Southside experiences

As promised, I asked two sections’ worth of undergraduate students (about 40) about “the Southside of campus.” What I decided to do was present the sentence to them in its original context — that is, I gave them a copy of the article. I asked them to read the first couple sentences and report anything they found grammatically unusual or even straight-up wrong. Now, it is a newspaper article so there are already all sorts of things you don’t see in other written genres. But in any case, there were a few people who had identified the Southside bit as a little strange, though not necessarily why.

Then, I wrote the phrase up on the chalkboard and immediately many more people saw the strangeness that I had. And when we got into a discussion of the phonology and syntax of compounds, I think everyone became convinced that there was some shoddy writing or editing going on.

I would say that there are many many syntactic or semantic phenomena that are of this nature: presented in isolation, what is interesting about them is immediately apparent, but presented in a natural context, even with instructions to seek out anomalies, they may as well be invisible. I guess part of the job of (a certain stripe) of syntactician is to be hypersensitive about such things; and part of the job of an instructor of syntax is to teach by example.

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. 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.

A mother again

Okay, I just noticed this. Think about who is a “first-time homebuyer.” And a first-time caller, backpacker, attendee, etc. Okay, now imagine being a second-time homebuyer, caller, customer, etc.

Great. Now think about first-time mothers. See?