Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Picking up your litter is dangerous

Right, here's the other post I promised yesterday. The other litter-related sign I saw said this:
Picking up your litter puts road workers' lives at risk. 
This time, it's not ellipsis that causes the ambiguity, as it was in my previous post. Rather, it's a choice between two people who are doing the picking up:
You picking up your litter puts road workers' lives at risk.
Them [road workers] picking up your litter puts road workers' lives at risk.
And also unlike yesterday, it's clear which one is meant here. There's not any obvious way that you picking up your own litter puts anyone else's life at risk; it's a good thing and you should do it. On the other hand, a road worker having to dash out into the traffic to pick up your crisp packet is a danger to that person.

This is another example of ambiguity in the reference of a pronoun, just like yesterday. But in this case, it's the invisible pronoun that linguists call 'PRO' (pronounced 'big pro', to distinguish it from 'little pro', which is a similar but different invisible pronoun). It's the subject of the clause picking up your litter, which has a gerund form of the verb in it (the -ing form). When you have that, you can have a subject which isn't pronounced (PRO) and gets its meaning (reference) from something else in the surrounding discourse context.

If something is the topic of the sentence, that's likely to be what's assumed to be the meaning of PRO, but other things are also relevant, like where the other possible referents are in the sentence, and what kinds of things they are (e.g. litter is not a likely candidate to be picking itself up here, for many reasons!). Shameless plug: you can read some actual research by me and my colleague Vikki (mostly her) here, on a related subject, and we cite a load of previous research that you can look up if you like.

In my sign, the road workers are the topic (well, their lives are, but you also need to be an animate creature to pick up litter). 'You', the reader, are also an option, because your litter is in there too. It's also closer in the sentence to the PRO that needs a meaning, which counts for something, but a strong combination of the road workers being both the topic and the more sensible meaning ensures that no one would read it and think that PRO meant you. Except me. I thought that. That's why I wrote this whole blog post about it.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Take your litter home with them

I was driven across the country on Saturday, all the way from Sidmouth in Devon to Margate in Kent. On the way I noticed two signs about litter on the roads, both of which are pleasingly ambiguous. I couldn't take a photo as I whizzed by, but the first one said this:
Take your litter home with you.
Others do. 
The ambiguity is between what linguists call a 'strict identity' and a 'sloppy identity' reading of the missing bit of the second sentence. Others do stands for either Other people take your litter home with them or Other people take their litter home with them. The first one is the strict reading because it strictly preserves the part of the original sentence that is elided, and the reference is the sloppy one because it allows the reference to shift from your litter to theirs, along with the subject.

[Aside: note that the fact that the second pronoun must be them in either case, namely the sloppy reading. I'm not sure why; something about the semantics of take and home and you, probably. But it seems to be an exception to the generalisation discussed here by Neal Whitman, referring to work by Johnson and Dahl, that you can have all the possible combinations of strict and sloppy except for the one where the first is strict and the second sloppy. Which is weird.]

Unlike with most ambiguity, where context tells you which meaning is probably meant, I don't think it's so clearcut here. Presumably they are trying to shame you by saying that other people behave properly so you ought to as well (sloppy). But it is possible, I think, that it means that if you don't take your litter home, the litter-pickers will have to pick it up and take it away (presumably not literally to their homes), namely the strict reading. (We'll leave aside the point that if you take it home it's not litter, which is what my aunt Becky always points out.)

Right, I've gone on about this for so long I'm now completely unable to English so I'll do the other sign for a new post tomorrow.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Nut nut's nut

EDIT: SO APPARENTLY 'TO NUT' MEANS SOMETHING VERY DIFFERENT IN AMERICA. SORRY. (But I'm leaving the post up. In the UK it means 'headbutt', ok? And THAT'S ALL.)

This is an advert for nuts:

The nut nut's nut
It says 'the nut nut's nut'. I took a photo because it reminded me of the buffalo sentence we sometimes use to show the flexibility of language:
Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.
For this to make sense you need to know, as I didn't, that 'buffalo' is a verb meaning 'intimidate'. You also need to know that Buffalo is a place and that a buffalo is an animal and its plural form is buffalo. So it means that buffalo from Buffalo intimidate (buffalo) other buffalo from Buffalo. Buffalo is a funny word, isn't it?

So nuts. KP is apparently the nut nut's nut: the nut for those who are very keen on nuts. Fair enough. Let's imagine a situation in which some of these peanuts, anthropomorphised, headbutt other peanuts.
Nut nuts' nuts nut nut nuts' nuts.
EDIT #2: It has been pointed out to me that you could nut someone in the nuts (also won't transfer to US, I'm sure: bollocks, balls, nads, testicles...). So:
Nut nuts' nuts nut nut nuts' nuts' nuts. 

Thursday, 29 June 2017

The logical Cantonese

Post number 3 from The Leopard! What good value that book was.

Now, here's a nice example of linguistic FACT being used to propagate linguistic SILLINESS. Kaja asks Harry Hole a negative question, You don't take milk, do you?. There follows the kind of misunderstanding we have all the bleeding time in English, because English is ambiguous in its answers here: he answers Yes, meaning 'yes, that's true, I don't take milk', but she thinks he means 'yes, I do take milk'. The fact that English can even do this is unusual and interesting and a worthy object of study, but we'll leave it aside for now (I think I've written about it before anyway).


Languages differ with respect to how they confirm the truth of a negative question. English is confused and can answer yes (= yes, that's true, I don't take milk) or no (= no, I don't take milk). Most languages pick one or the other. Cantonese, which Hole is familiar with because he's been living in Hong Kong, confirms the truth with yes (= yes, that's true, I don't take milk). Kaja says, when Harry uses this strategy, that he's "stopped using double negatives". I assume by this she means that he doesn't echo the negation in the proposition, answering No, I don't take milk. This isn't what we normally mean by a double negative, but it's the way Norwegian (the original language of the book and the characters' language) confirms the truth of a negative proposition.

It's not more logical to do it the Cantonese way, though. I'm not sure why it would be considered to be so, and in any case, languages are not logical. They're messy and arbitrary(ish) and when there's two options, as in this case, they're just one or the other without one being more logical. If there was a good reason for doing it one way, all languages would do it that way.

I got all this information from the brilliant SSWL database, by the way, where you can read more about this and other syntactic facts to your heart's content.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

For certain it's categorically a tautology

Here's post number two in the series from Jo Nesbo's The Leopard. In this extract, one character says "I know for certain of others with the selfsame reputation who categorically are not" (my emphasis).


The other chap tells him that using both the expressions for certain and categorically is a tautology. It's not, of course. They do mean the same thing (here, at least - categorically can also mean other things), but they don't refer to the same bit of the sentence. For certain applies to know, so Gjendem is certain about the state of his knowledge. Categorically applies to are not, i.e. to their state of being rather than to his knowledge. This doesn't mean that an editor might not suggest rewriting for stylistic reasons (after all, it means the same without either phrase), but it's not a tautology.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Three mistakes in one sentence

This is the first in a short series of posts about things I've noticed in my current book, The Leopard by Jo Nesbo. I'm reading the English translation by Don Bartlett, published by Vintage. It's originally written in Norwegian so some of the things I write about might be influenced by that, I suppose.

Here, Harry Hole, the main character, takes issue with his colleague's grammar. This is not just a quirk of Hole; the other things I'll be blogging about are similar grammatical observations from other characters in the book, so I can only assume Nesbo is the one who is a stickler for precision.


The second two mistakes are factual errors, or judgement differences, so I'll leave those aside. The first, though, is Harry claiming an agreement error. He thinks that the verb should be singular is rather than plural are, to agree with the clausal subject [punks shooting good policemen] rather than the closest noun, the plural policemen. This is a common error; I'm forever correcting it in essays. It's easy to do because there's a suitable noun just before the verb, and our brains have forgotten that the real subject was ages ago, and take the easy option of the closest noun.

He's absolutely right if the subject really is that clause. Why clauses should be singular and not plural, when they don't really seem to be the kinds of things that can be singular and plural, is an interesting question in itself. We might say that it's semantically a singular event, the event of shooting described in the clause. More plausibly, I would say, is that when something can't have number (it's 'underspecified') we default to the singular, which is the unmarked option in English (and in languages generally).

What if, though, the subject is punks? It could be. Then the subject still has a clause, but instead of it being a clausal subject describing an event [punks shooting good policemen], it's a noun punks with a relative clause modifying it: punks [who are shooting good policemen]. What about that, eh? Then we do want plural agreement on the verb and it should be are.

But here's a thing: we can replace the noun punks with a pronoun, which in this case would be they or them, as it's 3rd person plural, and look! It's totally bad with they no matter what form the verb takes, and it's only good with singular agreement when it's them.
*As far as they shooting good policemen is concerned
*As far as they shooting good policemen are concerned
*As far as them shooting good policemen are concerned
As far as them shooting good policemen is concerned
The lack of the option of nominative case (they) shows that this isn't a real subject of the gerund (or rather, that the 'subject' of a gerund is not the same as a normal clausal subject). If there was no modifying clause, we could use they, and then we'd have to use plural agreement: As far as they are concerned. So part of this pattern is actually an artefact of the fact that you can't have a modifying relative clause with a pronoun. Note that if we put back in the who are that I showed as understood earlier on, it is obligatorily plural agreement, and it also demonstrates very clearly that punks is outside the relative clause.

I really do think it could be either singular or plural, depending on the structure. Not that this matters, much, but it does show firstly that subtle distinctions can illustrate different underlying syntax, and secondly that it's not a good idea to be too nitpicky about grammar in case a linguistics blogger comes along and takes issue with your correction.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

No deal is better than a bad deal

My friend Michelle reminded me that Theresa May said this back in January, and has kept on saying it since then. Most people have been non-pedantic enough to let it go by without comment (after all, there's enough politics happening for us to talk about) but she, I and Chris Maslanka in the Guardian all noticed that it was ambiguous.


Negation, as I've mentioned in previous posts, is usually ambiguous because it takes scope over different bits of the sentence it's in. Here's Chris Maslanka's explanation of the two meanings:


Incidentally, there's a long bit in Alice Through The Looking Glass (or the other one) where a messenger pouts that 'nobody walks faster than I do' and the king says 'he can't, or he'd be here already'. Lewis Carroll was keen on logic and semantics jokes.

After some back and forth with my colleague (& friend) Christina, we think we've translated the two meanings into what looks like gibberish to non-linguists, but is actually a formal representation of the meaning. The notation explains how the bits of the sentence interact to give two different meanings from the same set of words in the same order. I've translated them underneath into increasingly more idiomatic English.

The meaning Theresa means, presumably, is this:

∀x∀y.[NO.DEAL(x) & BAD.DEAL(y) -> x > y]

(Roughly,
"For all x and for all y, if x is no deal and y is a bad deal, then x is better than y"
or "If x is no deal and y is a bad deal, then x is better than y"
or "Having no deal at all is better than having a bad deal".)
Whereas the meaning that's much more salient to me, and which made the sentence seem quite bizarre, is this one:

 ~∃x.[DEAL(x) & ∃y.[BAD.DEAL(y) & x > y] ]

(Roughly,
"There is no x such that x is a deal and there is some y such that y is a bad deal and x is better than y"
or "There is no deal which is better than a bad deal"
or "A bad deal is the best deal".)
Incidentally, I'm pretty sure that this particular type of negation scope ambiguity is regional - it seems less obvious to US speakers (see this post and the comments). But that's a purely anecdotal observation so do let me know if you have anecdata to add to that.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

A luxury attic

Not long ago, a friend of mine was moving to Germany and looking for flats. She complained, on facebook, that the only kind of apartment to rent was Dachgeschosswohnung. I'm not great at German yet, so I let facebook translate it for me and it said that this word meant 'penthouse'. I took this to mean that she couldn't afford anywhere, as they were all luxury places and out of her budget, as this is the connotation of 'penthouse' in English.

What the word actually means is 'top floor flat', literally, and it's basically an attic. Now, while a penthouse is a top floor flat, it's not at all the same as an attic, which has a sloping roof and is small and non-luxurious, which is exactly what she meant when she made her complaint. Literal translation, yes, but a very different interpretation of the type of accommodation it refers to.

Monday, 22 May 2017

I like the part where it goes

There's a Simpsons episode where Marge is 'admiring' a sculpture made by Groundskeeper Willie out of kids' braces. It's hideous, obviously, and she is trying to be nice, so she says "I like this part in here, the way it, um, it goes".


She's struggling to find a word, and none seems right. She can't find anything positive to say. So she reaches for a completely neutral word, one that doesn't mean anything, one that has basically no meaning at all. We see this again when we use go in phrases like How's it going, It goes well with that outfit, It's all going well, and so on. None of these has any sense of go in its full lexical sense, of movement away, as in I'm going to Italy on Monday. It's almost being used as a 'light' verb. These are verbs that are bleached of their meaning and just have a linking function, just making the sentence hold together. Chinese uses hit to make a noun work as a verb - where in English you can say I telephoned him, in Chinese you have to say I hit the telephone to him, or effectively I used the telephone to him. In some languages throw is used a lot - in Georgian you say that you throw a gun at someone rather than shooting them, and in Spanish I think (I overheard this so may be wrong) you'd more likely say that you throw juice at someone rather than squirt juice at them.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Let's go Fuckoffee

I went to London last week and walked past this coffee shop, which I had heard of because it pops up on google maps. It's called Fuckoffee. (Incidentally, I've cropped out a woman wearing the same yellow leather jacket that I've got - she can fuckoffee an' all.)


The name is obviously intended to capture attention by incorporating a swearword. It works - I haven't heard of any other random coffee shops in London. But it's also a clever pun that only works if you have the exact non-standard thing that I'm researching right now: a missing preposition!

If you have the standard version of what I'm talking about, you'd say
Let's go to Costa 
or
Let's go to Fuckoffee
when you were suggesting coffee places to go to. But if you have this non-standard form, which is found in London and in various other UK places, it means you can miss out the preposition to when you're talking about certain locations or institutions, such as a familiar coffee shop. So you might say
Let's go Costa
or
Let's go Fuckoffee
which, for most people with a native London dialect, will sound exactly like Let's go for coffee.

Monday, 3 April 2017

A sliver of butter

I went to the Ramsgate tunnels this weekend. It was interesting! Our tour guide was really, really enthusiastic. He talked quite fast, so sometimes I think he was making speech errors, but there were a couple of things that he said that I think were not errors but rather just interesting quirks. He had a couple of common mispronunciations like 'particliar', and sometimes he used the wrong word. But there were two things that I really liked.

One was that he pronounced gas mask as gas marks. This is called metathesis - he swapped round the /k/ and /s/ sounds, just like when people say aks instead of ask.

The other was weirder - he was talking about rationing, and he said that a family got just a very sliver of butter and a very sliver of meat. You can't use very that way! It can only modify adjectives and adverbs, not nouns! But it was clear he didn't just miss out small or something - he said it twice, there was no pause or anything. So... yeah. Unclear. It's a reasonably uncommon word, so that might be relevant. You can occasionally use very with a noun, like the very essence of the thing, but that's a slightly different thing... I really don't have any wisdom to offer here but I just wanted to point it out.

Monday, 13 March 2017

That's not a dumb question, innit

In my MA syntax class this week we were talking about innit and how it's going from being a tag question to a kind of discourse particle.

Tag questions (aren't we?, don't you?, won't she?) have the following properties (among others):

  1. They follow the main clause 
  2. They have the form of a question
  3. They contain an auxiliary verb that matches the one in the main clause or is do (are, do and will in the examples above)
  4. The verb agrees in person and number with the main clause verb (e.g. 1st person plural, 2nd person singular or plural, and 3rd person singular in the examples above)
  5. They have the opposite polarity to the main clause (so they're often negative, following a positive main clause, but can be positive if the main clause is negated: He's not coming, is he?) (though see NB below)
  6. They have a pronoun that matches the main clause subject (we, you, she above)

Isn't it is a form of tag question, then: it has all the above properties in an example like It's a funny old world, isn't it?. But in some dialects, it has crept out of these constraints and is used in a broader range of contexts, and as well as losing a lot of its phonological properties (it's reduced to innit), some of the syntactic properties in 1-6 no longer apply to it.

1: It still follows the main clause. But that's about it.

2: It may not have the form of a question. Lots of times, it's written without a question mark (OK, that's no guarantee, but it's telling). It's attached to sentences that can't possibly be questioned, like assertions on the part of the speaker: You're fit, innit. That's the speaker's opinion. How can it be questioned?

3: The verb probably doesn't match the main clause one now - in the example I just gave, it does, but you can also say I've got no money, innit, where it doesn't.

4, 6: We no longer need the agreement in person and number. In We're late, innit, the verb in the main clause is first person plural. Innit, if it comes from isn't it, is 3rd person singular. Similarly, the pronoun is it rather than the matching one in the main clause, we.

5: Generally, the polarity is opposite to that in the main clause, but only by chance: innit is negative, and more sentences are positive than negative. But I heard an example on Gogglebox this week of a negative clause followed by supposedly negative innit:
That's not actually a dumb question, innit. 
Cool, innit?

NB: Tag questions can have the same polarity as the main clause if they're both positive, but it has a different meaning. Compare: 
a. That's the bus we need to get, isn't it? 
b. That's the bus we need to get, is it? 
In a, the speaker thinks they have the correct information and wants their interlocutor to confirm it. In b, the speaker thinks that the interlocutor has the relevant information, and wants to confirm it. But we don't find negative assertions and negative tags:
*That's not the bus we need to get, isn't it? 

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Full-priced tickets only available on trains

From next Monday, you can't buy discounted tickets once you're on board Southeastern trains, only the full-price ones. This, while a pity, as it was handy to be able just to hop on and buy one on the train, is only what all the companies do, so I suppose it was inevitable. But I'm sure you're eagerly awaiting the linguistic angle, and here it is, with the caveat that I've now stepped WAY outside my comfort zone and may have got this very wrong.

The announcement on the train went like this:
From Monday 20th of February, you will only be able to buy full-price tickets on board our trains. 
Fair enough. That says what they mean. Except it didn't! It said quite another thing, because they got the intonation totally wrong!

Sentences have intonation contours and prosodic units. It's where you put the stress and what bit of the sentence you treat as a phrase. Prosodic units line up with syntactic/semantic units, so the meaning is nice and easy to understand (I note that Wikipedia says they don't, though the examples there do, so I'm not sure what I'm missing).

I'm now going to try to convey the intonation with the use of bold text. The emboldened bits are meant to be given stress, and the bracketed bits are treated as a prosodic unit (the second one actually is a case where the prosodic unit doesn't match up with syntactic units):
You will only be able [to buy full-price tickets] on board our trains.
You will only be able to buy [full-price tickets on board our trains]. 
Try saying them out loud. In the first one, the meaning is that the only kind of ticket you can buy is full priced. Correct. In the second one, though, the meaning is that the only place you can buy full-priced tickets is on the trains, not anywhere else. False! You can buy them at the station or online too! And it's the second one that was in the announcement on the trains. If I were more of a pedant I might test them on this principle. But I'm not.

I'm sure I've got all the technical stuff wrong here, but I tried the two intonations out on my friend Stuart and he had the same interpretation as me, so the point is right, at least.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Was I good?

One of the pubs I go to in Margate has these awful seaside postcard illustrations on the walls of the toilet. These are pretty tame, usually, though some of them make reasonably explicit references. They usually rely on double entendre of some kind for the joke. Here's one where the joke relies on the way that the meaning of adjectives changes in different contexts:


Good is a particularly fuzzy word. What does it mean? All we can really say is that it has some positive meaning (and even 'positive' is a bit vague). The rest, nearly all of the meaning, has to come from context. This is known as being 'underdetermined'.

Doctor Who uses this to good effect in one episode: the Doctor (played by Peter Capaldi, I think, or maybe it was Matt Smith - one of the modern ones, anyway) says early on that there is no such thing as a good dalek, meaning that they're inherently evil beings. At the end of the episode - spoiler alert - the daleks call the Doctor himself a 'good dalek', meaning that he is good at being a dalek. The difference lies in the application of the word good to some aspect of dalekhood, in which case it means 'unfeeling', 'ruthless', efficient', or whatever, or in treating it separately and giving it whatever meaning the word has when applied to animate entities more generally ('kind', 'well-meaning', etc).

The woman in the cartoon says I promised Mummy I'd be good... was I?. It's the same thing as the Doctor Who example, more or less, but good means different things again. What she promised her Mummy was that she'd be good in the sense of the term as applied to the behaviour of daughters on a night out: polite, sober, and most importantly, chaste. What she's asking the man is whether she was good at a particular activity: in other words, did she perform well at it? This conflicts with the crucial parts of how she promised her Mummy she'd behave, but it doesn't mean that good has conflicting meanings. It just has almost no meaning without a knowledge of what it applies to.

How you interpreted the title of this post out of context might give you some idea of how filthy a mind you have.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Josh Scot likes

This graffiti appears on a wall near where I live:


I imagine that that last word is an unfinished name, and Josh Scot was declaring his liking for that person but got caught in the act and had to scarper.

But I prefer to think that Scot likes Josh, and for whatever reason used an unusual word order to say so. Perhaps he was halfway through a comparison of the various people that other people like: Josh, Scot likes; Kieron, Phil likes. It's a bit strange to use this topicalisation construction in graffiti (or at all, to be honest - you see it in linguistics papers more than anywhere else) but you never know.

Incidentally, an indication of how uncommon a construction this is is that I just nearly got the participants the wrong way round: I typed 'Josh likes Scot' originally and had to think about it a bit to get it right. But you do sometimes find them occurring quite naturally and spontaneously, so it is a genuinely grammatical English sentence.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

On the rudeness of 'bint'

Last November I read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. It was really good, incredibly readable (I whizzed through it) and engaging and moving. That's the book recommendation; from here on in there's very bad language so stop reading now if you don't like that.

Here's a bit of the text from the book:

As you can see, Boris uses the word bint, which is unfamiliar to the main character Potter. When he asks what it means, Boris (who is Russian and very linguistically adept in various languages including English slang) says 'Same as a cunt, basically'. This book is set in the USA, so maybe things are different there, but the two words definitely do NOT mean the same to me.

Cunt is so rude that I never say it (unless I'm writing a blog post about it...). I never say bint either, but it's extremely familiar to me from growing up in Newcastle, where it's an everyday part of the language. It really isn't taboo; children say it, adults say it around children, it's not frowned upon as a 'bad word'. The only reason I never say it is that it feels very derogatory towards women. It's generally used in a critical way, and often in a phrase like stupid bint. It doesn't feel affectionate to me. It's from Arabic (I only just found this out) - the same word means 'daughter' in Arabic. According to Wiktionary, the Yemeni community in Tyneside meant that it entered the dialect in that area, and it supports my sense that it's pejorative, as does the OED, which notes that it entered English from the language of British servicemen in Egypt in the two world wars.

But it's really, really not as taboo as cunt, I promise. The OED has the difference between the two as being 'colloq.' versus 'coarse slang'. Cunt is often cited as the most offensive swearword in English. This Independent article reports on a study that puts it in the top three. And yet, somehow, I dislike bint more, because it has this added sense that the pejorative sense comes from the femininity of it: it's an insult because it's a word for a woman, rather than because it's used towards one.

I should say that I'm talking about Standard English. It is true that for some people, cunt is an extremely common word, used all the time, and not used offensively. Among friendship groups it may be used as an affectionate or neutral term for other members of the group. And in Glaswegian dialects it's commonly used in an entirely neutral way, classed as a pronoun by my linguist friend Gary Thoms. Here's a video he shared with me, illustrating exactly this (and note that this usage frequently escapes the censors, because of a mix of the non-aggressive use and the accent):