it to the reference shelf in my office, which you can access by clicking here.

Weighing your Chances

Thursday, May 10th, 2007

If you have little chance of doing something your chances are slim. Makes sense: slim things are smaller than fat ones. It follows, then, that if your chances are great, you have a fat chance, right?

It doesn’t seem to work that way. Slim chance and fat chance seem to be oxymora, for if I say “I have a slim chance of winning” my chances are probably greater than if I say, “Fat chance I have of winning!” This is tantamount to saying I have no chance at all!

There is a syntactic difference which may account for the semantic difference between these two sentences. But even if I make their syntactic structures identical, “I have a fat chance of winning,” I don’t get the impression that my chances are great.

Fat chance is used more often ironically, usually with sarcastic intonation for emphasis. Irony, of course, turns meanings upside-down. “I love you” is pretty straightforward but by simply changing the intonation to, “I, love you?” you turn the meaning around. The same irony converges fat chances with slim chances.

Don’t you wish we had an irony pill that worked the same way on our bodies?

Case Conflicts in English

Monday, January 29th, 2007

Last November a visitor to the Grammar Shop of the Alpha Agora asked about the construction, “I thought her not so pretty” and I only got around to replying today. Here are my thoughts. They point up an interesting difference between languages with case systems (nouns with endings which change with changes in sentence functions) and without them. English is in the final stage of losing its cases.

There are several verbs that accept direct objects with ‘predicate’ adjectives, most have to do with mental processing. It is parallel to consider, as in “I consider that she is pretty” or, shortened, “I consider her pretty,” “I imagined her pretty;” “I imagined that she would be pretty” or “I imagined her pretty.”

It is a peculiar prerogative of English which allows predicates of nouns in the objective case. In languages like German and Russian, where the objectives (accusative) case is used only for direct objects and direct objects cannot be the subject of a phrase, such constructions are impossible. Notice that in the shortened sentences above her is the direct object of the main sentence and subject of the dependent clause “her (=she is) pretty”.

We do this elsewhere, too, usually using the infinitive construction. In the sentence “I asked her to do it,” her is the direct object of asked and the subject of do it at the same time. In languages with real case systems, this is impossible. It is possible in English because the case system has vanished except for the pronouns I, we, he, she and our comfort level with constructions like between you and I show that it is on the way out even for these pronouns.

Is ‘than’ More a Conjunction than a Preposition?

Friday, December 8th, 2006

Mary Jane Stoneburg, one of our Good Word editors (along with Paul Ogden) complained about the use of the objective case with than in our rendition of aborigine for Thursday’s (December 7, 2006) Good Word. The offending passaage reads, “…Europeans generally colonize areas inhabited by nations less advanced than them.”  Now Carolyn Whitaker has written in agreement with Mary Jane, so I feel that I must place my neck publicly on the grammar-rule chopping block.  Here goes.

If you check the US and British dictionaries (including the OED) you will find that “than” is accepted as both a preposition and conjunction and, as a preposition, it requires the objective case. The OED says that it is only a conjunction but is used with the objective case of pronouns, an odd conclusion at odds with English grammar.

The earliest citation of this usage appears to be 1560 in the Geneva Bible, Proverbs xxvii:3: “A fooles wrath is heauier then them bothe”. A few years later it appeared in Agrippa Of the vanitie and uncertaintie of artes and sciences , translated by James Sandford 1569:165 “We cannot resiste them that be stronger then vs.” So this usage has been around a long time.

This is not an uncommon practice, in fact. Prepositions come from a wide variety of sources: verbs (save, except), adjectives (near, nearest, like), adverbs (aboard, outside, out), participles (following, concerning), conjunctions (before, as), even prepositional phrases (instead, alongside).

The British try to keep than as a pure conjunction but the examples in the OED, drawn from various sources over the centuries, show, not even they can resist this fairly recent change. I see nothing wrong with using than as a preposition, given the motley origins and histories of prepositions in English.

A Rip-Snortin’ Knock-Down-Drag-Out Million Dollar Comma Fight

Thursday, October 26th, 2006


Objects do not have to be large to be expensive.  Paul Ogden just alerted me to an article in the NY Times on a contractual dispute that centers around a single comma that is worth a million dollars (Canadian).

The dispute is over this sentence: “This agreement shall be effective from the date it is made and shall continue in force for a period of five (5) years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five (5) year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.”

The second comma has the effect of cutting the final condition (“unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party”) off from the definition of the extension period.  If it is not directly related only to the extension period, then it must equally apply to the basic and extension periods.

The issue was brought before Canada’s telecommunication regulators by Rogers Communications of Toronto, Canada’s largest cable television provider, when Atlantic Canada attempted to cancel a contract governing Rogers’ use of telephone poles after the first year in which the contract was in force.  The regulators concluded that the meaning of the sentence is clear and Atlantic Canada need not wait until the extension period to terminate the contract.

I tend to agree but the point is fine enough that someone should make an attempt to discover the intent of the those who negotiated the contract. However, it does make you wonder why companies pay lawyers $350 an hour for a job that a good English teacher would be happy to do for no more than, well, let’s say, $250 an hour.


Tuesday, October 10th, 2006


Joy Aloisi recently asked me to explain the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs. I am sure a lot of nonlinguists have wondered about the same thing so it occurred to me that I might do a short note about this distinction here that I can refer to in the future.

The problem in explaining this difference is that you have to know two other grammatical functions in order to understand this one: Subject and Object. The subject is usually the first noun or noun phrase in a sentence, the thing that the sentence is about. In the sentence John ran, John is the subject. In the sentence, The big girl in the ragged jeans left, The big girl in the ragged jeans is the subject. John and the big girl are what their respective sentences are about.

John and the big girl . . . are the subjects because that is their relationship to the verbs in their respective sentences (ran and left). “Subject” and “Objects” are relationships to the verb. So what is the “Object”?

The Object of a sentence is the noun that refers to something that the subject does something to. In the sentence, John bit the dog, John, again, is the Subject and the dog is the Object. In the sentence Sarah sipped the soda, the soda is the Object.

Now, if you know what Subjects and Objects are, you are in a position to understand what transitive and intransitive verbs are. All verbs in English have Subjects. You can’t say simply Rains in English (you can in Russian) because all verbs demand a Subject in English. The default Subject in English is it, so we have to say It rains or (is raining).

Objects are different, however. A few verbs MUST have Objects, e.g. devour and interject: you can’t say Mabel devoured or Fred interjected without an Object somewhere in the sentence. These verbs are strictly transitive.

Other verbs CANNOT have Objects. You cannot, for example, arise anything; something just arises. You can’t inquire anything; you just inquire or inquire about something (prepositional phrase). These verbs are strictly intransitive and intransitive verbs are often associated with a particular type of prepositional phrase that behaves a lot like an Object.

Other verbs may or may not have Objects. So you can just walk or you can walk the dog, you can just eat or you can eat supper. These verbs are ambitransitive: transitive when they have a direct object, intransitive when they do not.

This is all there is to it—well, the basics anyway.