Category Archives: linguistics

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.

musings on the tomato (and suspected pseudonyms)

One of my tangential work-related projects has involved developing materials for labelling disfluencies¹ in speech, especially as they interact with prosody. Disfluencies include a number of phenomena such as filled pauses (um, uh) false starts (Hey! Those are my pa- trousers!) and unexpec- -ted … pauses or lengthening of woooords or partsss of words.² Disfluencies occur very frequently in natural speech, especially in spontaneous speech.³

Since they occur so frequently, it should be really easy to find examples of them, right? Well, yes and no. The trouble is that we’ve been looking for examples that we can redistribute, as part of training materials. Some of the materials we have used in previous research has not been licensed in this way. (A lot of people made such recordings before even imagining the web, let alone that their voices might show up there.) So, I have been on the hunt, on and off for several years, for materials that are suitable: high quality recordings of spontaneous speech produced by native speakers of American English. Those constraints right there limit things more than you might think. And then add on to that the desire to find things that have been released into the public domain, or shared with a creative commons license allowing derivative works and redistribution.

I don’t remember exactly when I came across the Internet Archive, and considered it as a potential resource for finding such soundfiles, but searches had been only moderately fruitful. But when I found the tomato guy, the Internet Archive bore fruit.

Buried among hundreds of podcasts, I found Musings with Sherman Oak, and I found Sherman Oak rambling about eating a tomato. This podcast was not only chock-full of examples of disfluencies, but tagged as public domain. And on top of that, I found it hilarious. If you have a minute, go have a listen to Sherman talking about tomatoes. (The whole episode is only 3 minutes and 17 seconds, but you can get a pretty good idea from the first minute. Or jump ahead to one of my favorite bits, around 1:30: “raw tomatoes are an evil vile thing.”)

I have no idea who Sherman Oak is. Sherman had a blog for a while, also called Musings with Sherman Oak. The blog has very little content, and a suspiciously large number of typos and other quirks. Which is completely in character with Sherman Oaks.

But I have this strong suspicion that Sherman Oak is a just that: a character. I think there’s a strong possibility that it is an actor or comedian, or comedian-actor, creating Sherman. In fact, I have a candidate: Thomas Lennon. (He was on, and one of the creators of, Reno 911, and has done a lot of stand-up and sketch comedy.)⁴

Listening to Sherman, I had this sense that I recognized his voice. And poking around more through some videos of Thomas Lennon on YouTube, I haven’t yet found anything that dissuades me.⁵ In fact, if Sherman Oak is not a character of Thomas Lennon, then he should be.

¹ Yeah, I just linked to Wikipedia. For a much denser and more academic discussion of disfluencies, see Shriberg’s 1994 dissertation.
² i.e. segmental lengthening that is not obviously in the service of phrasing or pitch accents.
³ Spontaneous speech typically is contrasted with read, elicited, or rehearsed speech.
⁴ He also, as is the case with many actors, lives in L.A. There is a district of LA called Sherman Oaks, which could be a coincidence. He is also from a town in Illinois called Oak Park. I only know these things from reading his Wiki page. I never previously had any cause to stalk him.
⁵ See, for example, this interview [youtube] or this stand-up bit [youtube].


Some tomatoes grown by a friend of mine in her garden. I did not eat them, though I have been known to enjoy a tomato. Even a raw one.

acting normal

With my poster sent off to the printer for the conference I’m attending next week, I felt a bit of the pressure ease up. I figured I’d put something up here. When I haven’t been posting regularly, though, I often wonder where to start back in. There are just too many possibilities, with all that’s going on in my life and in my head. Often, I resort to looking back through my photos to see what I’ve been saving. The trouble is, there again are just too many possibilities. I like like to have some sort of rhyme or reason when I post, and of course what I like best is some sort of theme.¹

Happily, the title of my previous post provided, because I came across this photo from a January trip to the Boston Museum of Science. Here are Phoebe and Theo, standing in front of a display demonstrating normal distribution.² (I learned tonight that this type of set-up is called a bean machine, which is a cool thing to be called. Not that I’m saying I want to be called a bean machine.) Anyhow, I couldn’t refrain from making “normal” jokes. I asked Phoebe and Theo to try to look normal as they posed in front of the normal curve.


My two children, acting normal in front of the normal distribution.

¹ I can spend far more time thinking about posting than actually posting.
² I realized that this is a lovely spontaneous usage of a sentence with attachment ambiguity.³ One could read this as “Phoebe and Theo demonstrating normal distribution, in front of a display” which would be high attachment. In case it wasn’t clear, I intended the low attachment reading, with the display doing the demonstrating. If Phoebe and Theo were to try to demonstrate a distribution in front of a display, I expect they’d have an easier time trying to do something bimodal.
³ It’s totally normal to reflect on attachment ambiguities.

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.)

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.

masters of communication


This sketch from A Bit of Fry and Laurie amuses me. Quite a lot. (Thanks to The Skwib for offering up these tasty nibbles, which are neither plain, nor prawn flavored.)

If you enjoyed that, you might also enjoy sketches by The Two Ronnies. I confess I’d never heard of them until reading the comments for the Fry & Laurie sketch on YouTube. (Which is usually a dangerous endeavor, as 99% of the comments on YouTube are written by 12-year-olds.) However, on this occasion I learned that the sketch above was likely influenced by this other sketch comedy pair. You can see a bit of their skillful timing below in “Crossed Lines.”


And one more from the Two Ronnies. This last one is chock full of fun with phonetic ambiguity. (You scream, I scream, we all scream for phonetic ambiguity.)

(This post actually relates to several of my candidates for categories of things I like, but I won’t count this post as one of my 40 since I don’t have time to say more. But can you guess what some of the things I like are?)

peas and carrots or green beans

Imagine that I say to you, “Tonight for dinner we’ll be having peas and carrots or green beans.”

What do you think our menu options are? Can we be having both peas and green beans? Are just green beans an option? If we have peas, do we have to have carrots?

What I’m trying to get at is that the phrase peas and carrots or green beans is ambiguous. How you interpret it depends on what syntactic structure, or bracketing, you assign to it.

In this case, there are two different ways you can bracket it. You can have:

So, with the one bracketing you can either have both peas and carrots or you can have both peas and green beans. With the other you can have both peas and carrots or you can have just green beans. I’m afraid that if you want only carrots, you are out of luck. You are only allowed to have them with peas, or not at all. And if you don’t like peas, you’ll have to hope that you’re getting the bracketing on the right, because at least then you stand a chance of getting just green beans. Artichokes are completely out of the question, which is a shame, because I really like artichokes.

Why am I telling you this? Because I like vegetables. Also because this actually relates to my research. The project I’m working on right now is looking at how people produce and perceive ambiguous coordinate structures like these, especially with respect to intonation. Because when you speak, you generally (but not always) give cues to the structure you intend. You may not even realize when you’re saying it that your menu options are ambiguous, but chances are that if you are offering peas and carrots or green beans, you will use aspects of your speech–specifically the timing of what you say and the patterns of the pitch of your voice as you say it–to indicate which structure you mean. Your prosody acts to group the words you say into meaningful chunks so we know what our vegetable options are.

So, what will it be? Do your options look like this?

Or this?

Images by John. Vegetables prepared by me.

(This confusing bit of a post is brought to you by a tired brain, and was in part prompted by a two-month-old request from Nora that I write more about linguistics. I just hope she likes peas.) (At some point, I’ll try to tell you a bit more about what I’m actually looking at, when it doesn’t involve vegetables.)