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.