Archive for the 'Form' Category


Two thousand ten. Why? So that my kids and their friends can make fun of me for using some archaic turn-of-the-century nomenclature while hovercar-ing them to school.

PS, I want someone who is a strong advocate for _twenty-X_ and who is an advocate of syntactic or phonological deletion accounts of right-node raising to say something like _two thousand five to/through 11_.


This past Tuesday it was raining down hard, so most people had their umbrellas out. I witnessed one umbrella that I thought I should mention to some friends. Here’s how it came out:

> There was this woman who was carrying the smallest umbrella I’ve ever seen! They were less than the width of her shoulders!

No idea why I thought that was allowed.

Actions and comments

Facebook statuses take the form of your name (linked to your profile) followed by whatever you type in the box. Many people take advantage of this to make their name the subject of a sentence:

> Russell doesn’t update his blog much.

But this is by no means universal. Many an update on my home page look like

> Russell updating your status is boring

And many other sorts of formats. But what about the comments you can leave in response to others’ status updates? Those too begin with a linked, correctly capitalized name, but I have yet to see (or at least remember) a comment that used that name as the subject of a sentence. They all look like

> Russell that’s great, Bill!

and not

> Russell thinks that’s great!

Russell wonders why.

I thought it might be because the main status field tells you your name will appear in the beginning of your feed, while the comment field doesn’t. But that’s not true. It doesn’t seem like the different prompts (what’s on your mind? vs write a comment) would necessarily do it. Maybe it’s about topicality: the status is about the status-holder/typer, but the comment isn’t necessarily _about_ the commenter.

Or Maybe it’s more historical? Earlier, all status updates started with “[name] is”, but even with the demise of that restriction people still like to exploit the fact that their names appear right before their custom text. I don’t know when comments started being implemented, but perhaps they came in after any facebook-enforced subjecthood requirements, so the custom never caught on.

Or maybe it’s something more genre-like: the status is an broadcast announcement, so it makes sense for it to be a sentence about you, while the comment (while also potentially readable by everyone) is more personal and so a more flexible information structure and syntax is needed?

Whose side are you on

There’s recently been a string of sexual assaults in the area directly to the south of the UC Berkeley campus, known around town as [southside](,_Berkeley,_California). In the student newspaper, the Daily Californian, an [article]( on the topic began:

> Students and police are intensifying their efforts to curb what officials are calling an unusual string of sexual assaults being reported on the Southside of campus.

You know what they say about descriptivists (scratch ’em and you find a prescriptivist), and I have to say I do not like the Southside of campus. With Southside as a single (compound) word, complete with compound stress (on the first element), it functions as a proper name, and does not have the complementation pattern that side, the head of the compound, originally had. Maybe reasonable people could disagree with me on this.

At the same time, I noticed that the proper preposition of southside (and northside) is on. One lives and eats on southside, not in or at southside. Why should that be? Other districts of Berkeley properly take an in: Elmwood, Claremont, etc. Well, maybe it’s the fact that side collocates with on. A little cute, perhaps, but I don’t really have a better story.

My plan is to present the original sentence to a bunch of undergrads tomorrow to see if they have the same reaction I have. If it ends up interesting, there’ll be a report of it.

Younger than your parents

This week’s issue of the Journal of Neuroscience contains a really cool article titled “Transgenerational Rescue of a Genetic Defect in Long-Term Potentiation and Memory Formation by Juvenile Enrichment.” Clear enough? From the abstract:

> Here, we demonstrate that exposure of 15-d-old mice to 2 weeks of an enriched environment (EE), that includes exposure to novel objects, elevated social interactions and voluntary exercise, enhances long-term potentiation (LTP) not only in these enriched mice but also in their future offspring through early adolescence, even if the offspring never experience EE.

The effect lasts about three months in the mice exposed to the EE, but wanes much earlier in their offspring (and is not found in the next generation). At one point the authors note that

> [T]he phenotype ends at an younger age in the offspring of enriched mice than in their parents

Then comes the fun part. A few sentences later, they say this:

> Defining why the effect ends when the offspring are younger than their parents will require further experimentation

Totally sweet example of the omission of everything in the comparative clause except for the contrastive bit. Actually, it took me a couple reads to make sure of what they were saying, despite the same information having been just presented.

Processing the sentence was made more difficult (in my case) by the fact that the first time through I read “younger” as “older,” yielding a truly incomprehensible proposition (which, it should be noted, is still as grammatical as the actual sentence, just with a different meaning).

So…ever wonder if you’ve done something when you were younger than your parents? Or older than them?

I felt pain but not dizzy

Yesterday I was at a climbing gym working out on a treadmill (climbing isn’t my thing, generally), and noticed something interesting about the medical warning printed on it. It read (roughly):

> If you feel pain, faint, or dizzy, stop exercising immediately.

Though I’d read that warning dozens of times on many occasions, this time it garden-pathed me. The structure is [if you [feel N, A, or A]], which involves coordination of a noun with two adjectives (or their phrasal projections). But thanks to the lexical ambiguity of _faint_, I parsed it as [if you [feel pain], [faint], or], at which point I was expecting another (finite) verb phrase, but instead got _dizzy_ instead.

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Order strikes again

So, you know the old (?) ABC (?) Saturday morning cartoon jingle: “After these messages, we’ll be right back.” Well, back when I was in first grade or whenever it was that I remember them from, I thought, “Why do they have it in the wrong order?! Shouldn’t it be ‘We’ll be right back after these messages’?”

In my more advanced age, I had a rather different reaction to the Target Christmas commercial with a bunch of elementary school students reciting, “There’s no place like Target / at Christmas to save.” Since it’s in verse, the order isn’t so exceptional. What’s interesting is trying to figure out the semantic parse — and if any of the various parses actually means anything different from any of the others. What’s clear, I think, is that _to save_ is an infinitival relative modifying _place_. What’s up for grabs, I suppose, is whether _at Christmas_ hooks up with _save_ or with _be_, and if _like Target_ modifies _place_, _place to save_, or _place to save at Christmas_. I think basically all of these mean about or exactly the same thing.

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Needing and getting things out

First, yes, I still exist. Moving on…

I was on an airplane the other day, and as one person was about to stow a bag in the overhead compartment his cotraveler gave him a glance, to which he responded, “do you need something out of this bag?”

The sequence “need+NP+PP” potentially has two parses. The first is so-called raising to object: _I need you far away from me_, _I need another flower pot in my garden_. In this case what you need is for some state of affairs to hold: “you are far away from me,” “another flower pot is in my garden.” The other parse involves simply an NP complement, with that NP containing the PP: _I need the book on that bookshelf_, _Do you need the cup in my hand?_ These are paraphrasable with relative clauses; the book that’s on the shelf, the cup that’s in my hand.

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