Category Archives: language

The past tense, and other grammatical implications of death

One of the things that often strikes us, after someone’s death, is that we have to make a shift in how we speak of that person. It suddenly becomes an error to say “he loves popcorn.” Indpendent of the subject’s history of affinity for popcorn, there is that crossover point between loving popcorn, and having loved popcorn. Survivors undergo a transition where they find themselves using the wrong tense, and self-correcting. The realization that we have erred nags at our minds like the red ink marks of a high school English teacher urging consistency in an essay.

Then there is the loss of conjunction. For years, you go to visit Grammy and Grampa. The conjunction and serves to join two noun phrases [Grammy]NP and [Grampa]NP into a single noun phrase. That noun phrase can then serve in a variety of grammatical functions: subject, with nominative case ([Grammy and Grampa]NP called), or various object positions, with accusative (Let’s visit [Grammy and Grampa]NP), or genitive case (We need to remember to bring that book to [Grammy and Grampa]NP‘s house.) With the absence of one referent, the conjoined noun phrase loses both the conjunction and the second noun phrase. It is a simplification of structure that belies the complicated nature of the end of almost 6 decades of married life, a conjunction of law and love and life together that are only hinted at by the word and.

With this loss of the conjunction, too, comes a shift from the plural to the singular, which of course brings its own implications for subject-verb agreement. In the present tense, English requires a different verb inflection for most third person singular subjects than for plural ones. Grammy and Grampa love it when we visit must change to Grammy loves it when we visit, with the inflectional affix -s added to the verb to reflect that singularity. This, of course, reminds us once more that there is only one of the two members of that former conjoined phrase whose actions, affinities and attributes will, by and large, be discussed using the present tense.

We mustn’t forget, though, that we can hold onto the present tense, and even the future; A whole host of constructions are available to us by keeping Grampa in object positions. I miss Grampa. It’s okay to be sad about Grampa. We will hold onto Grampa’s memory.

But this method doesn’t work with a tomato.

It was my second year of college, in ’90 or ’91, and I sat at a desk in a classroom with maybe a dozen other students of second-year Japanese. The first year, the class had been much bigger, with a good 30 or 40 students. But the workload was heavy, and the grading tough. The enrollment had been whittled down.

The teaching methods were pretty old-school, with textbooks that were probably from the 50s. We did a lot of in-class drills.

That particular day, we were learning the expression “to use something as something else.” (“X to shite Y o tsukaimasu.”) The instructor gave us some examples. He picked up two pencils, and held them as if they were chopsticks. Hashi to shite empitsu o tsukaimasu, he intoned in his booming fluent-but-American-accented Japanese. “I use pencils as chopsticks.” Then he asked for more examples from the class using the construction.

“Use a rope as a belt,” someone might have said. “I use a book as a tray,” someone else might have offered.

I really can’t remember what examples my classmates came up with. Because as I sat there, I needed all of my concentration to contain the urge to giggle. The one sentence that popped into my head was: Nihon de wa, naihu to shite te o tsukaimasu.¹

In Japan, the hand is used like a knife.²

I’m sad to say that I was not called upon to share my example. I was relieved at the time, as I had not yet released my inner goofball. Also, it’s hard to say how the very serious instructor would have taken my contribution. Especially had it been accompanied by uncontrollable fits of giggling.


¹ Google translate helped me arrive at this:
日本 で は ナイフ として手を使います. There was once a time when I could have written this sentence without looking it up, but that day has long passed. Also, I only wrote Japanese by hand. I would have had no idea how to type any of it!
² The actual wording from the 1978 Ginsu commercial is: “In Japan, the hand can be used like a knife.”

a binder, goofier discourse

With apologies to my international friends and readers who either aren’t following, or are getting more than they’d like about, the US presidential race. For my friends and readers in the US who are still hearing more than they’d like about the US presidential race, I feel your pain. But I’m going to go ahead and post anyhow.

On Tuesday night, I faced the debates with a knot in my stomach.

That last few months have been increasingly stressful for all in this country who have convictions about what is best (or worst) for the country. The discourse has become increasingly ugly. Civility has left the building.

It won’t surprise anyone who reads this blog regularly that I am left-leaning.¹ I voted for Obama in 2008, and will enthusiastically vote for him again this year for a variety of reasons. But that’s beside the point.²

The point is that I watched the debate with many months of tension building, expecting to feel outraged. Dismayed. Disturbed.

What I did not expect was to go to bed giggling that night, and to wake up feeling like a 50-pound weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

I thank the binders full of women.³

I have a number of friends and relations who really didn’t see what’s so funny about “binders full of women.” They saw the reaction to it as blown out of proportion for a simple poor choice of phrase. They saw it as distracting from the real issues.

But I saw it as funny.

Really, really funny.

I loved the way people ran with it, and the many, many clever and quick responses.⁴ Sure, Romney’s phrase was only slightly off. If he’d phrased things a little less awkwardly, there might have been nought to run with. But the phrase brought up absurd imagery. And run with it, people did. To my great enjoyment.⁵

For the record, there were plenty of things that Romney said during the debate that I objected to. Things having to do with real issues that I care about deeply. But for all the critically important well-constructed arguments on the issues, for all the articles and the numbers and the counterpoints, none of them has given me so much relief and release and actual hope about the outcome of this election as the binders full of women comment and the ensuing flood of mockery.

So thank you, internetz. You came through for me this time. And thank you, Mitt.⁶


There are some good analyses out there about why the phrase got such a broad⁷ response. I though this one from the Guardian, brought to my attention by laloca, was particulary good. Here’s an excerpt:

Why did the phrase resonate? Because it was tone deaf, condescending and out of touch with the actual economic issues that women are so bothered about. The phrase objectified and dehumanized women. It played right into the perception that so many women have feared about a Romney administration – that a president Romney would be sexist and set women back. And it turns out the way Romney presented it – that he asked for a study of women in leadership positions – wasn’t true anyway.

¹ I regularly lean really, really far to the left, but I have good balance, so I don’t usually fall over.

² Sort of.

³ In case you missed it, “binders full of women” was an unfortunate phrase used by Romney when telling an anecdote about his efforts to recruit women for positions on his cabinet as Governor of Massachusetts.

And — and so we — we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet. I went to a number of women’s groups and said, can you help us find folks? And they brought us whole binders full of — of women.

To see the full transcript, with a really cool interactive feature that lets you play the section of video from the transcript, check out this page on the 2nd debate at the New York Times.

⁴ Like these, most (if not all) of which can be found on the binders full of women tumblr: 3 rings to rule them all, nobody put’s baby in a binder, Binder?, Gobias, txt from Hillary, Hefner, Bill Clinton. Or the Facebook page, which someone started within seconds of the phrase being uttered. Or the reviews on this binder on Amazon. Or this one.

⁵ I’m sorry, but if the RNC can go gung-ho and build a whole convention theme around a poorly phrased bit of reference ambiguity offered by Obama, folks can have a little fun with Romney’s poorly phrased bit of metonymy.

⁶ Not something that my friends have expected to hear from me.

⁷ Heh. I said “broad.”

Standing in line or standing on line?

Here at collecting tokens, we ask the important questions.

Me, I say “stand in line.” Magpie points out that she says it differently:

In these parts, we stand ON line. :)

I live in New England, she lives in New York. These parts aren’t that far from those parts. But I think my “in line” version reveals my past life as a rolling stone. I always have trouble with the “where I’m from” question, seeing as I’ve lived in New England for over 20 years, but only ever lived in California for 12 years. But I guess my dialect is still more West Coast than East Coast. (You can take the girl out of California, but you can’t take California out of the girl.) I certainly haven’t developed a Massachusetts accent, though it’s possible that some of my vowels have shifted. (Do you say caught and cot with differently? I didn’t used to, but now I’m not so sure. It’s just possible that the occasional [ᴐ] pops up.)

Anyhow, back to the main point: in line or on line? Which do you say, and where are you from? (Or, do you queue?)

For that matter, if you say “stand on line,” do you also say things like “get on line” or “jump on line”? (And what about “Jump in the Line“?)

And while we’re on the topic of prepositions, I’m curious about another thing. I always say “graduate from X,” as in “I graduated from college.” But I hear other say “graduate college.” How about you?

(By the way, there are linguists out there who study this sort of variation, and it’s cool stuff. Check out, for instance, Bert Vaux‘s page of links on dialects, which includes a link to an article with the title “Standing on line at the bubbler with a hoagie in my hand.” Can’t go wrong with that.)

teachable moments

Parenting small children can be tough. But what’s important is work with the challenges, and turn them into teachable moments.

Yesterday morning, Phoebe came to me and said: “Theo just called me ‘stupid bad Phoebe.'”

“Theo!” I scolded. “Is this true?” Theo instantly dropped to the floor and hid his face from me, an apparent admission of guilt.

“Theo, that’s a hurtful thing to say. Those things are just not true.” Theo continued to avoid looking at me.

“What’s more,” I continued, “your choice of words is both unoriginal and uninspired.” I whipped out the thesaurus. “Look here, Theo. Instead of ‘stupid,’ there are plenty of other words you could have chosen: brainless, doltish, simpleminded, half-witted, thick-headed..obtuse! Now there’s a good one.”

“Obsoot?” Theo tried, tentatively, still face down on the floor.

“And instead of ‘bad,’ you could have used…let’s see…beastly, deficientinferior, atrocious, substandardPutrid! There’s a nice colorful word. How about putting beastly and doltish together?”

“Beasty goldfish?” Theo turned to look at me.

“Or maybe we can learn from some famous insults…” I quickly googled famous insults. “Ah yes, here we go: “Your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries!” Nice! But, no, no. That won’t do. Let’s not insult me! I’m your mother, too. Ooh, how about this? “You warthog-faced buffoon.” Yes, that’s the way. But better yet would be to make up your own. Think of an animal…or maybe a vegetable. Monkey…turnip…You can combine them with adjectives, like “doltish monkey” or “simpleminded turnip.” Or make compound nouns. How about calling her a substandard, simpleminded turnip-nosed monkey face? Brainless waterbuffalo? Putrid potato head? The combinations are endless! You just need to use your imagination.”

“Now, I want you to give Phoebe a hug and say you’re sorry,” I said sternly. “And next time you insult your sister, I expect to hear something more creative.”

Theo, thoroughly ashamed of his banal insult.



I’m going to borrow from Neil, here, and give a truth quotient. Let’s say 50%. I’ll let you guess which parts really happened.

n00b in the b00nies

Do you ever feel you’ve landed inside the plot of a novel? In the book in my head, I’ve always been the feisty heroine in an adventure tale, overcoming hardship with ingenuity, wit and grace. Lately, I have felt more the bumbling anti-hero. And I think this may be a tragicomedy.

After the Great Yard Sale Fiasco of 2011, I decided to regroup. After several rounds of donations, I still had excess stuff.

I decided to try Craigslist again.

Mind you, I’m rather wary of Craigslist. I know that some people have used it successfully, but I have heard plenty of horror stories. Or at least general annoyance stories. But I decided that it was worth a shot.

In addition to a few for-sale items, I listed a free futon mattress. I got an email response pretty quickly:

i would like to pick up or if i remember u r really close if u could drop it off either way works for me i’m in [town] were r u located?

No, I couldn’t “drop it off,” as “really close” in fact meant 40 minutes away. And I was giving the thing away. For free.

tomarow would b fine is there a way we could meet half way its about a 40 min drive it would only b 20 if we met up ?

Hmmm…I’m giving something away to a total stranger, and you are asking me to drive 40 minutes (round trip) to give it to you? On the other hand, this would mean that I wouldn’t need to give said total stranger our address. I decided that since our grocery store was 10 minutes in that direction, and I had to go grocery shopping anyhow, I could meet him halfway.

He also wrote:

do u txt ? if yes txt me to set something up with me

Actually, I don’t really text. I have a relic of a cell phone, and I am slow and incompetent at it. However, I didn’t want to admit this. I sent him a txt.

No, really, it was a text. I am txt illiterate.

I painstakingly tapped out a few short lines using my numeric keypad. Several minutes later, after proof-reading and editing, I sent the text.

He responded within 30 seconds.

After several more similar back-and-forths, we agreed to meet at a school parking lot halfway between our towns.

I don’t want you to think that I was writing out full paragraphs or anything. I didn’t even include any parentheticals or subordinate clauses. There were several instances where I let capitalization slide, and even once where I left out a comma. Because I’m hip like that.

I found myself rather amused, and even slightly charmed, by the exchange. Here was this kid, likely half my age, who was fluent in a written language that I could decipher, but was otherwise pretty alien to me. Meanwhile, he must have found my own writing to be very formal and old-fashioned. The equivalent of how I might feel about a hand-written letter from an elderly aunt. I imagined myself sitting at an antique secretary with a sheet of stationery, dipping my pen in the inkwell, using my most careful cursive:

Dear Sir,

As regards your previous inquiry, I would be amenable to arranging our rendezvous at a point that is located in between our two places of residence. I suggest that it would be most suitable to determine a location with adequate space that we might easily station our vehicles within close proximity to each other, perhaps a sizeable place of commerce or educational institution, that we may most advantageously complete our transaction.

I hope that you will forgive the brevity of this missive, but I am presently due to deliver a platter of petits fours for the fornightly meeting of the Ladies’ Auxiliary Horticultural Society, and further I must hasten to catch the postman on his daily rounds.

Warmest regards,
Mrs. Bottomham-Pantsbury

Fast forward to this morning. John helped me shove the futon in the car. It was too big for the trunk, and we didn’t want to remove the carseats, so we lay it across the tops of the carseats. We had to have both back windows open.

At 9:56 a.m, I got another text:

Still good for today at 1130 right?

“Save for unforeseen obstacles, I shall be there as pre-arranged, fine sir.”

Ok ty c u latterZ

I got a phone call shortly before leaving, so I was running a bit late. I spent 5 minutes composing a text saying I was running 5 minutes late.

At 11:35 sharp, I found the school. The parking lot was conspicuously devoid of compact cars of the type mentioned by my text buddy. After a few minutes, I sent a text. At 11:47, the guy called to say he’d overslept. (Dude, you texted me at 10 am! Whatevs.) The guy was really apologetic and said he felt like crap for doing this to me. He said he could be there in 20 minutes. Not really enjoying the thought of another 20 minutes sitting in the hot sun in the abandoned school parking lot with a futon sticking out of my windows, I suggested I could drive out 10 minutes further and meet him midway. The trouble was, there looked to be exactly nothing between the two towns. No, that’s not true. There was a state forest. I couldn’t really see arranging to meet with a strange guy in the middle of the woods. (Well, I could see the headlines.) But I had the damn futon in the car, and I’d gone this far. I was either handing it off to him, or abandoning it in the school parking lot. I don’t litter, so I offered to drive the extra 10 minutes. Making the new driving total 80 minutes roundtrip.

It might not surprise you to learn that I arrived at the designated shopping center first. But the guy did show up. I helped him transfer the futon, and he even gave me $5.00 for gas. (If not for the $5.00, I would have felt totally scammed. As it is, I only feel partially scammed.)

So that’s how things are going with Project Get Rid of Stuff. Several hours of my time wasted and close to a couple of gallons of gas. To give the futon away. For free. To a complete stranger.

(Next up, do you want to hear about my adventures as an Amazon Marketplace seller?)

the one about a halfalogue with QQ about cherpumple

Today, at the ISLE conference, I treated myself to going to some talks that have nothing to do with my subfield. Particularly fun was the session on internet idioms:

Section A (CAS 203)
Internet idioms (Chair: Daniel Donoghue)
10:50-11:20 Jon Bakos, “QQ More”
11:25-11:55 Daphné Kerremans and Susanne Stegmayr, “Neologisms on the internet”
12:00-12:30 Ursula Kirsten, “Development of SMS language from 2000 to 2010″

Actually, while it was the title of the session, only one of the three talks was technically about internet-specific idioms. One was on finding and tracking neologisms on the internet, as in using the web as a corpus to track the appearance and usage of new terms, but the neologisms themselves need not have internet origins. The speakers described a tool that they have been developing for this purpose, and illustrated the utility of the tool with a couple examples of neologisms they have tracked: cherpumple and halfalogue. (Cherpumple, by the way, is a dessert involving layers of cake with pies baked in and which may give me nightmares, and halfalogue is a term coined by a researcher to label overheard half conversations when someone nearby is on the phone.) There was also the talk on SMS language, or texting.

I really enjoyed the talk on “QQ,” and learned some new stuff. Such as the meaning of QQ. It’s a generally pejorative term used primarily (or even exclusively?) in online gaming circles, mainly World of Warcraft, and means more-or-less “whining.” It has two competing etymologies, one of which is that it is based on an old game command to suddenly quit a match (Alt + Q + Q), the use of which caused annoyance to other players. The other possible origin is from an emoticon: Q_Q. It makes a little sad face, with the Q tails looking like tears. I’m really intrigued and amused by the idea of a term originating in an emoticon. It’s a strange new world. Or a strange new word. (Plus it’s so gosh-darned cute!) The talk was full of entertaining usage examples, showing (among other things) that QQ usage reflects productive morphology (use as different parts of speech, with affixes, etc.). People will toss around accusations of QQing or being a QQer, or call a discussion a QQ thread. But then it’s also sometimes used sort of self-mockingly or playfully. I found myself wondering whether this term will take off out of those circles, and whether it will make its way into spoken language.

I have to say, I find it more appealing than a cherpumple.