Posts Tagged ‘syntax’


Another brief linguistic interlude (now with meat)

August 8, 2010

So I was eating a burger, right? I’d never had Five Guys before, so someone insisted I try it, so I was eating a burger and it was bigger than my FACE and was sort of too much for me. I said to my companion at the time:

“Augh, I am being conquered by meat!”

After giggling to ourselves like twelve-year-olds for like twenty minutes, we resume eating. Later, though, she says to me, “How’s the meat-conquering going?”

And I pause, and think about this, because I was pretty sure that the meat was conquering me, not the other way around. But she didn’t see anything wrong with the sentence she’d said, even though the reading was pretty clearly the exact opposite of what the pragmatic context would demand.

Now, I keep running into this because I still haven’t really sorted out gerunds or gerundives in a real methodical way, so I have no grammar to deal with this as of yet. However! I do know that it gets pretty weird when there’s a passive involved:

(1x) # How’s that ((you)) meat-conquering going?
[How’s that you-conquering-meat going?]

(1a) # How’s that meat-conquering ((you)) going?
(1b) * How’s that getting conquered by meat going?
(1c) * How’s that being conquered by meat going?

(1x) is the normal sense of how gerund-compounds work: the object moves to the front of the verb, and the subject is unpronounced. Other examples:

(2) Book-reading is the best path to literacy.
(3) Cigarette-smoking is terrible for your lungs.
(4) Beer-drinking makes you smell funny the next morning.

In (2)-(4), we see that the objects of the gerundicated verbs (shut up, I get to make up words when I want) all get appended to the left of those verbs. In (1), we’d assume that the pattern would go the same way.

Now, what’s really fascinating to me is that my companion opted to pronounce (1x)/(1a), and did not notice any sort of semantic error until I pointed out. (1b) and (1c) are both syntactically horrific, though, and I think it’s fascinating that a speaker will opt for a semantic error over a syntactic one. I have an inkling (not yet solid enough to be a hypothesis, even) that this will prove to be a very consistent pattern among different kinds of speakers. Keep your eyes and ears out for more of these and let me know, yes?


Syntactic methodology in rural Virginia

July 30, 2010

So it’s time for a thought experiment! I’m driving through rural Virginia. Really really rural. Really really Virginia. And there are signs here (I’ll add a picture whenever I can get one without causing an accident) that read:

(1) Stop for SCHOOLBUS loading or unloading CHILDREN.

Leaving aside the inexplicable EMPHASIS, I considered briefly the loading or unloading children phrase.

So imagine, for a moment, that I’m the DA in… what county am I in? Harrisonburg, or somesuch. Imagine also that I am faced with a man, let’s call him Joe, who is contesting a traffic ticket he got for passing a schoolbus unsafely about 100 feet after one of these signs. Joe claims that he was under the impression that he was required to stop for a schoolbus only when he was loading or unloading children.

Mind, we know logically that this is highly stupid. Most judges would just tell him that, fine him, send him to traffic school, and buy the trooper who pulled him over a beer after work. This judge, however, has a deep weakness in his heart for proving that the letter and the spirit of the law are somehow matched. So he takes me into a back room, and tells me that if I can prove that the defendent has no linguistic excuse (assuming he’s a native English speaker, and we will for the moment do just that) to have misinterpreted the sign, then he’ll take me and all my linguist buddies out for drinks after this.

Once I am appropriately motivated, I of course start in on the syntax of the sign. Now, I have not yet personally tackled gerunds/gerundives in my syntactic exploits, so I don’t totally know what to do with the [loading or unloading childred] chunk. For now, I declare it an adverbial PP, with the head [while] assumed to be silent. This fits in with both readings:

(2a) (You) stop for schoolbus (while) (it is) loading or unloading children.
(2b) (You) stop for schoolbus (while) (you are) loading or unloading children.

The defendant claims that (2b) is a reasonable reading of (1), while I must prove that syntactically (2a) is the only reasonable reading. How shall I do this? Well, PPs are quite mobile, aren’t they?

Now, in the adverbial PP above, we have the head P selecting as its complement an entire TP which just so happens to be in the present progressive. This means that somewhere in that TP, there’s a VP, and somewhere in that VP, there’s a subject to the verbs. This is, at some level, what we’re after– but more importantly, we’re after the ability to move or delete that subject, since it obviously does not appear in the surface form.

One way for me to test this would be to test a series of similar sentences that have the anaphoric structure of (2a) and (2b), to see which would be more likely to allow for the deletion of the second subject. This would provide very strong evidence in my favor: [schoolbus] is the closest noun to the deleted subject, which strongly implies that pragmatically it would be the most favorable. However, the fact that (2b) is a felicitous sentence at all suggests that this is not enough to fully prove (2a)’s dominance.

Back to the PP mobility issue. As an adverbial PP, the structure should be able to adjoin directly to the VP (stop for schoolbus) on either side. Let’s test this:

(3a) (While) (it is) loading or unloading children, (you must) stop for schoolbus.
(3b) (While) (you are) loading or unloading children, (you must) stop for schoolbus.

Interestingly, this stifles the deletability of the head P (while) and the subjects:

(4) *Loading or unloading children, stop for schoolbus.
(4x) While unloading or loading children, stop for schoolbus.

In (4), we find that we can’t delete the head P at all. If we retain it, however, we get (4x), which has a very strong (if slightly nonsensical– but that’s the defendant’s problem, not mine) reading that You is the subject of the loading/unloading. This is once again a proximity thing in terms of the anaphora: you is at that point the closest possible subject. This is some stronger evidence in favor of proximity deciding the pragmatic content of the deleted subject.

This is the tricky bit. We put the court in recess while I go find a bloody mary. (Sobriety is for those who don’t have to write about syntax.)


if you haven’t completed syntax II, do not read this.

July 8, 2010


This is prompted by my esteemed colleague, Devin, who posted an analysis here of some Chinese sentences that he’s collected on his current travels there. Mind you, even if I didn’t have this severe (and reasonable!) phobia of lowering, I’d still take issue with the whole “let’s just stick a T in some place that has nothing to do with X-Bar” shindig taking place in the last trees of his analysis.

What I’m trying to say here is, I am incapable of going more than two months without syntax. Apparently. I’m sitting in some college library right now, I do not even know what college (they’re thick on the ground in Saint Paul, for some reason), obsessing over this instead of having real adventures. I suppose it’s consolation to myself for losing my cellist. (Sad story. I’ll tell you later.)


On Squibhood and human scientists

June 1, 2010

Midterm for Syntax 2

I am enamored with the idea of squibs. This is not simply because of the name, I swear– though it does conjure rather interesting mental images. But I am enamored with the idea of academic writing that is witty, fun, chatty, smart, grounded in data, and not driven by some presupposed thesis. I love the idea of a scientific essay that comes with a punchline.

What I’ve posted is not exactly a squib. It’s not very good, for one thing– I skipped some data, didn’t quantify or formalize it very well, and got a little too caught up in the style to focus on the science.

It also has an extended conceit, in the manner of lyric poetry. I’ll be the first to admit that syntax homework and poetry should probably not be mixed when we’re getting graded on it.

But what about when we’re not?

What I propose is a new kind of squib: one in which the science is part of a narrative about our personal scientific processes, a story about ourselves. As any good linguist will tell you, we don’t come with an “off-switch.” We don’t ever stop thinking, angsting, flailing, arguing, observing, analyzing. Not when we’re asleep, not when we’re on a hot date, not when we’re out drinking with our buddies. The midterm I’ve posted is fictional, but not excessively so; and why can’t this be a new form, a new way to write, a new way to incorporate our science and our humanity so that it better reflects what we actually do with our time? Our best work doesn’t happen in a library cubicle with noise-canceling headphones, it happens in that hipster cafe with half a beer in front of us, it happens with screaming fights waking up the dozing actors on the next couch over, it happens on impulsive drives to Monterey and it happens in the tattoo parlor and the bedroom and the roof of the science building and the cave under the library. Why not write about that? Why not aim to please as well as edify, to teach and delight our readers?

My attempt was a failed one, this is sure in my mind. But it won’t be the last one, most especially now that I’ve had a few weeks and some feedback to help suss out where I’m trying to go with this. I’d be interested to hear what other linguists (or any kind of scientists) have to say about this, though.


If anyone was curious as to the syntactic structure

April 13, 2010