Thursday, October 19, 2006

A knowingly treacherous salad dressing

Those automatic-language generators for sliding spam past filters sure make some poetic stuff sometimes. This one has the word 'linguistic' in it.
When you see the sheriff, it means that an abstraction
of a cowboy leaves. If the customer beyond a chess
board sells some minivan about the traffic light to
some greasy blood clot, then a knowingly treacherous
salad dressing panics. Now and then, the CEO from a
support group sells the lover to a wrinkled bartender.
When a short order cook about a nation is nuclear, the
short order cook around the oil filter brainwashes a
skyscraper beyond the cowboy. Sometimes the grain of
sand reads a magazine, but the linguistic garbage can
always falls in love with some turkey toward a line
I haven't gone to look for a spam-lit collection but I'm sure they must exist. Maybe I could start one, call it "The linguistic garbage can." Colorless green ideas, indeed!

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Paradigm gaps

Here's another linguistically oriented cartoon, this time confronting the serious problem of paradigm gaps and the complicated mental operations that go into deciding if something 'sounds right' or not. A famous case in English is a coordinated possessive NP: if John and I write a paper together, is it my and John's paper? John's and my paper? Mine and John's paper? Me and John's paper? Paradigm gaps are rather odd, in that they represent indeterminacy in a corner of the grammar where indeterminacy is not the norm. Speakers choose different variants on different occasions, usually find that none are particularly satisfactory, and will sometimes deliberately rephrase to avoid using the construction at all, as the Soup 2 Nutz kid is doing below:

On a similar but syntactic, rather than morphological, note, while car camping this weekend a friend noticed the following instruction on the 'warning' tag of a fold-out camp chair:

(1) Do not sit on the arm of this chair to avoid danger.

We all agreed that if a mountain lion should jump out of the bushes, it would be dramatically ineffective to try to avoid it by sitting on the arm of the chair. Of course, what the label intended is this:

(2) To avoid danger, do not sit on the arm of this chair.

What's interesting is how the right-adjoined position for the purpose clause 'to avoid danger' in (1) does not allow matrix scope -- that is, it can't be construed with the imperative 'Do not!" part, as intended, but has to be construed with the main verb ('sit"). The thing is, right-adjoined material normally can allow multiple scopes if there's multiple modifiable constituents, e.g.

(3) I told her to go to the party to annoy Bill.

...where 'to annoy Bill' can be construed with 'go to the party' (embedded scope) or 'told' (matrix scope); in the first case, the speaker is personally trying to annoy Bill (by doing the telling to go to the party); in the latter, the object of 'tell' ('her') is the one presumptively doing the annoying (by going to the party). That is, the rightmost position for the purpose-clause allows both scopes. Compare that to (4):

(4) To annoy Bill, I told her to go to the party.

Here, only matrix scope is available. So normally, rightwards attachment allows multiple scopes, leftwards only matrix scope.

But with the imperative in (1), rightwards attachment doesn't allow the highest (imperative) scope, only the lower (verb-oriented) scope. It's a kind of a paradigm gap.

P.S. The camp chair purpose-clause, we all agreed, was likely the result of a bad translation. But I'm curious about the source language and its behavior with purpose clauses. If it's a head-final language, like Japanese or Korean, it could just be that the translator didn't know how to properly adjust the word order to get the English scope s/he wanted. On the other hand, if it's a head-initital language like Mandarin or Cantonese, perhaps that language has interestingly different purpose-clause properties than English, and the clause-placement here reflects an L1 effect. Going to check the 'Made In:' tag now...yep! Made in China. So maybe there's something about Chinese purpose clauses, or Chinese imperatives, that means the matrix scope is available in the equivalent Chinese sentence. Free paper topic! :)