What did she know?

One of the well-known (but slightly lesser-studied) varieties of ellipsis (in English) is called “null complementation.” It’s involved in understanding sentences like these:

  • Do you understand? (what I’ve been saying)
  • I have to refuse. (to do what you asked me to do)
  • Wow, your wristwatch is really similar! (to that other watch we’ve been talking about)

Certain verbs allow this, and others don’t. Famously (is that the right word?), try does but attempt does not: Just try, it won’t hurt! is okay, but *_Just attempt! is out. (Exception: fine print in advertisements that say: do not attempt). Know also allows it. (Yes, yes, I know).

Okay, so here’s the story. I was on the bus the other day and there were two people who seemed to be friends nearby. The driver was turning the corner, but stopped to let people pass. Apparently he was allowing too many people to pass, and one of the friends said, “Come on, go, go!” (softly, as though to the driver but actually for the benefit of her friend; sort of a strange self-directed version of a pseudo-imperative meant for the benefit of a hearer). Then the other friend said,

I know!

The puzzle: what did she know?

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Picking the wrong antecedent

Overheard on the bus today, a conversation between two graduate students, one of whom (A) previously lived in Mexico.

A: a lot of people get in cabs and never get out

B: oh

A: yeah there’s a lot of kidnapping

A: that seems scary

A: yeah, being kidnapped can be scary [or did she say “kidnapping can be scary”]

A: i mean, i (still) did a lot

B: you got kidnapped?!

A: no, I took taxis

I have to admit, this one took me for a loop. I had no idea what A meant when she said, “I still did a lot.” I thought that the only possible thing she could have meant was that she kidnapped people, but that’s ridiculous. I found it interesting that B felt it was possible that A meant she got kidnapped, even though that’s not technically possible given what verb phrase ellipsis is supposed to do. It is, of course somehow the most sensible solution semantically…assuming, of course, that you’ve forgotten about taking taxis, or considered it too far back to be a plausible antecedent. If, on the other hand, you’ve been the topic-setter for the past dozen or more turns (as A was) then it all makes sense.

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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A non-rule I don’t have

The other night someone I was with mentioned a nauseous smell. I thought: huh, interesting! I was of the impression that nauseous was an experiencer-taking predicate (I feel nauseous, nauseous individuals), and that this (and no doubt many other) individuals had done the experiencer/stimulus dance to let that which causes nausea be called nauseous.

I later became rather embarrassed that I hadn’t remembered the old fake usage guideline that, in fact, nauseous is only to be used for the stimulus, and nauseated only for the experiencer. So in effect I not only didn’t have that guideline in my grammar, I felt sure (momentarily) that the standard was the exact opposite!

Now, first off, if you look in any dictionary or usage guide you’ll see that experiencer-nauseous is widely accepted and basically unexceptional. At the same time, nauseated is said to be rather rare (whether the frequencies take into account the sense of nauseous is unclear; the lexeme is overall more frequent on Google, though interestingly not in the BYU TIME corpus).

But further, I asked myself if I even make the distinction between nauseous and nauseated, ever. Certainly I don’t think I use stimulus-nauseous. Do I use nauseated? I have no idea. I don’t think so, but I couldn’t guarantee it. There must be some reason I thought the nauseous smell use was non-standard, and I don’t think it’s because I had done some sort of strange prescriptive rule-reversal.

(Then there’s the unambiguously stimulus-selecting nauseating, and I’m pretty sure I use that.)

So, in conclusion…valence alternations and semantic change: it’s weird! (or am I weird from it?)

(for fun, search Google or whatever for “nauseated smell”)

Zhuzhing up Beijing

About a month ago I wrote about what seems to be the more prevalent pronunciation of Beijing, namely that involving the postalveolar voiced fricative [ʒ]. Recently an AP article was written that aims to clear everything up and explain that, in fact the “hard j” sound in English is a closer approximation to the Mandarin pronunciation than the “soft j” sound that I (and others) find so frustrating. The main source of the article is not native Mandarin speakers, but S. Robert Ramsey (whose book on Chinese I mentioned about three years ago). Bill Poser discusses the article on LL.

So, this is all to the good, no? I suppose…but then again, I find I usually pronounce the name of the city Shanghai so that the first vowel is that of hang or fang, not that of father. This despite knowing full well the Mandarin pronunciation (which, as the official language, I would take to be the expected way for a foreigner to say the word, rather than in Shanghainese). In this case, the low mid-vowel is both the more proper and more foreign sounding option, and yet I do not frequently use it (at least, I don’t think I do, unless speaking with, say, a Chinese-speaker). Is Shanghai really that different from Beijing? And this is to say nothing of Seoul (which I render with a single syllable). Maybe I’m just a super-Anglicizer, and in the case of Beijing it happens to work out.

And for some sane arguments in favor of Beizhing, I recommend this entry in Beijing Sounds.

As you leave, I was wondering

Play-by-play sports commentators are, I believe, sometimes noted for their novel uses of language. Now, the only sports I watch on TV is baseball, but there are some interesting things to say about the langauge of even the most mundane of sportscasters. Take, for instance, predicate inversion, which I have the impression is used more often in play-by-play discourse than elsewhere (don’t know about baseball vs other sports, though).

Coming in safe at second is Giambi

Out at third is Ichiro

In from center field to catch the ball is Davis

One particular construction that I’ve noticed, which I previously thought was impossible, is using temporal as on the speech act level. Like this:

When you’re a catcher it’s important to make sure you’re always on the same page as the rest of the infield, as Ichiro takes Hudson the other way for a base hit.

What the as is doing is not saying that “it’s important to…” and “Ichiro takes Hudson the other way…” are happening at the same time. Rather, the base hit is happening as the commentator is saying “it’s important to…” This happens all the time with other temporal subordinators like before and while:

Before you leave, when are you coming back next?

While you’re here, I was wondering if you could help me out.

What happens “before you leave” is that I’m going to ask you a question (namely, when are you coming back). Similarly for “while you’re here”: it’s (crucially) during the time that you’re here that I’m making (or able to make) a request.

But I always though that as didn’t have this sort of use. It sounded (and still sounds) ridiculous to say, As you get ready to leave, when should I meet you tomorrow?. But I thought about it some more, and maybe as you get ready, I have a question for you isn’t that bad. Then, taking a cue from the sports-as, I put it at the end, sort of as an afterthought: I still have one question for you, (uh), as you get ready to head out. Not bad. But that’s getting uncomfortably close to a strict temporal use: my having a question and you getting ready are taking place at the same time. Saying “I have a question” isn’t the same as “let me ask you a question,” and certainly not the same as “when should we meet up?” So there’s still some strange limitations on as. Except in spontaneous play-by-play talk, where it seems be a sort of way to transition between commentary and reporting the action: you can never plan very far in advance to use as in this way.

(There is of course a “causal” use of as, which allows “speech-act” modification as you’re staying another week, would you like to use our guest bedroom instead of the sofa? But you can do that with because and (causal) since, so it’s not that surprising to me.)

I’m not talking to you right now

I don’t often shop at Sears – in fact, as far as I can remember I’ve walked into one less than five times in my life. But recently I was looking for an item that I thought might be sold at Sears (turned out, it’s not, at least not at the one I went to), and we now live not far from one, so I went over to do some shopping. While up in the tools and hardware section, I heard a really interesting message over the PA system. Paraphrasing:

Attention, Sears sales associates. Make sure your areas are well organized. Walk through the aisles and make sure your inventory is tidy and that everything is visible. Remember, we pride ourselves on good service, and always put the customer first!

I’d never heard anything like this before. For the first half of the announcement, I was thinking, “why am I hearing this?” Then it became clear – this public announcement, on the surface aimed at employees (I have no idea if what was in the message was actually supposed to be immediately relevant to sales associates), was designed to be overheard by customers.

It’s an interesting question how (or if) one can tell that a message that was not explicitly addressed to them is meant to be overheard by them. It seems as though the biggest cues are semantic and pragmatic, but it seems like there could be some more grammatically constructions that do the job. I’m thinking of utterances like Well, I would have gone to the show but someone wanted to stay home and unpack all evening. It seems as though conversation analysts would have covered this topic in their work, but after a quick search the closest thing I could find was the idea that conversations in play-by-play sports commentary are dialogues meant to be heard by a non-participating audience. Then there’s the more recent idea that some instances of self-directed or soliloquial utterances are in fact meant to be overheard by nearby potential addressees. But I don’t know of any real generalizations that have been made about saying things with the intention that someone other than the addressee receives a message.