Monthly Archives: August 2011

Megan & Mike Fox Drink Beer & Talk about Linguistics. Do You Too?

I’m in the process of moving from Minnesota to Wisconsin & I’m just beginning a new full-time job so I won’t be having a lot of time to keep up with blog entries I’m afraid. Fortunately, I look forward to getting involved in various academic pursuits because I’m sure they’ll inspire great future entries. Additionally, I’m really kicking things into gear WRT applying to graduate programs. This all wouldn’t normally be too much for me to handle, but I still do get very worn out thanks to my still-healing body. I’m a bit worried that beginning a 40-hr/wk work schedule will exhaust me & put me in a lot of pain. Can you believe I’m not allowed to take aspirin for another 3 months? Anyway, enough about my personal life. Here’s an entry I wrote on ellipsis & coherence. — MLR

First, consider the following two examples:


a. Sandy walks and she chews gum.

b. Jerry does too, but not at the same time.


a. Sandy walks and Bill chews gum.

b. *Jerry does too, but not at the same time.

The site of VP ellipsis is marked by the stranded auxiliary does in both (1b) and (2b). In (1a), Sandy and she are most easily interpreted as being coindexed – the reason for this will be explained later – and the implied meaning of (1b) is that Jerry walks and chews gum, but he does not do both at the same time. The meaning of (2a) is straightforward, but (2b) is less easily interpretable; it is not clear whether Jerry walks and chews gum, or does only one or the other. Only but not at the same time necessitates that he do both, but this interpretation is not resolvable from the VP ellipsis site alone. For both (1) and (2), the VP ellipsis is resolved either at the syntactic or the semantic level of representation by borrowing something from its antecedent VP, but I will argue that a semantic approach better explains the VP ellipses.

A syntactic approach seems improbable for several reasons. A resolution of the VP ellipsis in (1b) at the syntactic level requires that an appropriate constituent be copied from (1a); however, walks and she chews gum is not a constituent structure and is therefore not replaceable by the auxiliary verb do. Similarly, walks and Bill chews gum of (2a) is not a syntactic constituent and cannot be pasted into the VP ellipsis of (2b).

A semantic explanation of the VP ellipsis in (1) and (2) seems to work much better. Returning to the assumption that Sandy and she are coindexed in (1a), it is easy to copy the semantic meaning from (1a) to (1b) to get a felicitous meaning. However, if Sandy and she do not refer to the same entity in the case of a sloppy interpretation, a problem arises, and (1b) is no longer felicitous; in fact, under these circumstances, (1) will resemble (2). For example, see (3):


a. Sandy walks and hei chews gum.

b. *Jerryj does too, but not at the same time.

It seems then that the infelicitous nature of (2b) stems from the ambiguity of having two entities in the antecedent phrase. That is to say, the VP ellipsis in (2b) and (3b) is irresolvable semantically because its antecedent causes ambiguity in attempting to establish the correct anaphoric reference. It is not clear what Jerry does too.

Both (1) and (2) involve resemble relations with parallel structures, which Kehler argues should implicate a syntactic parallelism at the VP ellipsis site. However, as we have seen, sentence (1b) is perfectly felicitous without having a syntactically parallels structure and the VP ellipsis is instead better understood semantically. Additionally, Frazier and Clifton argue that parallel clauses with contrastive objects as seen in (2b) do not “[capture] the effects of parallelism” (pg.337). To further illustrate this point, compare the following contrastive and non-contrastive parallel structures:


a. Sandy walks and she chews gum. (non-contrastive)

b. Sandy walks and Bill chews gum. (contrastive)

c. Sandy walks and chews gum (non-contrastive)

An interesting difference between the contrastive and non-contrastive sentences is that (4a) can be collapsed into (4c), whereas (4b) cannot be collapsed in the same way. This could be a potential explanation for why sentences like (2b) are infelicitous – they represent a semantic collapsing of a contrastive structure that is in its nature not collapsible into a single VP ellipsis. Therefore, Frazier and Clifton seem to have established a framework better suited to understanding VP ellipsis in examples like the ones examined here.

Megan L. Risdal



Filed under Linguistics

Whimperatives: The Wimpy Imperative (Indirection in Speech Act Theory)

Would you be so kind as to read this delightful entry on the subject of whimperatives written by XX? — MLR

In English it seems to me that we all have a certain subconscious understanding of what a polite request is versus an impolite one. For some reason we think [a] is more polite (and therefore might be more effective, depending on the context and people involved) than [b].

[a] Could you wash the dishes?

[b] Wash the dishes.

Of course any judgments one might make about the politeness, effectiveness, and/or passive-aggressiveness of any given utterance is going to be totally subject to context. Imagine, for example, [c] coming from a shy roommate who doesn’t want to seem too… demanding or imposing.

[c] Those dishes in the sink have been… uhm… sitting there for a while…. Yeahhh.

The idea of using non-imperative constructions to express imperatival statements was discussed by Sadock (1974). He called these whimperatives, specific kinds of indirect speech acts which are attempts to get the hearer to perform a specified action in the world. Sadock argues that there exists an inherent illocutionary ambiguity, in that the hearer may be able to see two interpretations of the utterance – one as an imperatival request, and one as either a question that seeks for information or as a simple declarative statement. The “Could you [VP]…?”, “You’d better [VP]…” and/or “Is it possible for you to [VP]…?” are all examples he argues are indeed ambiguous in application. Remember that annoying teacher in elementary school that tried so hard to teach us the difference between can and may?

–          Can I go to the bathroom?

–          I don’t know, can you?

In this example the annoying elementary school teacher is taking advantage of the fact that there exists a second possible interpretation of the question. This might be proof, then, that the whimperative in this scenario is ambiguous. However, according to the context of said scenario, we already do have the understanding that the child is asking for permission to go to the bathroom (the indirection version of the imperative ‘Give me permission to go to the bathroom’) and so I am not totally convinced that this type of whimperative can be ambiguous. On the other hand, think about the statement in [d]:

[d] It’s freezing in here.

Out of any kind of context, we might not even interpret this to be imperatival. Does the speaker just wish to express information about the temperature of the room? Or does the speaker wish you to close the window? Examples like these show us how incredibly important context is to interpreting whimperatives (among other things in language as well).

Holmberg (1979), however, argues against this inherent ambiguity, and it’s pretty obvious that I’m taking his side. His argument revolves around the idea that whimperatives can sometimes be ambiguous, but sometimes not, depending on which ‘category’ they fall under.

Category A: “It’s freezing in here.” / “Those dishes are dirty.”

Category B: “Could you close the window?” / “Could you wash the dishes?”

Category A includes a sentence like [d], in which interpretation requires a certain amount of contextual background about the situation at hand. In other words, we need to know some additional information in order to make sense of the illocutionary force (if there is any). Category B includes sentences like [a], in which we can understand the imperatival intent of the utterance without additional pragmatic information.

This is a fancy way of explaining, in essence, why that one elementary school teacher made us all so frustrated. If the illocutionary intent of the utterance is clear, it breaks down the direction of the discourse to purposely ignore what is obvious to both the speakers involved. Imagine we are sitting down to dinner and I ask “Is there any salt?” I severely doubt you are going to answer that with a simple yes if there is salt on the table. The answer is understood to be the action of passing the salt to me.

Looking at indirection in speech act theory has been an interest of mine for the past few months, and continues to be a strong focus for research in the future. So far, it seems to me that the more I look into the complexities of pragmatics, the more gray area I start to uncover. Overall, while it is difficult to find a scientific way to talk about something that is not very scientific at all, I can’t help but get excited to be able to look into this mysterious type of indirection in speech acts. Especially when we start to wonder things like what makes something more or less polite, more or less effective, and maybe even more or less manipulative – we can see how subtle and complex language in context can be. This is more so a blessing than a curse for an aspiring linguist.  :]


Leave a comment

Filed under Linguistics

Words — How do They Work?

After being a human & watching humans for over twenty-three years & also studying them during my time at college, I’ve come to realize that humans love to split hairs over trivial matters. Even though it may not say so on all of our Facebook profiles, it’s definitely one of our most favorite pastimes. And it’s not just an idle craft, the equivalent to crocheting while watching soaps; it’s serious business. I’d even venture to say that it approaches obsessive preoccupation for many people – at least for the vocal ones with Internet access.

With that established, one thing many people (especially ones with Internet ones & blogs like mine) fight about & lose sleep over is language. Our alien observers must know that it’s a big deal to us, language. There are people who really, I mean really, care about grammar & usage & are mortally offended when someone dares to type your when they really mean to say you’re. Oh, & you better be using Oxford commas, you imbecile! And there are those who don’t shut up about the mutable, ever-shifting linguistic sands, & language is in the mouth of its beholders, etc.

There is a never-ending laundry list of language-use issues that people bring up repeatedly with seemingly ever-increasing fervor as people embrace the Internet as the place to go to vent their thoughts (guilty). If you misuse their, there, & they’re you couldn’t be stupider. You must be uneducated if you pronounce so & so a word differently from me. Or is it I? Crap. Send me back to university if I can’t recite Strunk & White verbatim! The worst part is that these arguments are often hateful.

So we have Grammar Nazis & … uhh, enlightened language-hippies? Prescriptivists & descriptivists. Those who seek to draft maps of how language should (logically) work & those who are content to navigate its tangled, uncharted rivers. Okay, maybe my biased language is beginning to show & you’ve figured out that I place myself comfortably within the second camp – the descriptivists, the linguistically enlightened.

Here’s the part where I get really biased & push my side.

I would love to hear less noise about how we should be saying “I’m well” in place of “I’m good.” Largely because those people are, well, more wrong than not. But also because it’s OUR language, not the language of some grammar collecting dust in your university’s library. There are so many people who just have the wrong idea about things. Most dictionary-makers aren’t prescriptivists, yet their words are taken to be the law of the linguistic land by some. It’s as if it’s been forgotten or ignored that the words in the dictionary came from our mouths first & it was those oral actions that gave birth to their more-or-less agreed upon definitions.

There’s way too much hateful attention being paid to language as written, I believe, when it comes to how we speak on the Internet (i.e., informal language). Is it truly that offensive if a person fails to apostrophize contraction it’s, effectively rendering it a possessive its? The horror. I’m almost, almost positive you wouldn’t notice their flub had they been speaking, not writing. And chances are, they can handle it in formal writing. If not, then it’s likely a failure of our education system to teach (note the emphasis on teach) prescriptive rules which oftentimes run contrary to our intuitions about language. In any case, there’s no need for name-calling.

We need more noise from people embracing language’s natural tendencies, OUR natural tendencies – especially from non-linguists. Get the word out! It’s great to me that so many people are indeed enthusiastic about language & how we use it, but not that it means in many cases that such passion is manifested as disgust for fellow humans. We’re all culpable of committing grammatical crimes. And I’ve seen how people hate to be labeled as hypocrites.

At the same time, as someone who has studied evolutionary psychology, I am driven to understand where this behavior comes from. This is just my guess, but I’d venture to say that dialect differences in particular could mark in- versus out-group membership. You don’t speak like me? You can’t be my friend. Furthermore, it’s not impossible that individual differences in language use could serve as markers for intelligence. There’s a reason why you’re asked to know loads of esoteric vocabulary for the GRE.

I don’t want to venture too far down this path because I recognize that evolutionary psychology can be at times a controversial field of study, but I did also want to get those thoughts, however brief, out there for you to mull over. I do invite those who have studied in-/out-group behavior & the relationship between intelligence & linguistic prowess to speak their minds. Though I have a B.A. in psychology & am indeed very interested in human behavior, I consider myself a linguist first & foremost.

As you can tell, this issue of linguistic receptivity is dear to my heart. I don’t just think it’s an interesting measure of individual differences to study – I think it has real-world applicability & must be studied if we are to shed our ignorance about language & encourage diversity & understanding. So everyone go out & learn about language!

Megan L. Risdal

NOTE: For you nerds, this is where the title of this post comes from. I eliminated the obscenity to be nice.


Filed under Linguistics

Is the Internet Thinking What I’m Thinking?

Are you there, Internet? It’s me, Megan.

Like a lot of people right now I’m reading articles about Steve Jobs’ resignation from his CEO position at Apple. And you know, if I didn’t know better, I’d think he had died. Every article I’ve taken glanced at reads like an obituary. Anyway, being that I’m a nerd, I decided to see if the Internet had similar sentiments. So what did I do? I searched “obituaries” & “obituary” on Twitter & here are some of the results:

“All these Steve Jobs Resigns news stories look like obituaries. Guys, both Jobs and Apple are still alive.”

“All the Job retrospectives going out tonite are written like obituaries. He’s still alive & bet he’ll keep kicking.”

“Guys, Jobs is alive and still at Apple. It is not time to write obituaries, and some of tweets look like that.”

And this one written by @justwright is my favorite because it coins a fantastic portmanteau:

“Jobituary (noun) an obituary-like article, published upon resignation, in which your job and life are equivalent.”

I hope it’s okay that I only credited the Tweet actually worth crediting because I don’t really know etiquette for Tweet-attribution on blogs by amateur linguists. But first of all, I think it’s great that I can see who’s thinking what I’m thinking by using Twitter. I can’t quite describe why it gives me such delight, but it does. Second, I really hope that Steve Jobs doesn’t die soon (an unfortunate, but not impossible event) because, well… would Reuters just re-publish this same article with only minor adjustments? I’m not sure how tasteful that would be. I even wonder if news sources drew upon their prefabricated obituary in reporting his resignation?

In short, I think that these articles that were written to sound like obituaries (detailing his battle with cancer, his medical leaves, trumpeting his achievements, etc.) are bad news. I have no familiarity with journalistic writing, so I couldn’t really begin to tell you how they could have been written to make him seem less moribund if not already dead. But someone better figure out something with a little more tact to prepare for the event that he actually does pass away while his resignation & the reports of it are still alive in our minds.

However, not every report has been so bleak. In fact, here’s an essay that cheerfully reminds you that it’s NOT an obituary.

Anyway, this is only tangentially related to language, so I’ll quit while I’m ahead! I do hope that Steve Jobs doesn’t read too many of his jobituaries — they would certainly depress me!

Megan L. Risdal

Leave a comment

Filed under Linguistics

Putting I’ma on the Map

I found this nifty application SeeTweet while surfing Motivated Grammar. It plots the most recent Tweets containing a given search term on a Google Map. Here’s MG’s post introducing the application in case you are interested in learning more about it (I’m digging it so far!). It could be a very useful exploratory tool for looking at words/phrases/syntax, etc. specific to geographically definable dialects. I’m sure some of you have heard of how Google has used search data to predict flu outbreaks. Well, you could also potentially use SeeTweet to witness event-specific verbal activity spread from an epicenter to the rest of the country. In short, this is a pretty neat tool.

Me? Well, I’m interested in looking at where I’ma, alternatively spelled Imma, is Tweeted. For an independent study project last semester I made an attempt to determine who it is using this nonstandard form meaning I am going to, but I had little success in doing so. I had a hunch that it may have a stronger presence in the South, or maybe that it has existed there longer, but I wasn’t sure. So below you’ll find maps of the geographic Tweet distribution in the United States. Each map shows the locations of the 200 most recent Tweets. In addition to maps for I’ma & Imma, I am also including ones for gonna & going to as the standard alternatives to I’ma/Imma. I wouldn’t expect gonna or going to to be distributed any differently from each other, but it would be interesting if their maps differed from I’ma/Imma. Finally, as a further “control,” I’m adding a map for the.

Before we begin, I have included below a map created by Eric Fischer showing the distribution of Flickr & Twitter users in the United States in order to get an idea of where all possible Tweets could be coming from. There will inevitably be fewer Tweets in general coming from low-density areas on the map where fewer Twitter users (& people) live. When interpreting the results of a SeeTweet search, keep in mind that it doesn’t necessarily mean that a particular phrase isn’t used with frequency these regions when you’re seeing no Tweets in those areas. In red are Flickr users & in blue are Twitter users.

Below is a map of the 200 most recent Tweets containing I’ma.

Because I’ma is alternatively spelled Imma, I’m also including the 200 most recent Tweets of Imma. I find it interesting that the maps for I’ma & Imma seem to differ. I can’t say that I have any explanation to offer for you, here. Imma does seem to be much more heavily concentrated in the Michigan, Ohio, Indiana region. Notice that there are no hits for either I’ma or Imma from Minneapolis or Eau Claire, Wisconsin because I hadn’t Tweeted recently enough (I kid, I kid).

Here’s the map of the 200 most recent Tweets containing gonna.

And a map of the 200 most recent Tweets containing going to. To me the maps for gonna & going to seem to be approximately the same. Anyone notice a remarkable difference? I can’t think of a reason why they would differ.

As a sort of control (in addition to the Twitter density map above), here are 200 most recent Tweets containing the. Again this looks to approximate the distributions you can see in the gonna & going to maps. Everyone uses these words/phrases.

Because this tool is to me quite exploratory, I’m hesitant to draw any sweeping conclusions about the geographic distribution of I’ma/Imma users. It’s hard to tell if this nonstandard form is truly more localized to the South as compared to gonna & going to. If you’re going to twist my arm & make me say something, I’d argue that I’ma/Imma are more concentrated in the so-called Deep South; there are fewer Tweets containing the nonstandard form (in both of its orthographies) in the Southwest as compared to the gonna/going to controls. Are there any patterns you’re seeing that I’m not?

What’s really great about this is that it examines production (well, written production). I became slightly frustrated with my study last spring because while I was looking at grammaticality judgments of this nonstandard form, I didn’t really know to what extent my participants were actually users of I’ma. This application has allowed me to take a peek at where I’ma users are Tweeting from which is fantastic. I do think it would have been even cooler if the Tweets had timestamps; then you could get an idea of a word or phrase’s usage frequency, too.

Megan L. Risdal

Note: All SeeTweet searches were made on 08/22/11.


Filed under Linguistics