Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Whatever your judgment

Yesterday Mark Liberman posted an image (taken by Aaron Davies) of a poster by the National Peanut Board that gives us the "friendly reminder" that "Peanuts are a good source of protein for whatever your conquest."

That's the second line in the ad. I'm pretty sure the first line is 'Why just get through the day when you could conquer it?' but it's cut off halfway through the <q> of what I believe to be 'conquer'.

The use of conquest strikes Liberman as so strange that he jokingly suggests it might be the product of outsourcing to China.

I don't think it sounds so strange. I left a comment saying so. John left a comment agreeing with me. Andrew thinks it's "perfectly normal English" while nat finds it "acceptable" if "slightly cavalier." Josh doesn't object tho he calls the use "unusual." Dave is OK with it but grants it might be awkward.

Some commenters are on the fence depending on prosody and semantics.

Gary writes If I put the major stress on the “ever”, I don’t find the sentence strange at all. and he adds If I use even stress on ever and conquest, the sentence sounds very strange.

Adrian Bailey observes

The problem with “conquest” is that it’s used to describe a completed action rather than an action itself, and in this case it could be taken to refer to a person or thing, rather than to an event.

Otherwise, the construction is sound and the message is gettable. And in the world of advertising its ghitlessness is a plus.

That quality she mentions -- ghitlessness -- means that the phrase doesn't show up in a Google™ search. Each result of a search is a 'ghit'.

Whether a search produces results is important to the phrase discussed here because Liberman uses search results to support his claim that the phrase is odd. It is unexpected to him and to everyone else writing text indexed by Google.

Now note that Liberman never said that this is ungrammatical. He calls it unexpected. He says it's unusual. And it is obviously unusual. The lack of search results is good support of that. The lack of support might even be the definition of unusual. It's just not out there.

But why is it unusual? Conquest is a noun and the form 'whatever your [NOUN]' is out there with several nouns filling the slot.

"whatever your needs" -- 210,000
"whatever your problem" -- 87,200
"whatever your goal" -- 71,800
"whatever your passion" -- 66,700
"whatever your task -- 8,400

Not all of these are the same type of noun final phrase as in the peanut poster. But a raw number for each search is relevant for comparison since a simple search for the conquest phrase brings up nothing.

But what interests me is not that the ad uses a rare phrase. I'm curious about why the phrase is so rare. Because it still doesn't sound so strange to me. Except for the fact that conquest isn't often used in ad copy or in conversational speech. Simple phrases are worth comparing:

"his goal" -- 3,480,000 : "his conquest" -- 246,000
"her goal" -- 973,000 : "her conquest" -- 33,500
"their goal" -- 3,760,000 : "their conquest" -- 175,000

Goal is easier to use without a complement than conquest is. A conquest is either over something or it can be that 'thing' that was conquered. In the ad it looks like the latter. If you conquer the day then the day is your conquest.

Looking for similar words -- prize reward accomplishment -- we find small numbers.

"whatever your prize" : 12 hits
"whatever your reward" : 315 hits
"whatever your accomplishment: 5 hits

In his comment Liberman adds Nowhere on the web does a sentence starting My conquest today is __ or My conquest today will be __ appear.*

Neither will you find a single result for my prize today is or my prize today will be. That surprises me.

So are we looking at a pragmatic constraint? Even tho the statements make sense and even tho they're grammatical people just don't use them. Dips and gaps like that aren't likely to be accidental. Conquests and prizes and rewards are usually spoken of in the past or in definite terms. These hypothetical and anticipatory contexts might be part of the block. But I'm not sure.

I looked at the picture and thought little of it. Liberman's ear must be better than mine. Perhaps I'm permanently scanted out.**


*Liberman's comment in response to John is puzzling. He doesn't expect that people read LL only to agree with accept every judgment does he?

**more on this later

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The structures I care about

I used to write about and teach literature. I read stories and poetry for a living. Why would anyone leave that?

Probably because I'm a fan of New Criticism. That's a problem because the current trends in poststructuralism and New Historicism are boring and they're powerful. So our break-up was mutual.

Where does a marooned formalist go? Why to linguistics of course.

In honor of National Poetry Month I'll revisit one of the old standards and say a tiny bit about that simple and much taught poem by the the good doctor William Carlos Williams.

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Freshmen: He's just talking poetically because he thinks it sounds cool.
Sophomores: Each line looks like a wheelbarrow!
Juniors: Each line depends on one final word.
Seniors: He's a doctor and he feels powerless. The rain symbolizes his sadness!

Let's look at the Juniors' claim. Each line does depend on a final word. And each dependency is of a different sort. A quick summary:

First stanza: Once upon is uttered the poem must continue. And not because a preposition can't end a sentence. It's because the preposition doesn't yet have an object complement anywhere. The first line could be a complete sentence if we take "depends" in an absolute form. It's not fully standard in formal use but it is common. It's effective as a flat opening statement making a broad claim about life in general. The first line doesn't depend on the preposition upon but the rest of the poem does. Once we have the preposition the rest of the poem has to provide the noun complement or else it's not a full syntactic constituent.

Stanza two: This is a full constituent either way. The first line is just as grammatical with or without barrow. But once we know the intention of the poem (by reading ahead) we realize that there was a semantic dependency because wheelwheelbarrow. Only by knowing what the speaker means do we understand how the second line of the stanza is necessary because a word is incomplete. We might call this an accuracy dependency.

Stanza three: Again we have no grammatical dependency. We have also lost semantic dependency because rain and rainwater are pretty much synonymous. Williams has established a pattern by writing two stanzas with a similar form but different development in the structure of the two lines. But the structure of the third stanza mimics neither the developing structure of the first stanza nor the semantic rationale of the second. This is a stanza that follows form for the sake of form only. Now we know it's a poem for the sake of being a poem. It is my favourite stanza.

Stanza four: It's possible that white is a noun but it's not likely. It's reasonable to say that this is the only stanza in which the first line is unambiguously dependent on the second line. As the structure of the first line leaves out a necessary NP it is similar to the dependency introduced by the missing NP of the second line of the first stanza. So we have completion through a structural chiasmus: The first line of the last stanza at first sits as a non-constituent just while the last line of the first stanza becomes part of a non-constituent. And just as the first stanza is completed by the rest of the poem, the poem is completed by the rest of the last stanza.

I could say more about this but according to the rules I'm now required to discussed the hegemonic dynamics and the illusion of an original moment and the negotiation of cultural capital and the communities that will interpret these ambiguities and dependencies differently and what's a construct and what isn't.

I have more interesting things to do.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

How odd?

Am I missing something here? I have an "Odd News" headline module on my Yahoo! page that keeps me up to date on stories about dogs dialing 911 and cars crashing through living rooms and bank robbers stupid enough to show their ID before making a withdrawal.

Most of today's headlines were pretty much the usual weird news from the AP. But...

I don't get it. Is the Obama story really that strange? Following the link to the story we get the same headline and the following lead:

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama on Sunday brushed aside a challenge from Hillary Rodham Clinton to debate before the May 6 primaries in Indiana and North Carolina.

The story by Hope Yen mentions Clinton's suggestion of a Lincoln-Douglas style debate. That's maybe a little odd. Kinda.

But follow the link to the Odd News front page and the offered story changes. It's still by Hope Yen but it's a significantly different story that focuses on race. The lead:

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said Sunday that race is not the reason he is struggling to attract working-class votes and insisted he can win over uncommitted superdelegates by showing he is best able to not just defeat John McCain, but also lead the country.

And the other four headlines stand as promised.

What's happening to our standards for weirdness?

Friday, April 25, 2008

There's no "I" in [tim]

The one professional team I root for is playing the professional team I root against. My Detroit Red Wings are playing those Colorado Avelanches. Avelanchers?

See that's a problem with non-plural team nicknames. What do we call the individuals on the team? But maybe that's a good thing. It encourages a group mentality. As Mr Sapir-Whorf proved a long time ago it's impossible to be selfish on a team that doesn't allow you to refer to yourself as a single player.

And when you say that you're playing against an avalanche you're forced to imagine that you're playing against a force that you do not have the power to stop. The best you can hope for is that you will survive by outrunning it. Language forces these thoughts on us.

Which leagues and which teams have caught on to this bit of linguistic legerdemain?

NHL 3/30
The Colorado Avalanche the Minnesota Wild and the Tampa Bay Lightning. Get this -- the Lightning have only won Lord Stanley of Preston's Cup once. Scientists say the team will have to move to another city in order to win it a second time.

NBA 3/30
Here we find 3 More. The Miami Heat the Orlando Magic and the Utah Jazz. Again 10%.

NFL 0/32
They're not playing along. Not a single team uses a singular or mass noun as a nickname.

CFL 0/8
The Canadian Football League doesn't have any singular or mass nouns among their current 8 teams. But they've had a singular name before: the Las Vegas Posse in 1994.

The USFL had 2 out of 19: the Chicago Blitz and the Los Angeles Express.

Arena 9/17
Arena Football is crawling with non-plurals: the Chicago Rush the Colorado Crush the Georgia Force the Grand Rapids Rampage the Kansas City Brigade the New Orleans VooDoo the Philadelphia Soul the Tampa Bay Storm and the Utah Blaze. Eight singular and one mass: 9 out of 17.

MLB 0/30
And in baseball only the Soxes come close to squeaking by as singular/mass nicknames. But the OED tells us that we have to consider sox an altered form of the plural of sock. Damn dictionaries controlling our use of the language!

MLS 9/14
In this US version of a soccer league the naming gets confusing. You have a team like Chivas USA that goes by a plural count noun that few will recognize in English. But they can also be called the goats or a few other nicknames. D.C. United follows the lead of several European teams that claim simply the unity of a region. Then you have teams from Toronto and Dallas that simply call themselves Football Clubs. There's the Chicago Fire and the New England Revolution. You've got the Columbus Crew (they named themselves with a thesaurus: Hey what's another word for team?) the Houston Dynamo the LA Galaxy, and Real Salt Lake. Or is that the Real Salt Lake? These MLS teams like using count nouns in the singular. That's risky. It lends itself to one player's arrogance getting out of hand. It'll all be over for them when that egomaniac starts proclaiming I am the Dynamo! or I am the Galaxy! Only one player will be able to do so.

WNBA 9/14
Out of the 14 teams in the WNBA 9 of them are singular or mass nicknames: the Atlanta Dream the Chicago Sky the Connecticut Sun the Detroit Shock the Indiana Fever the New York Liberty the Minnesota Lynx the Phoenix Mercury and the Seattle Storm. The Phoenix Mercurys wouldn't do it as a name. It sounds like a garage full of not very sporty cars.

And doing a quick run through NCAA teams we find the North Carolina State Wolfpack the Marshall Thundering Herd the Tulane Green Wave the Tulsa Golden Hurricane the Stanford Cardinal the Alabama Crimson Tide the North Texas Mean Green and the Nevada Wolf Pack. The herd and the wolf packs are collective nouns so the players can call themselves wolves or buffalo(es).

Where is all this heading?

Well I'm looking forward to following this second round of the playoffs because even tho an avalanche is often overwhelming I like my Red Wings' chances of playing well against six flakes at a time.

[correction: in the original piece I reported that 3 out of 30 is 30% when in fact 3 out of 30 is not 30%]

Thursday, April 24, 2008

How'd they go blind?

Over at Dinosaur Comics A note for April 24, 2008 ( calls attention to a logo gone bad. The British Office of Government Commerce came up with a simple all caps abbreviation logo.

But put it on a pen and start writing -- another image pops up.

So now I guess they have to crank out another idea. A spokesman for the OGC agrees that it is not inappropriate to an organisation that’s looking to have a firm grip on Government spend.

They've decided to stop giving these contracts to the Lifestyle Marketing and Advertising Organization also know as LMAO.

It looks like a year ago this was already suggested as the best emoticon EVER.

Ill effects

I've made the mistake a few times of stopping half-way while I'm writing the homework assignment on the board. I get a few characters written down then I turn to the class to explain something about the problems they'll be doing. The class chuckles and I turn around to see 'ass' written above me. It's not a ridiculous label.

But it's a mistake. One that I committed because I wasn't planning and suggesting and evaluating and picking a word to put up there. Not like a registered trademark.

A word of advice to the pharmaceutical companies out there looking for a drug name. Listen to the word. And don't get distracted by an orthographic/visual gimmick.

I guess the spelling convention of <pH>=[f] looked too good for Eisai Company, Ltd. of Tokyo to pass up in a heartburn medication.

the minutes:

Perfect! How can we put it in a drug name?

We need to get the word 'acid' in there too.

Yeah but we're getting rid of acid.

Well 'ex' always works for that.

Of course. And 'x' is awesome anyways.

So acidex?

No! Remember we need the pH scale in there.


Looks too hard to say. And remember it has to be <pH> not just <ph>.

Oh right. Acid-pHex?

No. I hate hyphens. Didn't you hear the OED outlawed them?

Well let's just drop the <d>. AcipHex. That looks cool.

Sure does. Now let's ignore how it sounds.

How about this for a slogan: If you've got gastrointestinal problems just wait for the AcipHex!

Hm. I like the sound of AcipHex.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Therapy is a verb

The reality of addiction is that you find yourself compromising in your demands for quality as you pursue a simple fix. As long as you get the hit you don't care if it's a good hit. That probably helps to explain the success of Night Train and Thunderbird. It explains why a great-uncle (that I never met) turned to rubbing alcohol.

My name is Michael. I watch Dr. Phil.

About a week ago (15 April 2008) McGraw teamed up with occasional advice collaborator T.D. Jakes to share opinions with a mother and daughter who wanted the world to know their issues. (episode page)

After asking several questions and redirecting a few arguments and clarifying some claims Dr Phil announced that he and Jakes were going to use a new strategy in their speech. His promise going into the commercial break:

The bishop and I are gonna try and put some verbs in our sentences when we come back.

I guess I hadn't been paying attention because it seems that McGraw and Jakes had been performing an impressive feat: they hadn't used any verbs in their sentences thus far.

This is similar to one of those linguification-esque rhetorical devices/snowclones that I don't quite understand: X is a verb. I don't know if this one qualifies as linguification because it isn't really a claim about the way people are thinking stated as an observation about their use of language. It's really just an odd distinction between advice and other statements.

So here's the meta-linguistic claim: speech that is intent on effecting a change in action and making necessary action clear is going to use verbs while speech that reports information or asks for information doesn't need them.

What I find most amusing is that McGraw isn't really sure he can use verbs. He only promises to try.

Now for some overkill. Evidence of what you already know. I've taken all the verbs out of some early quotes by Phil and T.D. just to make the point that should be clear: verbs are necessary in almost all sentences no matter what point is being made. No matter the mood or illocutionary point. [sentence fragments are a different matter.]

“Why [] she [], in your estimation?”

“[] she [] when she [] you [] her nonstop? That [] her quote.

“On that one isolated incident, [] you [] it and [] her unreasonably?”

“This [] on behind a lot of closed doors and [] a really bad message."

“Absolutely. I [] the really pervasive problem with your daughter [] that she really [] [] that you all [] [] a whole and wholesome relationship. It’[] difficult to [] her to [] that it [] possible to [] with you and [] happy.”

“[] that possible? If she [] home today, [] you [] right back where you []?”

“She [] otherwise.”

Thursday, April 17, 2008

You rain?

About a year ago I mentioned that Carl's Jr had filed a lawsuit against Jack in the Box claiming that commercials were creating phonetic and aural confusion between the words Angus and anus. (Unfortunately the ads are no longer available on YouTube. They were pretty funny.)

I didn't comment on it then but I thought the claim of phonetic similarity was a stretch. As I heard them the words were quite distinct and not too likely to be confused.

Consider that [æŋɡəs] and [eɪnəs] differ by a different initial vowel a different nasal and a full segment [ɡ] missing in the latter.

By analogy: how likely is it that angle and anal would be confused? The comparison is similar: [æŋɡl̩] / [eɪnl̩]

I figured the similarity of orthographic form was an important influence. That and the paradoxical attraction of a word to a clearly inappropriate context. Perhaps it's so odd to use words like delicious and tasty to describe anus that we're a little more likely to mistakenly see it with a slight nudge. Sort of a lexical forbidden fruit effect. A Chomskyan slip?

But then I'd overlooked the obvious possibility of very similar phonetic forms. All it requires is two common processes.

First: [ɡ] deletion. Not that the actual process of deletion still occurs commonly in a synchronic analysis but <ng > is typically read as [ŋ].

Second: pre-velar raising of [æ] to [e]. I should have thought of this given that Buffy's speech patterns this way.

It's easy to see how [eɪŋəs] it could easily be confused with [eɪnəs]. Only one segment different. And place (alveolar/velar) is the only major feature change.

But I never considered this pronunciation until a couple of days ago when I heard a Golden Corral commercial. What kind of steak? I asked myself when the announcer raised the [æ] just enough to confuse me. It didn't sound too tasty at first.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

We've been over this

It's our premise here and I hold it so dear that it always seems obvious to me -- but it's worth repeating:

Linguists do not hold an 'anything goes' attitude. We do not argue that there are no rules in language. We do not say that any utterance is grammatical as long as someone says it. Not even if someone else understands it.

Linguists are interested in what 'goes' and what 'doesn't go' in language. We argue that there are more rules and constraints in language than most grammarians realize.

And we don't think that advice on good writing is tyrannical or unnecessary.

Quit making all those false accusations.

Friday, April 11, 2008

You talking to me? I'm the only one here...

A few months ago an e-mail scam prompted our trusty IT guardians to send out a warning. The warning included a description of the e-mail, an explanation of the method and danger of the scam, and some words of advice.

Users who receive such a message should immediately delete the e-mail and do not reply.

I expected that first sentence to offer the usual ellipsis on a coordinated structure. Let's consider a simplified form of the sentence:

Users should delete the email and users should not reply.

And I wouldn't have noticed if should was repeated. If instead of ellipsis a pronoun was used the should would of course be necessary.

Users should delete the email and they should not reply.

But there's an ambiguity there because the reason for using the pronoun isn't clear so it might read as an assurance that if you delete the email you won't get a response.

But what did the writer of the warning give us? (again simplified)

Users should delete the e-mail and do not reply.

Where did that do come from? There's no dummy-DO necessary or possible in this form. Is it a typo?

It's possible that the sentence is grammatical. Tho that would be odd. It would require that two declarations be intended:

Users should delete the e-mail.
Users do not reply.

It would be odd to combine a suggestive-declarative and an informative-declarative.

So then is this a mistake? Well it's non-standard but I won't call it a mistake. Take a look at the rest of the warning.

If you have already responded to the email it is highly recommended that you immediately reset your password and run anti-virus and anti-malware scans of your system.

Users are no longer referred to in 3rd person. Now I the reader am the mentioned user. And I became that user a little earlier than I expected: in the middle of the first sentence. So the user in the first sentence is referred to in two persons and that first sentence is both a declarative and an imperative.

Users should delete the e-mail and you do not reply.

So is this allowed? Is it grammatical? Well it'd be OK over two sentences. But in one? Man...I don't know anymore. I just don't know.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Language Log aphasia

Language Log has been silent for a few days. Head Mechanic Mark Liberman has posted an update that you should be able to reach here. [note the new address on the sidebar link: ]

Some changes are on the way.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Assuming He is a man.

Oh man...

I'm torn.

I do believe that language expresses information in ways that influence the way we categorize that information. Influences but does not control. Does not dictate. Does not force.

And I believe that grammatical gender is not completely divorced from social gender or from a sense of biological sex. So I believe that "he" "his" etc do influence perception even when used inclusively and intended generically. I don't take offense at it but I try to avoid using it.

Pascal Gygax et al have sought to show that grammatical gender affects interpretation. And we're not talking about English where the distinction is growing less and less grammatical [if it's even a little bit grammatical. English really doesn't use gender except semantically anymore so it's probably time we just started calling an unspayed word an unspayed word.] The study took a look at French and German where gender is securely fastened to the grammar. The article should be available at the above link. If not e-mail me and I'll send you a pdf.

I've just browsed quickly thru it so I have no criticism or praise yet. The write-up at BPS Research Digest Blog gives a quick summary:

Gygax and colleagues have shown that when confronted with the male plural of a noun, people can't help but form a representation of men in their mind.

And by "male plural" they must mean grammatically masculine plural. Otherwise...duh. Did they do any testing with grammatically feminine group nouns? I'm a little nervous about the "can't help but" phrasing. It's slouching towards Sapir-Worf.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Simpsons have me under their spell

I'm still here and I'm OK. You can call off the rescue St Bernard. Unless of course there really is brandy in the little keg. I could use some of that medicine.

Since I work with the television on, my study of Labov is blanketed with the occasional much more linguistically interesting jokes of The Simpsons.

Just a minute ago Krusty learned how to manipulate congressmen and win a vote on a bill. After using alcohol and a paper clip to sneakily attach his own bill to a flags for orphans bill he proclaimed with relief:

"The system works! I've become enchanted and illusioned with Washington."

Nice. Neither is a true back formation because the forms with dis- are in fact based on these earlier morphemes.

But to say that one is disenchanted and disillusioned no longer presupposes that any faith or positive regard was the result of not seeing the true nature of the system. At least its not a very strong presupposition.

So to be disenchanted and disillusioned is not only to know the truth about something, but to be displeased with it. But using the earlier forms in a statement meaning roughly "I feel good about X" goes back to the sense that feeling good about something can only be the result of unclear thinking and foolishness. When Krusty says he's enchanted and illusioned with Washington he's at once expressing faith in a system and acknowledging that his faith is the result of being a fool.

Labov's graphs pale in comparison to this.