Archive for the 'Constructing' Category

The game-game post

There’s a show called Cash Cab. Comedian Ben Bailey drives a cab in New York and offers to give people a free ride for as long as they can answer trivia questions without getting three wrong – and they get cash for each correct answer as well.

One question that came up today had to do with games. I have to admit that I don’t really remember the question, except that it was something like, “Inspired by light guns … [blah blah blah] … this game is known as WHAT?” The two guys in the cab seemed stumped, thought about it for a while, and just before time ran out, answered, “Space Invaders!” Way wrong. Bailey responded, “Sorry! It’s laser tag.” One of the contestants (who seemed to be in his late 20s) then said, “Oh, an actual game.”

Nice. We can see something interesting about prototypical games for these two guys and in particular the one quoted above. And not just prototypical games, but “games” as mentioned in different contexts. Now, I’m not sure what sort of context a quiz question is, but it’s probably close to neutral (the ever-elusive message-in-a-bottle-received-while-on-a-deserted-island that (many) semanticists and (some) pragmaticists wish they could get a handle on). Whatever context it was, it led them to interpret “game” as “video game” (could have had something to do with the actual content of the question…I really should have been, uh, paying more attention? Instead of doing coursework?) while the question was asked. But then when the answer was revealed, somehow a game like laser tag is more like an actual game: a game game, if you will. Now, laser tag is pretty video-game like in concept – but you just run around and such. Seems to suggest that an “actual” game is one that involves physical activity. Makes you wonder if, say, Battleship would have been an “actual” game. It involves interaction with things that are not displayed on a monitor, so much closer to physical activity than space invaders.

[The title should have reminded you of a certain paper by Jila Ghomeshi, Ray Jackendoff, Nicole Rosen, and Kevin Russell on how to find good salad recipes.]

More to say than meets the eye

(Yes, that was a reference to a recently-released movie that I happened to have seen recently)

This post is part of a probably vain attempt to increase my wakefulness so I can continue to do coursework. I’ve mentioned [before]( strangenesses related to the word _say_. I noticed another earlier today (or perhaps it was yesterday). Consider these:

> I practice acceptance, which is to say: I occasionally acknowledge the obvious. [SF Chron](
> MS. PERINO: What I can tell you is how the President reacted today, which is to say that he does feel terrible for them, he thinks they’re going through a lot right now, they’ve been through a lot. [Press Gaggle](
> There’s a very widely-believed explanation going around that what Hamlet meant by “nunnery” was a “house of ill repute,” which is to say, a brothel. [That’s All I’ve Got to Say](

Random House/ has an entry for this particular turn of phrase:

> **that is to say**, that is what is meant; in other words: _I believe his account of the story, that is to say, I have no reason to doubt it_.

This is apparently a rather old construction, with an OED attestation in **c**1175, and with nearly the same sort of meaning throughout. In informal search of *which is to say* shows that the relative clause version has been around at least since the 1600s. Also dating from Early Middle English is the shortened version, *that is*.

> Efter schrifte, hit falleth to speken of Penitence, thet is, dedbote

It’s not until much later (the OED gives 1865, so probably a bit earlier) that *that is* allows itself to be tagged onto the end of the material it goes with (the material it’s glommed onto, *that is*).

When weekdays turn to weekends

I’m sure you’ve said it before, and probably perfectly reasonably so. Given the nearness of Memorial Day, perhaps you’ve even said it recently. You know the difference between single days and multiple, consecutive days. But somehow, English lets us do things like it. It happens to all well-meaning people.

Next Friday is a holiday weekend in the US of A (link)

First Friday of every month unless that Friday is a holiday weekend, then it is on 2nd Friday It is held at the church. (link)

Friday is a pay weekend, and I have this feeling in my bones that it is going to be a wild one. (link)

Moreover, Monday is a three-day weekend in the United States, and large price movements in the stock typically come immediately before or after such holidays. (link

[afterthought: After some further consideration, there is also: page 290 is a new chapter. Maybe others?]

It’s your own worst enemy

Over at Heideas, Heidi was discussing a certain interesting predicate in English, be friends with, which looks morphologically plural, but which can appear with a singular subject. More accurately, it can take one side of a symmetric relation as its external argumeny. (For symmetric situations, you can express the sides separately (I am his friend, I met him in the park), or as a collective unit (We are friends, We met in the park)).

In the comments section, Mark Liberman notes that

The process seems to be one that generalizes to other plural predicate nominals: “is colleagues with”, “is lovers with”, “is co-workers with”, etc.

These seem wierd to me in a way that “is friends with” doesn’t, but they’re out there.

Regarding the first point, this is a bit of an overgeneralization. Generally the X be NP[pl] with Y construction requires the relation to be one that is social and not on a temporary basis, or not contingent upon factors external to the participants. Well, I’m not sure if that’s exactly the right generalization, but it’s meant to account for the fact that you can be friends, colleagues, partners, buds, pals, co-stars and even enemies or rivals with someone else. But you can’t be competitors or contestants with someone.

Then again, you can also be brothers, sisters, and cousins with someone, and this isn’t exactly a social relation, but it’s about as symmetric as you can get, and permanent as well. But it’s pretty clear that be friends with is the central example of this particular construction. It’s attested well back in the language, and dictionaries have an entry for it, though sometimes it is for the collocation make friends with.

What clothes smell like

After you use the right detergent, they should smell like new.

Short quiz

The following words form a sort of class in English. Why?

new, normal, regular, mad, crazy

(There are actually two separate subclasses, but at the right level of granularity, you can call it a single class. Also, this may not be a completely exhaustive list, though it is as far as the BNC is concerned.)

(Hint: I started looking for this class of words while doing the laundry.)


In a couple of previous posts I explored a bit of the meaning of the sequence no yeah (and yeah no) as (roughly) a part-denial/part-affirmation technique. Though I haven’t thought about it in super-great detail since those posts, I did realize something rather obvious this morning. Namely, there is some severe lexical restriction going on. For the yeah-no version, it basically really is the lexical items yeah and no that go into this phrase. The yeah part can sometimes be replaced with words into the same family: yup and uh-huh also are sorta okay. Yes, though, is pretty bad. Similarly, for no-yeah, you can also replace the no with some other words. But in general, the first word can be fiddled with, but the second one is more fixed. So it can’t simply be that a combination of affirmation and denial get you the semantics and pragmatics of yeah-no and no-yeah: you need, it seems, to take into account the meanings of those particular lexical items.

And then this brings up the potentially thorny issue of “pragmatic compositionality.” That is, though there are constructions that specify idiosyncratic (truth-conditional) semantics to certain combinations of words or phrases; but are there any that assign unpredictable pragmatics to a combination of already pragmatically-rich lexical items? Actually, I can probably already answer that question in the positive, since Japanese yo-ne has a usage that is really hard to get just by combining yo and ne. (Yes, I know, many have tried, and I reviewed some of that literature for my honors thesis a few years ago; let’s just say that any claim that yo-ne is compositional must first have a full account of the two words individually, which I guarantee doesn’t exist.)

[And, after some consultations with colleagues, another possibility is the may…but construction. It contains a may which expresses concession, even though usually it has either has permission-giving (deontic) or possibility-asserting (epistemic) meaning. Granted, in this construction its use is epistemic in a certain way, but surely in a slightly different way than normal. However, the meaning of but remains what it usually is, so far as I can tell.]

Pseudonyms and parentheses

I know people talk about how text-based communication over the internet is hampered by a lack of cues common in spoken discourse, like intonation, stress, visual gestures, and so forth. People try to find ways to get around this, including use of emoticons, typeface alterations, explicit marking of actions (*used to use this quite a lot on IM and IRC* *isn’t sure if it’s still common* *is also unsure of its discourse function, but its syntax sure is interesting*), and so forth.

But sometimes text provides you with the ability to communicate information in a way that is technically possible with speech, but in reality is unrealistic. (Or, at least, might seem unrealistic to someone like myself). Take parentheses (please!): you can express all variety of auxiliary information in a syntactically reasonable way with them, and the rules of their interpretation lets you completely separate their meaning off from the rest of the sentence. To do the same thing in speech would, in some cases, require some very detailed intonational and gestural fancywork.

One concrete example came to me after I started to look at some linguistic phenomena surrounding the use/mention distinction. I think looking at these sentences should clear things up:

Bertha (a pseudonym) lives in La Paz, Bolivia, and her medical history Bertha provides insight into the effects of chagas.

Helen Reed (a pseudonym) lives in Oakland, CA, with her partner and daughter.

James Dean (a pseudonym) works at Denny’s and needs Medicaid to pay for the support programs and medical insurance he needs to live and work


Joe, a pseudonym, lives in Oakland, California.

Here the matrix subject refers to some individual, but the apposition construction tells us that a pseudonym probably attaches to something denoting a name. So there is a sort of type clash going on here. Nonetheless, these are perfectly interpretable — and, in fact, when seen in text are (IMO) much more comprehensible than they would be if spoken. The parentheses do a world of good here, and google tells me that most people are smart enough to use them, though the occasional comma gets through. If spoken, I expect it would require some rather salient intonational marking (the typical “comma” intonation), along with perhaps a gesture that marks the same sort of meaning (hand out, palm down, a slight frown, all indicating “some non-central/parenthetical stuff currently happening”). Maybe some mavericks out there will start to implement “air parens.”

Now, if you thought the apposition construction could lead to some odd stuff, check out these:

Julian Swan is a pseudonym who lives in Los Angeles.

Winston Wolfe is a pseudonym who contributes to h2g2, Wikipedia and the local print media.

T.C. Adler is a pseudonym who, according to the book jacket, is “very experienced in both the worlds of art and the Church.”

Mag Cabot is a pen name who’s [sic] real name is Jenny Carroll.

Absolutely beautiful.

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