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?