No shelf life

USA Today has an article on Bill Cosby with the headline [Bill Cosby prides himself on comedy that has no shelf life]( I thought that was an odd thing to have pride in: comedy that’s out of date as soon as it’s out of your mouth. But then the entire piece was about how timeless his comedy is.

Google, please! On the one hand,

> Young Coconuts are perishable and have virtually no shelf life at all. ([link](
> Unlike our regular growler selections, cask ale has no shelf life and is highly perishable. ([link](
> There is basically no shelf life on expensive caviar, two or three days so plan to plan accordingly. ([link](

On the other hand,

> If you want a safer product that will last much longer in the fridge, add a bit of acid blend or citric before its cooked. Pomona is a citrus based product that has no shelf life like regular and no/low sugar types. ([link](
> REAL black powder has no shelf life if stored well. Substitutes like pyro and trip 7 im convinced loose effectiveness if several years old. ([link](
> Flashlight Batteries – 10 years (the flashlight can be recharged forever and has no shelf life) ([link](
> As far as distilled spirits go, like your Bacardi Limon (YUM!), or your whiskey, an unopened bottle has no shelf life. ([link](

Excellent. I think the “lasts forever” meaning is more common, but for whatever reason it’s not what came to my mind first when I saw the headline. I guess it sort of means, “it has nothing which you would call a shelf life, i.e., lasts forever,” as opposed to “it has a shelf-life value value at or near zero.”

I was trying to think of other expressions like this. What first came to mind was what I (once upon a time ) thought “priceless” and “no/little love lost” meant. (apparently originally the latter was in fact ambiguous, but I don’t know if anyone still uses the “they’re still good buds” meaning anymore).


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.

Fun in the san-san-san

On a lark I decided to switch my Facebook interface to use Japanese. I noticed today that on a particular day when I befriended several people

> Russellさんが Aさん、 Bさんさん、 Cさん、 Dさん、 Eさんさんさんと他1人さんと友達になりました。

That’s “Russell-san became friends with A-san, B-san-san, C-san, D-san, E-san-san-san, and one other person-san.”

Aside from the strangeness (to me) of adding the [honorific -_san_]( to the phrase 他1人 ‘one other person’, there is the extreme strangeness of the multiple -_san_s appended to some of the names. I looked at some other people’s front pages, and found the same pattern exhibited two other times, as well as a slightly different pattern: A-san, B-san, C-san-san, D-san, E-san-san, and F-san (no ‘others’ mentioned).

At first I thought it might be that some of the -_san_s got omitted for some names and then stacked up somewhere else, but in no case was someone’s name missing the honorific suffix.

British agree a different valence

This post will no doubt reveal to the world that I am not a frequent reader of British news sources. This morning I added a little BBC news widged to my customized google page, and found the headline [Zimbabwe leaders agree talks pact]( “That’s strange,” thought I. A search for “agree” on the BBC news site revealed several more transitive uses:

> EU agrees radical farm reform
> Bevan agrees a new dea
> Santander agrees £1.2bn A&L deal

Then I decided to actually check a dictionary, and found that the _Dictionary.com_ one (based on _Random House Unabridged_) lists as sense 10:

> **Chiefly British**. to consent to or concur with: **We agree the stipulations**. **I must agree your plans**.

I wonder why Americans decided to do away with this particular valence. Default hypothesis: because it sounds snooty. But I’m willing to entertain other ideas.

A thoroughly-precedented 38 comments

It’s interesting what sort of posts get commented on at LL. One of [the more popular posts of late]( (and one which continues to get comments an amazingly long 2 days after the initial post is the one mentioned [last time](, on what may or may not end up being called “funky _a_” as in, say the title of this post, or earlier in this sentence.

I think the study of the sentences involved illustrates the importance of considering syntactic and semantic features of a construction separately. There are several facts involved, like the strangeness of a plural nominal with a singular determiner, and the fact that adding a non-determinative number expression to nouns then requires the addition of an adjective, and potentially following that a particular determiner. On the meaning side there’s the fact that the adjective seems to modify the amount of the item, not just the amount or just the item on its own. Depending on your view of syntactic and semantic dependences (either syn-syn, sem-sem, or syn-sem relations), each of these facts might lead you to a particular analysis (maybe semantic dependency is always parallel to syntactic dependency, or syntactic selection is always local, etc).

Here’s another addition to the facts. As threatened last time, I did a search of the BNC for “a/an [adjective] [number] [noun]” (with some allowing for non-adjacency, say if the adjective takes local complements or has adverbial modification). Here’s what I found regarding possible adjectives (each list in order of decreasing frequency of participation in the pattern; I stopped looking after the frequency dropped below 7 or so, but scanning the list, it doesn’t look like there are huge categories that I’ve missed):

Mere/Massive-class: mere, good, full, massive, steady, level, small, whole, standard, paltry, meagre, healthy, normal, large, bare, generous, low, scant, nominal

Additional-class: additional, extra, initial, final, closing, further

History/estimation/-ed: estimated, unbeaten, typical, standard, normal, unprecedented, likely, recent, reported, proposed?

Modification of the head: clear, quick, free, bad, difficult, nice, busy, winning, long, hectic, gruelling

Color commentary: staggering, comfortable, astonishing, incredible, modest, remarkable, amazing, superb, fine, typical, respectible, excellent, splendid, disappointing, sensational, magnificent, solid, outstanding, whopping

Total-class?: possible, potential, maximum, minimum, overall, total, net

I’m not wedded (wed?) to the categories, but it seems like each one is slightly different. I’d guess that some might be merged. The “modification of the head” category has basically all units of time or distance as the head noun (a bad few years, a hectic five laps), and as such, I think the adjective is applicable to each unit of time/distance as well as the whole amount: so in a grueling five years, not only are the years grueling as a whole, but also as individual years. This is not the case for the other classes, except maybe the Additional class (in _an additional three points_ each point is also additional)

An adjective quantified-noun

Back on the best holiday of the year, Mark Liberman [wrote]( on LL about some strange claims about the constituency and plurality of _a million dollars_. In a comment, I noted some perhaps genuinely-strange uses of “a,” leading to [this follow-up]( Having had [the fear of Zwicky]( etched into my brain, I thought I would avoid a too-long comment and just talk about it here.

First, the sentences:

> He was there for a good seven years.
> An additional three people are required.
> A mere four nations recognize that standard.
> She collected an amazing and heretofore unprecedented forty million dollars.

What we have is “a” and then some adjective phrase, and then a quantified nominal. There are some interesting questions to be asked: first, what is the range of adjectives? It seems sort of limited: _a grueling 100 miles_, but ?_an asphalt-paved 100 miles_. All the examples given so far involve some sort of “evaluation” (shock, amazement, disappointment, unprecedentedness, etc.). Maybe someone nice will do a corpus study and report the findings (and of no one does it soon, I might just have to).

Next question: does the whole thing act as a singular or plural phrase, for the purposes of subject-verb agreement? The comments seem to show that, depending on the “context” (how the NP is construed semantically, let’s say – either as a divisible group of individuals or as a lump), you might get singular or plural agreement.

> A good 100 people have/*has arrived.
> A mere four nations recognize/*recognizes that standard.
> A mere four nations is/are not enough

Read more »

Itsy Bitsy coordination

Anyone who’s spent any time reading the blog (or the scholarly work) of [Neal Whitman]( knows that English has a whole bunch of messed up coordinate structures. My personal favorite is [friends in low places](, aka Right-node wrapping. But also up there is the combination of quotative inversion and coordination. For instance:

> “No problem,” said the stewardess and promptly dropped a second tray of food onto my foldout table, without taking away the original one. [link](

The interesting thing being that the stewardess, who is the one doing the saying, after the verb due to a particular narrative convention, but nonetheless acts as the subject of the sentence with respect to the coordination: the stewardess is also the one who dropped the second tray of food.

If you’ve been thinking about the title of this post, you’ll probably see what I’m getting at. The same sort of issue arises with so-called locative inversion, as in:

> down came the rain and washed the spider out

> out came the sun and dried up all the rain

I have to admit that I find quotative inversion plus coordination to sound strange, and outside of this particular nursery rhyme, I think I’d find locative inversion equally jarring. But there it is.


Just a few random thoughts as I was reading over something I wrote.

Out of context, something like “he’s a speaker” makes no sense, or at least requires a bunch more imagination to make sense of it. Could be that “speaker” is a title (like, “of the house”), but barring that, it’s really quite different from something like “he’s a swimmer.” Probably because we usually expect people to speak, but not necessarily to swim (but again, that can’t be quite right, because we usually expect people to be able to run, but “she’s a runner” is fine as a way to introduce someone, but “she’s a walker” is not. Maybe because “he’s a swimmer” (and “she’s a runner”) usually means that s/he swims/runs professionally, or at least competitively. Can you say “he’s a speaker” to mean his profession is giving speeches and lectures? Seems odd at best If you add an informative adjective like “traveling” or “political” maybe it improves).

But then consider what happens with certain adjectives:

> She’s a good speaker.

Here, she’s probably an orator or speech-giver. Plausible as part of an introductory description of someone. (“You should meet Sue. She’s a great speaker.” But strange: “…She’s a speaker.”)

> She’s a native speaker.

This is interesting, because this requires a context where the addressee can figure out what language “she” is a native speaker of. In fact, in this usage, _speaker_ has an optional PP-_of_ complement (“she is a native speaker of Japanese”). Not so for “she’s a good speaker”. We don’t say (usually) that someone is “a good speaker of lectures/speeches/addresses/…”.

Next Page »