Category Archives: language

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?)

office balls and other fine treats

There’s this great bakery in Brookline (a town right next to Boston) that has an interesting fusion of French and Japanese treats. When we have lab meetings on the Boston side of the river, one of us will sometimes stop there to pick up things for lunch. One of my favorite things to get is Onigiri, a little blob of rice wrapped with sushi nori, and filled with vegetables or seaweed or plum. These are commonly called “rice balls.” (Even though the ones we usually get are triangular.)

A couple of months ago, in answering an email about what I’d like from the bakery, I requested a couple of rice balls. Or thought that’s what I’d requested. Instead I aked for “a couple office balls.” And office balls they will now always be.

I was a little embarrassed about this, but I hadn’t realized how easily I’d gotten off.¹ Apparently 98% of the planet has already seen it, but if you haven’t seen Damn You, Auto Correct, you must go there now. (Unless you are eating, drinking, or sitting someplace where you need to be quiet and/or solemn.) I laughed so hard I cried.⁴

It’s almost as if those developing predictive text took this video to heart, and then some:

So, what about you? Have you ever been embarrassed by autocorrect/autofill/spellcheck? If so, I want details.

—–

¹ Some of you may remember that I have had a run-in with autofill in the past.²

² Okay, more than one

³ And remember that entertaining spell check error that was printed on the events calendar at the bookstore where I was working? I’m happy that I was not responsible for that one.

⁴ Thank you Kyla for sharing this, and your own near-miss story.

an ambiguous array of vegetables

Tonight we had dinner with my in-laws, and we had a lot of vegetable options: green beans or peas and carrots and rutabagas and potatoes or butternut squash. As you can imagine, it was difficult to keep track of them for serving, not to mention difficult to determine their syntactic bracketing, due to the combination of the coordinating conjunctions and and or. In the end, one person had green beans and potatoes only, one had green beans, potatoes, butternut squash and peas, one had peas and rutabagas and carrots and potatoes, and three of us had peas and carrots and rutabagas and potatoes and butternut squash. (Though one of those three did not actually eat any of the butternut squash, though it was on his plate. And one of us got a fair amount of butternut squash on her face. One of us attempted to feed a carrot to his pants. One of us enjoyed saying the word rutabaga.) It is important to mention that the peas and carrots were not bracketed together, as the carrots were roasted with the rutabagas and some of the potatoes. Some of the potatoes were therefore bracketed with the carrots and rutabagas, and some of the potatoes were mashed. While everybody ate potatoes, the potatoes were either mashed, or roasted with sage and bracketed with the carrots and rutabagas. Nobody who ate mashed potatoes and green beans ate rutabagas and carrots. (The green beans only came bracketed with ham, which is not a vegetable.) It is entirely possible that every person had peas. At least 2 peas ended up on the carpet, though the carpet was not given a fork.

I would attempt to diagram this, but then I might not be finished with this post before midnight. Instead, I will show you my plate.

My plate held many vegetables. Also tofurkey and a roll.

thanks accepted here

Speaking of ambiguity

This was a sign outside a local catering/takeout business I came across a few weeks ago. It made my day. (And I swear I that this was the way I found it. No punctuation marks were stolen in the creation of this image.)

more carrots (and peas)

A few years ago, I was working on an intonation project with several people. As part of the research, we were annotating soundfiles for specific phenomena. One of the things we were annotating was the location of a the maximum f0, the point in a given region of speech where the pitch is highest. For the specific project we were doing, we were labelling this point with the symbol ^, also known as a caret. It came up along the way that in some examples, we also wanted to mark another point that was linked to the caret to indicate when the peak f0 formed more of a plateau in shape. It was decided that we should use p to indicate a plateau. In reviewing our decisions about our labelling scheme, one of the women on the project was stressing that while not every peak would have a plateau marker, every plateau should be marked also for the peak. My coworkers looked at me questioningly when I started to snicker at this review of our protocol.

“No Ps without carets,” I said, by way of explanation.


Here are some multi-colored carrots I got at a farmer’s market in July of 2009. I took the picture then, too. I don’t think the carrots would still look this attractive if we still had them.

Here’s one last serving of vegetables for you:

Eat every carrot and pea on your plate.

Try saying that one out loud to a small child (or to an adult with the mind of a 12-year-old).

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.)

talking tomatoes

We’re in the kitchen eating breakfast. Phoebe gets up to use the bathroom.

Phoebe: Don’t eat all the pear while I’m gone!
Me: I won’t. What if I eat all the oatmeal?
Phoebe: Don’t eat all the oatmeal! I want some.
Me: What if I eat all the sassafrass?
Phoebe: I don’t think we have any sassafrass.
Me: What if I eat all the… tomatillos?
Phoebe: I don’t think he would like that.
Me: [?] Tomatillo is a kind of tomato.
Phoebe: …that they eat in Spain?
Me: Does it sound like a Spanish word to you?
Phoebe: Yes.
Me: You’re right. It is a Spanish word.
Phoebe: Then they must be in Spain!
Me: I’m not actually sure. You know, there are other places in the world where they speak Spanish.
Phoebe: Tomatoes don’t speak!


Phoebe enjoys her breakfast with pears, oatmeal and reference-resolution adventures.